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History Detectives: Researching Local Historic Buildings Using Vermont Newspapers


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A lesson plan for young history detectives on how to research historic buildings using Chronicling America as a primary source. Comes with a handy checklist and worksheet to guide student research.

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History Detectives: Researching Local Historic Buildings Using Vermont Newspapers

  1. 1. History Detectives: Researching Local Historic Buildings Using Vermont Newspapers LESSON FOR GRADES 6-8 (COULD BE TAILORED FOR GRADES 4-16) STUDENTS WILL KNOW AND UNDERSTAND:  How historic newspaper content and other primary source materials can be used for local history research.  That historic newspapers are a valuable primary resource for history research.  How to conduct research on a historic building using historical methodology. ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS:  How do primary sources, such as historic newspapers, provide clues to local history, architecture, and culture? STANDARDS ADDRESSED: Vermont Standards: Being a Historian: 6.6 Students use historical methodology to make interpretations concerning history, change, and continuity. This is evident when students: c. collect and use primary resources Common Core: English Language Arts Standards (History/Social Studies) Key Ideas and Details: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources. ACTIVITY: Note: this activity could take up to several weeks, depending on the level of research intensity. If you wish students to use Chronicling America for this activity, buildings should have been constructed before 1923, as the newspapers digitized on Chronicling America date from 1836-1922. Previous to this assignment, it would be helpful for students to be familiar with Chronicling America. Visit our “For Educators” tab on our website ( to download a mini-lesson and PowerPoint on how to use Chronicling America. 1. For a warm-up activity, have students visit the Vermont Digital Newspaper Project’s Historic Architecture collection on Pinterest ( or Flickr ( Have students explore the collection—by clicking on the images or the link below each, it will take students to the Chronicling America page for each one. Have students look at the articles—what do the articles or advertisements say about each building and its history? Students could, alternatively, be assigned an image from the collection—have them read the article and pull out facts about each building. Ask: How do the historic newspapers help with learning about old buildings and local history? 2. Have students take a walk around your community (downtown or neighborhoods) and observe the surroundings: streets, buildings, parks, town layout. All aspects of your town or city have been, for the most part, devised by humans, by people in the past or present, to meet different needs of those in your community. Good prompting questions: What kinds of things strike students? What buildings interest them? What places do they have a relationship with? What buildings help define the community and the landscape (i.e., a historic church or town hall New school in Barton, Vermont, from a 1908 newspaper article in the Orleans County Monitor.
  2. 2. building)? What are the names of the older buildings? Is there a year inscribed on the buildings? Are any named after a particular person? 3. After the walking activity, students should come up with a list of notable older buildings in the community. An alternative might be to contact in advance your local historical society and get a list from them of historic buildings in the community. 4. Have students select a local building to research. Students could be split into groups or work individually on the project. 5. Hand out the research checklist and detective worksheet (both attached to this lesson plan). The checklist shows students different steps and resources for researching historic buildings in their communities. Have students follow the steps in conducting research. The worksheet helps frame their research with prompting questions to shape the story of the building. 6. Designate a presentation tool for showing student research—students could perhaps write a blog entry, make a Google map tour of the town historic buildings, design a PowerPoint or Prezi, make a poster, and/or create a brochure or walking tour of the community. POTENTIAL RESEARCH TOPICS:  Library  Fire Station  Inn or Hotel  Masonic Lodge  Farm  Church  Hospital  School  Notable residences  Factory, mill, or other industry building  Building blocks  Businesses Fort Drummer Cotton Mills in Brattleboro, Vermont, in an image from the Vermont Phoenix in 1911.
