As an educator, I occasionally run into a problem: tunnel vision. Sometimes, I get so excited telling a story that I forget to paint the larger context, or I put so much time into setting up causes, influences, effects, etc, that I forget to include the smaller details that bring the subject to life. My final project for Digital History is an attempt to supplement this issue.
Using Timeline JS, I constructed a timeline of the life of Eva Baen, the young immigrant who acts as the centerpiece of the program I coordinate at NMAJH, Becoming American: History of Immigration 1880s-1920s. (Note: this is not an official Museum resource, but I hope to eventually bring it to that standard for that purpose.)
In this timeline, I juxtapose events from Eva’s life, and her family’s, with major events from US and Russian history. That way, teachers would be able to use this timeline to supplement their classroom lesson and tour with whatever isn’t covered, as well as relate the program to other subjects that aren’t included in the tour at all, such as the Great Depression and the New Deal.
Timeline entries are divided into four categories: Eva’s life, her family, US history, and Russian history. This was partially inspired by the Patriots & Pirates exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum, where different colored ropes representing France, the U.S., Great Britain, and the Barbary States show how these different nations interacted over time and through various conflicts, like the War of 1812. This is replicated with the horizontal bars along the bottom of the timeline, as well as the background color of each timeline entry: purple, green, blue, and red, respectively. This makes it easier to distinguish between different entries from a glance.
Additionally, the juxtaposition of events makes it easier to come to certain conclusions that are much more compelling than simply being told about them in a classroom. For example, students can see the date when Leon and Bessie came to the U.S. just before the Johnson-Reed Act and hypothesize that, without other information and knowing that Eva’s parents make it to America eventually, that the parents probably came with Leon and Bessie in 1921.
Those already familiar with Becoming American will notice that there are a lot of artifacts left out of the timeline that are usually covered in the lesson. Only two artifacts from the lesson are included: Eva’s family portrait and one of her attendance cards. This choice was made for three reasons. First, a lot of the artifacts cover the same parts of Eva’s life. We have many school-related artifacts, for example, and including them all will lead to a very lopsided timeline. Second, my department is currently putting together digital resources on a variety of platforms, such as Smithsonian Learning Labs. Those are much better used to display all of the artifacts than the timeline would be. Third, this gives me a chance to show other resources that are not included in the program, such as census records, and relevant pop culture to which connections can be made, such as the animated film An American Tail.
Additionally, many of the timeline entries contain links to relevant resources, particularly lesson plans. These were found from organizations like the Library of Congress and PBS, and are primarily suited for middle and high school students. One of the downsides to using a timeline is that entries must be organized by specific dates or date ranges, which makes it difficult to learn about subjects that are not necessarily so clear-cut. Several of these lesson plans, such as one on photography during the Great Depression, continue Becoming American‘s focus on material culture as learning tools. Entries also link to the growing genre of educational series on Youtube, such as Crash Course: the intention is to connect these materials with resources that students may already be familiar with.
On its own, this timeline does not seek to act as an educational tool itself, and in fact includes little more than bare bones about Eva Baen’s life. This is partially because many stories from her life are not tied to a specific date, and because that is the purpose of Becoming American, not this timeline. Instead, this timeline is meant to serve as a supplemental resource, a way of looking at this subject from a different perspective, and a gateway into a variety of connected subjects that can be further explored in class rather than at NMAJH.