Get Your History Here: The American Social History Project Brings History Home

April 22, 2020

With the move to home-based learning as a result of the coronavirus, a project known for its accessible, digital materials takes on new relevance for teachers and families.

St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty Oct. 1918 Influenza epidemic. (Credit: Library of Congress)
St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty Oct. 1918 Influenza epidemic. (Credit: Library of Congress)

When Graduate Center Professor Anne Valk (History) began teaching U.S. history, she often relied on the textbook Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History, the related documentary films, and other resources produced by The Graduate Center’s American Social History Project. Valk, a specialist in public history, oral history, and 20th century social history, is now the executive director of the American Social History Project and the Center for Media and Learning, and, as distance learning has replaced classroom instruction because of the coronavirus, she sees an opportunity to give back.
“Because of the pandemic and shutdown, educators and parents have been forced to suddenly move teaching online,” Valk said. “And many people are realizing that it takes time and a lot of resources to develop digital learning materials that will be interesting, support classroom learning goals, and encourage independent research and discovery. ASHP can be very helpful to teachers, students, and parents who are trying to identify reputable and well-organized resources for research, teaching, and learning.”   
The project’s April newsletter highlighted some of the materials available for distance education, including document collections and online resources focused on epidemics in U.S. history and the ways New York City has coped with a range of disasters — materials that help to place the current pandemic in historic context for today’s students. There are interactive lessons, annotated links to resources on the web, and games. Many of the classroom materials were created with the collaboration of teachers.
The project staff, working remotely, is now in the process of producing new episodes on Japanese American incarceration and on voting rights for the award-winning Mission US series of online interactive games. These are designed to put middle school students in the center of stories to learn about immigration, the Great Depression, slavery, and other topics. While the American Social History Project does not systematically track how people are using their resources, it was reported by WNET, the executive producer of the series, that Mission US reached 3 million registered users just last week.
Teachers, students, and history buffs stuck at home while observing social distancing can catch up on the project’s topical podcasts or visit the Lost Museum and “wander through an 1860s museum and learn about antebellum New York for a few hours” via a 3D re-creation of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, complete with a mystery to solve.
The American Social History Project was founded in 1981 by the late historian and Graduate Center professor Herbert Gutman and Professor Stephen Brier (Urban Education) to explore the stories of Americans often left out of traditional histories. From the start, they were innovators in history education and professional development, offering materials and methods for teachers to use the latest scholarship, technology, and active learning methods in their classrooms.
Their work continues to evolve. Who Built America?, a two-volume textbook, was one of their first digital history projects. Ten of the book’s chapters were greatly expanded and released on two CD-ROMs in 1993 and 2001. Editors are now at work on the fourth edition, which will be released in an open-access online digital format.
The project is involved in graduate education too through The New Media Lab. Introduced in 1997, the lab hosts digital fellows — graduate students who are working on research projects that involve digital data analysis, innovative mapping, creating online archives, and more.
Valk noted that the depth of resources provided by the project is a tremendous asset for this historic moment.

“Luckily, for almost 40 years the American Social History Project has been producing award-winning materials for teachers who want engaging ways to introduce students to American history ‘from the bottom up.’  I hope that ASHP's exhibits, archives, games, and online lessons — available for free through our website — will help teachers at this extraordinary moment and fill some of the gaps presented by the shift from classrooms to home-based learning.”