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14 suggestions for integrating primary sources

our docs

The Our Documents web site has been around since 2002 but I still run into folks who haven’t seen or heard of it. If you have’t been over there, the concept is pretty simple.

The National Archives experts got together and selected what they thought were the 100 most important primary sources in American history. They posted them online, asked teachers and kids to vote on what they thought were the top ten most important docs, and started a great conversation.

Since being rolled out 12 years ago, the site has hung around and NARA has continued to add resources and tools that can help you use the 100 documents in your classroom. (Be sure to download their free 76 page Teacher Sourcebook.)

One of the most useful resource is their list of integrating primary documents into your instruction:

  • Focus Activity
    Introduce document analysis as a regular activity at the beginning of each class period to focus student attention on the day’s topic. For example: Place a transparency of a document on an overhead projector for students to see as they enter the room; or meet students at the door, hand them a document, and as soon as the bell rings, begin a discussion.
  • Brainstorming Activity
    Launch a brainstorming session prior to a new unit of study with a document. This will alert students to topics that they will study.For example: Distribute one or more documents to students. Ask them what places, names, concepts, and issues are contained in the documents, as well as what questions the documents prompt. Write these on a sheet of butcher paper. Keep this list posted in the room for the duration of the unit. Check off items as the students study them.
  • Visualization Exercise
    Encourage students to visualize another place or time by viewing and analyzing graphical materials. For example: Post around your classroom photographs; maps, and other visual materials created during the period that you are studying. Change these images as the units change.
  • Project Inspiration
    Let documents serve as examples for student-created projects.
    For example:
    The Original Design of the Great Seal of the United States, milestone document #5, could be used for this purpose. Provide students with a copy of the document, and assign them to research the symbolism contained in the design. Next, ask them to design a seal of their own, integrating modern-day symbols to represent the characteristics that the nation’s founders included in the Great Seal.
  • Dramatic Presentation Activity
    Use documents to inspire dramatic presentations by your students. For example: Share with students a presidential speech (such as President George Washington’s First Inaugural Speech, milestone document #11), and ask a student volunteer to deliver the speech to the class; or ask a student to present a dramatic reading of a letter; or assign students to write a script containing quotes from primary source documents.
  • Writing Activity
    Use documents to prompt a student writing activity. For example: Share with students a letter and ask them to either respond to it or write the “original” letter that may have prompted that one.
  • Listening Activity
    Allow sound recordings to give students the sensation of being present at a historical event. For example: Dim the lights in your classroom while you play a sound clip from an event, and ask students to describe or draw the scene and/or the emotions in the voices.
  • Creating a Documentary
    Use vintage film footage to encourage student-created documentaries. For example: In place of a traditional unit assessment, assign student groups to create ten-minute documentaries about the time period they have just studied. Ask them to incorporate film footage, photographs, sound, and quotes from other primary sources.
  • Cross-Curricular Activity
    Use documents to suggest and reinforce collaboration with a colleague in another department on student assignments. For example: If a physics teacher assigns students to create an invention, share with students a patent drawing, such as Thomas Edison’s Patent Drawing for the Electric Lamp (1880), milestone document #46. Ask students to draw a patent for their invention along with a specification sheet describing its design and intended purpose. Or share documents with students related to the novels (or authors) that they are reading in language arts.
  • Current Events Activity (What Is Past Is Prologue)
    Use documents to launch a discussion about an issue or news event. For example: Select a document that relates to a person, event, or place that is currently in the news. Strip the document of information revealing the date of its creation and distribute it to students. Ask students to speculate on when it was created.
  • Drawing Connections Activity
    Use documents to help students recognize cause and effect relationships. For example: Provide students with two seemingly unrelated documents and ask them to connect them using other documents. One possibility might be to ask students how the Lee Resolution, (milestone document #1) and the Homestead Act (milestone document #31) are connected. Student answers might include, “Three committees were set up as a result of the Lee Resolution. One committee drafted the Declaration of Independence (milestone document #2). Its principle author was Thomas Jefferson. He was the president at the time of the Louisiana Purchase (milestone document #18). The territory that became part of the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty included much of the land that became available for settlement under the Homestead Act.”
  • Integrating Geography Activity
    Use documents to emphasize the site of significant events. For example: Post a large map of the United States or of the world on the classroom wall. Each time a new milestone document is discussed, place a pin on the location where the specific document was created or where its impact was the greatest. The Northwest Ordinance, milestone document #8, could be used for this purpose. Ask students to first locate the northwestern United States, and then provide the students with a copy of the document. Ask them how their perception of the “northwest” had changed.
  • Small-Group Hypothesis Activity
    Use documents to encourage creative thinking about the significance of a particular document. For example: Using the Cancelled Check for Alaska, milestone document #41, divide students into small groups. Provide them with a copy of the document, and ask them to consider “what if” that document never existed. Encourage them to share their scenarios with the class.
  • Self-Reflective Exercise
    Use documents to prompt student understanding about how government actions and/or events of the past affect the students’ lives today. For example: Provide students with copies of the Nineteenth Amendment (milestone document #63) and the Voting Rights Act (milestone document #100), and ask them to consider the documents’ implications on their lives.
  • Assessment
    Incorporate documents into document- based essay questions to assess student knowledge of a topic or event. For example: Provide students with four documents that relate to westward expansion, such as, the Northwest Ordinance (milestone document #8), the Homestead Act (milestone document #31), the Pacific Railway Act (milestone document #32), and the Morrill Act (milestone document #33). Ask them to use the information contained in the documents and their knowledge of the subject to write an essay explaining the federal government’s role in the settling of the West.

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