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Archives & Museum Informatics

The Minnesota Communities Project: Using the Internet to Teach Your Students Primary Source Skills

Kristine Hagen, Thofson, Mark Durkin, Sara Yaeger, Minnesota Historical, Society, USA


In 1998, the Minnesota Legislature made available grant money to organizations developing projects to support the stateís new Profile of Learning Graduation Standards. The grants were administered by the Department of Children, Families and Learning, which is the agency that developed the standards. One of the tenents of the Profile of Learning is that students should be able to extract information from primary and secondary sources. With that in mind we decided to create a web site that combined what we know about education with our vast collections of photographs, documents, and artifacts.

The goals of this web site were varied in scope and content. These goals included:

1) Use digitized materials from Minnesota Historical Society collections,

2) Write and present curriculum materials associated with the collections materials, and

3) Develop a web site to be used in the classroom by teachers and students for help in the study of primary source research and Minnesota history.

The web site was developed around the general theme of "Communities." The web site produced through this grant has achieved the above goals in a number of ways. To accomplish these goals, three Minnesota communities (Hibbing, Red Wing, and St. Anthony) were chosen. These choices were made on the basis of the historical sources available, their general interest to the defined audience, and their geographic location and features. The URL is

Site Structure

The site is designed to be both student- and teacher-friendly. Student content for online use is accessible through the two primary menu items, Communities and Themes. This sorting mechanism provides teachers with flexibility in their classroom use of the site. Teachers who wish to encourage their students to study a particular community may sort items and materials through the Communities menu. Those teachers who wish to study the time period, occupations, or events shown without a particular community focus may access these materials through the Themes menu. Navigation of the site is by necessity intuitive and the graphics are student-friendly and contemporary. The choice of historical photographs layered with photographs of contemporary teens in the graphic design was made to encourage the student audience and emphasize their connections to history.


For each of the three communities, 10 "units" have been created. These units are organized under the four subthemes of Landscapes, Milestones, People, and Occupations.

Figure 1

Each of the three communities is divided into 10 units with four subthemes. This menu allows the user to select which units are most appropriate for their study. This menu may be reached through the Communities section of the site. The same information is re-sorted in the Themes section. (Figure 1) These subthemes enable teachers to use the site and its curriculum both by community orientation and thematic focus. Each unit includes a student experience featuring digitized images of approximately six primary sources, activity questions (which open in a smaller window on the desktop) to encourage students to examine the sources more thoroughly, transcriptions of sources containing text, linkable glossary entries, and bibliographicnformation about each source shown. Students will progress through the site in their school computer labs with structured teacher guidance. For each of the 10 units in a "community," students view and analyze four to six primary source documents. To aid in this, the students are given a data table Figure 2: The data table provides the students basic information about a source for each source that describes the date, author if applicable, and type of primary source being viewed. Information about where the source is found and a short caption describing the source are also provided in this space.

Figure 2

After studying the data table, students are encouraged to view the source in a larger form by clicking on the thumbnail image. While viewing the source, students open the "Activity" window Figure 3.

Figure 3

The Activities window gives the student the opportunity to use questions to study the primary source. By opening a separate window for this purpose, the student can still view the source while they are reading the questions. and study a series of droplist questions designed to encourage them to think critically about the source shown. A transcription with hyperlinked glossary terms is provided for each text-oriented source.

Once the students have viewed all sources for the unit they are completing, they will be given a printed worksheet to help them synthesize their information and draw conclusions about what they have seen. These worksheets and their keys are provided in the Teacher section of the site and can be evaluated by the teacher at a later date.

After the online work is completed on a unit, the teacher has the option of continuing the lesson with discussion questions, extra thematic activities or research (provided in the teacherís lesson plan) or moving the class on to another unit in the site. This gives the teacher with limited computer lab time some options for extending the lesson and making it directly applicable to classroom curricula already in place.

The teacher experience of the site includes a detailed online manual for use; complete lesson plans for each of the 30 units, including transcriptions of activity questions; historical background material; and additional lessons and activities for extending the educational experience beyond the web site and integrating it into current classroom needs.

Other Site Features

Figure 4: The parallel structure of the timeline gives students the chance to easily compare local, national and state events.

The site also includes a timeline feature showing timelines for each community, the state of Minnesota, and the United States in a parallel formation so students can compare events happening in Minnesota and the United States with events occurring in the communities studied. The information provided in these timelines is linked to a timeline window that presents a short paragraph describing the event and its historical significance.

Figure 5: By rolling over the Before/After image in the lower left, the user can compare historical photographs with current photographs of the same location.

Each of the three communities is featured in a "Now and Then" historic tour. This consists of six photographs from the highlighted time period, compared with six photographs taken from the same locations today. They are designed to be quick and easy introductions to the time period and the community studied. They can also be used for photo analysis skills review.

Figure 6: Users are granted a unique look into the interior of a mill ruin and its surrounding area.

The St. Anthony unit contains a Quick Time Virtual Reality Tour that allows the user to "travel" through the St. Anthony area and view the mill ruins, the falls, and other landmarks that are highlighted in lesson material. This allows the student to actually "view" many of the places mentioned in the sources contained in the St. Anthony Falls unit.

Figure 7: Teachers have many opportunities to use the site in their classroom. Detailed instructions and suggestions are provided.

The Teachers section of the site allows educators to access lesson plans, an overview section describing the site and its uses for teachers, student materials including downloadable worksheets and keys, an introductory lesson about using primary sources, and a teacher registration page. Registration is optional for this site.

Primary Source Lesson

Many students and teachers do not have experience working with primary sources in the classroom. This section gives teachers a short introductory lesson to help their students understand the definition of a primary source and how primary sources can be used in the classroom. An activity with downloadable PDFs is available in conjunction with this lesson.


The Gallery section of the site is designed as a kind of online bibliography. Each source on the site is shown and clicking on the source gives the user information about the origin of the source, its location in Society collections and on the site, and other information about the source itself, much of which is also presented in the data tables on the student section of the site.

Staffing and Process

The Communities team consisted of Sara Schroeder Yaeger, Project Manager; Mark Durkin and Kristine Hagen Thofson, Instructional Designers; and Kevin Kirkendahl, Researcher. Additional input and consultation was received from employees of the Goodhue County Historical Society for assistance on Red Wing research, and from three content editors with expertise in each community. MaryLou Ziebarth of Ziebarth Design organized and implemented the graphic design and coding for the site.

The two Instructional Designers began the process of developing the site by drawing on their experiences in classroom teaching and technology. The career backgrounds of the designers in elementary education, secondary education, educational software development, and social studies education all influenced the formation and structure of the site. The navigational aspects of the site and the content themes were developed by the Instructional Designers, who also created and coded a prototype. The Researcher gathered information from Society collections and suggested themes and sources to be used for the content areas of the site.

Content and lessons were developed with the assistance of additional volunteer researchers and the expertise of the Societyís Teacher Education Specialist. Emphases were placed upon the creation of multi-use materials for classrooms. Interdisciplinary activities, higher-order thinking skills, and flexibility of classroom implementation were all high priorities in lesson development.

Reviews were implemented at various stages, including external content reviews, internal review of the structure and content, and a focus group of local teachers who were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the pedagogy. A pilot evaluation program using the site will be implemented in April of 2000.

Product Use and Marketing

As one of the first educational web sites produced by the Minnesota Historical Society, the Communities site is being promoted at local teacherís conferences, teacher workshops, and through mass mailings to schools. The site also contains an optional teacher registration component, from which we expect to build a database of users.