Once you’ve discovered primary sources, they can completely change the dynamic of your social studies curriculum. I mean, think about it. Would you rather read a technical account of female education in the Middle East, or watch Malala’s impassioned speech to the United Nations? It’s a no-brainer, right? Watching Malala’s facial expressions and hearing the emotion in her voice creates a visceral response that changes your perception. There’s just nothing like a primary source to make history come to life.
But primary sources can seem a little intimidating at first. Sometimes students are so used to reading a third-person source, answering questions, and moving on to the next topic that they have a hard time working with, interpreting, and analyzing primary sources. Never fear, once you help your students get started, they’ll love them! Here are a few tips to get started.
Archives.gov is a fantastic source for primary source analysis worksheets. Click here to check it out!
Hook Your Students
Before you introduce a topic or unit, find a primary source that will grab your students’ attention. Primary sources are ideal for front-loading information, activating background knowledge, and engaging students. Try this out: project an image with no background information (like the picture of Buzz Aldrin below). Have student pairs or small groups each come up with two questions related to the image. Revisit their questions at the end of the unit to discover whether they were answered.
Imagine students examining this photo of Buzz Aldrin
Students will definitely need guidance when they work with primary sources for the first time. Model how to dissect a source, including looking at the date, context, creator, etc. Graphic organizers can be SUPER helpful in this process!
So often we hardly make it past the main idea or summary of a social studies topic before it’s time to move on to the next. It’s definitely important to understand the main idea, but students are capable of so much more. Social studies is full of different perspectives, nuances, and outright contradictions. Use primary sources to help students look deeply at people and events to understand them in relation to history and one another. You might even discover a new perspective you hadn’t thought of!
Using primary sources lends itself beautifully to meeting multiple skills and standards. Working on inferencing? Use a photo to help your students practice combing schema and evidence to make an inference. Or perhaps your students can compare and contrast two different perspectives about the same event.
Once students have worked with primary sources, allow them to create some of their own. You can do this a couple of ways. First, have students create primary source documents for current events. Maybe they write a letter to a future student describing what life was like for a student in 2019. Or they create a cartoon about something important to them.
Or, you can get really imaginative. Have your students pretend to be a person from whatever time period you’re studying and create a faux primary source from that time. Perhaps they create a map as a miner in the California Gold Rush or design a 1920s propaganda poster for equal rights for women. The possibilities are endless!
Do you have any amazing ways that you use primary sources in your classroom? I’d love to hear about them!
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