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Creating with the Learning Lab

By: Kate Harris, Learning Lab Coordinator, Pittsburgh, PA

Teacher Tom Gray was not content just using artifacts from the Smithsonian Learning Lab to illustrate historical concepts or to practice analyzing visuals (although he found creative ways to do that with Civil War images). Instead, he wanted to see what students could make themselves using the fascinating resources within the Lab.

Inspired by a collection made by Linda Muller that asked "John Brown: Madman or Martyr?" and hoping to get students thinking about the growing divisions between North and South in the 1850s, Gray and his student teacher, Keegan Walters, brainstormed an assignment that would excite students while engaging them in the content. They decided to task students with developing videos that shared either a positive or negative perspective on John Brown.

This project-based task was accessible—many of the students were familiar with the technology (iMovie software) already—but did require students to practice new skills. A search on John Brown in the Learning Lab turns up over 1,200 results, so students had to think about how to refine and improve their search in order to find what they needed. Students scanned the informational texts to assess what they were seeing in the images, and even watched some of the available videos on Brown to learn more. Using the templates within the iMovie software, students easily laid out movie trailers. They copied images from the Learning Lab into their trailers, thinking about how to arrange them in order to pique viewers' interest and to present a clear story.

Check out some of their results below!

Both examples highlight the drama of the pre-Civil War period and the significance of the attempted raid on Harper's Ferry. They also show just how effectively students can use technology combined with reliable source materials to convey messages. The video format also easily allows for sharing with authentic audiences—other students, the broader community, or even members of Congress.


Of course, videos aren't the only thing that could be created using Smithsonian Learning Lab resources.

Visuals can be printed (here's a how-to guide) for use in posters or brochures, or linked to in online postings and publications. Videos, blog posts, and magazine articles can all serve as inspiration for students' own creative visual and written works. Having students create with the Learning Lab allows them to practice technical skills while thinking deeply about answers to questions, and challenges them to develop high-quality projects that can be shared with audiences near and far.


Meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac, at Harper's Ferry

Image: Plate 26. Meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac, at Harper's Ferry
Text and photograph from Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War, Vol. II. Negative by James Gardner, text and positive by Alexander Gardner. Perhaps no one point, North or South, has been the scene of so many changes in the shifting panorama of war, through which we have passed in the last four years, as Harper's Ferry...National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center