Connecting Past and Present With Primary Sources

When two American Studies teachers combined their classes to discuss school integration, they fostered a depth of learning they never anticipated.

Editor’s note: Kelly Saunders and Mark Schill teamed up to incorporate primary sources into their teaching after Saunders attended the Library of Congress’ Summer Teacher Institute. They shared their experiences in TT and the LOC’s March 2015 webinar, the third in a four-part series on using primary sources to teach about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As American Studies teachers who co-plan our units, we decided to assemble the 50 11th-grade students from our respective classes, many of whom didn’t know each other, to begin a conversation about school integration and civil rights. We wanted to combine our classes for another important reason: Traditionally, accelerated courses are mostly made up of white students while regular courses are composed primarily of students of color. We wanted them to discuss these issues of integration together.

For the first activity, we asked students to look at and engage with historical photos, considering who created each source and when. In the process, we encouraged students to think about where their eyes went first, a technique Kelly learned at the Library of Congress’ Summer Teacher Institute. We then asked students to go back to the photos that caught their attention or raised questions for them, and they based their inquiry in observing the document’s purpose, audience and bias. Each student then paired with a classmate who had a similar or related photo; then, they formed a quad with another student pair. Each quad drafted a headline that synthesized their collective thinking and raised three critical questions.

We separated the students into two classrooms, each with the same goal: to use primary sources to interrogate the integration of schools during the modern civil rights era. Students examined photos of James Meredith integrating the University of Mississippi and Ruby Bridges integrating William Frantz Elementary School. We chose these photographs because they are each visually striking and show multiple perspectives for each event. Students synthesized ideas about school integration, proposed new questions and took a closer look at the role of protests in bringing attention to a civil rights issue.  

After reviewing and discussing each event, students analyzed a picture of a Ferguson protest taken shortly after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and applied the knowledge and awareness they gained from our integration discussion. As with the previous activity, we asked the students to generate questions, evaluate multiple perspectives and assess the key stakeholders in the photograph. They then compared and contrasted the information about protests, change, power and privilege that emerged from the civil rights photographs.

We were excited as students’ inquiries became more refined over the course of the school year, as we added more primary sources—news articles, photographs and interviews. They continued to think about current events as they were unfolding and how these events are connected to the complicated history of our nation.  

The most effective thing about using primary documents in our classrooms is that they encourage students to think critically and deeply. Primary sources demand that students ask questions—and continue asking questions even if answers are inconvenient or if the questions are unanswerable. Using primary sources helps students develop sophisticated reasoning strategies and incorporate evidence to support their ideas. When we discussed the protests in Ferguson after the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, students quickly revisited questioning techniques with ease. This showed us that the time invested in building these skills offers transferable, sustained student learning.

We found that beginning this intense dialogue early on has been powerful—and tricky. Students have formed incredible personal connections with each other. They had to identify and discuss bias and privilege in challenging ways, starting on the first day of school. They knew they had our support, and we also worked with parents who were wondering what this was all about and why it was happening. Our conversations with parents became an unforeseen win because many of them engaged in rich and powerful conversations at home because of the work their kids were doing in our classes.

More than any other outcome, primary sources have helped us engage students in vital conversations all year long. Students understand their voices as powerful and that their opinions about critical issues are heard. As one student, Zoe, observed, “I haven’t been in a class that has been this integrated before and that talks about all different topics that have to do with race ... [W]hen you are in a class with all white kids and you are talking about the N-word, all the white kids feel like they have the right to say something but when you are talking with a diverse group that the word actually affects, you can actually break it down and figure it out and learn from each other ... and it’s easy to learn about culture and diversity when you experience it—it’s easy to understand it when you are in it.” Another student, Joel, reflected, “There are no boundaries that keep us from saying what we need to say to figure things out.”

Teaching Tolerance and the Library of Congress invite you to register for the last live webinar, Selecting Primary Sources to Examine the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in our collaborative series, Teaching the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To find out more about Kelly and Mark’s use of primary sources and view the archived webinars in the series, go here.

Saunders and Schill are high school educators in Glendale, Wisconsin.

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