Teaching Tip: Informational Texts and Primary Sources from the Federal Reserve

Long before the words "common" and "core" were melded together to represent a wide-reaching educational reform movement encompassing new standards for teachers in all disciplines, many teachers were already incorporating informational tests and primary sources into their lesson plans to give their students a deeper understanding of the topics and material covered in their classes. Earlier this year Extra Credit included articles featuring FRED and GeoFRED, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis's online economic data graphing and mapping tools. In fact, the Federal Reserve has many other primary sources and informational texts, all freely accessible on the web, that teachers can use to meet the new standards. What follows is a sampling, along with ideas for how you can use them in the classroom.

Beige Book: Economic conditions from around the country
Eight times a year, the Federal Reserve publishes the Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions by Federal Reserve District, commonly known as the Beige Book, and releases it two weeks before the next scheduled Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. The Beige Book is a compilation of anecdotal information on regional economic conditions gathered from the boards of directors and key business contacts of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks and their branches. This anecdotal information provides an up-to-date, "boots on the ground" snapshot of what is going on in the regional economies around the nation. The report's summary gives an overall outlook for the national economy. It then breaks down national economic conditions in such sectors as consumer spending and tourism, manufacturing, real estate and construction, banking and finance, and agriculture. The report also contains a similarly structured report from each of the 12 Federal Reserve districts.

Teachers use the Beige Book to guide students through a mock FOMC meeting. If you have a smaller class, you can divide students into groups representing each of the sectors in the book. You can have these groups represent your local district or the economy at large. If you have a larger class, you can divide students into different districts and have them complete the activity using the report of the district they are representing. Members of the groups can represent different sectors, such as manufacturing or real estate, bringing the narrative from their section of the report to the group as a whole for discussion. (You can cut strips from the report and pass them out to students, with each student also receiving the summary report.) Students can vote on monetary policy actions for their district using the information they have gathered. They can then compare the class vote to the actual decisions made at the latest FOMC meeting.

FOMC statements: A close reading approach
Three weeks after each Federal Open Market Committee meeting, the Federal Reserve releases meeting minutes along with a press statement explaining the group's policy decisions. You can give the students this statement and have them carry out close readings using a variety of strategies, including the 3-2-1 approach. With one version of this approach, you ask students to write about three things they discovered, two things they found interesting, and one question they still have. Alternatively, you can have students mark three things they understood, two things they did not understand or had questions about, and one main point or idea. When they highlight the main ideas they think are important, they should also mark unfamiliar vocabulary. Comparing the statement to news articles on the meeting is another way students can deepen their understanding of the text.

Close readings give the students not only the historical context, audience, and purpose of the document they're reading, but also help them focus on the actual words in the document, looking for the meaning, tone, and connotations, as well as any patterns or repetitions contained in the text. For example, you can point out that September's statement describes an economy expanding at a "moderate pace," an unemployment rate that remains "elevated," and plans to continue a "highly accommodative" stance on monetary policy—words that students can evaluate for word choice and comprehension.

The tone of the statement is not only important for close readers but is also critical for financial markets, which often react swiftly to the releases. One way to explore this idea is to have students compare the tone of the current statements to those of the FOMC during the financial crisis, contrasting the length of the statements and the language used.

Speeches as primary sources
Chairman Ben Bernanke and members of the Board of Governors, as well as Federal Reserve Bank presidents, often get requests to speak to a wide number of groups and in a number of settings, including bankers' conferences, college commencements, business clubs, and gatherings of economists. These speeches, especially when given to audiences not composed of professional bankers, economists, or policymakers, provide a great source not only of informational texts on the economy but also of economic updates given in plain language that is accessible to the general public.

The speeches are posted on the websites of the individual banks and on the Board of Governors' website. They span a wide variety of topics in banking, the Fed, and Federal Reserve history. For example, Chairman Bernanke's "Four Questions about the Financial Crisis" speech given at Morehouse College in 2009 is a classic plain-English interpretation of the origins of the financial crisis and the Fed's response. This year, his speech "A Century of U.S. Central Banking: Goals, Frameworks, Accountability" commemorates a century of U.S. central banking, providing a comprehensive history of the Fed's monetary policy actions over the last one hundred years.

