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3 things to think about before selecting your next set of primary sources

Primary sources should be a part of every social studies teacher’s toolkit. They encourage and support high levels of thinking, help develop context, and can be very engaging for students.

But one of the things I hear from teachers as I travel around is that it’s not always easy selecting primary sources for inclusion in instruction. So . . . with a little help from the Library of Congress folks, three things to think about when selecting your next set of primary sources.

Know your students
The documents you use need to be age-level appropriate and age-level user friendly. What to look for?

  • The document needs to suitable for your students in terms of content. Should you use photos of the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators with grade school children? Probably not.
  • Is the document too complex?
  • Think about length. Perhaps an excerpt of a larger source is okay.
  • Is the text legible and easy to read? What about cursive?
  • Be sure to think about the reading level of the document. You may need to transcribe the text and paraphrase the language.
  • Will you need to define lots of vocabulary words? What prior knowledge is needed?

Historical context
It’s important for students to understand the context in which the primary source lives. If you want students to analyze primary sources and piece together data so that they can create new knowledge, it’s important for you to select stuff that contains enough information so that students can actually place that sources into historical context.

And while you can use documents without specific sorts of contextual clues as a way to hook kids into the content by creating problem-solving activities, eventually they’ll need that information.

What information is needed?

  • Bibliographic information that provides data about where and when a source was created.
  • Creator or author’s name
  • Contextual clues such as clothing, technology, and architecture can be important.
  • Extraneous annotations from archivists or other marks by past owners of object can provide valuable information.

Point of View
An added bonus of using primary sources, is that they can be valuable tools to provide perspective and different points of view.

What are some things to look for to help your students identify point of view?

  • The author or creator is invaluable for providing information about point of view. How much information can they find out about the creator’s beliefs or other works?
  • The intended audience and purpose of the source is important. Every primary source is biased in one way or another. Can students infer what this bias is from studying the document you’ve selected?
  • Think about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the source. What were the personal, social, cultural, or political events surrounding the creation?
  • Be careful of your own point of view. Have you selected a specific document (inadvertently or otherwise) based on your own perspectives and points of view?
  • Be intentional about selected sources from different perspectives, created by different authors, groups, and even periods of time.
  • Don’t forget to select a variety of primary source types. We often focus on textual documents and photographs. Have you included music? Artwork? Maps? Charts? Advertisements? Audio clips? Video? Artifacts? Cartoons?

Need some specific places to start?

Using Primary Sources in the Classroom
Primary Sources
My primary sources Diigo feed

What am I missing? How do you select primary sources for your classroom?

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