I make the past come alive in my classroom by incorporating primary sources into my history lessons. Primary sources include documents, photographs, letters, and other accounts that provide firsthand evidence about a historical event or time period. Since they are created contemporaneously with the historical events we study, analyzing primary sources expands my students’ understanding of important events in history.
Teaching history through primary sources connects students to the past in powerful ways. For example, the effects of the Great Depression resonate more deeply with my students when we explore them through Dorothea Lange’s photography. Additionally, a textbook cannot convey to my students the same intense emotions that they hear in the voices of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust when they listen to oral histories from the USC Shoah Foundation. Primary sources are truly indispensible tools in history classrooms.
Primary sources are not only engaging, but they also promote the development of important literacy skills as students analyze and draw conclusions from these texts. Read on for ideas you can use to incorporate primary source analysis into your history lessons.
Examples of Primary Sources
Historical primary sources include materials that provide firsthand accounts of a person, place, or an event, and these sources come in many different forms. Examples of primary source material include:
· Written materials: speeches, letters, diaries, autobiographies and memoirs, newspapers and magazines published at the time, government documents, maps, laws, advertisements
· Images: photographs, films, fine art
· Audio: oral histories, interviews, music recordings
· Artifacts: clothing, tools, inventions, memorabilia
Where to find primary sources? There are a number of different online collections of primary source documents. If you’re looking for historical primary sources, consider starting your search with these resources.
· The National Archives and DocsTeach
· The Gilder Lehrman Collection
· Life magazine archiveand photo archive
· Smithsonian Source
· The Library of Congress
Primary Source Analysis Guide
After selecting rich and meaningful primary sources, I teach students to analyze these texts in order for them to elicit meaning and draw thoughtful conclusions. The analysis of a primary source starts with content and context. Students first identify the author, audience, and historical context of the source. Since an author may have a particular bias or position, it is important to teach students to identify and acknowledge an author’s perspective or point of view as they begin to analyze a primary source.
After identifying the content and context of a primary source, students then work through a four-step analysis process. I guide the students’ thinking with prompts and questions for each step of the process. The four steps and questions are:
· Observe: What do you observe? Consider the images, people, objects, activities, actions, words, phrases, facts, and numbers.
· Explain: What is the meaning of the objects, words, symbols, etc.?
· Infer: What sentiment (attitude or feeling) do you think the author is trying to convey through the source? What, based on the source, can you infer about the historical event or time period?
· Wonder: What about the source makes you curious? What questions still remain? What additional information would you need to know in order to deepen your understanding of the ideas expressed in the source?
As a final step, students summarize the central idea of the source by considering the author’s message and specific supporting details. To support students in this process, I provide them with fill-in-the-blank prompts to concisely state the central idea.
Analyzing historical primary sources in this way tunes students’ ears and focuses their eyes to the stories of the past. Primary sources personalize history and provide students varying perspectives of an event or time period.
Additional Primary Source Resources
For additional ideas on using primary sources in the classroom, I recommend the following resources.
· The Underground Railroad: Escape from Slavery — This comprehensive activity includes photographs, illustrations, and news articles chronicling the people and events of the Civil War.
· Primary Sources for the Interactive Whiteboard: Colonial America, Westward Movement, Civil War By Karen Baicker
· 15 Primary Source Activities: American History by Lorraine Hopping Egan, Louise Hopping
The book Through My Eyesby Ruby Bridges is my favorite resource to have when teaching about firsthand and secondhand accounts. If you don't have a personal copy and your library doesn't provide one, I highly recommend requesting that your librarian order a copy the next time she places a book order. It's an incredible book that teaches students a lot about the Civil Rights Movement- from the perspective of a child. Many of the accounts are jaw-dropping, and are sure to spark the beginnings of some powerful discussions. I thought I knew the gist of the Ruby Bridges story... until I read this riveting book! The book is entitled Through My Eyes, but there are many accounts written in the sidebars by other people, including Lucille Bridges (Ruby's mother), Mrs. Henry (Ruby's teacher), and Mr. Coles (Ruby's psychologist). There are also excerpts taken from 1960s publications including Good Housekeeping, The New York Times, and U.S. News and World Report.
As for how it relates to teaching about firsthand and secondhand accounts, the book is full of various examples- photographs, quotes, narratives, and excerpts. As you read the book, you can ask students to analyze the various accounts and determine whether each is a firsthand or a secondhand account. Let me illustrate a few examples:
|After reading this newspaper article excerpt from The New York Times, we can discuss how we don't have enough information to determine whether it's a firsthand account or a secondhand account, because we don't know if the author was at the event. The incredible amount of detail leads me to believe that there was a reporter at the event, but we cannot be 100% positive.|
|This page tells the story of one of the very few white families who tried to keep their child in school despite the angry protesters. The use of "she" in the Good Housekeeping magazine article is a clue that helps us to be certain this is a secondhand account: "That night, she woke up screaming. When Daisy went to her, she was babbling about..."|
I use this book on the third day of my Firsthand and Secondhand Accounts unit. (On Day 1, I show students my Firsthand and Secondhand Events PowerPoint, and on Day 2, students complete a sorting activity.) Therefore, they have a basic understanding of the differences between primary and secondary sources, and they are now applying this knowledge.
In conclusion, I would like to share the anchor chart I have created to accompany the lesson I have described above. (I have a slight addiction to anchor charts!)I begin the lesson by displaying this anchor chart. (Prior to class, I draw the top half of the anchor chart- with the headings and definitions.) We quickly review how the images on the anchor chart help us remember the difference between firsthand accounts and secondhand accounts. The boy with the camera represents firsthand accounts, because a person providing a firsthand account of an event would have been present at the event and would have been able to take a photograph of it. The girl reading a book represents secondhand accounts because a person providing a secondhand account was NOT present at the event the are describing. In fact, they usually gather information for their account by reading about the event and doing extensive research. I have the students help me record examples in each column, and we discuss how newspaper articles, magazine articles, and paintings need to be analyzed extra carefully. I remind students that we can only determine whether they are a firsthand or secondhand account if we know whether the author/artist was at the event they are describing. After this quick review, we are ready to begin reading Through My Eyes and analyzing the accounts.
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