Using Primary Sources in the Classroom

Students draw their own conclusions by studying documents created in the past.

By Wendy Haagenson

Using Primary Sources in the Classroom

For many reasons, I found that social studies was my least favorite subject in school. It seemed as though the information was far removed from my daily experience and inapplicable to my life. It's true that “history repeats itself,” but I thought we could deal with that when it happened. My whole frame of mind changed when a college professor introduced me to using primary sources in the classroom. Primary sources include, but are not limited to, maps, speeches, photographs, artwork, advertisements, travel documents, architectural blueprints, clothing, jewelry, interviews, diaries, letters, government documents/records, music, and poetry.

Why Use Primary Sources?

Students become more involved in their learning when primary documents are used. Using primary documents requires students to use the higher-level thinking skills of Bloom’s Taxonomy as well. They are no longer simply reading out of a textbook, but instead are analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating their learning materials. In addition, they are required to come to their own conclusions, instead of reading about the conclusions that others have drawn for them. In this way, students become an active part of their learning.

Making Differentiation Easy

For me, differentiating is easier when using first-hand sources of information, than it is when using a textbook. Differentiation is possible when learning out of a textbook, but the input is more or less the same for everyone. When using primary documents, you can find different ways for students to learn the same information. Frequently, I give different documents to small groups of students and each group is responsible for presenting their findings to the class. For example, if we are learning about immigration to the United States through Ellis Island, I might give a group of learners that typically need more support a few maps to study and pinpoint which countries had the highest number of residents immigrate to the United States. English language learners might receive a few pictures of people shortly after arriving at Ellis Island. I would expect this group to use the pictures to infer what kind of a lifestyle these people had lived in their homeland. Students that need more of a challenge might be given government documents completed at the time of immigration. This group might be responsible for determining if people of a certain age group or occupation were more likely to come to America. All students are studying the same topic, and by the end of the lesson, all students have received the same information, but the learning was carried out in a way that suited everyone’s needs.

A Word about Newspapers

I am all for using newspapers in the classroom. Newspapers are relevant to daily life, informative, interesting, and teach students that learning can continue long after the textbooks are closed. However, newspapers can be viewed as primary or secondary sources depending upon the specific article and when it was published. Newspaper articles published long ago are generally viewed as primary sources by historians. If the newspaper is current, it is probably seen more as a secondary source unless the author is writing a firsthand account. If you decide to use newspapers in your classroom, and I hope you do, please proceed with caution; not everything published in your local paper is child-friendly. What follows are lessons that involve using primary sources.

Lessons Using Primary Sources:

Using Primary Sources in the Classroom

This lesson is great for introducing primary sources to students who have never used them. The teacher selects a primary source and the student completes a step-by-step analysis.

The Mystery of History: Original Sources

This whole group activity gives students the chance to practice sorting primary sources from secondary sources. After completing this activity, students should have a better understanding of why a primary source is a primary source.

Is That Necessary?

Students read and discuss a handbook written in 1851 for new immigrants arriving in Wisconsin.

Exploring Benjamin Franklin's Works

In this lesson for younger students, the many inventions of Benjamin Franklin are presented through primary sources. Students must decide which they think is most important.

Old Map, New Map: Let's Compare

Students look at how their community has changed by comparing a current map with a map from the 1800s.