  3. 3. RESEARCHING A HISTORIC BUILDING CHECKLIST: Just like when you research a historic person or a past event, you want to find out the story of your building. Check off each section of this check list when you are done with the steps. Finishing each step will help you tell a more complete story. 1. _____PHYSICAL EVIDENCE: Take a clipboard, a notepad, your detective worksheet, and a camera out to your building. Document the building as it stands today: a. Record the street address and the name, if any, of the building. Record the year the building was built (if visible or known). b. Take a picture of the building. If possible, take a photo of every side of the building. c. Write down some descriptive notes about the building. What does it look like? What might it be made of (stone, brick, wood, metal)? What is the condition of the building (excellent, good, fair, poor)? d. Can you tell what the building is being used for today? What about its use in the past? 2. _____SECONDARY SOURCE RESEARCH: Start your secondary source research. Use your detective worksheet to help guide your search. Keep track of the building’s names or people associated with it. a. Look through some local history books (if any available). Have your teacher or librarian help. b. Try an internet search on a search engine (Google, Yahoo, etc.). Make sure to include your town name and state. For example, if you’re looking for a library in Bradford, Vermont, type: “library Bradford, Vermont” c. Try an internet search on Google Books ( A lot of older books have been digitized and are keyword-searchable! 3. _____PRIMARY SOURCE RESEARCH: Hopefully you’ve found some clues using secondary sources to get you started on your primary source research! (You might find more primary sources than those listed below.) a. Old photographs/postcards: Look through historic photographs or postcard collections at your local historical society, library, or history museum. Visit the University of Vermont’s Landscape Change website ( to look at old photographs in your town. Ask an adult to help with this! Sometimes you might find an old photograph of the building—compare it with your image of the building today. What has changed? What is the same? Write down your findings. b. Historic maps: Your local library or historical society will likely have old maps of your town. You might also find them online by doing a search for “historic map + your town name.” When you are looking at one, see if you can find your building. Old maps have a lot of important information in them, such as who was living in the building at the time or what the building was being used for. If your building is not on a particular map of your town, it is likely that it had not been built yet. c. Chronicling America/historic newspapers: Go to Chronicling America ( Go to the “Search Pages” tab. Make sure you have “Vermont” as the state name. Try a few different searches that include the name of your building or what kind of building it is and the town name. Remember, the search engine searches the historical text, so try not to use modern terms! Here’s an example of a search for a library in Lyndonville, Vt: You may need to try several different keyword searches—think of it as a Google search but with historical language! Try the names of people associated with the building, too. With any luck, you will find several articles on your building, perhaps from when it was built with an image. d. Oral history interviews: An easy way to learn about a building in your town is by talking with people who live in your community! Make sure you always have an adult with you when you do this. You’ll be surprised by the stories and knowledge that others may have about an old building in your town. It might be handy to have a notepad to jot down notes or a phone to record your interviews.
  4. 4. HISTORIC BUILDING DETECTIVE WORKSHEET NAME: You have to be a history detective to track down a building’s history! You might not be able to find all of these facts about your building, and that’s alright. Sometimes the documents just are not to be found! Keep this sheet handy, though, as it will help you fill in the building’s history and its story as much as possible.  WHAT IS THE STREET ADDRESS OF THE BUILDING?  WHEN WAS THE BUILDING BUILT?  WHO BUILT IT (this might not be known)? WHO FUNDED IT (often a building will be named after a person who spent the money to have it built)?  WHAT DOES THE BUILDING LOOK LIKE TODAY? (Briefly describe it: how tall, what is it made of, does it have a porch or a tower, etc.)  WHAT IS THE BUILDING USED FOR TODAY?  WHAT DID THE BUILDING LOOK LIKE BEFORE? (If you find an old photograph of this building, write down what it looks like. If it looks the same as it does today, write that down.)  WHAT WAS THE BUILDING USED FOR BEFORE? (If it is still used for its original purpose, keep this blank.)  DID THE BUILDING HAVE ANY PREVIOUS NAMES? (Sometimes a building changed names over time—perhaps a new business moved in or a building’s purpose changed from a home to a library.)  ARE THERE ANY PEOPLE ASSOCIATED WITH THE BUILDING? (For example: someone who the building was named after, someone who lived in the building for a long time, or a person who had a business in the building.)  WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF THIS BUILDING? (Write down a timeline of the building’s history. This could include events like: the building is built, a fire damages part of the building, a new business moves in, an addition is added, the building is redeveloped, etc.)  RESOURCES USED: Make sure to write down all resources, like books and websites, you have looked at on the back of this sheet! These should be included in your bibliography.