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Monday, September 10, 2012

After Using the Primary Source Analysis Tool: What's Next?

I spend a lot of time encouraging teachers to use primary sources in their classrooms. See for example this post, this post, and several others tagged “teaching with primary sources.”

I’m still a true believer. But I’m starting to have some questions.
  •  Will an out-of-context exposure to a primary source stick with students?
  • Will it teach them much of anything about history and the historical process?
  • Will it engage them in higher level thinking and cause them to wrestle with perspective and point of view?
  • Will it create empathy for the people who came before them, or make them fall in love with studying the past?
Not necessarily—and that’s a problem. Sometimes I think that those of us who work in museums and archives are too quick to believe that the issue is ACCESS. We think that if students just had access to primary sources, they’d fall in love with studying history, just as we have. But it isn’t magic and simple exposure isn’t enough. (Probably those of you who work in classrooms are slapping your foreheads in mock surprise, saying “what else is new?” If so, please bear with me—we all have our blind spots.)

So, what are best practices for teaching with primary sources? Ideally, primary-source based lessons will stick with the students. Through them, students will learn about history and the historical process. They will engage in higher level thinking. They will wrestle with issues of perspective. They will gain empathy and they will fall in love with studying the past.

How do we get there?

The Library of Congress’s Teaching with Primary Sources blog has some useful suggestions in a post, “Primary Source Analysis Tool: What’s Next? Further Investigation.” The post is short and thought provoking—definitely worth reading.

I’d also be interested in hearing how YOU do it. Are your goals for using primary sources the same as the ones I listed above or are they different? And, either way, how do you use primary sources in your classroom to reach your larger educational goals?

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