GBH in Boston is rolling out a new collection of free-to-use digital multimedia resources to help middle and high school educators teach American history.
The U.S. History Collection, accessible through PBS LearningMedia, spans pre-colonial history to the present and draws on public television’s extensive archive of documentaries. For example, a section on American imperialism in the years before World War I includes clips from the 1997 American Experience film on Hawaii’s last monarch, Liliuokalani, while a section on the 20th century Space Race features an American Experience scene about Ed Dwight, the nation’s first Black astronaut trainee whose career was undercut by racism.
The collection includes content produced by other public TV stations. A module on demographic changes in the U.S. features a PBS Wisconsin biography of Joe Bee Xiong, the first Hmong American elected to public office.
Seeta Pai, executive director of education at GBH, said her team and their colleagues at PBS LearningMedia started thinking about building the collection six years ago in an effort to help teachers engage more students in history. Eventually an advisory group of educators from 17 states helped shape GBH’s approach. The group said they didn’t want GBH to create lesson plans — educators already have those and they’d have to be correlated to local curriculums. What they wanted was access to supplemental multimedia resources that can be used in and out of the classroom.
“We don’t want to duplicate a textbook,” Pai said, adding that GBH’s goal was to make the collection “youth facing.” “Our background research uncovered that lots of students are pretty disengaged in history and civics classrooms. Part of it is that the presentation is kind of dry … or students don’t necessarily see themselves in history and there is a tendency to focus on big figures.”
With the educators’ wish list in mind, GBH created a collection that divides U.S. history into 16 distinct eras covering Indigenous civilizations, the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Gilded Age, among other topics. The collection can also be broken down by nine skills educators want students to learn, from interpreting charts and graphs to developing a greater understanding of civics.
Another goal for developing the collection was to introduce middle and high school students to multiple perspectives and help them learn critical thinking skills when interpreting history.
“We’re not telling students what to think,” Pai said. “At the end of the day we really want to support teachers teaching students how to think. The idea is you need to look at different sources, you need to analyze things critically, you need to think like a historian would.”
While building the collection, GBH also consulted with students to get a sense of what types of media they find most engaging, said Sue Wilkins, director of social studies curriculum and instruction. Acknowledging the ways that students already use platforms like YouTube and TikTok, they determined that the best use of public TV’s archive of historical documentaries would be to create short video clips. “All of the videos in the collection are roughly three to six minutes in length and that was a time frame chosen really based on feedback from students and teachers,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins is most excited by the collection’s interactive lessons that invite students to explore historical topics such as women’s suffrage and residential segregation, she said. An interactive module about the American Revolutionary War invites students to learn about figures depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. “We put these hotspots on three figures most people have never noticed before,” Wilkins said. “There is a woman in the boat, there is a Native American in that boat and there is a Black man in the boat.
“When we showed this at a webinar for teachers, in the comments, so many teachers said ‘I’ve seen this so many times but I have never noticed these figures before,’” Wilkins said. “I think it’s a way for us to elevate these stories.”
Modules labeled “You Decide” use video clips and interactive elements to take students through key moments in history, inviting them to analyze arguments for and against President Truman’s order to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities in 1945, or to evaluate Booker T. Washington’s and W. E. B. DuBois’ contrasting visions for how Black Americans should respond to that era’s racism.
GBH plans to continue expanding the U.S. History Collection with new modules on topics such as sports and protest, fashion and politics, NATO, the electoral college and Alcatraz.
“There’s lots of other history curricula out there, there’s lots of sites out there, but the combination of high quality media, trust on the part of teachers that we’re doing it in a rigorous way and the nuance we’re bringing to it and thinking about teachers need and want … is the heart of our educational mission,” Pai said.