Wayne State Archivists Partner with College of Education To Incorporate Archival Materials into K–12 Curricula

Wayne State University College of Education and the Walter P. Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs were recently awarded a joint $83,100 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to support the ongoing project, “Bridging the Gap: Archives in the Classroom and Community.”

students sitting in chairs and on desks watching man in center lecturing in library with labor-themed mural on one wall
Christopher B. Crowley (c.), Meghan Courtney, and Daniel Golodner (both r.) speak to Wayne State Education students in Walter P. Reuther Library
Photo by Min Yu

The Wayne State University College of Education and Walter P. Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs were recently awarded a joint $83,100 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making affiliate of the National Archives and Records Administration. The two-year funding will support the ongoing partnership, “Bridging the Gap: Archives in the Classroom and Community,” which partners archivists and teaching students to bring community-based primary source materials into K–12 classrooms.

The project originated five years ago when, as part of an effort to expand collaboration beyond the university’s history department, Reuther archivists considered where their collections might fit into other research areas. The Reuther Library, located on the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit, is home to millions of primary source documents related to labor history and urban affairs—including an abundance of material on Detroit community life, art and cultural organizations, economics, race relations, activist groups, neighborhoods, and real estate development.

“I'm surrounded with the theories of education and education reform,” Daniel Golodner, archivist for the American Federation of Teachers historical collection, told LJ. “So I had the idea: Why aren't we reaching out to those who actually teach?”

Wayne State’s College of Education, which offers bachelor's, master's, education specialist, and doctoral degree programs for teachers in 37 program areas, was an ideal place to start. Golodner and Outreach Archivist Meghan Courtney began working with Min Yu and Christopher B. Crowley, both assistant professors of Teacher Education at the College of Education.

“Since they're training teachers, we saw this really interesting synergy between our efforts to work with faculty on campus and their efforts to teach new teachers how to do things like inquiry-based lessons,” Courtney told LJ. “As much as most state standards call for that kind of work, there isn't a really robust method for getting teachers involved in that process.”

Together, they began exploring ways in which educators could encourage teaching students to think about how they might work relevant, place-based archival material into their K–12 curricula, incorporating trips to the archives—and in-depth examination of the material—into teacher education classes. “In our pre-service teacher courses, students saw this as an add-on, not necessarily as a natural part of their curriculum planning,” noted Yu. She and Crowley want to catch students early, when they are still learning how to develop curriculum and lesson plans, so that primary sources become a natural part of their teaching resources.

Yu teaches social studies methods, and Crowley an interdisciplinary reading course required for licensure for secondary teachers in Michigan—the only course in Wayne State’s Teacher Education program where different content area groups meet in the same classroom. Working with the archives became a connecting hub among teachers across a range of disciplines—social studies, history, math, music, art, English, even physical education.



In 2016, Golodner and Yu presented on their work at the National Council for the Social Studies conference in Washington, DC. Nancy Melley, director for technology initiatives at the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, was in the audience and was impressed by the project; she approached the two afterward and encouraged them to apply for a National Archives Public Engagement grant.

They didn’t get the grant on their first try, and took another year to refine their explanation of how they would use the funding—primarily to build an interactive platform that would help guide educators through the process of discovering primary source material and building it into their curricula. Having to apply multiple times helped them clarify their goals, they noted—and since this particular cross-disciplinary work had not been done before, “the communication between archives and education pedagogy had to be combined,” explained Crowley. “It did take us a couple of years to combine our languages so people could understand exactly what our goals were.”

With funding in hand this fall, their first step will be to develop a website portal for educators and archivists, a process that has been both challenged and clarified by social distancing protocols. Students are currently unable to visit the library whenever they want—access is available by appointment only—so the grant’s first year will be spent engaging both pre-service students and practicing teachers, ensuring they know what resources are available. “We're trying to keep our core potential results in place but adapt it into how to still support [students] to understand and analyze the documents and come up with ideas for lesson plans,” Yu told LJ.

An important aspect of the website will be to ensure robust metadata that can be maintained between collections and educators, said Courtney, pointing to the Michigan Memories project jointly developed by Wayne State, the Library of Michigan, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Western Michigan University, and the Midwest Collaborative for Library Services. The site will serve as a portal to collections and will include sample lesson plans from education students.



Much of what makes this project unique, aside from the direct pipeline from archives to nascent teachers, is the local focus and richness of the Reuther’s materials. Many of the school’s education students, said Crowley, have no idea that the archive exists on campus—or what it holds. A consistent favorite, he noted, is the recording Martin Luther King, Jr. made at Detroit’s Motown studios of his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he would later deliver at the March on Washington.

