Bette Weneck on Creating Digital Exhibitions Using Archival Resources

by | Jan 13, 2017 | Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight:

Bette Weneck
Associate Director and Lecturer
Teachers College Center on History and Education

In her course, History of Education in New York City, Dr. Bette Weneck, Associate Director and Lecturer of the Center on History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, considers the city’s educational past with a focus on the social histories of different groups, including African Americans and members of European, Latino, and Asian populations.

What neighborhoods did these groups live in? What formal and informal settings did they teach and learn in?  How did these populations shape and make use of services in the city’s educational and cultural institutions? Weneck took a fresh approach to answering these questions by introducing a new project in her course: Living and Learning: The History of Education in New York City.

Watch the video to see highlights from this project. Excerpts from an interview with Professor Weneck are below. 

A collaboration between Weneck, the Center on History and Education, and the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning, Living and Learning examines the broad history of education in New York City through the lens of the branches of The New York Public Library.  Students use the archival records of branch libraries to curate digital exhibitions documenting the history of living and learning in a New York City neighborhood.

Through the project, Weneck said, students gained a better understanding of the learning patterns and goals of diverse New York City populations and how those goals were met in teaching and learning settings outside the public school classroom. By engaging in archival research, they also became better acquainted with the nuts and bolts of the historical process.

We caught up with Weneck after completing the first iteration of the project, in which students posted exhibitions to a wiki site and contributed to a video exploring their experiences doing archival research.

What are the goals and objectives for your course?

The course is about the history of education in New York City, as it is specifically told from the perspective of different New York City groups, including African-Americans and members of European, Latino, and Asian populations who were at the center of New York neighborhood life during distinct periods of the city’s history.

By shifting the focus from the public school classroom to a broader arena of educational settings that have historically dotted New York neighborhoods and communities, the course reaches for a more comprehensive understanding of the history of urban education than is commonly told.

The neighborhood branch public library, which is the subject of the course project, is indeed one primary and understudied site of local learning.

On a more practical level, the course, which enrolls students from pre-service teacher education programs, is a laboratory for thinking through how a study of local educational history utilizing archival resources can reinvigorate history education in the public school classroom. The broad goal for the elementary and secondary classroom is to meet a standard of historical literacy that encourages in young learners enhanced engagement in the American democratic process. A fundamental way to meet that standard is to acquaint students with the disciplinary properties of history as they hinge on the archival record.

Why did you redesign this course?

I’m interested in teaching students more about the historian’s craft and ways they can translate that understanding into instructional strategies in their own classrooms. How do historians sort through and analyze archival resources and construct on the basis of the records they are able to find an historical narrative or perspective? A digital exhibition facilitates an understanding of the historical process by providing a platform for students to discover, curate and host multiple types of sources (from both digital and physical archives) to document the narratives they write.  An exhibition is also a manageable semester long research project, and given that it is organized on a shared platform encourages in students a different sense of ownership of the work they produce than a standard text based assignment does.

This is a new way of teaching for you, but also for your students. How did they react to this new approach? What was the result? 

I’m very pleased with the exhibitions students created on the wiki-pages. Students came into my office sometimes confused and worried that they wouldn’t be able to create a narrative account, but with support they met the challenge and shaped very interesting stories.

I think [my students] should take enormous pride in the fact that they used resources about the branch libraries that have not been extensively used to understand the history of New York neighborhood life.

Despite the challenges of archival research, they were enthusiastic about gaining that practical experience and could well appreciate, as they worked through the final project, the value of making the archives a part of history instruction for young learners.

What is your advice for other faculty who are interested in developing a project like this?

Careful scaffolding of the project is a must with clear benchmarks for students to meet toward the completion of the exhibition. The introduction of a digital component into a course can overwhelm other instructional goals. There is constant balancing act then between getting students up to speed with the technical demands of a digital project and meeting the more common objectives of a course syllabus.

What evidence from your project demonstrate the effectiveness of this new course design?

Over the course of the semester students developed skills to do archival research with both digital and physical archives that they did not have before. They effectively demonstrated through the challenge of a creating an exhibition with primary sources how branch public libraries having functioned historically as learning sites in neighborhoods across the city.

Many of the ideas worked through in the project, Living and Learning, have found their way into work the Center on History and Education is currently doing with the New York City Department of Education related to how archival research supports the goals of historical literacy in classroom instruction.

Inside the Box

Living and Learning: The History of Education in New York City project is a collaboration between Professor Bette Weneck and the Center on History and Education at Teachers College, and the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. The project includes a wiki site with archival exhibitions documenting how branch public libraries were sites of teaching and learning in New York City neighborhoods, and a video exploring how to incorporate archival research into history instruction.

Learn More
  • Class size: 15
  • Level: Graduate 
  • Place in curriculum: Elective
  • Contributors: Jose Diaz, Ashley Kingon
  • Work involved:
    • Designing the assignment and assessment
    • Setting up the technology
    • Selecting and contacting archives
    • Planning and conducting an introduction to archival research workshop
    • Class lab session
  • Time needed: Preparations start 3 months in advance. The project required 15 hours of planning and 1.5 class sessions for student work.
  • Get started! Contact us at to learn about opportunities to develop similar projects and our relevant programs and services.

The Living and Learning project is supported by a grant awarded to the Center on History and Education by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Next steps for this project include continuing to provide support for Professor Weneck’s work with pre-service elementary and high school teachers, transitioning the exhibition website from WikiScholars to EdBlogs. CTL looks forward to further work with Professor Weneck to develop and evaluate this new approach.

Instructors in Action

CTL staff pair up with instructors at Columbia to transform their classrooms and create engaging learning experiences. Read more faculty spotlights here.

Inside the Box

Could you implement a similar project in your classroom? See our Inside the Box feature at the end of the article to learn more about the resources required and how the CTL can provide support.