Primary Source Tips: 4 Things to Do Every Time

How do you keep primary sources interesting to students? Share with us!

Using primary sources with students these days is so much easier thanks to great sites like by the National Archives.  Like any other tool though, primary sources must be strategically used.  Here are four tips to keep in mind every time you get ready to use primary sources with students.

  1. Choose Wisely– Always think about the topic and content you are teaching.  Then think about your essential question(s).  Pick a primary source (visual, document, or auditory piece) that will work towards the students understanding.  If my goal of a lesson on the Civil Rights movement is to get students to understand the enormous effort used to make significant changes to Jim Crow laws, then a first-hand account of the march on Selma would work really well, whereas an image of the march on Washington might not be as powerful given what the lesson goal is.  Always try to include each of three types of primary sources : 1) visuals, 2) first hand accounts like diaries and old news stories, and 3) audio.
  2. 5 P’s (Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance)– Have a creative plan in place as to how the students will be introduced to the primary source(s).  Create an air of mystery or intrigue surrounding the sources.  For example, in a lesson on the writing of the Declaration of Independence, have students pretend they are pickers who have discovered Ben Franklin’s diary entries of those fateful days in a cluttered attic.  Setting the stage for how students will encounter primary sources is akin to the opening statement of an essay…it’s got to grab their attention or forget about it.
  3. Discovery Learning– Challenge students to answer a series of questions that spiral in difficulty.  When I started teaching in the early ’90’s my best friend was Bloom’s Quick Flip.  Though different iterations exist of it, it’s still a super tool to use.  Find a knowledge question that everyone can answer on the primary source and build from there, asking questions from comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and finally evaluation.
  4. Make it Personal– As students examine the primary source(s), include a way for them to make a personal connection to it.  For example, as students see a portion of the Vietnam wall, have students find soldiers who shared a common name, town, or even birthday.  Challenge students to find primary sources that are similar (topically) to the ones you share with them.

How do you make primary sources interesting and meaningful to students?  Share your ideas with us!

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