Ways to Instantly Use Primary Sources

AUTHOR: Courtney Webster, Social Studies Specialist

Primary resources prove the details of our existence. Without them, historians would not be able to research the past.  Primary documents are used by those who want to understand the person, the place or the event to verify or determine what happened.  History if taught with fidelity can be considered a social science, where students look at various sources whether primary or secondary to research, discuss and validate historic events as accurate or not. As teachers, we would love to use resources in our classrooms but some barriers can make it difficult, including: reading difficulties of students, challenging vocabulary, traditional cursive writing and access to sources that are relevant to students.  From records, interviews, images, articles and maps, all primary documents can be useful to social studies courses.  According to Wineburg and Martin, “[h]istory in sourceless classrooms becomes limited to the textbook, effectively silencing the rich chorus of voices that could speak to contemporary readers.”[1] And although new textbooks have incorporated more primary sources into their covers, oftentimes it is more important for students to examine, inquire and analyze the value and importance of such sources through touch and observation. This allows for them to both connect the student understandings, as well as, the context of the event. Whether you are teaching elementary, middle, high school or college, your students should be learning the skills it takes to comprehend historical content through original documentation.  Here are three ways to make the use of primary sources happen in your class today.

  • Create anchor text with major documents.  The United States Constitution is mentioned significantly in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for courses 5, 8, 11 and Government. Naturally, we do not expect students of various grade levels or reading abilities to approach the document the same. However, they should all have access to the writing and language of the original and an opportunity for understanding the basis and evolution of its interpretation. Even more helpful would be if students had a modified version of the Constitution along with the text of the original Constitution. This would support students in seeing how text is summarized and reworded for simplicity. This foundational document should grow in meaning with students each passing year. Using the United States Constitution as an anchor text.  An anchor can be used in multiple ways but the basis of creating an anchor text is for students to revisit the text for deepening their knowledge. A teacher could place the constitution as a working anchor chart on the wall or by including the text in student’s interactive notebook.  The Constitution with its principles and changes are approached in every era of American History.  However, we as teachers allow students to see the document typically during their civics unit only.  Instead, this foundational document should be revisited as much as possible and treated as a mentor text (even though mentor text implies that the text is chosen by the student to help them explore the information further).  Regardless to how the anchor text is viewed, with a close reading strategy and multiple points of reference, the acquisition of this document would be helpful to students, providing them with an opportunity to revisit topics, inquire about meaning and apply context to content with their current unit.  Informational text along with other sources and books can remind students of their civil liberties back to our Democratic Republic playbook with all of the rules, changes and challenges of our great country.

Identify, yet tamper with the evidence.

The word tampering can have a negative connotation, however, both Dr. Wineburg and Dr. Martin use the word tampering to really mean adapt. By adapting, the authors are really saying, accommodate the language of the article.  In fact, “[they] urge teachers to physically alter sources: to change their syntax and vocabulary; to conventionalize their spelling, capitalization and punctuation- even rearranging sentence sequences if necessary…”[2] This particular piece can be time consuming however there are resources that can get you started.  When looking for how to teach primary documents, as well as, for documents that are already modified, go to Teaching History.org[3] Documents and tools are segmented into elementary, middle and high school categories.  Also, there is TexQuest[4]  which has several databases to teachers to use and find sources. Inside many of the databases, you can receive access to modified documents and there is a reading link for students use to listen to the documents as well. To determine whether or not your district has access to TexQuest contact your campus librarian for more details.

Conduct historical inquiry based on a single document

Dr. Wineburg states, “…history reminds us to start with basic questions.”[5]  Students are inquisitive about the people, places and events of the world, however, they are not keen on answering questions because that often times requires the right answer. Students, in our information age, must learn how to form questions to better understand new information beyond the facts.  One can encourage students to build questions by using the PBL “Needs to Know” method. This can happen by allowing students to look at a primary document and simply asking the question, what do we need to know to understand this text or image?  Once students have developed a list of ideas, encourage them to categorize their statements and ask questions based on their list. Another method used to build inquiry is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).  This is a way of building inquiry was developed by the Right Question Institute[6] founders Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. Their book Make Just One Change deals with the complexity getting students to think by generating questions. By introducing the QFT technique, teachers are molding students to think about concepts instead of recite facts.

Regardless to whether you are stepping into the classroom for the first time or meeting a new group of students for the twenty fifth time, take a new approach to primary documents and have fun watching your students explore social studies with more depth through authentic instruction and text.

[1] Wineburg, S., & Martin, D. (2009, September). Tampering with History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers. Social Education, 73(5), 212-216.

[2] Wineburg, S., & Martin, D. (2009, September). Tampering with History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers. Social Education, 73(5), 212-216.

[3] Teaching History.org, home of the National History Education Clearinghouse. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://teachinghistory.org/

[4] TexQuest  . (n.d.). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from http://texquest.net/welcome

[5] Wineburg, S., D. Martin and C. Monte-Sano. Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle & High School History Classrooms. 2013.

[6] The Right Question Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://rightquestion.org/


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