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Learning Library Blog Teach Students To Curate a Project 'Playlist' With Primary-Source Documents
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Teach Students To Curate a Project 'Playlist' With Primary-Source Documents

By Kate Harris
May 23, 2017
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“It gets so much harder when you get down to the last few choices. I want to include them all.”

The student speaking had narrowed down 26 images of historical documents and artifacts related to the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to six that reflected her point of view, and now she had to eliminate one more.

“I want to show that I think using the atomic bombs was a bad idea because of how dramatically it changed warfare. I like the peace sculpture [a bronze memorial of a young girl holding an origami crane], but I like Einstein and Oppenheimer too.”

When pressed to meet the five-resource limit her teacher had set, the student decided on the image of the scientists. According to her, “it shows that these weapons are created by humans and will hurt humans. That science isn’t perfect and has flaws.”

In a short time, she had analyzed several authentic sources, determining their point of view and synthesizing them with her own opinions. She then began to work on presenting her ideas to her classmates as an online collection, rather like a small museum exhibit. This is digital curation done right: students working with authentic materials in a meaningful way; finding, analyzing, and organizing to make new meaning out of the myriad materials available online.

Remember the mixtape

Did you ever make a mixtape (or a digital playlist, if you’re young enough)? The greatest mixtapes weren’t those that just included a scattered array of tunes or repeated the same radio hits. They were the ones that challenged the listener with something new — a surprising artist, or an unexpected cover of a favorite song. The mixtape’s ultimate purpose was to deliver a message: declaring love, telling a story, or capturing a time and place. Like any great mixtape, curation is intentional and purposeful. The items chosen are thoughtful representations, and they are selected to communicate an idea.

Why use curation in the classroom?

With so much information now available, it’s imperative that students develop the skills to effectively find and evaluate sources of information, categorize what they have found and create new meaning from those materials by adding personal insights or findings. More than a means of sifting the useful from the irrelevant, student curation is about adding to the conversation with original thought and determining how various resources connect.

Student curation addresses several academic and life skills. According to Understanding by Design developers Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, "Students reveal their understanding most effectively when they are provided with complex, authentic opportunities to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess."

Curation draws on the range of skills described and encourages students to produce and present their own digital content. Curation addresses the ISTE Knowledge Constructor standard, which expects students to “curate information from digital resources using a variety of tools and methods to create collections of artifacts that demonstrate meaningful connections or conclusions.”

How should we remember the A-bomb?

Diving into student curation without practice can lead to lackluster work products: Imagine students just picking images from a Google search at random and pasting them into a document. Students need support in all stages of the process: finding appropriate resources, analyzing their selections, citing their sources and making and presenting something new.

McKeesport Area High School (Pennsylvania) history teacher Brian Tharp’s project on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings gave students the freedom to curate within a process he scaffolded to ensure great results. Tharp preselected the resources from the Smithsonian Learning Lab — so for this first round of curation, students were not getting bogged down in the search process, but rather focused on selection.

Although the atomic bombings brought a swift end to World War II, their use has been criticized, and Tharp’s assignment allowed students to discover different perspectives on the issue as they developed their own point of view.

He partnered with his school’s secondary literacy coordinator, Erica Guadalupe, to support student development of thesis statements about how the bomb should be remembered. As they began to put together their online collections, students had already developed a clear position and considered possible sources of evidence.

Guadalupe acknowledged the natural connection to writing skills, “You have to really focus on choosing the best evidence — there might be a lot of resources that connect, but you have to be smart about what you include.”

The Learning Lab supports such activities while making 2 million authentic Smithsonian digital resources (artifacts, images, texts, videos and more) available. Within the free online platform, students can not only select and aggregate individual resources but also annotate them with questions, text and hotspots. Users age 13 and up can publish their collections, which then become available in the Lab for viewing and adaptation by others.

Curate your own exhibit

More than 60 Pittsburgh-area social studies teachers have been exploring the Learning Lab with their students through a grant studying how the site impacts learning. When her seventh grade world history class was beginning a unit on Egypt, teacher Aubrey Morgan at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School tried curation from a different angle.

She knew she wanted students to explore the spectacular artifacts of that ancient civilization and improve descriptive writing skills. To meet both goals, Morgan told her students they would be guest-curators developing an exhibit on a particular theme of Ancient Egypt, be it “science and medicine,” for example, or “famous pharaohs.”

Because users can upload their own resources into the Learning Lab, students could include not only the Smithsonian’s digital resources but also those of other major repositories like the British Museum.

This presented a natural opportunity to reiterate with students the importance of proper citation and credible sourcing, which is one aspect of the Digital Citizenship standard in the ISTE Standards for Students. Students were required to add context articulating how each item illustrated a concept or supported their theme.

After students completed their thematic exhibits, they presented to the class and voted on items that would best fit in a larger CAPA 7th Grade digital Egyptology Museum shared with the school community. Morgan liked that the project helped students “focus on history as a job,” noting that, “the way historians study the past is through the artifacts and sources.”

Building on document-based questions

Molly Chester of Avonworth High School turned the tables on her AP U.S History students. Instead of having them address a DBQ (document-based question) by synthesizing information from diverse sources into a compelling argument, she asked them to create the question. Then students searched the Learning Lab for related resources, which ensured they would think about the unit’s themes and the kinds of evidence that would support an answer.

Their final collections, made according to Chester’s instructions, look like an electronic version of the classic DBQ: an inquiry answered using the resources together with students’ own knowledge. Because Chester required the inclusion of guiding questions for each source, students had to be intentional in their choices and consider historical context, audience, point of view and purpose.

Students also had to think carefully about their search tactics. Which resources would, in their teacher’s words, “(1) illustrate some aspect of the issue, (2) add insight or outside information to the issue, or (3) challenge or call into question traditional or usual interpretations of the issue.” Considering what value each piece would add to the collection requires students to analyze digital artifacts and synthesize information from a variety of sources (ISTE Knowledge Constructor standard, indicators 3b and 3c).

Assembling vs. curating

Curation isn’t easy, but teachers agree that it’s a skill that is becoming increasingly important. At Riverview High School in Oakmont, history teacher Robert Lindeman and language arts teacher Mark Carlin have used the Learning Lab as a way for students to incorporate primary sources into traditional research papers.

For them, the process to get to thoughtful curation has been long and winding. Both Carlin and Lindeman have developed a series of formative assessments, having students first explore teacher-curated collections before starting to create their own small, structured collections.

Lindeman notes that students often assemble “random facts,” not creating “a coherent narrative” when producing research projects. He hopes that because his students are such visual learners, curating a collection will ease their way in making meaning of the resources they find. In addition, he notes that to curate and present a narrative is a prized real-world skill, something he was often asked to do in his “previous life” in the private sector. (ISTE prioritizes this skill too, see the Creative Communicator standard, indicators 6b and 6c).

Both Carlin and Lindeman, along with other teachers mentioned in this article, emphasize that the authentic artifacts and resources help highlight the human side of history, science and literature. Creating collections using materials like these not only builds 21st century skills, but also connects students to the real physical world of the past.

Kate Harris is an instructional coach for the Smithsonian Learning Lab, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She visits classrooms in the region to observe and support how educators and students use Smithsonian resources to enhance learning.