Expanding Archives through Lesson Plans

Written by Casey Gymrek, graduate assistant

Archives generally cater to scholarly researchers and genealogists. However, many archives are discovering a need to prepare for a wider audience–an audience that includes a brand new visitor: school teachers and children. Other cultural institutions, like museums, embrace this new patron group and cultivate age-specific programs and activities. Archives can also take part in this movement and branch out beyond their traditional consumer base. A critical part to attracting school teachers is by providing a useful and valuable learning experience to their students. For an archive to become a worthy field trip excursion, archival staff have to provide standards-based activities on-site. Over the past decade or so, decreased funding for field trips cause schools to be more selective and stingy in their site choices than ever before. In order to be competitive, archives must adapt to fit the needs to the school system.


The cover of the Albert Gore Research Center’s lesson plans.


It is important for archivists to understand the crucial need to standards-based lessons. This education shift towards standards-based learning began in the 1980s and progressed over the last fourteen years with the Bush Administrations’ passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to implement standardized testing to boost students’ educational improvement. Teachers’ lesson plans now have to adhere to state and national standards. These tests determine a school’s federal funding and the hiring of teachers, so it is absolutely critical that teachers understand, follow, and use the standards. While the national standards, known as Common Core, have not been entirely accepted and implemented by all fifty states, most states institute a state-wide version that relates to the national curriculum.

Adhering to standards allows cultural institutions to have a valuable place in the community and fosters partnerships with local schools. I recently completed the Albert Gore Research Center’s very first archival lesson plans! I thought this would be a good opportunity to share my process.


The front page of one of our curriculum packets based on Tennessee State Standards.


I understand that the Albert Gore Research Center’s location on Middle Tennessee State University’s campus might be difficult for teachers and students to access, so I wanted to provide a way for teachers to use our collections in their classrooms. Students can fulfill these lesson plans without ever having to leave their schools. This eliminates the hassle of a field trip, but also provides the center with the opportunity to participate in public outreach while highlighting our collections.

The first task in developing lessons was researching Tennessee’s State Standards. Most standards are divided by grade level and subject area. Pro tip: The best lesson plans are the ones that incorporate multiple subject areas. Teachers are more likely to use lessons that cover a broad range of subjects. From there, I contemplated possible activities that could correlate to the standards and what collections would be most useful. A large portion of this year, the AGRC focused on the Marion Skeen Coleman Peck collection and the Veterans Oral History project, both of which became physical exhibits at the center. Due to the publicity already surrounding these collections, I decided they would be the best fit for our first lesson plans. In addition, using these collections may also encourage teachers and students to visit the center in order to see the exhibit in person.

Warriors with Words Exhibit, Albert Gore Research Center

Warriors with Words Exhibit, Albert Gore Research Center

Veterans History: Global Service, Individual Stories Exhibit, Albert Gore Research Center

Veterans History: Global Service, Individual Stories Exhibit, Albert Gore Research Center

In order to eliminate the hassles of an on-site field trip, it is essential that all activities, including worksheets and photos, are available online. I decided to focus on object-based learning and inferring skills. The Veterans History activities include listening to oral histories as a class in order to understand how history is recorded and to realize the role perspective plays in historical memory. The Marion Coleman Peck lesson includes using inference skills to study objects and draw conclusions about the objects’ owner. Based on the questions and activities, I decided that the primary audience is grades 3-5. Knowing the audience allowed me to tailor words and activities that would be familiar and fun to students.

While lesson plans should follow standards, there is still plenty of room for creativity. The good thing about lesson plans is that there is not a standard format; historical institutions can provide pre-visit, post-visit, and on-site lesson plans, or a combination of all three. For institutions that cannot sustain large groups, online lesson plans are a great substitute. An important part to include is a section devoted to assessment. This allows teachers to gauge the effectiveness of the lesson and provides an opportunity for suggestions.

The AGRC is currently working on uploading the lesson plans to our website. We hope they provide a valuable and unique resource to teachers, and that they exemplify how archives can be used in the classroom.

For other examples of archival lesson plans, please visit:

Teaching with Primary Sources – MTSU 

Library of Congress 

National Archives

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