Teaching Cold War History

CWIHP, GWU Partner with High School Teachers to Build Educational Website

Aug 29, 2003

In 1989, when the Soviet empire was dissolving and the great symbol of the Cold War-the Berlin Wall-was crumbling, today's high school students were either just born or barely out of diapers. For these students, talk of war evokes television images of "smart bombs" and surface-to-air missiles soaring over a dark Baghdad sky, while a journalist reports from a hotel rooftop. The concept that today's Russia was once the "evil empire" and that Americans lived with the constant, yet quiet, threat of nuclear annihilation, is probably pretty hard to fathom for your average 16-year old, and equally challenging to teach.

Understanding the Cold War, a war that determined geopolitics for 40 years, is critical to learning modern global history and to understanding its legacy for current politics. To assist today's high school history teachers in educating their students about this important era, the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) teamed up with The George Washington University and other Cold War experts last month for the second summer institute for teachers called "Teaching the New Cold War History."

Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the two-year project's primary goal is to build lasting partnerships with American high school teachers and develop an interactive website.

The Website
The teachers attending CWIHP's institute had a basic mission: to develop an interactive teaching tool for high school teachers and students that would contain cutting-edge scholarship on the Cold War and a wealth of important documentary resources.

This summer's class of teachers built on the work of last summer's class, who largely determined the content and navigation for the new website. This summer, teachers tested a beta version of the site"The Cold War Files-Interpreting History Through Documents." The site aims to teach high school students the big topics of the Cold War through recently released primary source documents from both sides of the conflict, enabling the students to gain a balanced perspective.

"Primary matter is hard for high school students to use. They need to be taught how to place the documents within a broader context of what happened," said Nancy Meyers, CWIHP Project Associate and the lead on the website. "We want students to feel they can take control of their own history and get excited about itthat history is not just a matter of dates; it is a living thing."

The website was designed to grab and retain students' attention, using engaging graphics and photos. Meyers, recounting her preliminary vision for the website, said she wanted to evoke a serious tone to reflect the gravity of that era. The result is a site filled with stark colors and images. The opening flash sequence shows both seminal, recognizable images from the timeVietnamese children fleeing from the Napalm Bomb; Stalin giving a speech, as well as seldom-seen thought-provoking images such as the "two enemies" Nixon and Brezhnev laughing aboard the Sequoia. Developed by Grafik, an award-winning web design firm, the site will undergo further testing and content additions before its release to a select group of teachers next year and subsequent release to the general public.

"What makes this site unique is the joint effort used to develop it," said Christian Ostermann, CWIHP director. "The teachers will provide their years of classroom experience and pedagogical knowledge to help shape the material so that it is engaging to the students. CWIHP will provide access to the most recent sources in Cold War history that high school classrooms and textbooks simply cannot keep up with."

This summer, the teachers spent time testing the site's first unit: Berlin and the Cold War. Each unit will contain: a timeline of the key events and biographies of the major players; activities and document questionsdesigned by high school teachers together with renowned Cold War expertsto engage students in critical thinking; other recommended resources including websites, books, and audio/video clips; primary source documents-most of which will be recently released and not readily available elsewhere; a virtual library of multimedia resources; and tips and tools from noted historians on various topics.

"The website is a rich resource to help students develop critical thinking skills: analysis, organization, writing, research," said Tom Brannan, who teaches world history at George C. Marshall High School in Fairfax and participated in the summer institute. "It provides the foundation for the work students will do in college and will be valuable for students and teachers across the world interested in this period of world history. Students can make great use of these documents."

The Teacher's Institute
The teachers, representing urban, rural, and suburban school districts from 13 states, were selected through an application process. This summer, four teachers from last year's class returned to help build continuity and to assist the nine new teachers.
Although the institute concluded in July, the project is an ongoing partnership, as the teachers will further test the site with their students, the ultimate judges of its effectiveness.

The teachers spent each morning of the institute hearing presentations from Cold War scholars. For Shelley Jacobson, a teacher at Blind Brook High School in Rye Brook, New York and one of the returning teachers, George Washington University Professor Hope Harrison's presentation on the Berlin Wall was a highlight.

"For us, this is an opportunity to talk to people who are in the field doing the research." She added, "I am the only U.S. history teacher in my school so I don't have many folks to bounce ideas off of. This conference reaffirmed I was on the right track."

In her class, Jacobson covers Korea, Berlin, and the Cuban Missile Crisis and eagerly awaits the new Cold War Files website. "I recently did a project with my students on Reagan's foreign policy and the current CWIHP website (cwihp.si.edu) was useful. To have all of the information and documents in one place [on the new site] will be great."

Cold War history is constantly being revised and reinterpreted as more archives are opened up and new evidence comes to light, which makes teaching it a constant challenge. This is where CWIHP, and its new website, plays its most important role. For the past decade, CWIHP has facilitated access to formerly inaccessible archives from the former Communist world and disseminated those findings. The Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by all governments and seeks to accelerate the process of integrating new sources, materials, and perspectives from non-U.S. archives.

Brannan underscored "the value of GW and CWIHP in bringing these valuable resources to the high school level. [The cutting edge] in Cold War history is based on documents released by the countries formerly in the Communist bloc and by NSA [National Security Archive] declassified documents from western sources. The new Cold War history is document based. Now primary source documents are not only in the hands of scholars, but also high school students."

For updates on the website's progress, please visit http://cwihp.si.edu