Teach Students to Dig for Understanding Using an Unexpected Technological Shovel

The desire to discover the unknown is what drives researchers in the adult world. As we know, though, too often in schools students believe that research means copying someone else’s words. As a result, students bypass the learning that comes from doing their own research and drawing their own conclusions. They seldom experience the thrill of the hunt that comes from research discovery.

One of the reasons this happens is that we don’t direct students to primary or original sources. Instead we have them read information that has already been “discovered.” This is understandable since we want students to read material that is accurate and well researched. In addition, finding appropriate primary sources is often difficult.

However, there is a body of information that is readily available that schools will find valuable as a means of providing primary materials for students to use in their own hunt. This unexpected resource is the online genealogy tools used by those researching their family histories. While these tools are valuable for genealogy research, the same material can be used by students to learn about their country’s past and in the process learn to use primary material to draw their own conclusions. By performing their own “hunt” students may discover that “what everyone knows” isn’t always verified by their own observations, but more importantly they will develop the ability to draw conclusions from information. They will become true researchers who understand the thrill that comes from their own discovery.

One such resource is the 1880 census which contains the information shown in the sidebar. Students might find it very difficult to decipher the handwriting from this era as can be seen in the example [insert1860GeorgiaCensus.tif]. Fortunately, though, these records have been transcribed and are available in an indexed format that makes it easy for students to read the information and to do a computer search. The 1880 records from any state and county or parish can be found in several ways. One of the easiest is to use the search engine found at www.ancestry.com. In addition, once you or your students have found the information needed, this site has a “printer friendly” option that makes it easy to create copies of the material.

The only barrier to this site is that accessing the data requires a login account, but there is no fee for this service. However, you do have to pay to join the site to see a complete record including an image of the actual census. This might be of use for a library if there was enough interest. If this isn’t possible, sometimes local genealogy societies and public libraries have their own accounts and can be a source for this information.

Usually, when one is searching these sites, a surname and possibly a first name are entered, but for our purposes leaving out this information provides a broad view of the makeup of a particular part of the country.

For example, searching for everyone who lived in Lubbock County, Texas in 1880 reveals the surprising bit of information that there were only 24 people listed in the census (120 years later the population is over 200,000), and they were all men between the ages of 18 and 56. Of these men, one was divorced and only one was married. Students might wonders where the wife was of the married man. The registration point for all these individuals was the Wilkenson Ranch, and the occupations listed include buffalo hunter, sheep herder, and cattle raiser. A couple of men came from Ireland and another came from Mexico. Others came from states as far away as New York.

A single page printout of this information would make a good place to begin the process of teaching students about learning to dig for ideas based upon facts. With this information, your students can begin to build an image of ranches of the Old West somewhat unlike those pictures they see on television or in movies. They can begin to discover.

The 1880 census is also available at www.familysearch.org. This site handles the information in a slightly different way allowing you not only to view a list of census data but also to see who was gathered into a single household. It is also possible to see households listed one after the other using the “previous” and “next” button as shown by the arrow in the example. Clicking on a particular person’s name reveals a summary of that person’s information.

With this body of information available to students either through their own searching or through the use of printouts of the significant census data, students can survey a county and answer the following questions (as well as many others):

What was the primary occupation of people living in this place at this time?

What was the average size of a family? What was a “family”?

How far away did people move from their place of birth?

Who was the oldest person living in the county?

What have you discovered about life in this county during 1880?

For those students who have the skills, they could include a graph that records the statistics of their research.

One way to approach this material is to print out each “family” in an area and assign it to a single student to act as the representative of that family. A group project could be designed that would have each person bring his or her own information to the “table” to use in a compilation and assessment project that answers questions similar to the ones listed above.

Math and social studies teachers can see quickly a purpose for this research, but language arts teachers who are exploring with students a novel or short story set during this period might also find this useful.

If you are able to access the actual images of the census data, additional fascinating insight into the period is possible by observing and recording information including levels of education and infirmities such as blindness or insanity. Having students match the transcribed record with the actual record is a good way for them to develop cursive reading skills as well as letting them see what else they can find out about “their” research subject.

Once you’ve exhausted the possibilities of the 1880 census, the digging has only just begun. Of course, there are the other census records to be considered. Unfortunately, none are as easily and cheaply available as the 1880. However, if you go to www.census-online.com, you may find an indexed census of a single area of particular interest to your students. In addition, just for fun, students might find interesting the census records of famous people who are listed at www.rootdig.com/famouscensus.html.

Leaving behind census data, you have many more genealogical primary sources available to you. More people each day are transcribing old diaries, letters, family bibles, and even legal documents. Cemeteries are being surveyed, and descriptions of the headstones are being compiled that provide insight into an earlier world. Newspaper accounts from the time are always a way to see into the past. Below is a list of just a few that might be of interest to students:

www.thepastwhispers.com/Seven_Pines_Letters.html – a letter describing the Battle of Seven Pines

www.rootsweb.com/~mscivilw/simple.htm?o_xid=0040949158&o_lid=0040949158&sourceid=00409491587308357153 – an account of a Civil War soldier’s memories

http://geocities.com/genealogytreeuk/angusmckechniesletter.htm – a letter from a Scottish gamekeeper (also on the site, while not a primary source, is an interesting account of the Battle of New Orleans)

www.geocities.com/poboy1961/index.html – Civil War diary and other details

home.houston.rr.com/heartofdixie/1stCav.html – Civil War diary from another viewpoint

ajax.lva.lib.va.us – Document images and indexing for 6,000 family Bible records searchable and available online

www.uttyl.edu/vbetts/nashville_daily_union_ag62-fe63.htm – newspaper accounts from the Nashville Daily Union during the Civil War

http://www.granburydepot.org/church/thorpcem.htm – excellent cemetery description (Some like this should be available for most parts of the country.)

Librarians are the key to making this tool available to students and teachers. A packaged unit of materials could be developed for teachers in your school using these ideas and sites such as those listed. With this introduction and help from a skilled librarian, your students will become real diggers who understand the joy of research and discovery.

Originally published in Library Media Connection, V23 N2 P52 Oct 2004

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