Preparing Students for the Archives: The Research-to-Learn Method
Preparing Students for the Archives: The Research-to-Learn Method

Recently, I brought a group of first-year students to the archives as part of “Pathways to Freedom,” a year-long learning community taught with two English department colleagues. Our main goals were to teach students composition and research writing, and to study the African American struggle for freedom from the beginnings of the nation to the Civil Rights movement.

Over the course of the school year, I experimented with various methods of providing historical context. I finally settled on a “research-to-learn” method because it engaged students in their own learning, and made their visits to the archives more meaningful.

In the fall semester, I contextualized the primary documents by providing key dates such as when the first slaves were brought to New York, when legislation was passed to end slavery in New York State, and when the Civil War began and ended.

My students didn’t know that I was boning up on my history in order to be familiar with the timeline I insisted they absorb. Prior to teaching the course, I had not heard of the 1799 Gradual Manumission Act and I couldn’t say when slaves were first brought to New York. Unbeknownst to my students, I was a secret student, too.

The problem with this approach was that I spent a lot of time finding out key facts and dates, organizing them into a condensed and comprehensible outline, and then presenting them to the students. I was doing what Paolo Freire in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed calls the “banking concept” of teaching.1

In this model, students are empty “piggy banks” waiting to receive coin deposits of information, while the teacher processes information and then doles it out in context-less dollops of what might more accurately be called disinformation. This approach induced passivity in my students and made me solely responsible for figuring out what they “needed to know.”

By the spring term, our focus was the Civil Rights movement – or, more appropriately, movements. My students would be going to the archives to look at documents in the Arnold Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection.

It was clear to me that attempting to make sense of the “key events” and personages of the Civil Rights movement was beyond my power. This time, I decided to have the students participate in the task of mapping out the broad outlines of the Civil Rights movement.

In order for the students to understand the documents, I asked them first to research and present on various Civil Rights organizations and the issues those organizations tackled. Instead of passively receiving historical context from me (which was only moderately successful in the fall), my students would learn the context through their own research and the research of their classmates.

It was a simple idea but its impact on the students and on me was manifold. It restored dynamism to the classroom. Students worked together in small groups. Based on the guidelines I provided, they began their research with reliable databases like Gale Virtual Reference Library and U.S. History in Context. We also reviewed strategies for assessing open web sources.

Before the students presented, they had to submit an outline of the presentation with bibliography, which helped me ensure that they worked with authoritative sources.

Each group came up with interesting approaches to presenting what they discovered. Many of the groups used multimedia PowerPoint presentations, which gave us all vivid access to the period. Other groups prepared handouts for a lesson on their topic. I could now focus instead on teaching students how to make sense of the presentations.

With each presentation, a more complex understanding of the Civil Rights movement emerged. Certain key dates and people kept coming up in the presentations, thereby affirming their “keyness.”

Together we were able to see that the Civil Rights movement was multi-faceted and could not be boiled down to a few key facts and figures. The students were engaged in this history and experienced a sense of ownership because of the research they had done.

Having the students give their research presentations before for their trip to the archives enriched their experience in two ways: they were prepared intellectually and this, in turn, made them confident (rather than bewildered or intimidated) as they examined the CORE documents. They came to the archives familiar with CORE and how it was different from SCLC, SNCC, and the Black Panthers.

My colleagues and I grouped the documents around various Civil Rights issues: sanitation, voting rights, education, housing, etc. – the same topics I had assigned students for their in-class research presentations. As the students read the primary sources documents, they were excited to recognize references within them to the historical context they had researched.

I saw a student sit up in her chair when she came across mention of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 in a newspaper article about a rent strike organized by CORE. Another student could appreciate the significance of a “teach-in” manual because he had researched the inequalities in education in the 1950s and 1960s.

By teaching themselves the historical context of the materials we studied, my students experienced the scholar’s delight at understanding a primary source in light of the historical knowledge he or she brings to it.

1) Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 2000), 71-86.

To cite this page:
William Burgos, “Preparing Students for the Archives: The Research-to-Learn Method,”, accessed [insert date here],