The article “National Treasures” shows how engaging with primary sources can deepen students’ understanding of history and foster a nuanced understanding of historical change. This toolkit will help you frame questions that facilitate effective—and meaningful—use of primary sources in your classroom. The suggestions offered can help enhance students’ engagement with social justice history.
- What are primary sources?
- What particular skillsets are needed to effectively analyze primary sources?
- How can primary sources create a better understanding around social justice issues—historically and today?
- Have the following materials on hand:
- The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool
- One to three primary sources relevant to your curriculum. Many examples of free online primary source documents can be found online at loc.gov/pictures and chroniclingamerica.loc.gov. There are also interesting historical maps available for analysis at loc.gov/maps/collections/.
2. Explain to students that primary sources are pictures, maps, photographs, cartoons, letters and newspaper articles—among others—that were created during the time of study. People who witnessed or experienced a specific event are often the authors of primary sources, which allow a present-day audience to be detectives of sorts and learn from their first-hand accounts.
3. Ask students to discuss in their groups these questions:
- What are some examples of primary sources you have seen or worked with in the past?
- What special window into history do primary sources provide?
- How might primary sources give us a better sense of historical struggles for justice than other resources, such as textbooks and documentaries?
4. Introduce students to the Primary Source Analysis Tool and explain what you mean by observe, reflect and question. Observations are details or ideas the student gleans directly from the source. Reflections are the thoughts, feelings and ideas the student has based on the source. Questions are things students wonder about based on the sources.
5. Break students into small groups or pairs. Provide each group a copy of a primary source document and have them work together to analyze their document using the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Circulate the classroom and help students think deeply about the source they are working with.
6. Give each group an opportunity to present and share their source, observations, reflections and questions. Once everyone has had an opportunity to share, discuss these questions:
- What new perspective did your source offer you on history, and particularly on social justice?
- How might your primary source give someone unfamiliar with that aspect of history a special window into justice and injustice?