The Quest for Accurate, Accessible, and Relevant Materials for Teaching American History
Part 1: The Woodson Collaborative as a Resource for Educators
Illustration by Fabio Murgia from Shutterstock images
March 21, 2023
Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 can be found here.
This brief, the first in a two-part series, introduces a promising model for creating online libraries that can guide teachers toward accurate, accessible, and relevant materials for teaching social studies in the United States. The brief describes a resource called the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Collaborative, an open online hub launched in 2021 that contains instructional materials aligned with standards and frameworks revised during the Commonwealth of Virginia’s year-long effort to improve the teaching of African American history. Because the Woodson Collaborative builds on consensus from many corners of the state and draws from materials created and vetted by dozens of organizations (including museum educators, public television stations, and experts on social studies curricula), it holds many lessons for other state and local leaders.
The development of the Collaborative shows that, while it is not easy to build consensus on instructional materials, and new iterations will always be necessary, it is possible to curate and disseminate standards-based materials that address gaps in what is taught. Not only does the Collaborative draw from and make relevant links with online materials offered by museums and multimedia institutions, both local and national, it is able to make those materials open and available to families and community members for free without running afoul of copyright restrictions. It gives education leaders a 21st-century model for helping teachers to meet their ultimate goal: to spark students’ interest and proficiency in history, helping them gain knowledge and skills for making sense of the world.
The Woodson Collaborative started in the fall of 2020 as an endeavor led by social studies specialists across Virginia. These leaders wanted to help teachers by curating quality lesson plans, videos, primary sources, discussion prompts, and more on African American history. Key to their mission was making sure teachers could find high-quality instructional materials aligned with a series of technical edits to the state’s curriculum frameworks, which the State Board of Education approved in 2020. (All of the social studies standards are now undergoing revisions, as described in the Part 2 of this series.)
By December 2020, the Collaborative’s work was formalized as a joint venture between the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium, the Virginia Association of Museums, the Virginia Department of Education, and an initiative called #GoOpenVA. It culminated in the opening of the Woodson Collaborative online hub in the spring of 2021. Although designed for Virginia’s teachers, the hub is accessible to anyone at no cost at this link.
The Woodson Collaborative is designed to provide materials that reflect three attributes social studies educators seek: accuracy, accessibility, and relevance. Because it was built from materials that have been endorsed or created by well-established education groups and public agencies, it addresses several vexing dilemmas: how to dissuade teachers from “googling around” for new content of questionable quality; how to find and share materials without coming up against copyright restrictions, paywalls, and cumbersome login requirements; and how to ensure that resources about historic events are reflective of, and do not mischaracterize, the populations of Americans who played a role in shaping the country.
The Audience for These Briefs
State and local education leaders are the primary audience for this two-part series of briefs, including curriculum specialists in state departments of education, school board members, state board of education members, superintendents, principals, instructional leaders, and teachers who are looking to update curricula and teaching strategies. It is also aimed at faculty members in teacher preparation institutions, leaders of professional development organizations, those who develop instructional materials, those who work with parent advisory groups, and decision-makers at any level who want to bring more rigorous and relevant educational experiences to today’s students. The final section of Part 1 offers recommendations for creating similar collaboratives in other states, districts, or communities that want to provide accurate, accessible, and relevant teaching materials.
The “Googling Around” Problem
Most education experts agree that teaching a subject requires more than just introducing students to a collection of books and videos and testing them on what they picked up. Instructional materials and instruction itself should be sequenced as building blocks. Ideally, resources should be organized into a comprehensive curriculum, with units of study that match grade levels and are aligned with academic standards set by states and the national organizations for those subjects. Textbooks—whether in print or published as online resources—are supposed to be anchors for these sets of comprehensive and sequenced materials.
But comprehensive curricula and accompanying textbooks are not always what teachers use in their classrooms. This may be because they don’t exist or they no longer match what teachers believe will actively engage their students, or because teachers have not received much professional development on what makes a good curriculum in the first place. With the internet at their fingertips, teachers try to make up for that shortfall by searching online sites that provide seemingly more up-to-date digital media that could be folded into lesson plans.
