How would you improve student learning and skills with primary sources?

Hello classmates!

As I reflect on activities that we have completed in class, my mind ponders on what the most effective ways of assessing the proficiency of student primary source analysis skills. As a class we chose objects of our preference and analyzed them in four parts: 1) meet the artifact; 2) observe its parts; 3) try to make sense of it; and 4) use it as historical evidence. Through this process, we made inferences by carefully examining the physical appearance of the object and hypothesizing its purpose.

We also learned how to analyze, especially compare and contrast, between different primary sources, such as an image of King George and an image of George Washington. We carefully examined what objects and symbols were included in the image and why those objects may have been included. This way, we inferred what message the illustrator was trying to deliver.

I have been thinking about how else students could show that they are proficient in their primary source analysis skills, and I thought of something I found pretty interesting and creative. Instead of having the students use primary sources to make inferences and develop and understanding by a repeated “observe and think” process, I think students can benefit from creating their own creative primary sources. By this, I mean students can tackle on writing letters or poems in the eyes of a critical historical figure or a commoner of any status. For example, after learning about Abraham Lincoln and his relevance to the history we learn today, a student could write a letter to a fictional friend and explain his thoughts/feelings on the topic at hand. Not only will students be able to identify and understand what happened, but they will also gain the opportunity to use advanced skills in understanding the emotions/intentions behind primary sources.

My question for you all is can you think of any ways of incorporating primary sources or just building on primary source analysis skills without necessarily providing an actual primary source? Be creative:)

8 thoughts on “How would you improve student learning and skills with primary sources?

  1. Luis, I love the idea you propose and the creativity you are fostering! We, as educators, are constantly being challenged and prompted to be creative and find new and interesting ways to disseminate information. My hope is that today’s teachers are being equally equipped to find new ways to prepare old lessons and not just stick with the old “tried and true” ways of doing things but rather, be inspired to grow and adapt to help make the subject and class more interesting and more relatable.

    As for a new way to engage with Primary Sources, I might suggest the idea proposed by our weekly assignment and have the students actually try to “adapt” a difficult primary source such as a paragraph from a speech or a letter. Helping guide the process might be a fun way for the students to actually see that it might be something they can do on their own once they understand the process. – Erika

  2. Luis,
    I love the creativity you’ve brought to teaching and learning about primary sources. Students of all ages, but especially elementary students, can easily be bored by historical documents or images without creative prompts. I remember learning about historical documents, treaties or laws in civics and social studies and often times feeling bored. I think we have an opportunity to use the current political conversation involving primary sources to step up our approach to history and learning from primary sources. There are so many modern techniques and approaches that previous educators were not learning during their academic preparation that we have been exposed to. Even furthermore, we have access to technology and communication that could provide excellent resources and tools to help introduce students to primary sources. I think your idea is a great way to apply student knowledge about primary sources and engage learners to put themselves in someone else’s historical shoes.

  3. Before taking this class, I did not realize the importance of primary sources in the elementary classroom. Other than pictures of historical figures in high school PowerPoints that we did not address, I do not think I encountered a single primary source during my time as a student. I really enjoyed our artifact activity during class. Not only would it give children the opportunity to encounter and analyze artifacts, but these artifacts also become personalized for children. They realize artifacts are real objects used by real people: mothers, fathers, children, grandmothers. I look forward to utilizing Picturing America and the Mt. Vernon and Jamestown resources.

    I like the idea of having students create their own primary sources. They can incorporate what they have learned in class about historical events as well as their knowledge of the importance of primary sources. In addition to creating a letter or diary page from a historical figure’s perspective, students could attempt to create “firsthand” photos or illustrations of events. Also (as we learned in this week’s reading “Tampering with History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers”), since primary sources in their original form may be inaccessible to students, we as teachers can adapt them for students’ understanding. Rather than approaching textbooks, ALL students have an opportunity to approach authentic history and perspectives. Adapted sources can even be compared to originals. Overall, students’ interaction with primary sources is crucial, and I am glad we are discussing creative ways to keep kids engaged!

  4. Hi Luis,

    I want to acknowledge that you described our in-class activities pertaining to primary vs. secondary resources really well. During these activities, I enjoyed looking for the small details as we compared and contrasted King George’s portrait to the Lansdowne portrait. During our discussion, Dr. Stohr mentioned how we might have recognized George Washington in the Lansdowne portrait and comparing the portrait to a dollar bill and analyze the two.

    At first, I was hesitant about how to answer your question about how we could plan for instruction on primary vs secondary sources without providing an actual primary source for reference. However, as I thought about potential ways to do so, my mind directed me to the concept of rhymes or songs that students could learn to lyrics to and I came across a YouTube video that was very creative in comparing primary sources to secondary sources. With instructional time already having its limits, the video is too long for students to watch/learn, so I thought it would be a great reference for teachers to mold/create a shorter, more grade-friendly song (I also didn’t feel that it was appropriate with the image of a person holding a red cup since implications could be made about what could be inside the cup). Further, in this music video, I thought it was important to point out that it is mentioned from the “secondary source” side, that some primary sources do not always tell, implying that we should question primary sources to other primary sources to identify any biases that might be present. Here is the link to the video:

    Overall, I appreciate you pushing myself and our classmates to get more creative with teaching the concepts of primary and secondary sources. I truly believe that simple, explicit songs and rhymes throughout the year are a great way for students to learn certain concepts and skills.

    Hope this is helpful!

  5. Hi Luis!

    I really enjoyed reading your inquiry; I think having students create their own primary source is a physically creative assignment that requires higher-level thinking. Perhaps this assignment could fall towards the end of a unit; if the students have already analyzed actual primary sources and learned the content, they will have acquired the tools necessary to display their knowledge.
    I think this process could fall under the adaptation process; because students are working on a project using their own understanding. The three steps, focus, simplification, and presentation, are all guided by their understanding.
    An example of this that I have done recently with my 3rd-graders is having them create papyrus paper and inscribe messages using hieroglyphics to wrap up the Ancient Egypt unit. Not only did they have fun completing the craft, but they were able to show their knowledge and gain a better understanding of the complexities and hard work of Ancient Egyptians.

  6. Hi Luis!

    When I think of incorporating primary source learning in my classroom, my mind brings me to technology. Some schools in my area give out Chromebooks as early as first grade! Young students today are very technologically advanced and it is no surprise that most of them prefer doing work online. Because of this, I think using historical locations websites is a huge benefit! For example, I am working on a Virginia Studies Toolbox which is geared towards the fourth grade. I would have the students take virtual tours and look at first-hand artifacts on both the Colonial Williamsburg and Colonial Jamestown websites! I have linked both below for your convenience. They are amazing primary sources and will keep your students focused while also being fun.

  7. Luis, what a challenging question you’ve asked! I think you and your classmates have come up with some creative ideas. I’d like to see students journal maybe once a week and revisit their journals as a way to “remember” recent history. Wouldn’t it be interesting if everyone journaled on the day of a fire drill and described it? What would happen a week later if you compared their accounts? You could integrate so much more than thinking about primary sources into a lesson like this.

    Thanks to Morgan for sharing the parody video. I loved it!

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