What if a local civics teacher had the chance of a lifetime to live and work in the nation’s capital during one of this country’s biggest political turmoils and one of the world’s largest pandemics in a century? This is the amazing fate of one of Bellingham Public School’s own teachers since fall 2019. From a presidential impeachment to a global pandemic, with a few historical artifacts, field trips and cherry blossoms thrown in, those are just a few of the not-so-boring days Jen Reidel has had in Washington D.C. serving as this year’s Library of Congress (LOC) teacher-in-residence.
Reidel grew up in Seattle and attended Franklin High School as part of their integrated busing program in the 1970s, an historical time in public education. She graduated from Western Washington University in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in history focusing in secondary education. She matriculated further with a master’s degree in history and teaching endorsements in history, social studies, psychology, and English. According to Reidel though, her teaching passion resides most with civics and law-related education.
She has 23 years of experience in the classroom, having taught AP Government and Politics, Law and Society, Geography, and English in Lynden for 19 years before joining Bellingham Public Schools in 2015 as a social studies teacher at Options High School.
When the teacher-in-residence LOC application came along a year ago, her initial disbelief that she could do it turned into a confidence-building, unmistakable golden moment.
She writes, “What I recognized was that this opportunity allowed for me to combine my love of civics with history and gave me time to curate awesome and engaging resources for classroom use. It also allowed me to help other educators understand the vast and rich resources the Library of Congress has to offer while spending an entire school year in Washington D.C.”
Reidel was also highlighted in a recent EdSurge podcast where she shares her experiences.
Though her days in D.C. are now numbered, you can follow some of her work on social media. Her Twitter handle is @civicsgirl and her Instagram is @reidelj where she posts useful information and impactful experiences.
“This experience has stretched and challenged me in untold ways,” she says. “But, what I do know is that this year has given me the time and ability to be curious and wonder. It is my goal to continue to flex that muscle personally and professionally when I return to Bellingham.”
The majority of this question and answer below took place in late February and early March. The final question was updated recently to respond to these times of remote learning during the pandemic closures. Be sure to check out her links in that answer section which includes some jaw-dropping primary sources.
Though this is a long Q and A, her stories are remarkable and unique, and she encourages everyone to take chances and dream big.
Tell us about the Library of Congress grant gig you are on and how did you find out about it?
Just over a year ago I was up late at night unable to sleep. I was scrolling through Facebook posts and saw one from Jerry Price, OSPI Social Studies Program Supervisor. He posted the link to the Library of Congress Teacher-in-Residence application and said, “Somebody I know needs to apply for this.” Well, I became that “somebody.”
This position allows for a teacher-in-residence to remain an employee of their respective district. I am paid my salary and benefits by Bellingham Public Schools and are, in turn, reimbursed for those expenses by the Library of Congress. Ultimately, instead of having a desk at Options High School, I am on loan and have one in the Adams Building with the Library of Congress. The Library does provide me with a housing stipend which has helped us offset the cost of paying for an apartment in the DC metro area.
Why did you apply for this LOC grant?
At first, I was all in, and started the application process going so far as to ask two district colleagues to write me letters of recommendation Then, I started to second guess the wisdom of this application. There were a lot of questions involved such as “If I got this job for the school year, would my husband quit his job and move? Would we pull our middle schooler out of school for just a year and have her start over in a brand new school? Where would we live? Can we even afford to do this?” For a hot second, my fears got the best of me and I decided not to apply for the job as it seemed too much of an “ask” for my family. About a week later I was telling a friend about the position and she looked at me and said, “It seems to me like this position is made just for you, why don’t you apply and see where the process leads?” So, with a renewed focus and excitement, I spent about two days of spring break 2019, writing and revising responses before sending the application.
When did you arrive in DC and what were your first days like? Have you settled into a routine now?
My family (husband and two daughters) and I drove across the country in our two vehicles. I had never driven east of Montana. Do you know how big and vast our country really is? It took us about six days (with a great two days in Yellowstone). If I am honest, while driving across the country seems fun and bold, I was stressed the whole time worrying if the cars would make the trip and rethinking this crazy life adventure we were on.
Whatever we could fit in the cars came to our temporary home in Falls Church, Virginia, which is about 9 miles from D.C., everything else we purchased here or have done without. We arrived on a Friday, Aug. 23 and I started my job on Monday, Aug. 26.
Having only worked in a classroom for my entire career, it took a bit to get used to working in a cubicle and having more than an hour and half daily to complete all the day’s tasks. And, the silence. If we are doing it right, classrooms are anything but silent. Here, in this position, I have lots of quiet time to think about the collections of the Library and how they might be effectively used in classrooms.
What do your days entail? What are some of your day-to-day assignments/tasks, and some of your larger projects?
