Have you ever wondered how history itself is made? Though we often talk about individuals and groups “making history” by making certain types of contributions to society, less frequently do we talk about the complex process through which historians construct their accounts of the past. During American Archives Month this October, we have a chance to explore the central role of archives in shaping our perceptions of the past, the various forces that determine the materials and voices included in a given archive, and how this insight can enrich the way we think about historical materials and even produce our own.
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:
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