Virtual Bookshelf: Back to School

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(August 24, 2021)

A new school year is beginning, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has a wide selection of tools and resources to help students, teachers, and families prepare for both virtual and in-person learning.

NEH’s award-winning educational website, EDSITEment, provides lesson plans, teachers’ guides, and student activities for K–12 classrooms on history and social studies, literature and languages, and arts and culture. Some highlights on the site include:

  • A More Perfect Union
    An EDSITEment companion to NEH’s A More Perfect Union initiative, which looks towards the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026,  this teachers’ guide offers resources that bring the perspective of the humanities to questions of racial justice, gender equality, the evolution of the American landscape, and America’s place in the world. It includes Building a More Perfect Union,” a new collection of lesson plans and educational materials developed in partnership with National History Day that explore events, legislative accomplishments, and civic actions across U.S. history through primary sources.  
  • Landmarks of American History and Culture
    Developed by educators participating in NEH-supported Landmarks of American History and Culture summer programs, these teacher guides offer ideas for integrating public history into the classroom. Materials cover many of the United States’ most important historical sites and landmarks and include activities for place-based history projects.
  • Using Primary Sources in Digital and Live Archives
    Learn how to contact archives, schedule in-person visits, and use digital databases in the classroom with the Using Primary Sources in Digital and Live Archives teacher guide. The guide also provides access to recent NEH grant-funded digitization projects.
  • Advanced Placement U.S. History Lessons
    Developed with assistance from teachers and scholars at CUNY and Ashland University, these AP-level lesson plans, based on primary source documents, cover the most frequently taught topics and themes in American history from the Colonial Era to the Cold War.
  • Oral History as an Educational Experience
    For many students, oral history is their first experience with the past; they hear grandparents, friends, or community members tell stories about how their ancestors lived. Use this guide to integrate oral history into the classroom.
  • U.S. Civil Rights Movements of the 20th Century
    This student activity offers questions and prompts for researching six major civil rights movements in U.S. history. Students learn to use a range of primary-source materials to understand the goals and development of each movement.
  • Evaluating Eyewitness Reports Activity 1
    Students learn to think like a historian in a classroom activity that has them compare multiple accounts of the same historical event. Aimed at students in grades K–5.
  • Digital Humanities and Online Education

Introduce students to the digital humanities with this teachers’ guide, offering resources and tips for using, developing, and building digital projects and multimedia tools.


Also check out other NEH virtual bookshelves for NEH-funded resources related to LGBTQ+ Pride, Disability Pride, the 4th of July, Earth Day, Immigrant Heritage, Arab-American Heritage, Jewish-American Heritage, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage. Check back each month for new bookshelves.

This year, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education  has developed a “Return to School Roadmap” to support educators and school leaders, parents, families, and communities and lead students on the path to return to safe and supported in-person learning this fall. You can find additional tips and tools for #BacktoSchool at the ED website.


NEH-funded Projects for the Classroom:

Educating for American Democracy
With the aim of preparing students for self-government and increasing understanding of the United State’ constitutional democracy, the Educating for American Democracy initiative has created the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy, a framework available to states, local school districts, and educators to help them transform the teaching of history and civics and to meet the needs of a diverse 21st-century K–12 student body. Created by a cross-ideological group of scholars and educators with support from NEH, the Roadmap includes suggested educational strategies for every grade level, a website of curated examples, and implementation recommendations that each state and district can use to fit the needs of their own, unique communities. It details benchmarks for state-level accountability to support continuous improvement—as well as recommendations for investment in developing a corps of history and civics educators.

National History Day
NEH has supported National History Day, a national competition that engages middle and high school students in original historical research, since the program began in the 1970s.  Each year more than half a million students compete in local, state, and national competitions, preparing papers, websites, exhibits, performances, and documentaries on topics in history. NEH sponsors first-place prizes in all NHD categories at the national finals, as well as a special Chronicling America prize for research using historic newspapers.  An EDSITEment teacher guide, Preparing for National History Day, offers resources for teachers and students as they prepare their NHD projects. Also see this video for a glimpse of the National History Day national contest.  

