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THE NEW MEDIA CENTER: Making Learning Interactive

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Mar 1, 2015
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When Tom Bober was looking for resources to help 5th grade students understand a science topic, he used Understanding the Cosmos, an ebook primary source set from the Library of Congress. The Missouri media specialist realized students didn’t understand different models of the solar system; he thought specific examples depicted in primary sources would help them better grasp selected geocentric models. He downloaded the ebooks to iPads and assigned each student a specific primary source to examine.

They marked and annotated the image using built-in tools and recorded handwritten notes on paper copies of the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool. Bober notes: “Students, for the most part, had a great deal of focus on their analysis. They loved the pinch and zoom feature, [using it] to see details that couldn’t be seen otherwise. They used the draw feature purposefully, circling things that they found interesting, unusual, or important. They used their finger to write ‘Why?’ about some of the writings around the models. … They were engaged [and] wanted to continue to interact.” Bober provides these and more details, plus photos, in a post on his Captain Library blog entry: “Heliocentric, Geocentric, and Primary Sources” (

Understanding the Cosmos is one of six interactive ebook primary source sets available from the Library of Congress. The sets offer learning activities for all ages and a variety of content areas:

* Immigration

* The Dust Bowl

* Symbols of the United States

* Understanding the Cosmos

* The Constitution

* The Harlem Renaissance

Educators will be excited about the interactive capabilities the LC’s ebook sets offer. Students can view primary source photos, maps and documents, and listen to audio. They can engage with the artifacts by zooming or simply tapping on the image to draw or annotate. Online analysis prompts encourage higher-level thinking. Students can copy/paste their notes into other apps and save screenshots of images or their drawings for future use.

Symbols of the United States focuses on six symbols. The Liberty Bell, the U.S. flag, the bald eagle, the National Anthem, Uncle Sam, and the Statue of Liberty are presented through posters, sheet music, cartoons, and photos from across the centuries. A recording of “The Star Spangled Banner” by the Sousa band will perk up listeners. Students will enjoy discovering multiple symbols in the “All American Medley” quilt or in the “Uncle Sam’s Coffee” engraving. Comparing the 1884 image of the Statue of Liberty with a 1968 image will encourage closer looking and careful thinking.

Children like to look at photos of other children. There will be many questions when they interact with photos from The Dust Bowl. Examples in the set show children riding a train and in a truck jammed with their belongings, children standing by a FSA (Farm Security Administration) camp sign, and children with a model airplane at a farm labor camp. They will wonder if the piles of sand are snow and be concerned about the animals by a rural building. Depression-era poems and songs included in the set encourage close listening, singing, discussion, and creativity.

While students can enter analysis notes directly in the built-in tool, it may be more efficient and hassle-free if students record their thoughts on a paper copy of the tool. Bober did not use the built-in analysis online tool because he wanted to give students a chance to have all of their writing in front of them at once and wanted to see their writing himself. He further explained: “While engagement is incredible, writing out observations, reflections, and questions on the Primary Source Analysis Tool, in my opinion, helps to focus their attention and allows later conversations with each other to be elevated because they have concrete evidence of their own thinking.” The Student Primary Source Analysis Tool can also be used online. Students can type directly on the online form and submit their work electronically.

Each Ebook averages 24 pages and can be used in its entirety or in small chunks as appropriate. Each set opens with resource thumbnails; citations complete the set. Teachers guides are available with the companion PDF set on the Library’s Teachers Page. Guides have background information, notes about each artifact, teaching ideas, and resource links.

Ebooks are free and work with an iPad or a Mac with OS X 10.9 or later. Books with interactive features may work best on an iPad. The Library of Congress is exploring other platforms. To learn more and download the ebooks, visit

Don’t Have an iPad? Try These Ideas!

More than 30 primary source sets (including all ebook content) are accessible in PDF format on the LC’s Teachers Page ( Several sets support common elementary curricular topics such as Thanksgiving, Westward Expansion, Jamestown, The Inventive Wright Brothers, and Civil War Music.

