HM - September 2019 - Teaching Tools

Teaching Tools

Using Journey Boxes to Ignite Inquiry into Local History
Dr. Linda Doornbos
Assistant Professor of Elementary Social Studies Education
Teacher Development and Educational Studies
Oakland University
456 Pioneer Drive, Rochester MI 48309-4482
Chelsea Blair
Pre-service Teacher
Teacher Development and Educational Studies
Oakland University
456 Pioneer Drive, Rochester MI 48309-4482


What is a Journey Box?
A journey box (or Travel Trunk) is a container—a trunk, suitcase, box, or cardboard construction—that includes a set of documents and artifacts that together tell a particular story of place, time, and culture. [1] Students journey through inquiry-based questions and/or activities that coincide with each particular item. Materials are intentionally selected to engage students in disciplinary thinking, tools, and concepts that foster historical habits of the mind. Although journey boxes can be created in a variety of ways and for a variety of participants, in this article we—a teacher educator and a preservice teacher—focus on how journey boxes were used in a university setting and second grade classroom. In what follows we describe how journey box inquiries allowed students to grasp the significance of the past in shaping the present, and in helping students to recognize that history is an evolving narrative constructed from various sources, sound inferences, and changing interpretation.
Why Focus on the Local?
Focusing on the local opens up the possibility for powerful teaching and learning. As demonstrated historically in place-based education pedagogies, through “thoughtful engagements with the communities that surround our schools, we stand a far better chance of developing thoughtful, engaged, democratic citizens.” [2] Students are naturally curious about their surroundings and inquiry invites them to do history, rather than simply hear or read about history. [3] Investigating, discussing, and debating messy and sometimes conflicting evidence helps students discover who they are, where they are, and how their present reality connects to people, stories, and events of the past.[4] These stories of peoples and processes tap into the everydayness of the human experience, and students have the opportunity to see themselves as active participants in the present and investors in the future. [5] Their voices, their decisions, and their involvement in their community matters.
Additionally, by interacting with local people, places, and events, students recognize history as an evolving story. The inquiry journey allows them to investigate what and whose story is told and what people and processes have shaped their communities. As they analyze and evaluate documents and artifacts, students situate local history within larger histories of the U.S. or world and are exposed to voices not included in the textbook.[6]
Creating a Journey Box

  1. Select a topic that will engage students in exploring a specific people, time period, event, or issue. Align the journey to grade level content standards and intentionally provide opportunities for inquiry into traditionally marginalized populations and/or present counternarratives to traditional textbook history. [7]
  2. Gather multiple primary and secondary sources/artifacts to contextualize the time period, provide multiple perspectives, and allow all students to access the content.
  3. Use the 4 Dimensions [D] of the C3 Framework’s Inquiry Arc [8] to design the journey. Invite students into the journey using a compelling question and maintain enthusiasm throughout the journey with supporting document-based questions and/or activities [D1]. Provide students with disciplinary tools and concepts [D2] to evaluate, analyze and use the evidence provided by the sources [D3]. Conclude the journey with a performance task that enables students to individually or collectively communicate and/or take informed action [D4].
Examples of Journey Boxes
Linda: Book clubs were embedded in my university social studies content course. Each book club—three to four pre-service teachers—read a young-adult historical fiction book depicting a particular story of local Michigan history. [9] Graphic organizers not only guided members to discuss the story using different lens—historical, geographical, economic, and political—but also to situate the story within the larger context of assigned readings on Michigan history.
As a culminating project each group created a journey box corresponding with their book that could be enacted in an elementary classroom. The process included targeting content standards, writing a compelling question, selecting primary and secondary sources, crafting questions/activities to accompany sources, and composing a navigational guide for students to make sense of the journey. 
Groups presented their projects to each other. Journeys unveiled local settlers’ treatment of Native Americans, the resiliency of African Americans in fighting for equality, and the influence of water-powered mills in the area’s economic development. Captured remarks highlight students’ historical thinking:
  • We are living on stolen tribal land!
  • Who knew Sears was once a store that refused to sell to black customers? What other acts of injustice did this city commit?”
  • I never made the connection to the place where I stop weekly for donuts—a converted mill—as the heart and soul of survival for people in this area.
The journey box inquiry provided an organized way for pre-service teachers to grasp the significance of the past, to recognize the evolving narrative of history, and lead them (and their future students) to be more informed, active participants.
Chelsea: To explore local history within a second-grade classroom, I created three journey boxes corresponding to time periods of the city under investigation. The compelling question, Pontiac, what’s next? invited the students to explore the city’s history and their role in shaping the future. The variety of sources—artifacts, photographs, maps, and written documents—allowed all learners access to the content. Guided by a teacher facilitator, each of the three groups examined the sources to answer the corresponding document-based questions.
Groups shared discoveries of the city’s rich and complex history with poster presentations. Then individually students developed ideas to make their city “the best place to live.” Students drawings and verbal suggestions expressed genuine concern:
  • We need a grocery store in every neighborhood because people without cars need food.
  • Homeless people need homes.
  • Homeless shelters need to be safer.
In addition, students invented new cars, industries, and energy sources.
The journey box inquiry not only supported students in understanding the complex, rich history of their city, but also encouraged them to be responsible citizens bettering their community.

