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Curriculum Opinion

Eight Ways to Teach With Primary Sources

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 14, 2021 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are good ways to have students learn about—and use—primary sources?

Primary sources can be great tools to inspire students to engage with history.

They can also be indecipherable documents that can put them to sleep.

This two-part series will explore how they can be used effectively in the classroom.

Today’s post features suggestions from Donna L. Shrum, Kevin Thomas Smith, Sarah Cooper, and Chanel Rodriguez. Donna, Kevin, and Sarah were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources For Using Primary Sources.

Using the ‘Zoom’ Teaching Method

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

Primary sources bring students within a breath of a person or event. They can reveal quirky details never found in a textbook: The author of an article printed just after the Boston Tea Party in 1773 complained the tea in the harbor gave the fish diarrhea and catches now tasted like tea.

Primary sources “show, not tell,” using methods of inquiry and deductive reasoning to draw students into the subject. Thanks to the internet, any source imaginable for any time period can be located, as well as sites that provide ideas for using sources. A few excellent examples are:

  • Teaching History With 100 Objects: “One-hundred objects from museums across the U.K. with resources, information, and teaching ideas to inspire your students’ interest in history.”
  • DocsTeach: “The online tool for teaching with documents, from the National Archives.”
  • Primary Source Sets on the Web: Nine featured sites.
  • The Library of Congress: “Offers classroom materials and professional development to help teachers effectively use primary sources from the Library’s vast digital collections in their teaching.”
  • Chronicling America: A free American newspaper archive of holdings from 1789-1963.
  • DPL’s Primary Source Set: “Primary-source collections exploring topics in history, literature, and culture developed by educators—complete with teaching guides for class use.”

A powerful teaching method for introducing historical photographs called “Zoom” came from a Library of Congress workshop. The chosen photo is placed into a slideshow. All of it is covered, except one small piece. Students are asked to figure out what the picture is showing as the teacher gradually uncovers more on each slide. The exercise not only gives them a chance to use their deductive skills, but it forces them to look closely at the photo.

I used the 1930 photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith when teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and always began by revealing the smiling couple in the bottom left. As I slowly uncovered the crowd, the guesses were always a happy event, such as a carnival or family reunion. The final reveal left them in shocked silence each time.

Primary sources bring history class to mind first, but every day our news feeds are flooded with tweets, political cartoons, interviews, videos, news reports, and more. Students try to make sense of a world communicated in the deluge of current primary sources, and teachers can show students how to form their own conclusions through argument writing based on sources chosen by the teachers. Not having the students choose sources ensures they have been vetted and also provides students with examples when they do search on their own.

The National Writing Project’s C3WP (College, Career, and Community Writers Program) uses teacher-created text sets of current primary sources to support argument writing. Their site not only contains ready-made writing lessons based on text sets but everything teachers need to create their own lessons. In tandem with the C3WP site is the NY Times Argumentative Prompts, which offers text sets that are less than a month old. Some primary sources can be difficult for students, so I rewrite and edit those with a note that I have edited it. I also read it aloud and record it, providing the .mp3 file for student access.


The ‘SOAPSTone Technique’

Kevin Thomas Smith is an award-winning social studies teacher at Ridgeview High School in Clay County, Fla.; an AP Reader for the College Board; and the author of Teaching With DBQs: Helping Students Analyze Nonfiction and Visual Texts:

Primary sources are powerful tools for teaching students how to read, think, and write analytically. They are equally powerful for facilitating deeper content knowledge, as textbooks (which are secondary sources) tend to offer superficial descriptions of concepts, people, and events. Primary sources can be used to either support or refute the arguments laid out in secondary sources, and they can be used in conjunction with other primary and secondary sources to provide students with more comprehensive knowledge about the concepts they are studying. Finally, working with multiple documents and different types of sources (primary and secondary, visual and nonvisual) can train students to become effective researchers by teaching them how texts written from different perspectives can be used to answer a question or solve a problem.

Of course, teaching students how to analyze, evaluate, and write about primary sources is a process. First, students must be able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. In my own classroom, I teach students to do this by having them answer one specific question about each of the texts they read: Does the author have firsthand knowledge of the topic or event he or she is describing? If the answer is yes, then it’s a primary source. If not, then it’s a secondary source. I can implement this technique in a whole-group setting, where I project eight to 10 documents, one after the other, onto the screen at the front of my classroom. I can also implement it in a small-group setting, where students examine a series of documents together and identify each one as a primary or secondary source.

Once students are able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources, teachers can use primary sources to facilitate deeper reading and analytical thinking. For example, teachers can use SOAPSETone (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject, Evidence, and Tone), a variation of the original SOAPSTone technique, to teach students how to analyze individual primary sources.