In 2016, a study from the RAND Corporation found that 99 percent of teachers in elementary school and 96 percent in secondary school agreed with the statement that they were using "materials I developed and/or selected myself" in teaching English language arts. The vast majority of teachers were using Google and Pinterest to find new resources. A few years later, in 2019, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute conducted a review of supplemental materials teachers used to teach English language arts. It found “a major mismatch between what the experts think teachers should (and shouldn’t) use in classrooms and what teachers themselves are downloading for such use—and, in some cases, paying for.”
EdReports, the nonprofit organization that reviews K–12 curricula, pointed out in one of its recent reports that “teachers spend 7–12 hours per week searching for and creating instructional resources (free and paid), drawing from a variety of sources, many of them unvetted.” The risk is that these materials may not be of great quality, and they might not be good for introducing complex concepts at particular grade levels, if they use content that is either inappropriate for younger students or patronizing and childish to older ones.
In history and social studies, these trends may be even more pronounced. Surveys of teachers show that comprehensive curricula and textbooks are not usually the foundation of the history instruction that takes place in American schools. A recent RAND report zooms in on social studies, and it shows that only 16 percent of elementary teachers used a required textbook for the majority of their social studies instructional time in 2021–22. “More commonly teachers cobbled together instructional materials or used self-created materials,” the report authors write.
This is a problem that Woodson Collaborative developers were well aware of. Atif Qarni, who was secretary of education in Virginia when the hub was developed, had been a social studies teacher in Prince William County Public Schools before his state-level term. Qarni said that his experience as a teacher helped him see firsthand how much demand exists for new digital resources that are relevant to today’s students and give depth to events and figures previously missing from history books. “Teachers on the ground really want this,” he said. Without access to organized curricula and catalogs of instructional materials, he said, they find themselves “googling around” for materials without knowing what to avoid.
Defining “High Quality” in Instructional Materials
When teachers rely on sites like Google and Pinterest to patch together something to present in class, they run the risk of inserting inaccurate, confusing, misleading, divisive, or even potentially re-traumatizing materials into their lessons. But even when teachers use a comprehensive curriculum or set of lesson plans sold by a publisher, there is no guarantee the materials are high quality. EdReports, which evaluates curricula in math, science, and English language arts, has been working to fill that void by bringing together panels of highly trained educators to rigorously review curricula against evidence-based criteria. It makes its reports and review tools free to the public.
Though EdReports does not evaluate social studies curricula or history textbooks, its strategy for evaluating materials in other subjects sheds some light on what education leaders should be looking for in the social studies realm. EdReports prioritizes two criteria: (1) alignment with academic standards and (2) usability. EdReports has also said it recognizes that quality curricula should include materials that portray people or events in ways that are engaging and meaningful to diverse populations of students. EdReports stated in 2021:
When it comes to instructional materials, EdReports believes that standards alignment is a prerequisite for all students—but it is not the only thing students need to learn and grow. Grade level content is critical, and materials should support teachers and address the needs of local communities. Curricula should be meaningful and engaging to all students, and attention must be paid to diverse representation in authorship, protagonists, and historical perspectives and support a wide array of learners.
The Woodson Collaborative, like all history resources out there, has not been evaluated by EdReports. But its infrastructure and content match up with some elements of what EdReports reviewers look for. The materials in the Collaborative are aligned with the state’s standards and curriculum frameworks in social studies, according to technical edits approved by the State Board of Education in 2020. The hub includes materials that are tagged to a particular standard and all materials are categorized by grade level. Local communities are represented, since the hub uses materials offered within museums in cities and towns throughout Virginia. And the site supports representation of diverse racial and ethnic identities as well, with history lessons spotlighting African American contributions to the growth and development of the United States.
Accuracy is not always assured in textbooks and educational materials even if they were once vetted by experts. Instructional materials perpetually need updates. This may sound obvious for a subject like science, which is popularized for its discoveries, but it is just as true for a subject like history, which can change when new artifacts are uncovered or photographs rediscovered. And it is critical as the lens for history lessons widens to include perspectives from people in historically or currently marginalized circumstances who have been erased or glossed over in the dominant narratives of the past. For example, a now out-of-date version of Virginia’s 2015 curriculum framework told fourth-grade students that the Africans who were forcibly brought to the Virginia colony in 1619 were of “unknown legal status.” The new framework, edited in 2020 and based on new scholarship, states they “were originally free people” before they were captured.
