Primary Students + Primary Sources= Excitement!

As a passionate teacher of social studies, I find that when my kids use the process of inquiry to generate questions and conduct research, they are far more engaged in history. Encouraging use of evidence and effective reasoning are important skills for 21st century learners, and generating theories about the past using the sources allow students to do just that. This evening, I am planning to present my first webinar for the National Council for the Social Studies with the idea of spreading more information about how I have worked with primary sources in my classroom. Here is my attempt:


Synthesizing all of my learning into what should fit into some Google Slides has proved a challenge, but I have given it a shot. In order to effectively use primary sources with elementary aged students, there are a few core rules I always follow:

1. Know more than just the tip of the iceberg

When you use primary docs with kids, it leads to them wanting to know more. Unlike using a traditional social studies text, where a teacher could potentially cram the night before to have students answer the questions, primary docs

2. Encourage Close Reading & “Can-Do” Attitude

When reading primary docs, especially those written, kids have a difficult time getting used to the print, colloquialisms and complexity. I always tell my students that sometimes even historians can expect not to understand all, but that often docs can be a jumping off point to find out more.  Sometimes reading a document means trying to piece together bits and pieces of what they are learning. Close reading is an excellent strategy for doing this work. For more information about how you can use the close reading strategy with primary sources, see my example of a Close Reading Plan for Patrick Henry’s Speech from CTCorestandards.org.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 3.41.32 PM3. Build Vocabulary and Background

I often introduce a TIP chart (Terms, Information & Pictures) when I begin with the mini-lecture at the beginning of my inquiry lesson. I teach key words that students will need to use  accountable talk and connect a gesture to go with it as well.

4. Model Strategies for Analyzing Sources

I have used the SOAP method that I first learned at a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar for analyzing primary source documents, and since finding how helpful that was with students, I developed acronyms for use with looking at pictures and material culture as well. In order to look at pictures, I teach kids the DOQ method, which stands for Divide the picture into quadrants, Observe the objects, landscapes & people, and Question to find out the perspectives and other research needed to understand. The DOQ method is based on a graphic organizer I found on the National Archives website. In order to look at object, I developed a mneumonic device for students to remember different steps to take, using CHARTS. Think about the Creator, How the object was used, the Audience (who used it), the Reason for use, the Time it was used, and include a Sketch of the object. Using these strategies as an anchor can help students get more out of the experience, and these methods can be simplified and modified based on the level of your students.

5. Think Outside the Archives

You may think that primary sources are limited to what can be found on the Library of Congress website or a university database. Depending on your unit of study, your students and families can be a great source for docs as well. You may find that an old library card, report card or inventory list can be a great starting point for a unit for youngsters on school. Perhaps one of your colleagues is a Revolutionary War buff, or your local historical society has a treasure trove of letters from citizens written during the Civil War. I found boxes and boxes of articles, pictures and documents about my school throughout the last fifty years that turned out to be perfect for our third grade unit on local history in a box in the back of a cabinet! You never know what you may find if you do a little digging!

6. Don’t forget material culture

Today, I worked with third graders to analyze artifacts such as a sock darning egg, a camera from 1950 and a series of bobbins from our local (now defunct) long underwear mill and factory. The rich conversations and hilarious interpretations brought joy and curiosity, and made them a little more eager to listen to some information about what all of these objects were about.  As a teacher at a summer camp in my town’s historical society, I find having access to things like corn dryers and musket balls can help students engage more fully in a lesson. Even things you can find at your grocery store or museum shop can lend a sense of occasion to a lesson. Civil War? Bring in some hard tack and let them try it. Learning about the silk road and the age of Exploration? Try smelling the various spices that were so coveted during this time.

In what ways do you think teachers need to prepare in order to engage students with inquiry in Primary Source documents?

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