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Digital humanities in the K-12 classroom

In my previous post we explored the origins and definitions of digital humanities and covered a few examples of how the techniques are being applied in higher education. Today, I’d like to look at ways the K-12 teacher can utilize some of the very exciting techniques and tools of digital humanities in their classrooms.

The suggestion when it comes to dabbling in DH (Digital Humanities) in the classroom is to take an exploratory, curious and light approach. Don’t try to tackle all of the concepts and techniques in one go, but rather allow your students to “play” with the tools. In that vein I will list a few tools and inspiring projects as a soft guide to your class’s DH journey.

Enjoy, and don’t forget to let me know your DH thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Story maps

StoryMap is a tool developed by Knight Labs of North Western University. In true DH-style, it brings designers, developers and journalists together to develop tools that bring stories to life. The software allows users to plot out events across a geography — it gives visual aides to any narrative, be it fictional, historical or personal. From a Digital Humanities point of view, it uses technology to further visualize data, that then enhances both one’s ability to comprehend the narrative, as well as share it. Another useful part of the tool is that students can build the story maps together. (Ever struggled to follow Arya’s (rather complicated) journey through the Game of Thrones? Wonder no longer as there’s a Story Map for that!)

Of course applications such as these are probably too technical for younger students, however story maps remain an important tool assisting younger students to “map” out storylines, characters and places in a story. There are a number of analogue printables aides online that will help elementary school teachers bring a new dimension to story-time.

Story maps have also been shown to assist comprehension in other areas such as math (where students use the aide to break-down the problem into smaller pieces), social studies and science (where the narrative of an experiment is broken down into its composite pieces and actors).

Google also has great story mapping software, called My Maps. Students can collaborate using the software to create both historical and contemporary maps, adding layers that could include images, links, videos, graphics and small descriptions. Naturally because it uses “real” maps it is not necessarily adaptable to fictional environments — for that the Story Maps app is more flexible. Some teachers have found useful ways to include My Maps as a station in their blended learning classrooms, where each student contributes to one map as they cycle through the stations.

Read more: 4 Models of blended learning to implement in the classroom


N-what? An N-gram is a “word unit”, so it could either be a phrase, a word or only part of a word, such as the “i” in iPod, iMac etc. Ngrams are used by linguists to chart or map word and phrase usage within specific texts, as well as across whole swathes of literature. The frequency of ngrams can tell scholars a lot about the emergence of trends within society, the spread of knowledge, and indeed even the emergence of bias, fake news and beliefs.

Now the fun part.

Google has developed an Ngram Viewer that searches for whichever ngram you input, across all of the books the search engine has scanned, currently standing at about 25 million of what Google estimates to be 130 million total books. Books scanned so far include publications from between 1500 - 2000 and include English, Chinese (simplified), French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. At first the Ngram Viewer may appear dull to the average student — it’s literally a line graph, but once you start playing around with it, it becomes increasingly engaging. For instance my name, Susannah, enjoyed a highpoint of popularity in 1904. For other fun examples of how ngrams can reveal trends, usage and indeed history itself perhaps start with the Ngram info page.

The varieties of graphs that can be produced by the viewer can, in fact, be overwhelming. Once again, perhaps explore it alongside your students using the following ideas as a jumping off point:

  • History: Check to see how usage of the word “bomb” peaks over time and work with your class to identify what historical events could have impacted the usage. Phrases such as Nuclear Weapons, WMD and suicide bomber will also elicit lively discussion.
  • Have fun tracking the emergence of slang over time: try and input things like dapper, groovy, nerd or dude. Additionally, it’s also interesting to overlay slang usage for war-time periods, and see how words like: booby-trap, conchie, shell-shock or flak emerged during particular periods.
  • Subtle historical differences in correlated phrases also make for interesting comparisons — try comparing phrases such as climate change with global warming, or feminism and emancipation.


GapMinder is an epic non-profit data-based project that moves from the basic premise that nobody really knows the real facts about the world. Founded on typical DH values such as open-source software, social awareness, collaborative data collection and tool development the foundation has, in the last 15 years, developed a wonderful array of data visualization tools that give true insight into how other people live, bringing vast data sets to life with relevance and a timely sense of urgency.

Read more: A call for more visual learning elements in schools

For starters their GapMinder Tools allow users to find maps and charts demonstrating statistics from around the world across a wide variety of subsets. Ever wondered how Math achievement among fourth graders has changed across the world between 1997 and 2013? Looking for an animation showing how aid per capita has increased the median life expectancy in the world? These tools will find that chart, delivering an animated starting point for fact-based, yet engaging lessons on anything from healthcare and infrastructure, to unemployment and education.

A second inspired project from GapMinder is what they call Dollar Street. Dollar Street is a visualization of the globe’s socio-economic profile, as if each country was a household on a single street. Using community captured data, and real stories, from real families, this tool and data-base has a wealth of accurate information that will give your students a real world-view of how other people live. A good place to start with Gapminder is their Teacher page.

All in all

Digital Humanities is delivering incredible tools and techniques to help students understand their world a bit better, and in the process deepening their understanding of society, history, language and culture. The tools are typically easy to use, and can be adapted across grades and subjects — a true blend of technology and pedagogy delivering platforms for real insight as well as demystifying how data can reveal true knowledge.

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