Schoolhouse Rock with Encyclopedia Virginia

Encyclopedia Virginia

by: Matthew Gibson, Director Digital Initiatives

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities created Encyclopedia Virginia for everyone. But one of our primary audiences has always been educators and the communities they serve.

To focus on this community, the encyclopedia’s staff members have spent the last several years trying to get the attention of Virginia schools to use EV as a resource in the classroom for its in-depth content and engaging media. We have presented at a number of educational conferences and worked with Virginia’s Department of Education to direct teachers to our site.

You might think that saying: “Hey, use Encyclopedia Virginia because it is free, accurate, and awesome!” would be enough, but it isn’t. As is true for all of us, a teacher’s attention is under constant bombardment from all types of information channels. To break through all of this noise and get noticed—no matter how good and free you are—is not easy.

In November of last year, EV programmer Peter Hedlund and I gave a presentation about Encyclopedia Virginia at the annual meeting of the Virginia Association of School Librarians in Richmond. While this wasn’t the first time we had spoken with a community of Virginia’s educators, we were lucky that at this particular presentation we got to meet Suzanna Panter, the librarian at Dumbarton Elementary School in Henrico County. Not only had Suzanna heard about EV, she had also successfully developed classroom activities using its content. After our presentation, we exchanged contact information and over the winter and spring worked together to further define and refine our objectives in making EV into a more accessible teaching resource.

On Friday, July 13, Suzanna brought eight public-school educators—a mix of librarians and high school, elementary school, and instructional-technology resource teachers from across the Commonwealth—to the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville to brainstorm and develop activities that make use of EV in the classroom. Organized by EV staff members and Suzanna, this meeting marked the beginning of a semester-long effort by these nine educators to get students engaged with our content and to improve EV‘s overall offerings for Virginia’s educational communities.

During the fall 2012 semester, the participants will create two lesson plans, test them in the classroom, and then evaluate the lesson’s effectiveness. We have already heard some promising ideas from the instructors about their plans.

The high school group is looking at how and why the Virginia Constitution of 1902, which effectively disenfranchised Virginia’s black and poor white communities for almost seventy years, came into being and how that history might parallel or diverge from contemporary efforts to enact stricter voter registration laws in the United States.

The elementary school teachers, who introduce students to Virginia Studies, are using EV‘s entries and media to explore the relations between Virginia Indians and Virginia’s first European colonists.

Suzanna and the EV staff will present our findings this fall at a series of conferences, including at the annual meeting of the Virginia Council of Social Studies. What is more, EV will be rolling out a new web design in the coming months in which users will find a link to a “For Educators” section on our main navigation bar. Testing, refining, and publishing the two learning activities this fall will be a great start to filling in that section and to expanding our reach to and impact in Virginia’s schools.

Photos by Peter Hedlund