Journey boxes—whether created by pre-service teachers or for second graders—ignited inquiry into local history and fostered historical habits of mind. We each commit to four improvements to our pedagogical approach to the projects.
With pre-service teachers in the university social studies content course I, [Linda] will:
  • embed targeted practice of each dimension of the C3 Framework.
  • expose students to exemplar work of other educators involved in this work. 
  • strengthen situating local history within state, U.S., and world history.
  • provide an opportunity to take a stand on a local issue, attend a locally sponsored event, or volunteer at a local organization.
As a teacher in the classroom with elementary students I [Chelsea] will:
  • enact the journeys over time, rather than as a single event.
  • invite community members into the classroom to share their work with us.
  • plan a field trip to one of the sites explored within the journey.
  • orchestrate involvement in a community-based initiative based on student generated ideas for how to better their city.     
We are eager to share specific ideas, activities, and plans for future journey box projects. Contact or

[1]Linda D. Labbo and Sherry L. Field, "Journey Boxes: Telling the Story of Place, Time, and
  Culture with Photographs, Literature, and Artifacts," The Social Studies 90, no. 4 (1999): 177-
[2] Charles Elfer, “Place-Based Education in Georgia: Imagining the Possibilities for Local Study
  in the Contemporary Social Studies Classroom,” The Georgia Social Studies Journal 2, no. 2
  (2012): 46-51.
[3] Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in
  Elementary and Middle School, 5th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2015).
[4] Lynne Dixon and Alison Hales, Bringing History Alive Through Local People and Places: A
  Guide for Primary School Teachers (New York: Routledge, 2014), 4.
[5] Margaret Smith Crocco and Michael P. Marino, "Investigating a Neighborhood: An Activity
   Using the C3 Framework," Social Studies and the Young Learner 27, no. 1 (2014): 19-24.
[6] Jeannette Alarcon, Kathleen Holmes, and Eric Bybee, "Historical Thinking Inside the Box:
   Preservice Elementary Teachers use Journey Boxes to Craft Counter Narratives," The Social
   Studies 106 (2015): 186-92.
[7] Ibid.
[8] National Council for the Social Studies, The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (Silver Spring, MD: National Council for the Social Studies, 2013).
[9] Examples included Christopher Paul Curtis, Bud, Not Buddy (New York: Delacorte Press, 1999); Robert A. Lytle, A Pitch in Time (Auburn Hills, MI: EDCO, 2002); Robert A. Lytle, Three Rivers Crossing (Spring Lake, MI: River Road Publications, 2000); Ilyasah Shabazz and Renee Watson, Betty Before X (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018).
Cooper, Hilary. Teaching History Creatively. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Kyvig, David E., and Myron A. Marty. Nearby History. New York: Alta Mira Press, 2000.
Mac Austin, Hilary, and Kathleen Thompson. Examining the Evidence: Seven Strategies for Teaching with Primary Sources. North Mankato, MN: Maupin House, 2015.
Rosenzweig, Roy, and David Thelen.  The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American. Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Rubenstein, Bruce A., and Lawrence E. Ziewacz. Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.