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From a Scottish Tartan to Two Oily Hands: Students Reveal Historical Narratives in Familiar Artifacts

[Crossposted from The American Historian. For more articles on teaching, visit The American Historian online]

By Kelly Schrum, Nate Sleeter, Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe, Anthony Pellegrino

You see a piece of red twill-weave fabric, crisscrossed with multicolored horizontal and vertical bands. What do you first notice about this image? What stories might it tell?

How about this color photograph focused on a pair of upturned hands, wet with crude oil?

Engaging students in historical inquiry is a critical part of developing their skills as historians. Likewise, such practice helps form the foundation of thinking historically and thus opens doors to a deeper understanding of the past beyond the memorization of names and dates.(1) Students in Teaching Hidden History, a graduate-level, project-based digital history course, explored these disciplinary ideas by identifying and researching artifacts as a means to unlock larger historical narratives. One student selected the seemingly familiar, ubiquitous “traditional” tartan, launching an exploration of folk symbols and cultural heritage to reveal the complex, constructed nature of Scottish nationalism over the last two centuries.

The Scottish Register of Tartans. “Stewart/Stuart, Royal #2.” National Records of Scotland.

Another student based his project on a 1973 photograph in which oil-covered hands entice viewers to think about nature, human beings, and the ways in which they interact. The image, taken for the Environmental Protection Agency during an oil spill cleanup in Maryland, may call to mind environmental disasters, as it did for this student. Accompanying research-based text written by the student draws connections to the environmental movement in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century and to significant shifts in the intersection of science and politics.

Preston Sleeger, A Member of the Maryland Water Resources Administration, shows his oil covered hands. He is part of a team engaged in cleaning Stony Run after a 4000 gallon oil spill, 2/1973. National Archives and Records Administration.

In summer 2015, Teaching Hidden History instructors tasked students with a goal that sounds deceptively simple: connect a single artifact to a broader “hidden” history. Students conducted original research to craft real-world digital projects for use in a variety of settings, including instructional (middle school through college), public history, and professional. The larger pedagogical goal involved modeling how historians think about and use evidence to construct historical arguments. Students rose to the challenge, crafting meaningful and purposeful projects that shed light on the past while expanding their own understanding of history, digital history, and history education. One student reflected on his new appreciation for the “power of imagery,” writing “I look at historical images much differently than before . . . beneath the surface lie hidden themes that connect [them] to the larger historical narrative.”(2) Another student noted that the emphasis on historical inquiry “showed me another way to make history interesting.”(3) Through their discoveries, we—the course designers, instructors, and researchers—learned a great deal about the challenges and opportunities involved in offering a hybrid, digital history course.

The first, and perhaps hardest, step for students involved selecting a primary artifact from which to construct a robust historical narrative. This artifact “had to do a lot of work,” commented one student, including enticing the viewer to look more closely while provoking thoughtful questions about larger narratives.(4) The process yielded results as disparate as they were interesting. Next, students conducted research to understand the broader historical context of the artifact, identify relevant historiography, and select eleven related artifacts for the larger narrative. Through the class, students developed a deeper understanding of the effort required to create a well-crafted digital module with a strong hook, clear, concise prose, and firm grounding in historical scholarship.

Hidden Roots
The idea for Teaching Hidden History grew from an online, asynchronous course called Hidden in Plain Sight. The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, with funding from the Virginia Department of Education, developed that course for K–12 educators to teach historical thinking skills as well as U.S. history content. Composed of discrete learning modules, Hidden in Plain Sight emphasizes an iterative approach to learning, guiding users to identify connections between content and the skills used to interpret evidence and construct historical narratives. The learner selects an object and forms a hypothesis about how that object might connect to larger questions and themes in history. The learner explores related primary and secondary sources and then reconsiders and revises the original hypothesis.

Creating and teaching Hidden in Plain Sight inspired the idea that the modules represent a well-defined research project for students, emphasizing the teaching and learning of history alongside the opportunity to develop research, writing, and digital skills. Funding from a statewide initiative (4VA), designed to promote collaboration and provide innovative learning opportunities among Virginia public universities, allowed George Mason University and Virginia Tech to offer Teaching Hidden History as a shared, hybrid course using on-campus teleconference rooms and a course website. Despite the physical distance, instructors and students fostered a sense of community and students collaborated across campuses to provide feedback throughout an iterative development process. One instructor reflected that regular communication before, during, and after the course provided the “glue that kept everything together.”(5).

Throughout the course, students grappled with the conceptual challenges of defining an audience, crafting a compelling and well-researched narrative, and making historical thinking visible. Some students selected a topic and then searched for a main artifact while others started with the artifact. Rob Farr, a graduate student specializing in historical film, immediately identified Charlie Chaplin and international celebrity culture as the larger narrative. He considered a number of main artifacts before settling on a 1921 Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.

J.W. Sandison, Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest, November 5, 1921. Courtesy of Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Bellingham, Washington. Retrieved from on June 7 2015.

A photograph of entrants, costumed as the famous tramp character, exemplified the iconic nature of Chaplin’s celebrity. Additional sources included film clips designed to “lead the learner to the subject through back doors and side alleys.”(6) Another student took the opposite approach and selected a 1930 Amos n’ Andy toy car. He considered a number of historical narratives “hidden” in the object before focusing on the toy’s connection to the Great Migration and changing national demographics.