In her 2010 speech "Come with Me to the FOMC," Former Governor Elizabeth Duke provides an insider's view of monetary policymaking. That same year, Chairman Bernanke, in a commencement address at the University of South Carolina, contemplated the "Economics of Happiness." Speeches that Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart has given often focus on both the regional and national economies. Those are under the "News and Events" section of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta website.

Students can look at excerpts of these speeches or a particular speech in its entirety, using close reading techniques to help them better understand what they are reading. They can evaluate tone by comparing speeches—for instance, how do President Lockhart's explanations of economic conditions and Fed policy moves differ when he is speaking to a group of university students from when he is speaking to a group of business people or a community group?

The labor market, the payments system, and economic dynamism—with easy-to-understand explanations, are among other recent Atlanta Fed speech topics. You can use any of these as primary sources in the classroom, sources for essays and research papers, and for background material for lessons.

Data, data, data
Straight from the source—at the Board of Governors' Economic Research and Data website—students can find current data on such macroeconomic statistics such as M1, Federal Reserve Securities holdings, the federal funds and discount rates, and even the Federal Reserve's stock of gold. It may be that your students don't pore over the numbers with the same fascination that you or an economist might have. Still, these numbers can be a launching point for you to initiate a number of classroom discussions with your students, such as the reasons behind the difference in interest rates on long- and short-term bonds, or between government securities and corporate bonds. A trip to the website will reveal the level and trends of consumer credit, including student loans and types of credit, as well as interest rates on a variety of loans. Here you can resolve the mystery of money stock measures when students contemplate questions such as this: M1 contains more than $1 trillion in U.S. currency, which is currency held outside of banking institutions, Federal Reserve banks, and the U.S. Treasury. This translates into roughly $3,000 for each person in the United States. (Ironically, the current student debt load is also roughly $1 trillion.) Do your students walk around with $3,000 in their wallets? Where is this money? And who is cashing the $4 billion in traveler's checks contained in the measure? This site is a valuable source of statistics for writing assignments as well as for putting a quantitative face on economic trends.

History in the making: The Federal Reserve archives
FRED and GeoFRED provide the graphs, spreadsheets, and geographical maps to help us interpret economic data. But the story behind these numbers—the one about how the central bank uses the numbers to guide policy—can be found at FRASER, the digital economic archives of the Federal Reserve. (FRASER is short for Federal Reserve Archival System for Economic Research, and it's housed at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.) This archive contains not only the history and records of the Federal Reserve System, but also a wide range of historical primary source documents ranging back to the 18th century.

History classes studying the first and second Banks of the United States can access Alexander Hamilton's original report in favor of a central bank, Andrew Jackson's 1832 message vetoing the charter for the second Bank of the United States, and Henry Clay's impassioned Senate speech regarding Jackson's removal of U.S. bank deposits from that same bank. Speeches of former Fed chairmen on the site include assessments of the Great Inflation by Chairman Paul Volcker and Chairman Alan Greenspan's testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in the week following 9/11 on the economic impact of the tragedy.

Other documents on FRASER include the U.S. budget and the Economic Report of the President. You can also find data from the Great Depression, the text of the Federal Reserve Act, and selected papers from Harry S. Truman's presidency. You can search the site by author, topic, or time period. The home page often features a lesson plan that uses historical documents to teach history and economics.

Although this article cannot provide an exhaustive list of all of the primary sources and informational texts available online at the Federal Reserve, it does offer a good starting point for everything the Fed has to offer that can help both history and economics teachers meet the new English language arts standards for social studies. Last spring, an Extra Credit article highlighted a number of Federal Reserve lessons that use historical documents, and a recent Extra Credit article provided text-dependent questions to accompany articles in the Atlanta Fed's quarterly magazine, EconSouth. And the Fed is continually developing new offerings such as the creative new lesson on women in the workforce titled "Barbie in the Labor Force," the featured lesson this month on FRASER, to meet the demands of teachers tasked with incorporating primary sources and informational texts into their classroom teaching. So check back often to bring history and economics alive for your students.

Additional Resources

By Lesley Mace, economic and financial education specialist with the Jacksonville Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

November 6, 2013