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Crop It: hands on primary source analysis strategy

I’ve had the chance over the last few weeks to spend a lot of time working with both elementary and secondary teachers on effective uses of primary sources. Together, we shared a wide variety of both digital and paper / pencil strategies that support historical thinking.

One of the easiest but most effective strategies is called Crop It. In some ways, it’s a lot like my Evidence Analysis Window Frame but I really like the flexibility embedded in the Crop It idea. The idea is pretty simple: students use L-shaped paper “cropping” tools to explore a visual or textual primary source.

One of the problems that we often face is finding ways to help students see details – and to make sense of the those details – when viewing a primary source. Photos, paintings, and graphics can contain a ton of specifics that get missed if students don’t take the time to look for them.

Crop It slows this process down so that students scan a source at a deep level and think about what they’re looking at. It gives them a way to find evidence, see multiple viewpoints, and gain a more detailed understanding of a primary source.

This strategy works especially well with elementary and middle school students to help them develop and support historical thinking. And the cool thing is that you can use it with all sorts of visual sources.

Step One:

Select a primary source or a collection of sources that are related. Your collection might include sources of the same event but from different perspectives, times, or creators such as Revere’s version of the Boston Massacre and Alonzo Chappel’s 1876 version. These could be political cartoons, paintings, or photographs. (While the Crop It strategy is designed to work with visuals, we’ve also had success with textual sources.)

A great place to find visual primary sources is the Library of Congress Primary Sources Sets, the Digital Public Library, and the Internet History Sourcebook.

Step Two:

Give each student a primary source and a set of cropping tools. These are simply pieces of paper or hard card stock cut into L-shaped pieces from 8.5 x 11 sheets. Demonstrate that all sorts of shapes can be created using the cropping tools. Explain that students will be using the tools to explore their primary source based on a series of questions you’ll be asking.


Step Three:

Using this list from the Teaching History site, their PowerPoint presentation, or your own set of questions, guide students through an exploration of their primary sources. Ask a question and have kids answer the question by using their cropping tools to isolate a specific area on their source.


Have students work in pairs or encourage them to rotate and look at how other students have cropped to different places on their image.

You could extend the activity by collecting the information that students gather during the cropping activity in a chart format. This would allow you and students to keep a record of their thinking. If students have access to mobile devices or laptops, students could also take pictures of their crops and embed them into digital documents.

(The Northern Virginia Teaching with Primary Sources site has an online version of the activity that you might want to have a go at.)

The goal of the activity is to train students to look for contextual clues, to ask good questions, and to analyze evidence in order to solve a problem. To help support this process, end the activity by requiring some sort of response to a teacher prompt. This could be a simple exit card activity or more involved writing or digital project.

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