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Ford Institute and Best Practices: Part IV – Intertexual Primary Sources

Okay. I’m still catching my breath a bit. It was a long four days. We presented our individual projects yesterday and before that spent Saturday afternoon (after several hours in the Ford Library archives) discussing the power of intertextual primary sources.


It’s a term I haven’t heard before – with or without primary sources. Apparently it’s something literature people use all the time. Who knew?


Deriving meaning from the relationship between texts; the way that similar or related texts influence, reflect, or differ from each other.

—Now I know.

The question now becomes

What does deriving meaning from the relationship between primary sources look like in my classroom?

I’m still working on something that makes sense for me. And I’m pretty sure this isn’t the best answer but I’m throwing it out there anyway.

As teachers, we often use single and multiple sources on a topic to help students discover for themselves what we already know. This can help students construct their own learning and gives them an opportunity to practice some high-level historical thinking skills. But I’m not sure this is always enough. I think we need to be more intentional about making sure kids see the connections between sources.

When we start thinking about the intertextuality of primary sources, what are we really doing? The newly approved Kansas state standards ask kids to

  • use multiple perspectives and points of view to support their ability to empathize
  • develop alternative solutions to problems
  • identify and defend a variety of possible causes of events
  • recognize the discipline’s subjective nature

I want students to see that history is not a set of simple answers, that the world is much more complex than their textbooks make it seem. So I want them to interact with a wide variety of documents but I want them to do it by selecting at least some of the documents themselves.


Use a system of primary source analysis developed by Frederick Drake of Illinois State. In a nutshell, a teacher provides what is called a First Order document to her students and leads an in-depth analysis of the document. Drake calls this document the “epicenter” of your instruction.

Next, the teacher provides three to five Second Order documents for students. These documents should both support and contrast the First Order document. Through discussion and analysis, kids get the chance to gain a more nuanced view of the topic and the original document.

Finally, the teacher provides an opportunity for students to discover their own Third Order documents supporting or contrasting the First Order document.

For a US history middle school example go here. For more from Drake, go here.

I’m still try to wrap my mind around the practical implementation of intertextual primary source analysis but I like the idea of incorporating what seems like a powerful ELA strategy into history instruction.

Your thoughts?

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