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Primary source activities aligned to the Common Core

engaging with primary sources

One of the comments I often hear when working with social studies teachers and the Common Core is

So what does it look like?

My first response has always been

Well . . . not any different than what great social studies teachers have always done. Reading and analyzing primary sources. Arguing about meaning. Solving problems. Integrating fiction and non-fiction into instruction. You know. Strategies that encourage high levels of historical thinking skills.

But I still get blank stares every once in a while. To be completely honest, perhaps more than once in a while. There are still too many of us who are comfortable with a traditional style of social studies instruction focusing on low levels of thinking skills – the type of instruction that requires little real intellectual thought but lots of busy work.

I do think that most history teachers incorporate the sorts of things that the Common Core is encouraging – though not often enough and not as intentionally as they should. So their question about “what it looks like” is a good one. So today some examples of how you might use primary sources to align your instruction with Common Core standards.

My first suggestion is that you head over to my Common Core and the Social Studies Classroom page and browse through some of the stuff that’s over there. Tim Bailey has a great article that we link to and there are some helpful videos of classroom examples. You’ll also find a great resource from the Smithsonian called Engaging Students with Primary Sources that gives some specific classroom examples. We will continue to add new and useful goodies to that page so you might want to bookmark the page before you’re done there.

The thing that I really like about the CC is that as part of the ELA standards, K-12 students must use evidence as part of their written arguments. Students also learn to

gain, evaluate, and present increasingly complex information, ideas, and evidence through listening and speaking as well as media.

Obviously, primary sources provide authentic and handy ways of encouraging critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving. But, again, social studies teachers across the different grades may be unsure of what this looks like.

Elementary Examples

At the lower grades, the CC requires students to demonstrate the ability to develop ideas based on their analysis of different texts. For example, second graders must be able to

describe the connection between a series of historical events . . . in a text.

In Kansas, current social studies standards ask second grade kids to compare and contrast daily life of an historic Plains Indian family, a pioneer family, and a modern family in Kansas. So have students compare and contrast images of American Indian, Kansas settlers, and modern shelters. Show them a variety of foods, jobs, and entertainment. The KSHS has an absolutely fabulous set of lessons called Read Kansas that is perfect for this sort of thing.

By fourth grade, students are asked to recognize cause and effect using informational text. To help kids see the connection, you might select primary sources from the Library of Congress’s primary source set on Thanksgiving. Together with the awesome You are the Historian site, the images and text in this set provide you tools to help kids understand how our view of the holiday has changed over time.

Fifth graders need to

analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and difference in the point of view they represent.

I can’t think of one event in history, topic in geography, economic theory, or civics/government issue that doesn’t have multiple sides and perspectives. It becomes a matter of selecting the event or topic that best fits your curriculum.

For 5th graders in Kansas, students can evaluate the Boston Massacre using accounts and images from the period. One great activity is something called Three Stage Media Analysis using images of the event created by different people at different periods. Students should also look at what witnesses of the event had to say. You can find a variety here, here, and here. The question kids are trying to answer is pretty simple:

What really happened on March 5, 1770?

The Historical Scene Investigation site also has a great Boston massacre activity.

Secondary Examples

The CC has a separate set of discipline specific literacy standards for grades 6-12. An example for grades 6-8 would be to

cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

For 8th graders studying Lincoln, you might ask them to analyze a set of Lincoln quotes from the 1850s without telling the students who is responsible for them. Ask students to make educated guesses about who, when, where, and audience. They must support their guesses with evidence from the quotes themselves. Of course, the quotes don’t sound like Lincoln in that several use language that, to modern ears, sounds racist.

The Library of Congress also has a nice set of Lincoln documents that could then be used to support further research into Lincoln’s move towards Emancipation.

Eleventh and 12th grade students need to

analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

To meet this literacy standard, students might examine the rhetorical construction of a historically important speech such as the What is the Fourth of July to a Slave speech by Frederick Douglass.

All secondary grades have some sort of a standard asking students to

integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

As part of a larger immigration unit that addresses such questions as “Why does America have a hard time welcoming immigrants when it’s a nation of immigrants?” you could use Google Earth to create maps of where your students and their families were born to help them visualize immigration patterns. Then travel over to the online version of the 1940 census and begin to ask even more questions. And does the Library of Congress have a primary source set for immigration? Of course they do!

So ya see?

Integrating Common Core into your social studies instruction is . . . well, pretty much what we’ve always been expected to do. The key is to plan for the integration to happen intentionally and consistently.

Reading and analyzing primary sources. Arguing about meaning. Solving problems. Integrating fiction and non-fiction into instruction. You know. Strategies that encourage high levels of historical thinking skills.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post Glenn! We have expected Social Studies educators to teach in this manner but often we have become convinced that we have to “cover the content.” We don’t allow students to dig deeper to become . . . thoughtful (full of thought). I hope our new standards will enpower teachers to encourage students to recognize, evaluate, analyze, investigate, connect and create using all types of Social Studies resources and content. Great teachers are already doing it! Keep up the good work.

    September 5, 2012

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