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Friday, March 9, 2012

More on Teaching with Primary Sources


Dear Listservers,

My last post on teaching with primary sources received a good response, including this from MontanaPBS:

“Just because you were talking about primary resources… we offer two online learning simulations for 4-9th graders at mission-us.org… the first one is about the Boston Massacre and the second about the Underground Railway… three more to come, including a possible one with Montana roots!”

In that post, I talked about the why of integrating primary sources in the classroom and pointed readers to good analysis tools.

I also intended to include a link to an article that suggested ways of using primary sources in the classroom—but the Library of Congress remodeled its web page and took it down—my apologies to all who tried to follow that link.

Fortunately, the article remains in the internet archive. I find the framework this article provides a useful way of thinking about types of activities one can conduct with students. In brief, it recommends using primary sources in


  • Focus Activities—to introduce a topic or reengage students during a longer lesson;
  • Inquiry Activities—to help students explore main concepts in a block of instruction using an inquiry approach;
  • Application Activities—to help students apply the concepts they are learning; and
  • Assessment Activities—to evaluate student mastery of skills and concepts. 

So, now we’ve covered why and how, what about where? The fact is, you can find primary sources almost everywhere. Start with a historic image in your textbook—and have students slow down enough to really look at it as documentary evidence instead of just an illustration.

Want to do more? For Montana history, check out our website. Many of our lesson plans are primary-source based, including five of our Indian Education for All lesson plans.

If you haven’t yet, I’d recommend exploring the Montana: Stories of the Land Companion Website and Online Teacher’s Guide—we’ve created “Teaching with Historic Documents” units for almost every chapter of the textbook (e.g., this letter from Chief Victor, written in 1865). Even many of the worksheets ask students to analyze primary sources (e.g., this worksheet designed to supplement the homesteading chapter).

If you have the luxury of planning ahead, order one of our Hands-on History footlockers—all of which contain replica artifacts, historic photographs, and other types of primary sources.

Another great source for primary sources is your own community: your local museum, archives, and community members’ private collections.

For national history, check out the National Archives, “100 Milestone Documents in American History.”

Or—look to the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project.

The American Memory site is huge and potentially overwhelming but it is a veritable treasure mine—and they have created many easy points of access. Depending on how you learn, I’d recommend starting your exploration of the site either on their Teacher’s page or by taking their online tutorial, “Finding Primary Sources”. By the way: we provide MT OPI renewal units to teachers who take this and other Library of Congress online trainings. Find out how by scrolling to the bottom of this page.

Now it’s your turn. What’s the most effective primary source lesson plan you’ve ever used in your classroom? Or the most startling, powerful primary source you’ve ever shared with your students?

Post your answers as a comment or send me an email (mkohl@mt.gov) and I'll compile a list to share.

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