I do a lot of writing and researching. Most days I am researching in the Library’s digitized collections for items I think could be used to teach some theme/concept within Social Studies and more specifically, Civics. Teaching with the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/teachers/) sends out blog posts 2 to 3 times per week to thousands of subscribers. Once I find a primary source (photo, document, map, political cartoon…) I write about it on our Teaching with Primary Sources blog.
Typically, I give some context on the source then suggest some ways to use the item within a classroom.
This position has also provided me the chance to write for professional journals with the specific purpose of demonstrating how a primary source could be used to support subject specific instruction.
I wrote an article for the March 2020 issue of the National Science Teachers Association journal, The Science Teacher focusing on a historical event relating to the first federal recognition of air pollution. Additionally, I wrote an article for the March 2020 issue of the National Council for the Social Studies journal, Social Education highlighting political cartoons of the Progressive Era and how they can be used to teach the economic concept of trusts as well as specific search strategies to use when using the Library of Congress website.
Beyond curriculum work, one of the most important parts of the job is assisting fellow workshop facilitators in planning and professional development for K-12 educators making sure our workshops reflect the realities of the K-12 classroom. I seek to consistently remind staff of the needs of 21st century learners.
Throughout the year I have helped plan and facilitate numerous teacher workshops held at the Library of Congress and at conferences ranging on topics such as using primary sources to teach the Suffrage movement, Rosa Parks, picture books, and Civics. I co-facilitated a webinar with my office mate and STEM teacher, for Share My Lesson in March on how to use primary sources and picture books to support interdisciplinary instruction in the K-8 classroom.
What are some of the most interesting connections you have made to curriculum, the classroom and teaching?
One thing I realized was that despite good intentions, it is very easy to lose sight of curiosity and wonder amidst the frenzy and the very real demands of a classroom. This year has given me the chance to have time to think and explore various subjects within collections at the Library. Consequently, my topical understanding of United States history has definitely expanded. In addition, while I do have formal training within history, analyzing primary sources of the past has brought front and center the power of primary sources to tell narratives of history– and specifically those of marginalized voices. Spending my days evaluating photos, maps, manuscripts, and political cartoons pushes me to learn more about the eras these artifacts are from and continue to ask questions.
I have had the chance to spend a fair amount of time reading Rosa Parks’ notes, letters, and writings in preparation for writing blogs and curating materials for teacher trainings. She is so much more than her notoriety related to the Montgomery bus boycott. For example, a note scribbled on the back of scrap paper by Rosa Parks describing why she refused to yield her seat on the bus speaks volumes about the past, the historical moment she acted within, and how it ties to the present. Spending time with these documents and images has deepened my understanding of her and what she gave to our country through her sacrifice.
Has your teaching philosophy changed or your own practice deepened seeing this ‘big picture’ and this mega institution? In what ways?
I am still working out exactly how this year is re-framing what I do in the classroom and who I am as a human being. What I do know is that I am not the same teacher I was a year ago and intend to bring all that I learned back into the classroom to benefit students. This position has afforded me opportunities to meet and interact with the movers and shakers within civics and social studies education. Because the Library offers trainings on site and at conferences, I have had the opportunity to hear about the experiences of many educators. Their passion for teaching and excitement about using primary sources has energized me and what I would like to do in the classroom. While I work in an amazingly supportive and collaborative environment at Options High School, it is nice now to have a broader and national network of educators and education allies to lean on. Because of this broader professional network, I was encouraged to apply to be a teacher member of the iCivics Educator Network (about 30 teachers nationally are selected.) I was chosen and now have an amazing network of passionate Civics and Social Studies colleagues to learn from who are equally committed to authentic and powerful Social Studies instruction.
What are some of the educational takeaways to share with teachers and students back here in Bellingham? Stories of ‘aha’ or ‘omg’ or ‘mindblowing’!
This whole year has stretched and shaped me beyond any other experience I have had. Because of these collective experiences, I know I will now be bolder and dream bigger in taking curricular risks with students and with other professional opportunities.
I really encourage anyone to challenge themselves to apply for or do something that is new to them or will stretch their comfort zone. Apply for a conference or a position on a community board; try a project with kids that holds both great risks and great rewards.
Additionally, because of my experiences, I want fellow educators to know that there is a whole host of resources outside their classrooms waiting to be used to engage students in authentic learning. I have had the chance to meet and work with several organizations who work diligently to create ready-to-use classroom materials and am excited to share them with anyone who is interested.
Personally, I have been mightily transformed by the experiences of this year. I have had the opportunity to meet, hug, and be encouraged by Jackie Robinson’s daughter and young adult author, Sharon Robinson. My daughter and I were able to attend a Congressional Medal reception for the Hidden Figures recipient Dr. Christine Darden and met family members of Dorothy Vaughn as well as the author of Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly. I had the chance to present to the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress on my position and the realities of education in contemporary America. If you have no idea what that group is, neither did I, until I was asked to attend and present at their meeting. Ultimately, their group is comprised of the Archivist of the United States (the person who decides what we save and record of our nation’s history), the historian of the House of Representatives, the historian of the Senate, representatives from the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library system, and staff from the National Archives. After meeting these people, I realized the power they hold in determining how to record and tell our collective history. If you don’t think they are important, consider the fact that both the historians of the House and Senate respectively are tasked with keeping and recording documents for posterity of the recent impeachment proceedings in the House and Senate.
