It’s history

Andy Mink helps bring U.Va.’s databases to Virginia’s schools.

By Leslie Atchley (English '05)

Photo by Jack Mellott.

The premise behind educational efforts at the Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH) is simple: teachers are busy people. Large classes, stacks of grading, standardized test preparation — it all adds up to a hectic workload. Teachers want to find new ways to make learning engaging and interactive, says Andy Mink (History, English ’90), VCDH’s director of outreach and education, but they often don’t have the time, energy or resources to be as innovative as they would like.

But by using VCDH’s online historical databases in the classroom, K-12 teachers have the work of historians and academics literally at their fingertips. Instead of teaching the Civil War exclusively from a textbook, high school instructors can have their students read the compelling wartime letters available through the Valley of the Shadow project. Younger students can explore the earliest American settlement through the 3-D panoramic models at Virtual Jamestown.

Founded in 1998 by history professors Edward L. Ayers and William G. Thomas, VCDH has grown from a few initial projects to a dozen digital collections and electronic initiatives available to the public at no cost. Currently all projects deal with topics in American history, especially the South, but the Center hopes to include world history in future projects.

“Most of our sites are driven by historians, so it’s not a matter of us soliciting a project or an idea but rather the other way around,” says Mink. “A historian says, ‘I’ve got all this [information] and I somehow want to make it accessible.’” The historian then works with the Center to create an online database of primary sources. The goal is to make the resources as easily navigable as possible, but some collections, such as Valley of the Shadow, are so complex that teachers seek guidance to best select and implement materials in the classroom.

This is where Mink comes in. He works with teachers and school systems to create lesson plans based on one or several of VCDH’s projects. One challenge he addresses is how to guide students through successful exploration of the sites. “What’s intuitive for college students is not so for an eighth-grader,” Mink says.

VCDH has established a partnership with the Tredegar Civil War Center in Richmond, which is building a new museum on the James River. The two organizations will together create a Web-based teaching companion to complement the exhibitions. “Most of the time kids don’t know what to do when they go to a museum, so we want this online resource to be a way for teachers to show kids what to do before they go,” Mink says. Students might learn, for example, how to read a census record or analyze a battle map.

The Center’s newest collection, Television News in the Civil Rights Era 1950-1970, has quickly become a popular teaching tool in Virginia schools. The project was born when two Roanoke TV stations donated the rights to several hundred hours of nightly news footage to VCDH. Staff members and student workers then “went through with a historian’s eye and partitioned out anything to do with the Civil Rights movement in a local, place-based sense,” says Mink. The clips include speeches by leaders and politicians, interviews with citizens and footage of school desegregation efforts.

Mink is directing a three-year, $993,060 Teaching History project, which will offer seminars and pay for graduate study for teachers in four school districts in the Roanoke and New River valleys. One summer seminar will focus on the archive, with teachers conducting research and sharing the results with their communities and their students.

The television archives are a particularly strong way to foster students’ interest, says Mink, because they are able to watch the events unfold in their own state, in places where they live and visit. “Rather than iconic Rosa Parks and iconic Birmingham, which kids often have a hard time really identifying with, this is a way to provide video images of life during the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement and desegregation of schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, Danville, Farmville,” said Mink. “It’s really powerful stuff.”