Website review by Jenny Bristol, Common Sense Education | Updated February 2020

Engaging Congress

Gov't & history site has solid primary source content but little flair

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Grades
9–12
Subjects & Skills
English Language Arts, Social Studies, Critical Thinking

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Pros: The use of primary sources in interactive ways; helpful mini-games; links on the site to Library of Congress analysis tools.

Cons: The interface and sound effects feel dated; multiple-choice questions don't lead to deep learning.

Bottom Line: Engaging Congress is a worthwhile government and history site for introducing students to working with and analyzing primary source documents.

Engaging Congress is a limited experience, but if used in conjunction with other activities, it could kick off deeper exploration of primary sources in history, government, or social studies classrooms. Teachers could have students do some free, individual exploration when finished with other work. Or, teachers could set up a more structured experience, where students complete a targeted Engaging Congress "Story" that matches with other work students have been doing. After students work through Engaging Congress, teachers can use more of the primary source documents and Library of Congress analysis tools linked to from the website (see the Teacher Toolbox) to get students digging deeper into the topics and documents. In-class discussions will help all students understand how to approach primary sources, and teachers can assign homework and projects to students using the Library of Congress analysis tools to analyze new primary sources, perhaps even ones they choose themselves. Additionally, the Teacher Toolbox includes quiz question suggestions and compelling questions, both great for inspiring in-class discussions, quizzes, and tests.

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Engaging Congress is an interactive government and history experience that gets students analyzing primary source documents. It's available on the web (using WebGL) as well as on iOS and Android. To play, students select one of five historical topic explorations -- called Stories -- to work on. These topics include influencing the political process, separation of powers, voting rights, the federal budget, and Federalism and states' rights. Next, students watch an introductory video with some background info and modern context. Then they select from among the six primary sources to analyze for that topic. In those analyses, students match a thumbnail image with a location on a larger image of a primary source and answer some relevant questions. Students get stars for correct answers, and can try again if they get something wrong. The story concludes with some extra relevant contextualization.

After students work through all of the primary sources for a story, they do a Knowledge Check -- three multiple-choice questions -- and then play a relevant mini-game. The mini-games vary in quality and usefulness, but some provide an opportunity for students to apply what they've learned. For example, they can try their hand at redistricting an area to influence election outcomes, or estimate how the 2015 federal budget was allocated. After each story's mini-game, students can revisit the mini-game or intro video, or select another story and begin the process again.

Engaging Congress also includes a Primary Source Gallery where students can browse a collection of primary source documents, photos, and maps, or play timed or untimed trivia games. The help screen includes a direct link to the glossary for students to brush up on their governmental and historical vocabulary. The website design does feel a bit dated and would be improved by allowing students to zoom in on the primary sources, but at least the content is relatively current.

Engaging Congress connects analysis of primary sources to current events, offering students a window into important historical events. That said, most of the analysis here is done through multiple-choice questions, which doesn't allow for much depth. (The trivia games also rely on multiple-choice questions, although they make a bit more sense in that context.) Some of the questions ask things that aren't covered in the primary sources or the intro video, so students may need to make their best guess. When relevant vocabulary does come up, there's a direct link to the glossary entry, which is handy. The mini-games are more hands-on than the rest of the site, although they're still not that inventive or challenging. They will, however, give students practice putting events in chronological order, piecing together parts of the U.S. Constitution, estimating the 2015 federal budget, and redistricting an area to influence election outcomes. Ultimately, while the site doesn't have a lot of depth, it's an easy introduction to primary source document analysis. Students would get the most out of it if teachers carried these primary source lessons into the classroom and expanded upon them.

Overall Rating

Engagement

The primary sources are interesting and help connect history to the present. The videos are kinda cute. The overall design, however, is a bit tired.

Pedagogy

Multiple-choice questions don't challenge student thinking, which is especially important when it comes to history. The mini-games are a bit more hands-on, but still simplistic.

Support

It has a simple design and is therefore easy to control. There's not much feedback during play. The best support is in the Teacher Toolbox, which links out to primary sources and Library of Congress analysis tools.


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