The Woodson Collaborative points teachers to materials that are based on these updated histories, enabling teachers to paint a more accurate picture for their students. It features, links to, and explains resources that have been chosen by museum educators, historians, education experts in public media, and social studies specialists to align with specific grade levels. Many of these materials have already been vetted and produced for public broadcast or are exhibited in Virginia museums, the Smithsonian, and other educational spaces. Some resources are primary source materials, such as photographs, letters and speeches from long ago, or the text of old laws. With access to primary sources, guided by teachers who can help provide context, students have more opportunity to become independent thinkers, unpacking for themselves why events unfolded the way they did.
A Note on Use of the Term “Age-Appropriate”
Students need age-appropriate building blocks of information, given step by step and grade level by grade level. In the early grades, especially, not all names can be named and not all conflicts can be discussed because the sheer volume of material would be overwhelming, especially for young children without prior knowledge of various figures and events. Yet even in the younger grades, repairing key omissions is part of telling a more accurate version of America’s history. Sometimes, saying that a topic is “not age-appropriate” can be a cover for avoiding topics that can, in fact, be carefully broached with children. Educators cannot ignore injustices of the past nor should they leave out inspiring changemakers. The story of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and what she overcame (including sexism and segregated bathrooms, which many people learned through the movie Hidden Figures) can be introduced to young students. Profiles of Martin Luther King, Jr., a staple in the early grades, can be more fully developed by going beyond his “I Have a Dream” speech. Introducing young children to new names—such as Maggie Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank—also helps paint a fuller picture of history.
Accuracy can also come from teachers using more precision to describe an event or a person’s contribution. A Fairfax County Public Schools document about “dos and don’ts” says this: “Don’t use language that minimizes or erases atrocities.” Some teachers in younger grades, for example, might think they should overgeneralize an event to avoid alarming students, but it is not accurate to say, “Africans settled in Virginia” when what really happened is that “Africans were brought against their will to Virginia.”
Examples of the Hub’s Lesson Plans and Supplementary Materials
The Woodson Collaborative features 48 sections of curriculum for teachers that correspond with technical edits to the state of Virginia’s standards and curriculum frameworks in social studies, approved by the Board of Education in late 2020. For example, for a unit on the Civil War and Reconstruction taught in a fourth grade Virginia Studies course, this sentence was added to the curriculum framework: “African Americans pushed for education for their children.” Teachers can see the new wording and get links to materials that help them teach that fact, such as an online exhibit on education at the American Civil War Museum.
Another example that uses primary sources (but which is not yet tagged to align with a particular standard), is a lesson plan called “We Can Uncover!,” which provides prompts and discussion activities along with photographs of artifacts to get students talking together. For example, it uses a photo of an artifact on display at the Smithsonian, a printed floral skirt worn by Lucy Lee Shirley, a young enslaved girl (see below). The lesson includes whole-group and small-group discussions for fourth and fifth graders about what students can observe about the photograph of the skirt and includes details from a Washington Post article.
The screenshot above shows what a resource looks like on the Woodson Collaborative hub. The stars show the potential for the material to be rated by other users. The introductory information includes the author, date, and type of license attached. In this case, the lesson plan is licensed as CC BY-NC, which means it can be used by anyone as long as the original source is credited and it is not used for a commercial purpose.
Making Materials Open and Accessible
Accessibility may mean different things to educators and families. Students come to classrooms with a variety of skills and abilities, and materials need to be accessible to students who have physical disabilities or any number of issues that may affect their learning. Accessible instructional materials may also be defined as those developed in formats that are compatible with software or hardware that students and teachers use. And increasingly, accessibility is associated with digital materials that can be easily found online and viewed anytime, anywhere.
Yet just because the internet makes it easy for teachers to google their way to digital materials doesn’t mean they can easily use those materials with students. The material may be copyright protected, meaning that while teachers could use parts of it under the “fair use” doctrine in U.S. law, they may not be allowed to make a full copy and upload it to their course management system, nor put copyrighted images in slide decks. For teachers who are looking for content in languages other than English, the same concerns may apply: it is not always clear whether it's legal or appropriate to take material posted online in one language and then translate it for a class that speaks another language. Teachers need resources that are not only digital and free, but also usable and shareable—key attributes of open educational resources, or OER.