Religious Camp Meeting, watercolor by J. Maze Burbank, 1839. Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Caleb Myatt approached his main object in another way. He chose the richly detailed and well-known watercolor Religious Camp Meeting by J. Maze Burbank to explore the significance of the Second Great Awakening in nineteenth-century America. Drawing on elements depicted by Burbank such as large crowds of women, an anti-authoritarian preacher, and rustic tents, Myatt used the painting as a reference point throughout the module for presenting his argument. Choosing the Burbank painting, Myatt observed, allowed him to communicate “deeper themes of the historical event and time period that would force the reader to think not in terms of dates or people, but larger themes that shaped the historical period.”(7)

The structural focus on historical artifacts and inquiry offered participating students a new approach to historical research and communication. Students framed sources and texts to foster historical thinking with their specific intended audience in mind, whether K–12 or higher education students or a larger, non-academic public. Peter Jones, for example, wrote:

By seeing my job as identifying ‘the clue,’ my writing became less academic and more accessible. The clue gave each of my objects a specific focus [it] previously lacked. I directed students to the ‘clue’ by first providing historical context to the object. Then, using the Socratic method, I asked questions that might lead them to think about the object from a different perspective or ‘read’ it in a new way.(8)

Lessons Learned
Developing and teaching a new course is always a learning experience. This was especially true for a hybrid, digital history summer course taught across two institutions. Built into the design of Teaching Hidden History was a robust research directive. The course design and research team analyzed peer-to-peer communication, faculty feedback, course blogs, and final projects to assess learning and skill development and to evaluate the course structure. The lessons learned from this process reinforced our goals for this course.

Students began the course with confidence in their ability to think historically and construct historical arguments. The process of creating a digital learning module challenged them to sharpen these skills. While pre- and postcourse surveys captured valuable information about students’ self-assessment, in the future we will ask students more open-ended questions, including modeling analysis of a historical artifact and strategies for teaching the artifact to capture that growth more fully. Those who selected a topic explored in previous courses started immediately on the intellectual work of researching and crafting a module; we will encourage this more formally next time. In future versions of the course, we will also include additional time for revising content after in-class presentations. The opportunity to articulate their goals for the module, to identify strengths and weaknesses in the module as a whole, and to receive feedback from classmates and instructors proved valuable to students. The eight-week summer course did not allow enough time to incorporate those ideas into the module before submitting a final version. Revisions to the schedule will allow us to accommodate this change.

Fundamentally, we learned that students and instructors shared the spirit of experimentation, trying various strategies (and even seating arrangements) to maximize communication and collaboration across 250 miles. In addition to the synchronous sessions, students met virtually outside of class with instructors and with each other to discuss, reflect, and critique module research and development. During an in-person class, the instructor can easily move between groups, listening and providing input. Reflecting on future versions of this class, we identified a need to provide more structure for student collaboration, including facilitated sessions and structured feedback models.

At its core, Teaching Hidden History is about the “stuff” of history—the evidence that historians delve into with enthusiasm and the inquiry-based process for doing so. Students in the course found artifacts that inspired their enthusiasm and, according to one student, taught “specific ways of promoting deeper connections to history.”(9) Their task was to demonstrate to a broader audience that the artifact mattered. They had to go beyond “interesting” to demonstrate the artifact’s significance in relation to historical questions. And they had to accomplish this within a limited timeframe.

Teaching Hidden History served as a promising analogy for the work of historians with the additional emphasis on creating a product for teaching and learning. Perhaps the most encouraging outcome was the eagerness of students to use their modules in the future and in both classroom and public history settings. Sharing modules provided students with the opportunity to not only convey their passion and enthusiasm for history but also insights into the process, thereby exposing new audiences to the “how” of history. In each instance the potential exists to make the process of history more visible and less “hidden” to a wider audience.

Anthony Pellegrino is assistant professor of history/social science education at George Mason University where he teaches courses related to history/social studies education and teacher education. His research interests include cognition in secondary history education, youth civic engagement, and pre-service teacher education.

Kelly Schrum is Director of Educational Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and an associate professor in the Higher Education Program at George Mason University. She creates innovative, open digital resources and tools, including online courses for practicing teachers. Her publications include Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls’ Culture, 1920–1950, U.S. History Matters: A Student Guide to History Online, and World History Matters: A Student Guide to History Online as well as numerous articles on teaching and learning in the digital age.

Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe is a Ph.D candidate in history at George Mason University and a Penn Predoctoral Fellow for Excellence through Diversity. Her dissertation examines charity, consumption, citizenship, and disability through an in-depth study of poster child campaigns in the United States after World War II. She tweets from @celeste_sharpe.

Nate Sleeter is a Ph.D candidate in history at George Mason University and graduate research assistant at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. In addition to developing and working as an instructor on Teaching Hidden History, Sleeter has taught online courses for K–12 educators for the past three years. He maintains an active interest in the teaching and learning of history in the digital age.

(1) Keith C. Barton, “History: From Learning Narratives to Thinking Historically,” in Contemporary Social Studies: An Essential Reader, ed. William B. Russell, III. (2012), 119–139; Sam Wineburg,Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (2001).

(2) Caleb Myatt, “Student Reflection: Caleb Myatt on Teaching Hidden History,” online posting, Aug. 14, 2015, Teaching “Hidden” History: An Experiment in Cross-Institution Teaching and Learning,

(3) Anonymous student, course evaluation, Teaching Hidden History, Summer 2015.

(4) In-class discussion, June 9, 2015.

(5) Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe, “Reflection: 2 Takeaways from THH,” online posting, Aug. 5, 2015,Teaching “Hidden” History,

(6) Rob Farr, “Student Reflection: Rob Farr with a Student-Teacher’s Perspective on Teaching Hidden History,” online posting, Aug. 31, 2015, Teaching “Hidden” History,

(7) Caleb Myatt, “Student Reflection: Caleb Myatt on Teaching Hidden History,” online posting, Aug. 14, 2015, Teaching “Hidden” History,

(8) Peter Jones, “Student Reflection: Peter Jones on ‘the clue’ and Teaching Hidden History,” online posting, Aug. 21, 2015, Teaching “Hidden” History,

(9) Ibid.