READING HISTORY AS IT HAPPENED

Jennifer Coogan
Chief Content Officer, Newsela

newsela-blog-post

Images from the Newsela Time Machine collection of articles.

Current events are our bread and butter at Newsela. We’re a literacy company that publishes daily news at five reading levels. But ever since we collaborated with the Big History Project, we’ve realized we’re equally intrigued with the past. We’ve recently launched a new genre of content different from our daily news stream, and I’m happy to say it was the work we did with BHP that planted the seed of this new endeavor.

It started with Marie Curie. She’s been on our mind since we leveled Michelle Feder’s biography of the two-time Nobel Prize winner. It got us wondering, “What kind of press coverage did this pioneering scientist get from her contemporaries?” So we went back deep into the archives of Scientific American, one of our content partners, and found a number of articles reporting on her breakthroughs as they occurred. These articles were fascinating to us because they come from a perspective so different than the one you’d find in a typical biography or encyclopedia entry. These articles not only inform about the subject, but incidentally provide context about the times in which they lived, and it is not always pretty. The reporter who profiled Madame Curie thought it necessary to point out that the physicist and chemist “has a sweet and intelligent face, which has not become forbidding through the dryness of scientific things.”

It seemed to us these articles would serve as a rich resource for students in their study of history. The only problem was that the old articles, which discuss complex topics of science and engineering, were written in language that would be challenging for most of today’s students. For instance, the Curie profile opens:

The attention of the entire scientific world is at present directed to the grand discovery of radium and the immense domain that seems to be opening up to science from the detection of those mysterious radiations which, according to M. Pierre Curie, we may now expect to find in almost all substances, but doubtless to a much less extent than in radium.

Luckily, we’re in the business of transforming complex text, making it accessible and giving students a staircase to “level up” so that they can eventually master the material. We’ve dubbed these articles our “Time Machine” collection, because we think they have the power to take a student back in time, in a way no dusty textbook could ever do. The articles we’ve chosen to include were very much influenced by the new understanding of history that we got through BHP, zeroing in on the breakthroughs that shaped the world we live in today, such as the creation of the Panama Canal, the invention of the Gatling gun, or the launch of Sputnik.

We hope by leveling these journalistic artifacts, we can free them from the archive and make them part of lessons taking place in classrooms today. We intend to grow our collection and would be happy to hear from you which historic breakthroughs you would like brought to life with original reporting. Contact us at editor@newsela.com with your suggestions.

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