Before the Woodson Collaborative was conceived, educational technology experts in Virginia had been trying to solve this problem. As part of a national effort called #GoOpen, Virginia leaders developed a digital platform called #GoOpenVA, which features a website where teachers could search for lesson plans and other materials that are both standards-aligned and openly licensed (see sidebar below on what openly licensed means). The #GoOpenVA site, similar to #GoOpen sites established by more than a dozen other states across the country, was built using the infrastructure that powers OER Commons, an international online library of educational resources. It is designed to enable educators to search for materials published by others, as well as upload materials they themselves have developed or updated, rate the materials shared by others, and leave comments about what works or doesn’t work for their classrooms.
The Woodson Collaborative is now one of 15 different #GoOpenVA hubs on the platform, ranging from repositories of materials for teaching computer science to hubs dedicated to districts’ local curricula.
What Does “Openly Licensed” Mean?
Openly licensed materials—unlike those that carry a traditional “all rights reserved” license or copyright—can be used, adapted, and shared by schools, educators, students, and any other users as long as credit is given to the material’s creator. One common type of open license is a Creative Commons license, which appears in shorthand as CC BY or CC BY NC (with the “NC” indicating that the materials can only be reused by non-commercial entities). When instructional materials carry an open license, teachers can legally make copies of the resources, rearrange the content, modify any content that is out of date, and translate sections into other languages. Openly licensed resources are often called open educational resources and use the acronym OER.
A Missing Piece: Recognizing Accessibility for Students with Disabilities
The metadata that accompanies each resource in the Woodson Collaborative does not include tags to sort out materials with assistive technologies (such as captioning on videos) or other built-in accommodations for students with disabilities. This is not a problem confined to this hub—it is a missing piece in many online libraries of instructional materials across the internet. However, OER Commons, the platform that houses the Woodson Collaborative, does provide a curated a collection of more than 25 resources for supporting students with disabilities, available here.
Recognizing the Need to Be Relevant
America’s 49 million schoolchildren reflect the many ethnicities, racial identities, religions, and cultures that make up the U.S. For decades, teachers and education leaders have recognized the value in bringing students learning experiences that match this diversity and feel relevant to their lives. Yet as former New America analyst Jenny Muñiz writes in a 2021 report, “instructional materials that are culturally responsive and sustaining are highly coveted but scarce.”
One answer to this problem, Muñiz writes, is to “make materials local.” And one way to do this is to help teachers to use information from regional and local educational organizations and museums. A benefit of this approach, she writes, is catalyzing “deeper involvement of families,” making connections to their own histories and experiences in a particular place.
To build the hub of resources in the Woodson Collaborative, leaders tapped the expertise within 29 museums and educational organizations across Virginia, including Colonial Williamsburg, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, the American Civil War Museum, the Virginia Geographic Alliance, and the John Marshall Center for Constitutional History & Civics. Educators at those institutions, in collaboration with Department of Education specialists and teachers in rural, suburban, and urban districts, curated links and lesson plans for online exhibits. This ensured that even students who cannot take field trips can learn stories about the area right outside their door.
Educating Teachers on How to Use the Hub and Its Materials
Once a hub is available, the next step is making sure teachers know it exists and know how to use it. Broad national surveys show that parents want their students to learn these fuller stories. Survey data from a 2021 poll by the National Parents Union, a parents’ advocacy group, showed that 74 percent of public-school parents supported the teaching of a more diverse array of historical figures and perspectives on history. To do this, teachers will need not only more accurate materials but also training and support. They need opportunities to absorb new content and incorporate it into lessons. Some teachers appreciate opportunities to talk with experts on how to best handle complex topics in class.
Consider the example of training that emerged in the mid-2000s, when teachers around the country began going to North Carolina to tour historical African American sites and to learn how to use Crafting Freedom, a web-based set of videos, printable primary source documents, and other resources on the lives of 11 enslaved and free African Americans who lived during the antebellum period. Jill Nysse, a White teacher in Winona, MN, said those summer sessions, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, were the best she had ever attended. The workshop leader, she said, “told us up front, you may feel uncomfortable about this,” as she learned far more about slavery than what she gleaned in her own education or in teacher training. She said the sessions gave her insight, for example, into how to teach about Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, and how to use stories of her life to bring history alive for students. Another teacher, Judith King-Calnek, a Black educator at the United Nations International School, said that the workshops were a “powerful experience” that built on research she had already started on her own.
