Our Co-Founders: Collaboration at its Best

Watt and Roelofs

Anna Roelofs and Anne Watt first met 25 years ago when they were asked to run a workshop together on how to teach elementary students about the Soviet Union. “I think I know why the Harvard Outreach Center approached us,” said Anne. “We were the only two K-12 educators consistently visiting the center for teaching materials!” Fast friends, Anna and Anne soon discovered they shared a passion for cultural diversity and a vision for how adults learn.

Anna R: I developed a love of history early on in my teaching career when I witnessed firsthand the effect that primary sources had on students, whether it was artifacts, historical documents or field trips. It was clear that teachers needed resources and content in order to teach with depth and accuracy. A staff/curriculum developer [for Cambridge Public Schools] by day, I spent nights turning my living room into Primary Source office space.

Anne W: We’d work evenings and weekends writing grant proposals and dreaming up Saturday workshops to offer on different regions and topics. We called them Saturdays at the Source. As an educator and a trainer, I was determined to open teachers’ eyes to cultural diversity and its place in the curriculum. “Ignorance promotes prejudice and intolerance.” I used that a lot!

Anna and Anne recognized immediately that teachers needed support, conversation, collaboration, and creativity. They set out to establish an organization with a joint mission that celebrated both of their strengths.

Anna R: Progressive education was really coming into its own by the time we started Primary Source. We had piles of resources and materials to share with teachers; they just needed a guide to using them. I’ve always had a firm belief that educators needed creative ideas for making history exciting for kids, such as through theater, art, and music. In fact, I ended each of my programs with a theater piece. It was my way of showing teachers that our job is to help students develop a connection with and a passion for social studies, in whatever way we can.

Anne W: We both brought different parts of ourselves to the table in those early years. As a former racism trainer, I found myself incorporating this theme into each of my programs. For our very first summer institute in July 1991, we attracted 16 brave teachers and let them choose the culture they wanted to study! It was a huge success and the start of decades of helping teachers develop culturally sensitive social studies curriculum.

Anna R: In those first 5 years, we provided such a diverse mix of programs and regional focus. We were passionate about transforming curriculum to bring underrepresented peoples into the mainstream. In every case, we focused on providing teachers with rich scholarly content and hands-on primary source material. It’s a professional development model that remains unchanged today.

Anne’s husband John [Watt], a China scholar, became an essential part of Primary Source and was instrumental in securing the grants that would get our early China programs off the ground. Anne and John went on to create The New England China Network as a vision for what could be accomplished by equipping teachers with tools to incorporate China into their curriculum.

Anne W: I’d say we truly achieved lift-off in 1995 when, thanks to John’s persistent applying, we were awarded an NEH grant to fund a 3-week summer institute on Modern China for middle school and high school teachers. Soon thereafter, we reached out to the Freeman Foundation, a then-new organization focusing on East Asia. In fact, when John called to request a meeting and found out Mr. Freeman was already in Boston on business, he offered to give him a ride back to the airport! You could say we used that car time wisely because the Freeman Foundation went on to support us for 15 years, sustaining us during our major time of growth.

While Anne focused on China, and the creation of our first curriculum sourcebook The Enduring Legacy of Ancient China, Anna began to build out the organization’s African American offerings, culminating in the 2004 publication of Making Freedom: African Americans in U.S. History.

Anna R: I was thrilled to collaborate with scholar and good friend Roberta Logan to expand our African American History offerings. Because our mission promoted “multicultural” education, we were able to diversify the organization in this way, and we didn’t waste any time before creating rich courses filled with primary sources that inspired a deeper understanding of the people who created the story of America. The Making Freedom curriculum sourcebook series, now in its 10th year, was truly the grand finale of our African American History Project.

John Watt and colleague E. Van Seasholes recognized early on the value of partnering with school districts to establish strong global programming in the curriculum and effect systemic change in classrooms.

Anne W: You could say that John and Van were the founders of Primary Source’s partnership model. They were vigilant about visiting schools and sharing the wealth of courses, materials, and support we had to offer. They used to say, “The more knowledgeable and inspired teachers are, the more knowledgeable and inspired are their students.” After 25 years, it’s wonderful to see partnership growing. We’re thrilled to see so many schools and districts making global education a priority.

Anna R: Our goal at the beginning is our goal now 25 years later: to help dedicated and committed teachers become even better at what they do. Anne and I dreamed of establishing an organization that would transform education, and it continues to provide educators with rich learning experiences about cultures of the world often overlooked by traditional curriculum but so important for tomorrow’s citizens. Primary Source is a prime example of what you can do when you believe in collaboration.