Children’s Lives at the Turn of the Century stands out in its appeal to students. One artifact sure to inspire questioning and even a few giggles is the “Annual baby parade, 1904, Asbury Park N.J.” (MP3). It’s easy to imagine an excited group of children asking questions: Why are the people dressed up? What are children carrying! Look at that cute dog! Another, Muddy Jim and Other Rhymes, is a picture book featuring illustrated health jingles for children. Ask students to create their own illustrations or a modern version of the jingle for “The Horrid Fly,” or compare this parade to those they have seen or been part of. Encourage students to get involved by touching images projected on a screen. Younger students love sharing their unique discoveries this way.

You can also encourage interaction the “old-fashioned” way, with paper. Don’t be afraid to print out copies of photos and documents; users can write on the paper copy, draw and annotate with colored pencils, or use sticky notes. It’s a good idea to have a Plan B anyway, and offline activities can help keep learners (including adult learners) on task. (To learn more about using sticky notes, visit the Teachers Page Blog at search “sticky.”)

Presentations and Activities

Presentations and Activities ( in the LC’s Teacher section feature several interactive elementary activities. Presentations visually represent primary sources and background information in a way appropriate to the content, including a variety of formats such as maps, interviews, timelines, or slide shows. Activities encourage students to interact with the computer; some are designed for students to participate in individually; others are designed for teacher facilitation.

Here are a few highlights.

Pair two presentations, “The Great American Potluck” and “Interviews With Today’s Immigrants,” for a theme-based cross-curricular activity or an extended after-school activity. “Potluck” is presented as an online spiral recipe book. Recipes represent different regions of the United States and categories of food. Each recipe includes a brief story about history or cultural significance of the food and a photo. “Interviews With Today’s Immigrants” illustrates the “American immigration experiences during the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century.” The text-based interviews were collected between 2004 and 2006 by student interviewers. You can search for an interview from a drop-down list of geographic areas.

A Wisconsin media specialist selected “Fill Up the Canvas … Rivers of Words: Exploring With Lewis and Clark” to help 4th grade students understand primary sources from the journey. The presentation is an interactive map of the expedition route; clicking on a dot brings up journal entries, images, and other documents. She notes: “I would have a student read aloud from the full journal entry in the presentation with the rest following along. Then I would have a student touch on the double arrows on the screen to show the movie of images that go with the journal reading. … I would have them complete a primary source analysis of one of the images, maps, letters or other documents the using the observe, reflect and question method using printed copies of the student primary source analysis tool. They could also use sticky notes on the Smartboard.”

“Creating the United States: Word Search” presents a traditional word search as an interactive activity. Use the mouse to find the words pertaining to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There is also a keyboard-only version.

“Songs From Our Times” has three songs that students can listen to along with viewing the sheet music (“Casey Jones,” “Over There,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”). After they read the lyrics and read about the historical event, the students can complete a song analysis activity and create new lyrics for the song using a “rewrite form.” There is also a plain text version. I always loved seeing students using the media center to work on such projects. These presentations would foster the type of Makerspace activity as described in Stephen Abram’s Pipeline column “Real Makerspaces in School Libraries” (pp. 10–11) in the January/February 2015 issue of Internet @Schools. Imagine the collaboration and excitement beyond the school.

Overall, these resources offer approaches for making learning with primary sources interactive and fun while supporting higher-level thinking and common curriculum topics. Student Discovery Sets escalate primary resources to a different level, providing intuitive, engaging opportunities for students to learn individually following teacher introduction. The long-standing Presentations and Activities also deliver an interactive approach for teaching familiar curriculum topics.


Contact Mary Alice Anderson at




Thank you to Tom Bober (Missouri) and Stephanie De Francisco (Maryland) for sharing their ideas through The Teaching With Primary Sources Teachers Network and to Maureen Trojak (Wisconsin) for sharing her discoveries and curricular ideas.


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