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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Using Historic Newspapers to Increase Student Understanding of World War I

At MEA-MFT in October, my colleague Natasha Hollenbach offered a presentation on using digitized historic newspapers to conduct research on World War I. She graciously agreed to share some of that information to the list.

While she focused on World War I, you can adapt many of the skills and strategies to other events.  Also while primarily focused on history classes, several of these ideas could be used for English, debate, or civics classes. 

The Montana Historical Society currently has 536,000 pages of historical newspapers available online, either through Chronicling America and Montana Newspapers. This is less than 5 percent of our overall collection but still a useful resource for researchers and teachers. Here’s Natasha:

The front page of the September 27, 1918, issue of the Roundup Record is an excellent example of the types of World War I content found in newspapers.  Covering everything from the battles at the front, deaths and promotions of local soldiers, liberty loans, the influenza epidemic, various aspects of the draft, and even fluff stories (in this case a photo of a French soldier having his first American donut), newspapers like this one provide a wealth of information.

Often students complain that they don’t like history because to them it’s just memorizing dates, people, and events.  But that’s not history.  History is the personal stories of how individuals or communities created and dealt with events of their time.  Below are some sample searches and suggested techniques for moving students to a new understanding of history.

Immigrants and the War

For example, some textbook descriptions about US entry into World War I often include discussion of German (and other) immigrants’ opposition to US entry, and these often suggest that they were more loyal to their native country than to their adopted one.  In response, I recommend the article “Montana Boy to Fight His Father in the Trenches," Ronan Pioneer, September 14, 1917, p.4.

Have your students write a reaction.  How would it make them feel to realize that they would be fighting a war opposite their father, brother, cousins, and/or friends?  How would that affect their attitude on US entry?  What is the impact of the tension between personal loyalties and national allegiance? How does this article confirm or contradict textbook views of immigrants and the war? And why do they think the newspaper published this story? Solely as human interest? Or was there a political agenda?

Jeannette Rankin

One of Montana’s most famous World War I stories is Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin’s vote against the war. To find articles describing her vote, I limiting the date range of my search to April 6, 1917-April 13, 1917 (the week after her vote) and then searched Jeanette Rankin “as a phrase”.  I could have limited it to Montana also, but I was interested in national coverage of the event.
Below are links to a number of results.
  • Columbus Commercial (Mississippi), April 8, 1917, p, 2.
  • “2,000,000 Men in 2 Years.” Topeka State Journal, April 6, 1917, p, 1.
  • Ward County Independent (North Dakota), April 12, 1917, p, 2
  • “Most Dramatic Congress Scene in U.S. History.” Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania), April 6, 1917, p. 8.
  • “Woman Votes No.” Free Trader-Journal (Illinois), April 6, 1917, p. 3.
  • “By a Vote of Three Hundred Seventy-Three to Fifty The House Casts Lot With The Powers of the Entente”. Hawaiian Gazette, April 6, 1917, p. 1.
  • “Dramatic Scene.” Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat (Iowa), April 6, 1917, p. 1.

Ask your students: Which articles do they find more convincing?  What details differ between articles?  What opinion on women’s suffrage do you think the newspaper supports and why?  How is the attitude towards the vote different than what students have been exposed to before this (contemporary coverage was generally much more negative than we view her vote today) and why is it different?

If you teach English/writing, perhaps you could use these articles to examine how word choice affects meaning and to illustrate different writing tones.  Several of these articles clearly came from the same source but have been slightly changed. How do those changes affect how the article’s tone?

Liberty Loans

The National History Day 2017 Themebook includes a list of ten strategies for using digitized newspapers, including two involving advertisements.  (For the full list, see pages 65.) Both work well for Liberty Loan advertisements.  To find these ads, set the date range for 1917-1919 and search liberty loan “as a phrase”.  Even limiting the search to Montana will return a lot of hits.  Looking through them, choose a few that are full page ads.  The liberty loan ads are both fascinating and slightly terrifying.  They have this overall feel that their motto is “give until it hurts … and then give more”.  

Consider paring one of the ads with the article that ran in the Columbia Falls Columbian, April 11, 1918.  The story, which talks about volunteers going house to house collecting money, includes this line: “while it has been estimated what each person should subscribe, there is nothing to prevent an over-subscription, neither will the party … be told what his allotment is, but he will be asked to subscribe for as much as he cares to, and if the sum does not equal the figure estimated to be his share, the matter will be taken up in a different way.” There are so many things you could talk about with this:  privacy, peer pressure, big data and how it’s used, and official intimidation/coercion to name a few.


Lastly, instead of having the newspapers as your focus, consider using them to supplement other materials.  If you haven’t looked at the Montana Sedition Project, you should. It documents the 79 Montanans convicted of sedition in 1918-19. Consider having your students conduct a simulation. Assign a different person to pairs of students (one to argue for convicting the person and the other to argue against).  Have them use the newspapers both to find out generally what was considered sedition and how it was discussed and to see if they can find information specifically about their person.  I did a quick search for the individuals listed on the Sedition Project’s “Selected Profiles” page and I found all but one of them (Janet Smith) in Montana Newspapers (which seemed to have better results than Chronicling America, but I recommend students checking both).  I found the coverage of Ben Kahn particularly compelling.  Compare how they describe what he said over these three articles.

Newspapers can be a fabulous resource for you and your students so I hoped I sparked some inspiration for how you can incorporate them into your classroom.  When you do, please let us know what you did and how it worked out.

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