5 Ways to Teach With Primary Sources

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on October 21, 2021

Untitled design (14)How do we help students make sense of the past? During American Archives Month this October and every month, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration suggests that archival materials—also known as primary sources—ought to be an important part of this equation. At Facing History, we agree; primary sources materials are a key component of our pedagogical approach and our classroom resources. In historical study, the term “primary sources” refers to historical evidence produced contemporaneous to the time captured or described in the source. These sources may take the form of images, letters, diaries, speeches, audio recordings, video recordings, and more. Selecting primary sources and making them accessible to students can be challenging, but there are numerous benefits to teaching with them. 

In addition to exposing students to secondary sources that offer their own analyses of these historical objects—sources like textbooks, for example—inviting students into the world of the historical subject through primary sources is an excellent way to build their capacities for critical thinking, expand their understanding of a given historical moment, and humanize the historical actors in question. This is not only important for promoting academic understanding of a historical time period but it also has the potential to help the student understand their own small actions as those that have the potential to play a role in history as it is narrated in the future.

We invite educators to check out these 5 time-tested teaching strategies designed to incorporate analysis of primary sources into educator lesson plans:

Document Analysis Form
Analyzing historical documents requires students to identify the purpose, message, and audience of a text. Document analysis forms are graphic organizers that guide students through a process of identifying important background information about a document (e.g., author/creator, date created, place, format, etc.) and using this data to determine the text’s perspective or bias.

Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources
The Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources strategy requires students to underline key words, write margin notes, and summarize main ideas as they read a primary or secondary source. Use this strategy if you have introduced a writing prompt that students will revisit throughout a unit of study. By practicing this strategy, students will learn to take notes from primary and secondary sources that address the validity of evidence, the perspective of the source, and their own interpretation. 

Analyzing Images
Use this strategy to guide students through a close analysis of an image. By following the steps in this image-analysis procedure, students develop awareness of historical context, develop critical thinking skills, enhance their observation and interpretive skills, and develop conceptual learning techniques. You can use this strategy with any visual media, including a piece of art, photograph, political cartoon, propaganda poster, or video clip.

See, Think, Wonder
Use this simple, critical viewing strategy to guide students’ analysis of any type of visual media. By prompting students to slow down their thinking and simply observe before drawing conclusions and asking questions, you can help them engage more deeply with and analyze more thoughtfully the media they are viewing.

S-I-T: Surprising, Interesting, Troubling
An activity based on the S-I-T strategy provides a quick and straightforward way for students to engage with a text, image, or video. In this activity, students identify what they find surprising, interesting, and troubling about the material. Because the activity gives students an opportunity to process and articulate a short response, it’s especially useful when students are encountering material they find shocking or an outcome that is counterintuitive.

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Facing History and Ourselves invites educators to use our unit Teaching Who Will Write Our History? for a deep dive into teaching with primary sources and urging students to reflect upon their broader significance.

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Topics: History, primary sources, archives

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