What really holds meaning for his education students tends to be the spontaneous connections. Currently “Bridging the Gap” is using materials documenting the history of Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood, a predominantly Black community demolished for redevelopment in the early 1960s and replaced with Lafayette Park. The neighborhood’s history resonates for Wayne State students, many of whom are from the area.

A number of the photos from the 1930s and ’40s Black Bottom depict children holding up their fists in boxing poses, said Crowley. Boxer Joe Louis—the Brown Bomber—was enormously popular with local kids at the time, “and they were saying, ‘Take my picture, I'm going to be like Joe Louis.’” One of the students in Crowley’s interdisciplinary class, who was studying to become a physical education teacher, had originally been skeptical, wondering, “How am I going to use archival materials as a gym teacher?” But as the student looked through the photographs, said Crowley, he saw parallels with his father, who had been a boxing coach. And, as he was practicing at home for an in-class presentation about the materials, Crowley told LJ, the student’s grandmother noted that his family was originally from Black Bottom before it was redeveloped.

“So for him it was this ‘Aha’ moment. He had a personal family connection to these photographs he was seeing, and he was thinking, 'My own father could have been one of those kids holding his hands up.'"

Some local educators were also resistant to the project when their student teachers first introduced it, said Yu—they were already using the curriculum package required by the district and weren’t sure about incorporating “extra” material. But once the students used the archival sources in their classes, the teachers warmed to it. “This is part of the community collective memory,” she said. “Once my students were using these materials, a lot of teachers actually contacted me later, [saying] ‘Can we keep this lesson plan? Can we have the students work with us to develop more?’”

In addition to being educational, the local nature of these materials means they can foster pride and a sense of continuity for Detroit children. One local school is near an old railway trail, the Dequindre Cut, which has been repurposed as a biking and walking path. Two of Yu’s student teachers have walked it with their fourth-grade classes, bringing along photographs of the trail in its original incarnation and encouraging them to take pictures of their own. “My students tell them, you can create your own archival material—50 years from now the photos you took today are going to be archived.”

One day Yu walked along with them, passing the assortment of “We Are Detroit” murals along the path. The fourth graders began shouting, “We are Detroit!” and people walking on the bridge overhead began chanting along with them and clapping. “That was a moment that made me think it was all worth it,” said Yu. “Making the local schoolchildren, especially fourth grade kids, realize they don't have to think about history as boring—this is their living memory, this is a living history of the community.”



Aside from educating Detroit’s educators, one of the project’s main goals is demonstrating how other libraries can showcase their own collections as part of local teacher education. While anyone will be welcome to use the “Bridging the Gap” curriculum suggestions on the future website, said Yu, “They can use this as a chance to engage with their local libraries, use this as a process to understand how that connection and collaboration can happen.”

"We're hoping to create more of a process than just a set of stuff to use," added Courtney. The team will present on the project at archival society and library conferences—virtually, for now—and encourage other libraries to use the project as a template.

History or social studies teachers will often go to their local library and pull photos to use in lesson plans, or ask librarians to surface specific collections, but they don’t always engage deeply with the material and the history, noted Yu. The project’s goal is to help students at the teacher education stage engage in critical historical thinking, "engage with community knowledge and collective memories, and then transfer that passion to their students,” said Yu. “It's not just, ‘Here's a set of things, use it.' It's, 'How do I personally engage with it?’” With the support of archives librarians as well as teacher education faculty, bringing local history to all kinds of classrooms can become an organic part of K–12 teachers’ lesson plans.

The project will be assessed through classroom visits, talking to teachers about how they’ve used materials, and gathering qualitative as well as quantitative data. “We're really mindful that both teaching and engaging with archives is an organic process—it's a human thing,” Courtney told LJ. “To just count hits [on the site] would be reducing it to something that it's not. We want to make sure that we're recording all the different aspects of that human interaction. Maybe in a way quality over quantity, although we do have some general goals to hit.”

The team of archivists and educators plan to continue “Bridging the Gap” after the grant period runs out, and are currently networking with local curriculum consultants and contacts at the Michigan Department of Education, with the goal of building the primary sources deep dive into its program requirements. But most of all, they hope to see the connections with local history resonate with their education students—and in turn, with the kids they will serve.

“Teaching can be as interesting or as boring as you want it to be,” said Crowley. “There are plenty of prescriptive materials out there that snooze. What we're trying to have as a model is to say OK, if you become interested in something you can do research and you can make that part of your instruction.”

And that spark can go both ways. Archivists are experts in their own collections, noted Golodner, and education teachers—as well as their pre-service student teachers—are, or are becoming, experts on curriculum and how to get information across. “It's a great idea for both of us to be talking to each other and combining what we have,” he said. “It brings the community closer to the archive, and the archive closer to the community.”

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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