NEH-funded documentaries:
NEH-funded documentaries are a great way to introduce students to important events and figures in history. Check out films and documentary series such as:

The Vote documents the hard-fought campaign for women’s suffrage and passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Chasing the Moon, on the Space Race and the events, individuals, and technological advances that helped U.S. astronauts reach the moon in 1969.
Asian Americans, a five-hour series exploring the history of identity, contributions, and challenges experienced by Asian Americans.
Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People, a biography of the media mogul who reshaped the newspaper business and championed what he regarded as the sacred role of the free press in a democracy.
The Civil War, this classic NEH-funded nine-part series from Ken Burns has taught generations of students about the complex causes and lasting effects of America’s Civil War.
Freedom Riders recounts the powerful story of the Black and white civil rights activists who rode interstate buses and trains into the South together in 1961 to challenge racial segregation.
Freedom Summer, on the historic 1964 volunteer campaign to register African-American voters in Mississippi and combat racial discrimination in voting practices.
Unladylike2020, a series of 26 short films and a one-hour documentary profiling diverse and little-known American women from the turn of the 20th century.
The Presidents, a multimedia look at the individuals who have held the office of President of the United States.
Latino Americans chronicles the rich and varied history and experiences of Latinos who have helped shape the United States over the last 500 years.
Shakespeare Uncovered focuses on a Shakespearian play in each episode, discussing the plot, history, and impact with some of the stage’s greatest contemporary Shakespearian actors.
The Vietnam War, an 18-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, tells the epic story of one of the most consequential, divisive, and controversial events in American history through the testimony of more than 80 witnesses.
Flannery looks at the life and legacy of literary icon Flannery O’Connor.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, written and presented by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., this six-hour series explores the evolution of the African-American people and the multiplicity of cultural institutions, political strategies, and religious and social perspectives they developed.
The Pilgrims explores the forces, circumstances, personalities, and events that converged to propel the Pilgrims across the Atlantic in 1620.
Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/ Feeling Heart examines the inner life and public works of the activist, playwright, and author of A Raisin in the Sun.
The Dust Bowl documents the environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts, and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms.
The Abolitionists brings to life the intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, and the activists who crusaded against slavery.  
Edgar Allen Poe: Buried Alive is a biography of the iconic writer best known for his Gothic horror stories and haunting narrative poem “The Raven”
Prohibition tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.
We Shall Remain multimedia documentary series tells the story of pivotal moments in U.S. history from the Native-American perspective over the span of 300 years.
Triangle Fire recounts the events and impact of the deadliest workplace accident in New York City’s history.
Henry Ford tells the life story of the farm boy who rose from obscurity to become the most influential American innovator of the early 20th century.

These and many other NEH-supported films are available for educators at PBS, streaming online or by request. Several of these documentaries are also accompanied by teachers’ guides and online educational resources for classroom use.

Walden, a game
Players follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond through this experiential first-person game. The game follows the narrative of Thoreau’s first year in the woods, with each season holding its own challenges for survival and possibilities for inspiration. Educators and parents homeschooling during the pandemic can contact Walden to receive a free license and curriculum to use the game. Read more about Walden, a game at NEH’s Humanities magazine.

Chronicling America
Read the “first draft of history” with the NEH-funded Chronicling America database of historical American newspapers at the Library of Congress. Now numbering more than 18 million pages of newspapers published in the United States between 1690–1963, this free open-access resource contains publications large and small from all over the country, in several languages, and is continually expanding through NEH’s National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). Check out NEH blog posts on using Chronicling America here, or learn how to integrate this expansive database into your classroom through this EDSITEment teachers guide, Chronicling America: History’s First Draft.

Picturing America on Screen  
Find innovative ways to introduce works of art into your teaching with the NEH-funded Picturing America on Screen videos from PBS. This collection of short films highlights iconic works of American art while providing historical context on the works’ creation and influence. Additional educational materials for the series and its integration with K–12 educational standards are provided by PBS Learning Media.  Also check out the NEH art history initiative on which the series is based, Picturing America.

Race to Ratify
This educational game immerses middle and high school students in the drama of the ratification of the Constitution and the shaping of the U.S. government. Set in 1787, Race to Ratify asks players to travel through the 13 colonies to gather opinions on the proposed Constitution, and advocate for its ratification through the 18th-century’s most popular form of social media, pamphlets. Produced by iCivics, Race to Ratify brings the arguments, ideals, and compromises of the Founding Era alive for young learners.

ARCHES: At-Risk Cultural Heritage Education Series
This NEH-supported video series from Smarthistory provides an overview of the monuments, museums, temples, excavations, and other cultural heritage sites around the world endangered by civil unrest, war, looting, environmental change, and neglect, and introduces students to the work of archaeologists, art historians, and preservationists.

It’s Lit  
This NEH-funded PBS Digital Studios series delves into favorite books, authors, and genres while celebrating a love for reading. Episodes have covered topics ranging from fan fiction to Afro-futurism to the graphic novel.

