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Why Use Primary Sources?

Using primary sources in research papers and projects is a time-honored way to engage students with primary historical materials. Yet primary sources can be incorporated into all phases of instruction. This framework will help you use primary sources throughout your teaching.

The framework is divided into four sections:


Rationale for Using Primary Sources

For years, historians and other educators have understood the value of primary sources in K-12 education. Two key reasons for including primary sources in the curriculum are:

  1. Primary sources expose students to multiple perspectives on great issues of the past and present. History, after all, deals with matters that were furiously debated by the participants. Interpretations of the past are furiously debated as well, among historians, policy makers, politicians, and ordinary citizens. By working with primary sources, students can become involved in these debates.
  2. Primary sources help students develop knowledge, skills, and analytical abilities. By dealing directly with primary sources, students engage in asking questions, thinking critically, making intelligent inferences, and developing reasoned explanations and interpretations of events and issues in the past and present.

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Selecting Sources: Here are some questions to answer before selecting primary sources for your students:

Interest - What kinds of sources are of particular interest to my students? - What kinds of sources are of particular interest to my students?

Reading Level - How difficult is the reading level of the primary source compared to my students' abilities? What might help my students comprehend this material (a glossary of terms, for example)?

Length - How long is the source? Do I need to excerpt a portion of the source given my students' abilities and/or classroom time constraints? How do I ensure that the original meaning of the source is preserved in the excerpt?

Points of View - Are various points of view on a given topic, event, or issue fairly represented in the sources I have chosen to use? Have I achieved proper balance among the competing points of view?

Variety of Sources - Have I included a variety of types of sources (e.g., published, unpublished, text, visual, and artifacts)?

Location - Where can I or my students find the sources we need (the school or public library, the local history society, over the Internet)?

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Organizing Instruction

To organize the use of primary sources in your classroom, consider the following:

Activity Types - How will the primary sources be used (as the basis for class discussion, written reports, in-class presentations, role playing, or other instructional strategy?) - How will the primary sources be used (as the basis for class discussion, written reports, in-class presentations, role playing, or other instructional strategy?)

Classroom Management - How will I organize students for an activity? Will the primary source activity lend itself to individual, small group, or whole class participation?

Time - How much time must I allocate for completion of student tasks?

Assessment - What product or performance will my students create as a result of this experience with primary sources? How will I assess that product or performance?

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Activities for the Instructional: Here are ideas for incorporating primary sources into four phases of instruction.

Focus | Inquiry | Application | Assessment


Focus Activities

Focus activities can be used to introduce a topic or to re-engage students during a longer unit of instruction. Use one or two short primary sources to begin a lesson, unit, or block of instruction.

  1. For focus activities, choose primary sources that:
    • present a puzzle;
    • challenge a stereotype or conventional wisdom;
    • present a contradiction;
    • offer an insight (or aha! experience);
    • promote empathy (through a human interest story);
    • present a generalization or explanation against which different generalizations or explanations can be compared later.
  2. Present focus activities using the following techniques:
    • Generate one or two well-crafted questions about the sources. Use the questions to spark a class discussion or as a task for pairs of students to answer.
    • Ask students to freely write their reactions to a thought-provoking document. Then, as a class, compare different reactions prompted by the document.
    • After reviewing one or two primary sources, have small groups of students generate a list of questions about the upcoming topic of instruction.
    • Use contemporary primary sources to focus instruction on a historical period. For example, use a modern newspaper editorial on immigration, minimum wage, or welfare reform as a springboard into exploration of those issues in the past. Ask students to make predictions about historical debates based on what they have read in contemporary editorials. Similarly, a historical source on a recurrent topic can be used to spur inquiry into current debate on that recurring issue.

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Inquiry Activities

Help students explore main concepts in a block of instruction using an inquiry approach to primary sources.

  1. To develop an inquiry approach, provide students with a set of primary sources on a topic, concept, or time period. Students can use the Internet and other research tools to assemble sets of primary sources for themselves.
  2. Use primary source sets as the focus for a series of inquiry activities. Have students use primary source sets to answer questions about historical eras, generate and test hypotheses, and derive conclusions.
  3. Student inquiry can range from working exclusively with primary source documents to using selected primary sources to supplement the student textbook and other instructional materials.

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Application Activities

Use primary sources to help students apply the concepts they are learning and to extend that learning beyond the textbook, other instructional materials, or other primary sources.

  1. Primary sources can be used to challenge students to apply what they've learned from primary sources. Have students expand or alter textbook explanations of history based on primary sources they study.
  2. Provide students with the entire text of a primary source that has been excerpted in their textbook. Based on the full text of the primary source, ask students to defend or refute conclusions drawn by the textbook author. Then have students search online and in other sources for additional documents that support their conclusions.
  3. Present a set of primary sources in sequence. Ask students to consider how new documents support or challenge information and understanding garnered from other documents. Have students refine or revise conclusions based on their study of each subsequent primary source.

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Assessment Activities

Primary sources can be useful tools for evaluating student mastery of skills and concepts.

Use primary sources to assess what students have learned and to evaluate their skill in analyzing primary sources. For evaluation activities, select either sources from the historical era under study or choose contemporary sources related to the historical topic. Actual assessment tasks might include having students:

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