Using archives to enthuse and engage

Thanks to Anne Hooper, member of HA Secondary Committee, for this article explaining how her department refreshed their GCSE course by delving into the archives. Anne explains how using full texts with original images really engages students and helps develop their evidential understanding. She generously shares the resources at the end.

Using archive sources is not new to us as history teachers but sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves about resources that are available to us and to refresh our lesson resources. This refreshing is much needed when we have been teaching an exam course for awhile, in order for us as teachers to refocus on the history and to ensure that pupils are able to learn the history in the most engaging and effective way possible.  

The National Archives in Kew have a fantastic wealth of education resources on their website which can be used in the classroom .   Having used the National Archives superb resources at KS3 over recent years I’ve looked to find sources that can be used to challenge and enthuse our GCSE students.  Thinking first of the GCSE unit “Conflict at home and abroad”, I looked at what the US National Archives could offer.  The digitalisation programmes of many archives have transformed this process for teachers and the US National Archives, like their UK counterparts, have a super education website. 

National Archives – Washington DC

DocsTeach, the site aimed at educators,  covers a wealth of topics that are covered in various GCSE and A Level specifications so are certainly worth a look if you teach The American West, British America, Vietnam War, Civil Rights to name just a few.    

Looking specifically at the Vietnam War resources I wanted to select a number of documents that could be used to illuminate the beginning of America’s involvement and cover key aspects of the Edexcel specification. Included here are just a few of the documents I’ve used in the classroom.


Produced in May 1954 following the Geneva Accords, this poster was designed to encourage people to “Go South to avoid Communism” where they would be “welcomed with open arms”.  Even without the translations students were able to piece together the message.  The fact that it was in Vietnamese encouraged students to examine the document more closely.


Kennedy’s response to a letter from Diem enabled students to ask questions about the initial letter and request and build up their contextual knowledge.  Also looking at how the letter was drafted and amended gave interesting insights into the careful use of language, leading to discussions about editing and even to explanations of how documents were written on typewriters (and having to show images of typewriters!).


This North Vietnamese propaganda leaflet is a celebration of army victories during 1962 and 1963.  Students were able to identify various figures in the text and hypothesize about meaning before being offered a translation.  

These are just a selection of sources used in the classroom and give you a flavour of what you can find and how you can use them –  to find out more do look at the website.

National Security Archives

“Just thinking this was once top secret is amazing”,   “To think we wouldn’t have been able to read this fifty years ago”.  Just two responses from my Year 10s in response to looking at sources from the National Security Archives about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Having charted the tensions during the thirteen days of the crisis, students were able to see and read for themselves documents which are now declassified to get an insight into the brinkmanship of those October days.    In using these in the classroom, I gave students an edited list of the sources to examine and analyse and after examining a number together, they were keen to be let loose on them.   Providing students with the full documents allows students to read the full reports/letters and not just snippets.  Seeing the full documents also allows them to grapple with the authenticity of the documents and “doing history” rather than reading nicely typed up versions in textbooks.

Finding out more

Clearly these are just snapshots of how digitised archive collections can be brought into the history classroom.  Do go and explore- from your local county archives to presidential and Prime Minister archives there is a wealth of documents to discover.

National Archives Education –

US National Archives Education –

Churchill Archives – (brilliant for OCR Britain 1930-1997)

Margaret Thatcher foundation

List of Presidential Libraries –

National Security Archives –

Lesson resources mentioned in this blogpost

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