For example, I might show my own students a black-and-white photograph of a foot disfigured by the practice of foot binding in China and then ask them to answer each of the following questions: Who is the photographer? When was the picture taken? For whom was it taken? Why was it taken? What is the photographer’s message? What do you see in the picture that supports this message? How does the picture make you feel? By deliberately answering each of these questions, students are able to successfully analyze the photograph. Eventually, answering each of these questions will become automatic.

Once students have mastered the ability to analyze individual primary sources, teachers can begin the process of teaching them how to work with multiple primary sources. A teacher can do this by putting five or six documents in a folder and then asking students to answer a question about the documents by physically manipulating them into groups.

In my own classroom, I do this by organizing my students into groups and giving each group a folder full of documents related to a particular topicsay, the Industrial Revolution. In this case, the prompt, which appears on the front of the folder, asks them to analyze the impact of the Industrial Revolution on American society during the 19th century. By reading the documents and working together, my students are able to recognize that some of the documents specifically discuss the negative effects of air and water pollution created by the Industrial Revolution; some of the documents specifically discuss the rise of labor unions in response to the terrible working conditions created by the Industrial Revolution; and some of the documents specifically discuss the growth of cities. Then, using evidence from each of the documents, my students can write an essay in which they argue that the Industrial Revolution led to urban growth, air and water pollution, and the rise of labor unions in the United States during the 19th century.


Weekly Newspaper Articles as Primary Sources

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is assistant head for academic life at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9 (Stenhouse, 2009) and Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6-9 (Routledge, 2017). Find all of Sarah’s writing at sarahjcooper.com:

With judicious use of fascinating primary sources, history for middle schoolers can burst off the page.

We as teachers can:

Just this year, though, I’ve realized that the primary sources we tackle most often in my class are in disguise in plain sight. These are the weekly newspaper articles students choose, annotate, and bring to class each week. They are primary sources not about the past but the present and they carry with them not only complex issues but, as a bonus, sophisticated syntax and diction.

Originally, I put these current events into the curriculum not just for students to keep up on the news but also for them to practice accurate paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting. I also wanted these 8th graders to develop the finesse to lead their own discussions.

But recently, I had started to take this weekly exercise’s magic for granteduntil this spring, when I read students’ thoughts on the year in end-of-semester reflections.

One girl pointed out the media savvy she had gained from reading reputable articles, mostly from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, rather than the news on social media as she had previously: “By reading unbiased articles, you form your own opinion and can ensure that if you’re reading something from a large news source, it is probably real.”

She continued by noting the effect of these articles on her overall literacy: “By reading these weekly current events articles, I have noticed a large growth in not only my vocabulary but my overall writing as well.”

Other students focused on the perspective the articles gave them, saying, for instance, that “this class has really increased my awareness of what’s happening in the world.”

Few other strategies yield so much payoff for such a small weekly investment on the part of both teacher and student. In the coming year, I plan to refer explicitly to these weekly current events as “the primary sources of our time” and I can’t wait to see what else these middle schoolers teach me about becoming wise consumers of the news.


Critically Analyzing Photographs

Chanel Rodriguez is an assistant professor at West Texas A&M University and the director of the Route 66 Writing Project. She trains preservice and veteran teachers on how to integrate literacy skills across content areas:

By definition, a primary source is an artifact created by a person or group who witnessed the events a historian is studying. When teachers think of primary sources, they may carry the belief that those sources have to be “old” and can be difficult to gain access to. However, if educators situate themselves as historians, they can teach their students that primary sources are constantly being created.

Photographs are one of the easiest artifacts to get students interested in history. Most students in today’s classrooms are familiar with Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and other social-media platforms. Chances are, those students have also shared images on one of those platforms, making themselves creators of primary sources. The images students choose to share on social media document youth culture, values, and events. By starting with modern-day primary sources created by youths, teachers can segue into a critical analysis of photographs from important events in the past.

Learning to critically analyze historical artifacts, like photographs, requires a special set of literacy skills that students must be taught. Young historians can begin to develop those skills by circling elements of a photo that “tell” the reader what the photo is about. Circling items that answer the questions

  • Who is in the photo?
  • What is going on in the photo?
  • Where was the photo taken?
  • When was the photo taken?

teaches the student to break the photograph into parts, make connections to what they know about history, make connections to cultural concepts, make connections to geography, and make connections to personal experiences. Answering these questions and discussing those answers also gives teachers insight into their students’ prior knowledge, so the teacher can then connect new information to what students already know.

To access online depositories of photographs from important events, visit...

The National Archives


The Avalon Project

Smithsonian Primary Sources in US History


Thanks to Donna, Kevin, Sarah, and Chanel for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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