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5 powerful things to think about when using primary sources

Way back in the day, there was no access to digital primary sources. There weren’t any online archives. DocsTeach? Nope. Stanford History Education Group? Nope. Library of Congress? Nada.

W all made due with whatever supplementary materials showed up with our textbooks and the assorted primary source Jackdaw kits that were able to track down. But here’s the thing . . . even if I had somehow gotten access to actual digital primary source documents back in the day, I’m not sure what I would have done with them. Like most social studies teachers at the time (and more than just a few today), I really didn’t have a clue of how to use primary sources as part of the learning process.

Even worse, I wasn’t really sure why I should be using this sort of evidence. What was the point? I mean . . . every kid had a textbook. I had a teacher’s version of the textbook. I could lecture. They could copy down my notes. What else did we need?

But with the help of some amazing mentors, I began moving more towards the idea that kids need to be active users of evidence while solving problems. And there is now a clear shift in social studies and history instruction towards this idea of historical thinking, using evidence, and problem solving. More and more teachers are using primary sources as integral pieces of the learning process.

And we’ve seen a very cool supply and demand process happening over the last few years. Teachers want and need more primary sources. The internet has made those sources more available and accessible. More availability and accessibility means more teachers are using those sources. More teachers used to this availability of sources demand even more sources.

But there will always be questions about how to best use primary sources. I recently ran across an older article by Discovery Ed’s Joe Sangillo, who does a nice job of highlighting five things we need to keep in mind as we integrate primary sources into our learning activities. I’ve pasted a quick summary of Joe’s thinking below but be sure to head over to Discovery Ed to get the full meal deal:

1. Use primary sources to corroborate secondary sources

Provide students with a secondary interpretation—a recent newspaper article, an encyclopedic narrative, a passage from a book—and provide primary sources for students to corroborate the claims. This works great with excerpts from Wikipedia, your textbook, video documentaries, and current event articles.

2. Brainstorm dialogue of historical figures based on primary source analysis

Joe suggests having students create theater or movie type conversations from their interpretations of primary sources. His example? Have Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson argue about economic theories and the type of America they both thought was best. (And then compare to Lin Manuel Miranda’s version!)

3. Move past the “main idea”

Joe argues for rigorous close reading of primary source evidence rather than simple summaries of the document’s main idea.

4. Let all people in history speak for themselves

Teachers should think about what voices are students are hearing in our classrooms. If all the primary sources focus on politicians and notable figures, the everyday folks driving history are left out . . . “analyzing the words of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are important, but so too is hearing from those not so famous and those often marginalized in society.”

An example earlier in the article highlights the fact that many textbooks were generally a static, authoritative source that often left out these marginalized voices.

Joe asked asks us to read this outdated excerpt from the 1st edition of the American Pageant textbook in 1956:

The average ex-slave, freed by the war and the 13th Amendment, was essentially a child. Life under the lash had unfortunately left him immature—socially, politically, emotionally. To turn him loose upon the cold world was like opening the door of an orphanage and telling the children they were free to go where they liked and do as they wished. One of the cruelest calamities ever to be visited upon the much-abused Negro was jerking him overnight from bondage to freedom, without any intermediate stages of preparation . . . The hapless Negro was in some ways even more of a menace to himself.

Seriously? We know this how? What evidence are textbook authors using? Where are the voices of these former enslaved persons? Where are the quotes from African Americans who lived through Reconstruction? There are plenty of examples and resources that give students a chance to hear from those who lived through this period which would dispute this simplistic, false, and condescending narrative presented as fact. While it’s easy to dismiss this excerpt because it’s from 1956, Joe highlights more recent examples of similar textbook statements and suggests that when we fail to include multiple perspectives, “students are less likely to engage with the content and feel empathy for the foot soldiers of history.”

5. Consider multiple formats of primary sources

Your students need to interact with all sorts of evidence. The Common Core literacy standards and the NCSS C3 Framework all support the use of a variety of media types when solving problems. So along with reading a speech, our kids need to be analyzing photos, making sense of maps, using graphs and charts, using political cartoons, and viewing video clips.

We can’t go back to the old days of trusting textbooks as our only source of instructional materials. The interwebs gives us a ton of archival and primary source materials that encourage the development of historical thinking skills. We need to be responsible for crafting inquiry-based units that take advantage of these materials.

Not exactly sure where to find online primary sources?

The old reliables:

Maybe some new ones:

Engaging Students with Primary Sources (60 page PDF chock full of integration ideas!)

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alex #

    I really appreciated your list of ways that we can use primary sources in the classroom. So often, students are tasked with viewing them one dimensionally, and I think its so important to have students look at sources through many different lenses, seeking to understand the wide history that they are able to communicate. Your list of new ways to find primary sources also is great! With the rise of technology there are so many different sites and resources out there, so having them all in one place is a great asset to help me and my students find sources we need for class!

