Douglass Day in the College Classroom


Transcribing historical documents is a great way for college students to engage actively with primary sources. By participating in Douglass Day, students will gain a deeper understanding of Black history. They will also learn about the interpretive choices that archivists and historians have to make when preserving historical documents. The hands-on experiences never fail to spark fascinating classroom discussions. 

Learn about Frederick Douglass

We have a short, one-page overview of the life & legacies of Frederick Douglass. If you would like to read and learn more, please browse our list of suggested Douglass resources.

How to Transcribe

We are continually adding more information to our Transcription Tutorial Page. On that page, we will post a variety of training materials (eg instructions, printable guides, etc) in the first few weeks of February. All of those resources will be distributed through our newsletter and social media. 

Learning how to transcribe is easy (really!). Please note that we design our crowdsourcing projects to be beginner friendly. Every year, we have participants that range in ability and age from elementary school students to senior citizens. Our goal is to make it possible for everyone to have a meaningful experience with these important materials. While students (and instructors) can feel some trepidation about the prospect of transcribing historical documents, we like to encourage everyone to dive in.

Preview of Douglass Day

If you would like a preview of this year’s program, we can offer a few resources. First, we welcome everyone to attend our sneak preview event, held on February 7 from 12-1 PM on Zoom (and available later on our YouTube channel). The preview event will provide a brief training demonstration of this year’s project, along with a list of useful tips & resources. Zoom links will be distributed through our newsletter.

If you would like to get a fuller preview of Douglass Day, you can always watch past programs on our YouTube channel’s past live streams. 

Participate at other times or days?

Every year, we welcome a number of college classes during and after our live-streamed program on February 14 from 12-3 PM (EST). If your class does not meet on that day, you are more than welcome to re-watch this year’s livestream program on our YouTube channel. The crowdsourcing project will remain online & available until all of the work is completed. All of the key links will be posted at the top of our home page. While it is difficult to predict when we will finish, if you make sure to let our team know, we can make sure that there are sufficient materials for your class. 

Engage on Social Media

Please encourage your students to post their findings, reactions, and questions on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #DouglassDay. We will have a team of scholars, librarians, and party-goers chatting away during the event. Each year, we have 50-100 participating groups, so the traffic on Twitter tends to be pretty lively!

Don’t Forget Birthday Cake

We encourage everyone to bake a cake for Douglass Day! It sounds silly, but Douglass Day is a birthday party after all. (Learn more about how that came to be on our page about the history of Douglas Day.) Even though it may seem like a small thing, birthday cakes can be a great way to create a space for reflection and for joy. You may even wish to talk with students about how we create these intentional spaces & rituals of remembrance.

If someone in your group does bake a cake, we hope they will submit their desserts to the Great Douglass Day Bake Off by posting on Twitter or Instagram using #DouglassDay.

Sample Lessons & Strategies

Note: these are templates for teaching with transcription activities. For more tailored suggestions and resources, please make sure to see our extensive Douglass Day 2024 Curriculum page.

Transcribe in Class

Consider dedicating at least one hour in your class for students to hold a transcribe-a-thon. We find that the activities can range in time, but it is usually best to reserve at least an hour in total.

Transcribing a full page usually takes 20-30 minutes. We highly recommend saving some time at the end of the activities for students to share their experiences. 

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What did you find in the documents? 
  2. What did you find surprising or challenging? 
  3. If you worked on multiple documents, did you notice any recurring patterns or themes? 
  4. What do you feel you learned about the processes of digitization, transcription, and preservation of Black histories? 
  5. How would you encourage other people to try out these activities?
  6. How do these materials relate to our current moment?

Transcribe in Pairs

We recommend having students transcribe in pairs. Working in pairs will make the experience more collaborative and interactive. Students can support each other in the process of deciphering the historical documents, and that process often leads to rich discussions during the process. (This strategy is especially useful if students are less comfortable with manuscripts and cursive handwriting.)

Transcribe Outside of Class

If you don’t have time to transcribe together in class, we find that transcribing can be an engaging assignment outside of class. Ask students to transcribe a single page, and then respond to some of the questions above. 

If students create an account on the transcription platform, they will be able to see the activity logs for their accounts. After they complete a page or two, they can take a screenshot and send it to you for credit. (Please note that the platform managers are often unable to access that private/personal data so you will need to ask students to self-report.)