In your estimation, in this digital age, are libraries as strong as ever? Do you think they will play a new role in this ‘insta’ society?
Despite our world being largely digital, libraries are more essential now than ever. At their core, they are sources of information and are bridges to services. I think libraries, including the Library of Congress are in the process of rethinking and re-framing how they serve contemporary America. If those services are done well, libraries have the power to equip Americans, and especially those who are marginalized with information and skills as they navigate the complexities of our modern world.
Are there any interesting facts you would like to share about the Library of Congress building or collection itself? Where is your office? What is the most awe-inspiring piece of history or literature you have seen?
I work in the John Adams building (Art Deco motif), one of three that comprise the Library of Congress. The original building, the Jefferson, has stunning architecture, tile, marble, and is home to the original collection of books that Thomas Jefferson donated to the Library of Congress. Besides the architecture, my favorite part of the complex is the tunnel system that connects all three buildings.
So far while at the Library, I have had the great fortune to see original documents of history including an original copy of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” handwritten notes between Supreme Court justices about Brown v. Board of Education, and an original map of George Washington’s farm drawn by himself.
Because of this position, I was invited to tour the Legislative Vault at the National Archives. What I saw was breathtaking. I read the original Senate copy of FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech, read Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and viewed a radar map plotting the advance of Japanese planes toward Pearl Harbor. This item was personally impacting to me as my grandfather was in Pearl Harbor that day and survived the attack. To look at this map and wonder if the naval officers who plotted the coordinates had any idea of the magnitude of the event gave me shivers.
We are living in “interesting times” politically. Have you witnessed or experienced any of this firsthand?
Oh my, yes! I have had some amazing experiences. While waiting in line to pay respects to Representative Cummings as he lay in state, I had a quick nod and smile with our vice president. Another memorable experience was waiting in line outside the Supreme Court at 5 a.m. one morning to get one of 50 public tickets to observe oral arguments for the controversial gun case argued December. I got in and was able to see firsthand two cases argued before all nine justices.
And, lastly, the most politically impacting experience was watching the closing arguments by the Trump Administration in the Senate impeachment trial. It was surreal to be seated in the Senate Gallery watching history unfold.
The department I work for, the Learning and Innovation Office, works really hard to maintain a non-partisan presence within our work. What this has meant for me is that there are specific topics that are too current for us to write blog posts or articles regarding. While it has been frustrating at times, I respect the Library’s commitment to serving everyone regardless of political affiliation.
How did your LOC work change once everyone started doing remote learning? Were your online teaching resources especially valuable?
Everything changed. I had researched for and created materials for eight teacher workshops and all were canceled. A few of those were rescheduled and turned into webinars. With stay at home orders in place here in the DC Metro area until June 10, in person trainings are not a reality. I have had to learn very quickly how to research, prepare effective sessions, and facilitate webinars. In addition to participating in Library sponsored webinars, I have been a guest with Street Law (law-related education organization) and National History Day on their recent webinars focusing on resources for educators in the new quarantine landscape.
Additionally, while the education staff in the Library’s Learning and Innovation Office has traditionally focused on equipping teachers, in this moment we are working hard to figure out how our ready to go resources could be accessed by students as well. As a recent classroom teacher, I am trying to stay current on the realities and mood of teachers (in Bellingham, N. Virginia where we live, and within national networks of educators) as they work within their new normal and then relay that information to our Library staff to inform the work we are doing to support educators. Some online Library resources I think are especially valuable now are the primary source sets, Engage page/resources, and free to use and reuse images.
Primary Source Sets: are already curated primary sources ready for classroom use which also have a teacher’s guide detailing information about the time period and items within the set. In addition, each primary source set page has a link to a document called “primary source analysis tool.” This is a form that helps kids analyze the source they are studying.
Engage with the Library of Congress: our new stay at home world, the LOC quickly (and effectively) put together a page with links to various programs and collections which might interest individuals and families. On it you will find National Book Festival author talk videos, poetry resources, children’s author Dav Pilkey videos, and writings and videos by young adult author, Jason Reynolds.
Free to use and reuse are grouping of copyright free images that could be used for historical research, writing prompts, model works for art projects, and further student research.
April 22, 2020 marks the 220th anniversary of the Library of Congress. Take a virtual tour of the Library of Congress and view some of it’s archives online.
For more about the Library of Congress teacher in residence program, click here. Next year’s resident teacher will focus on economics and journalism.