    November 2, 2021
  2. Isabella #

    I can imagine that with the abundance of primary sources that come with access to the internet, it can be difficult navigate which ones are best to use in the classroom. However, with the list of five criteria to think about when using primary sources, it can help us narrow our choices down which sources are the best ones to use.

    November 4, 2021
  3. Hannah #

    Hi, this was a great and very interesting post! In the history and social studies world primary sources are extremely prevalent and very powerful. In this day and age we have so much access to this information and these documents which makes it so much easier to use in the classroom- and I agree with you we absolutely should and need to take advantage of it. Kids in their classes should be taught to work like historians and move towards the world of using evidence to analyze and solve problems. I completely agree with your five points; use primary sources to corroborate secondary sources, brainstorm dialogue of historical figures based on primary source analysis, move past the main idea, let all people in history speak for themselves and consider multiple formats of primary sources. I found aspect four and five to be extremely interesting and crucial in the classroom. First of all, letting the people of history speak for themselves is extremely important because that way students are getting multiple perspectives from the people themselves without biases of a secondary source only the bias of the person retelling. Considering multiple formats is also important because reading 100 diary entries can get boring and monotonous. Thank you so much for sharing this information!

    November 4, 2021
  4. Gabriel Mann #

    Hi Glenn, as someone who had a minor in history and has spent a lot of time reading primary sources for college courses, I greatly appreciated and enjoyed your blog post. I always thought of primary sources as the long and dry texts with old fashioned writing style on boring or difficult topics. However, as I get further into my teaching certification program, I’m realizing that’s not always the case. I think your second point of brainstorming the dialogue of historical figures based on primary source analysis, is a fantastic way to get students engaged with history. Having students put themselves into the shoes of famous historical figures allows them to see how history played out at the micro-scale and is a lot more fun than just reading dry and boring primary sources. Another one of your points that stuck out to me was considering multiple formats for primary sources, like video. Thank you for compiling the long list of where to find online primary sources! It is extremely helpful and I’ll be sure to reference it once I start my student teaching.

    November 4, 2021
  5. Glenn, thank you for the clear and concise summary of these strategies. I think your fifth point about varying source types is particularly important, as visual literacy is such an integral part of our modern online experience. Your collection of source archives is also invaluable and greatly appreciated. I do wonder with the sheer number, however, how teachers (particularly first year teachers) can parse through such vast collections to identify which sources will be useful for students just beginning to develop source analysis skills. In other words: what characteristics should teachers look for in sources to make them accessible to students? Thank you!

    November 5, 2021
  6. Scott #

    Thank you for this post! I am currently a graduate student working towards my Master’s in Education with certification in History. I have a class right now that focuses on the literacy of history and how to teach students to think, read, and write like historians. I love the idea of using various sources to corroborate the telling of history. I can also appreciate the use of a variety of ‘types’ of sources in order to help students contextualize a person, place, or event. It’s encouraging to see such a great example of what we are learning in our program right now as we get ready to move into placements where we will be putting everything we’ve learned into action. Most importantly, thank you for all the great resources!!!!! Despite the vastness of the internet, my colleagues and I have had frequent discussions on where to find reliable (and appropriate) sources for our students.

    November 20, 2021
  7. Brad #

    As an aspiring history teacher myself, I like the quote about how “analyzing the words of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are important, but so too is hearing from those not so famous and those often marginalized in society.” History can too often be portrayed as the tale of these larger than life figures, these so-called “Great men” (and women) who are driving all the action in the narrative. Reality of course is far more complex than that, and moreover focusing too much on this aspect of history makes it easy to forget the perspectives of what most people living in the past actually were like. Not even just marginalized people in particular (although their voices are of course very important), but even just the average person. It seems to me that it’s often easiest for people to realize that the events we are studying affected real people living in a real time that actually happened when they read accounts by average people of the day. The challenge is that, sadly, for many times and place in history, there aren’t a ton of existing accounts by “average” people, either because of poor literacy rates or because their accounts weren’t deemed notable enough to preserve. Would be interesting to somehow find a way around that.

    November 29, 2021
    • glennw #


      You raise a great point – how can we find the stories of those on the margins of history? How can we help kids fill in what Sam Wineburg call the silences between the lines? It can be more difficult for sure. But it does seem like more and more archives are intentionally digitizing more and more collections from “regular” people. Though it will always be difficult finding stories from enslaved persons and those from groups with oral histories, it’s slowly getting easier to find some of these stories.

      The fact that educators like you are asking for them is creating a demand that archives are working to fill.

      Thanks for stopping by!


      November 30, 2021

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