Strolling the manicured gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s home this week, special education teacher Linda Hardee was already excited about sharing newly digitized versions of the Founding Father’s papers with her elementary school students in Huntsville, Alabama.
“Many of our students have gaps in their knowledge of early American history, which is such an important time period, and even more important during an election year,” Hardee said. “I’m excited to have a wealth of digital resources that will let them access primary sources.”
Hardee was one of more than 60 teachers attending a weeklong workshop to learn more about digital resources that give students direct access to Jefferson’s meticulous records of daily life at Monticello and the University of Virginia. Offered twice this month, the workshops, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and UVA’s Center for the Liberal Arts, particularly focus on lesser-known aspects of community life, including the lives and living conditions of several hundred slaves kept at both sites.
“The idea is to wrestle with the complexity of Jefferson’s life and the complexity of the communities that existed at Monticello and UVA,” said Lisa Reilly, chair of UVA’s architectural history program and director of the summer workshops.
Guided by top Jefferson scholars, historians, architects and archaeologists from UVA and Monticello, teachers toured both sites, attended lectures and discussions, and explored the wide variety of digital tools that could help them bring Jefferson’s time period to life for their students. These include digitized versions of Jefferson’s papers and his Farm Book, which details operations at Monticello and other farms he owned; an oral history of the contemporary African-American community compiled by Monticello senior historian Cinder Stanton; the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, of which Monticello is a founding partner; UVA’s Jefferson’s University – Early Life project, documenting life at UVA from 1819 to 1870; and a web-based VisualEyes tool developed by UVA assistant professor William Ferster to create historic visualizations weaving together images, maps, charts, video and data.
Each resource benefits from Jefferson’s painstaking recordkeeping, which preserved community life with an exceptional level of detail that affords modern scholars a deeper understanding of early American life. For example, teachers will be able to show how life changed for the enslaved community when Jefferson and other Virginia farmers began cultivating wheat instead of tobacco, or how UVA student life evolved as regulations changed after Jefferson’s death.
“His papers give us a perspective of how people were living that we really cannot get from many other places,” Reilly said. “Now that they are available digitally, teachers can bring them back to their classrooms and students can work with primary sources.”
Digitization makes Jefferson’s documents more accessible for students like those in Hardee’s school, where every student is provided with a laptop thanks to Title I funding supporting schools with a high percentage of low-income students.
Sarah Terrace, who teaches 11th-grade U.S. history in Grand Prairie, Texas, said that her students were typically more engaged and excited if they could see digitized versions of original, handwritten documents, rather than just reading about what the documents said.
“Having access to primary sources is great, because students think it is so cool to see the original documents,” Terrace said.
To help teachers easily access documents when they return to the classroom, Reilly is grouping attendees into teams assigned one of six themes – slavery, architecture, education, gender, landscape and family. Working with Ferster and Charlottesville High School history teacher Matthew Deegan, teams will create a resource guide to share with the group at the end of the week. The guides will also be posted on the Center for Liberal Arts website, which provides a wide range of materials for K-12 teachers.
Reilly hopes that these resources will enable teachers to further explore the complexities of Jefferson’s public life as one of America’s Founding Fathers and his private life at Monticello, and to amplify the voices of lesser-known inhabitants of Jefferson’s world, including women and enslaved African-Americans.
“I am excited to see how we can recover aspects of community life that have not been as visible,” she said.