When the Woodson Collaborative hub fully launched in the spring of 2021, the Virginia Department of Education invited teachers to learn more about it and provided some introductory professional learning sessions. Those sessions have not continued for the past year, however, because the social studies standards are in flux, as the State Board of Education reviews new versions. Once the state sets the standards and accompanying curriculum frameworks, the education department is expected to hold sessions that guide teachers through the new standards and help them see how to incorporate new materials into their lessons, and those trainings would likely include materials from the hub. Professional learning provides important opportunities for teachers to talk through how resources like those in the Woodson Collaborative could be used in their classrooms.
Suggestions for Future Adaptations of This Model
The Woodson Collaborative fulfills a lot of needs. It is open to all, offering transparency and information to parents and teachers anywhere. It was built in collaboration with 29 museums and educational institutions across its state and is designed to expand and incorporate updated materials as soon as they are developed. And its methods for development can be replicated for other subjects in which educators are searching around for curricular materials that are up to date and relevant to their students.
But creating hubs like this takes forethought and, as made clear by Virginia’s example, it requires leadership from the top. The development of the Collaborative offers eight takeaways that can help leaders around the country who want to build accurate, accessible, and relevant resource hubs for effective teaching in social studies and other subjects:
- Build on the work of others. Value and respond to the work of previous commissions and existing advisory groups as well as public input from organizations and individuals, across multiple localities, racial identities, and ethnicities. Many states are coming to terms with omissions in the way history has been taught and have been holding meetings to gather public input. The ideas from those sessions, and the networks of community members who have invested time in those meetings, can be a starting point.
- Listen to and tap into local expertise. The Woodson Collaborative was built by crowdsourcing expertise from museum educators, librarians, and social studies experts across the state of Virginia. The same can be done elsewhere with online exhibits and other digital resources developed by museums, libraries, and public media stations. This process can help educators engage with parents and other family members who want quality learning materials for their children but may not know about these local resources.
- Ensure resources are accessible and easy to see. Where possible, use materials that are openly licensed. Help teachers see how to use these types of resources and give parents more windows into how these resources are being used in classrooms.
- Make clear how resources are selected and evaluated. Platforms like OER Commons, on which the Woodson Collaborative is built, are flexible enough to make room for documentation and metadata, as well as feedback from educators about which lesson plans worked for their students. Open materials can be a springboard for dialogue between schools, families, and students.
- Take advantage of online collaboration. The Woodson Collaborative was built at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when remote meetings were the only way to get educators together. It showed that meetings with educators around a region or a state do not have to take place in person. In fact, virtual meetings encourage diverse input, making it possible for educators who teach all day, or who live far away, to attend.
- Work toward state-level standards and curriculum frameworks. These will help ensure more comprehensive and rigorous curricula for students. Curricula should be aligned with standards and meet EdReports criteria for quality. Supplementary materials on their own will not be enough, and accurate, comprehensive curricula can help to dissuade teachers from googling around for materials that may not meet standards of quality.
- Educate teachers and community members. Teachers will need professional development sessions to explore ways of using new instructional materials and will need time to try out and provide feedback on how these resources can be improved. Introductory sessions can also be offered to parents and members of the community who may want to use them for out-of-school time learning.
- Gather feedback. Find out about what works and what doesn’t for each age group, cultural context, and type of course. Resources like the Woodson Collaborative will continue to improve if developers seek feedback and incorporate it.
Thank you to my New America colleagues who provided invaluable guidance and reviewed various versions of these briefs, including Elena Silva, An-Me Chung, Ted Johnson, Amanda LaTasha Armstrong, Jimmeka Anderson, and Jazmyne Owens. A big thank you to Sabrina Detlef for expert editing and Mandy Dean and Fabio Murgia for their communications support. I am grateful to Laurel Sneed, executive director of the Crafting Freedom Institute, who introduced me to teachers who spoke with me about the importance of multimedia resources, on-site learning, and other forms of professional development. I also appreciate the many education leaders, teachers, and parents in Virginia and in other states who spent time with me to provide background and context for this report, as well as the many educators involved in the Woodson Collaborative who were willing to be interviewed. I also thank Joceyln Pickford and Kate Poteet of CurriculumHQ and HCM Strategists, Anne M. Evans of the Virginia Geographic Alliance and New American History, and Janna Chan of EdReports for reviewing various sections of this work for accuracy. This work would not have been possible without the generous support of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation.