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Primary Sources – How to Design Lessons Around Great Content Using an Inquiry-Based Approach

By Connie Williams

So you’ve found some great primary sources, like images or maybe a couple of diary entries, that you know your students will love. Fabulous! But now what? You’re probably wondering how exactly you should use them in the classroom, and how you can help your students get the most out of them.

What follows is guidance on how to design a lesson around great primary sources. This guidance ranges from designing your lesson, activity or unit to finding ready-made lessons from sources like the Library of Congress. It’s a mashup of several thoughts to jumpstart your own thinking. Enjoy!

P.S.: Be sure to see the great companion webinar available here

Lesson Design

Decide what skills you want to teach and grade along the way. (It’ll make your life so much easier!)

Locate: “I want my students to be able to go forth and find information to put context to this document/image they have in hand.”

Start with a pathfinder. Sending students out to the vast Internet to research without guidance is like asking them to hike the Appalachian Trail without a map. Knowing the landmarks, understanding how trails work, and figuring out that some of those trails are going to lead them elsewhere are important things they need to know. Start their research off by having them identify sites that will help them answer their question. For more visual presence, try ‘evidence stacks.’

Asking them to them identify "X" number of sites, or other images that might go with the one they have to make a more complete story, can help them limit their searching to just those places that will actually help.

Analyze: “I want my students to be able to understand why and how different documents can be used to support claims or help understand events more clearly.”

Create a document review. They’ve located some useful sites and people. Now using the documents or images chosen for their topic, have them compare and contrast authority, point of view, timeliness, and the reliability of their chosen authors and documents. (Remind them that primary sources may or may not have been created for an audience – how does this fit into their analysis?)

Share knowledge: Build a resource, like a website, documentary or infographic to help students make connections and create powerful presentation.

Encourage students to share knowledge: Presenting not just what they’ve learned (fact-building) but more importantly applying it to create an “a-ha” for their audience helps students make claims supported by the evidence that they’ve identified.


Teaching with Primary Sources Analysis Tool

TPS: Use the LOCs Teaching With Primary Sources tool to help students engage with their resource in-hand.

Having students spend a few moments really looking at a document or image is a valuable way to develop a thinking routine to use when encountering new images, ideas, or statements. It is a skill that is as valuable for understanding a primary source as it is for later reading through a rental agreement or telephone bill. The next step is to verify understanding and question those things that don’t make sense, are unknown, or pique an interest . The third column in the TPS tool brings us to strategy.

Question building: The Right Question Institute teaches the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) – a simple, easy-to-use strategy for creating questions that fits in nicely with the TPS Tool. Initiate a QFT when students have gone through the first two steps. The QFT can be used in a variety of teaching situations and encourages a classroom of questioning, inquiry, and engagement. Using the QFT regularly throughout all teaching units will develop a culture of questioning and create a thinking routine that students can use the rest of their lives. Time to vote? Question your candidate. Renting that apartment? Question the lease to verify understanding.

Circle of Viewpoints: using the Circle of Viewpoints allows students to question information from a variety of perspectives.

Two examples:

1) Hand out a primary source to all students. Assign a specific role to each group and have them use the TPS Analysis tool and QFT to build questions about it from that perspective. When sharing out the questions, students can see how different groups see things differently as well as have the same concerns.

2) Hand out a primary source to all students. Go through the TPS Analysis Tool and the QFT. When complete, share out the questions and ask students to identify the different groups who might have an interest in this document.

Continue research in either scenario to determine the answers to the questions and complete the task assigned.

Changing up the History Report

Research reports are often seen to be most useful at the end of a unit, a way for students to show what they’ve learned about the topic studied. But many students consider them to be boring or something to hurry through to complete the assignment and hopefully get a high grade.

One of the best ways to help kids want to complete the research you have assigned is to help them create their own compelling questions. They’ll be more invested in the process, and will then be more willing to go down that “rabbit hole” of primary-source research.

Inquiry: Project-Based Learning
Inviting students to invest in answering their own questions and using primary sources

Use the Experts: These are only a few of the folks doing work in inquiry:
Leslie Maniotes
Stanford History Education Group
National History Day
Project Based Learning

Check out the TPS Teacher’s Network – a full-fledged network of teachers sharing their primary sources, lesson ideas and an excellent place to meet others.

The Stripling Model of Inquiry helps to show the process of inquiry and how each step builds upon each other step. This article puts it into a context for use with primary sources.


Great Lesson Plans

Check out these sites for excellent professional development and on-the-spot lesson plans.

a. DOCS TEACH: National Archives
b. Library of Congress
c. National Parks Service
d. Gilder Lehrman
e. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
f. University of the Arts
g. iCivics

All of these lessons can be used with local documents and images.

Don’t forget to search out these sites’ blogs – they’ll give you loads of ideas on not just topics, but how you can use their materials in your classroom. You can always use them as jumping-off points to your local history studies.

A Librarian’s Perspective

I hope this encourages you to dig into the world of primary sources – local, national, global. There’s nothing quite like bringing history home than through a lived experience. In beginning to use the inquiry process, I hope that you will consider:

• Using your school librarian (advocate for one if there isn’t one at your school). Contact local public and university librarians to get help and ideas on where to look, how to create with and use local resources.
• Continue instruction after questions have been asked and identified. Instruct on:
     o How to identify the kinds of sources that will help them answer their questions
     o How to cite those sources
     o How to pull out the information that is useful to support the claim they’re investigating; and then put them into notes for later use
     o How to decide which information is important and useful
• Once students have a new body of knowledge and an idea of what information they want to share with the world, then let them loose to create

Picture2-1Easy grading idea: all along the inquiry journey, evaluate and grade their progress. Choose the benchmark that they need to pass in order to go to the next stage. By the time they’re at presentation, you know that they have good information in hand, they’ve thought through their topic and now… they’re showing it off.

You can sit back and grade the presentation success as a piece, knowing that the information and context has been evaluated. Your question can be: did they use the presentation tools successfully, get the point across, and deliver their claims with the evidence clearly shown?

Learn how Duval County Public Schools is re-energizing Social Studies with primary and secondary sources that connect students to state and local history.

Watch the companion webinar to this article here.