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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!)

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