Mission US
WNET’s award-winning Mission US educational games are designed to teach middle school students about transformational moments in American history. The first game, For Crown or Colony? has students navigate a politically divided Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. Set in the Antebellum Era, Flight to Freedom, puts players in the role of 14-year-old Lucy, an enslaved girl in Kentucky trying to find a path to freedom. Additional modules examine the consequences of the transformation of the Great Plains in the 1860s and 1870s on the Northern Cheyenne, the experiences of immigrants in New York City in the early twentieth century, the Dust Bowl, and the incarceration of Japanese Americans in US internment camps during World War II.  Each game—or “mission” — is accompanied by educators’ guides with activities and resources for teachers and students that show the broader social, political, and economic context of events and perspectives featured in the game.

American Icons
The American Icons podcast series produced by PRI and WNYC tells the stories behind America’s most iconic works of art. Listen to episodes on Moby-Dick, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and more.  

iThrive Sim Game-based Learning
The iThrive Sim program makes U.S. government and history tangible as students debate, evaluate consequences, and make difficult decisions within role-playing games designed to teach media literacy, civics, and history. iThrive received a 2020 NEH CARES grant to expand its distance learning program for civics in response to the COVID pandemic.

Chrono Cards: American Revolution
Let students test their history knowledge with Chrono Cards: American Revolution, an educational game designed to teach middle schoolers about the roots of the American Revolution. Created by the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab, the multi-player games include Chrono Scouts, which challenges students to complete a timeline of events alongside their causes and effects, and Fact Fuse, which teaches players about historical thinking and argumentation. The games are available free for download or purchase as a board game at the Game Innovation Lab’s website.

Children and Youth in History
This online world history resource provides teachers and students with access to sources about young people from the past to the present. Contents include scholarly essays, teaching materials, and primary sources focused on childhood and youth throughout history.

The Time Warp Trio
Developed for the Discovery Kids Channel, Time Warp Trio lets kids explore eras of history across the globe from Ancient Babylon to Medieval Scotland through online activities, adventures, and games.

Great Stories Club: Reading and Discussion for At-Risk Youth
The American Library Association’s Great Stories Club provides at-risk and underserved youth an opportunity to “read, reflect, and share ideas on topics that resonate with them.” Reading series with specialized reading lists and program materials to help students make the most of their experience have dealt with themes such as empathy, marginalization, and heroism. Visit the Great Stories Club site to download a free programming guide for libraries and nonprofits.


NEH Grant Programs and Professional Development for Teachers:

NEH Division of Education Programs offers a range of grant programs that support humanities education through curriculum development and professional development opportunities for K–12 and higher education faculty.

The NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture and NEH Institutes for K–12 Educators and Higher Education Faculty grant programs fund summer professional development opportunities for teachers to enrich their understanding of topics in the humanities and strengthen and enhance classroom teaching. Programs and institutes are typically held over the summer and include discussions on resources and visits to libraries and museums.

Visit NEH’s Summer Programs page to learn about NEH Landmark and Institute programs planned for summer 2022 (updates coming soon) and how to apply.

State Humanities Councils:

NEH’s state and jurisdictional humanities councils offer resources and activities that can be used in the classroom. State, jurisdictional, and regional online encyclopedias cover important places, events, and people from across the country, including these for Colorado, Georgia, and Alabama. Prime Time reading programs, created in 1991 by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities,  are available in several states, including Nebraska and Kentucky, and are popular for families, libraries, and schools. Students can explore digital resources and online museums throughout the country; check out these examples from Washington D.C. and South Carolina. Each year, Idaho Humanities Council and Alabama Humanities Alliance offer teacher workshops and institutes covering important topics relevant to state curricula.

Blog Posts

About EDSITEment
Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School in the Midwest
Civil War stories through the video camera’s lens: Learning history through filmmaking
Teaching Bach
Educational Resources Supported by the NEH Division of Public Programs
Community College Takes the Humanities Global: Montgomery College’s Global Humanities Institute
PRIME TIME for teachers
Inspiring Hope in a Place of Despair
We Are One Inside Out: Utah Humanities Council’s high school Clemente course changes peoples’ perceptions

Humanities Magazine Articles

Schools for the South
Summer School Open
Atlanta, School Teachers, and the History of Race Relations
A Battle Over Books
John Dewey: Portrait of a Progressive Thinker
Historians Disagree on Everything, or So It Seems
One and the Many
Seven Sisters Join Forces to Tell Shared History of Female Education
Summer Camp for Book Nerds: Why I Keep Returning to Rare Book School
How Do You Get Students to Study Ancient Greek on a Modern Campus?
Trying to Tame Huck Finn
Historians in Training






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