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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Introducing Primary Sources to Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 16, 2021 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

Part One featured 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.

Today, Lisa Sibaja, Katherine Kaneko, Jessica Sorna, Dr. Donna Wilson, and Diane Dahl share their experiences.

‘A Broad Definition’ of ‘Primary Source’

Lisa Sibaja (B.F.A., UNC-Charlotte; M.A., Winthrop University) has taught visual art and ESL, as well as Spanish and theater arts. She has worked with students in Pre-K through high school for the past 25 years while promoting literacy and cultural awareness in North Carolina, Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Buenos Aires (Argentina):

Primary sources provide critical insight for English-learners and can be easily utilized in the classroom with scaffolds. Although the term “primary source” is often associated with history and the social sciences, a broad definition includes any artifact (art, music, objects, poetry, letters, texts, etc.) created by individuals or groups from a specific period in history.

When introducing primary sources to students, it might be good to begin with photographs or paintings that document a particular event, such as soldiers returning home from war, or even mundane images of children at work or playing. Locate historical images from sites such as the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institute, or the U.S. Library of Congressall of which are in the public domain. These images can be used to build background knowledge, teach vocabulary, and practice listening and speaking skills before reading about a subject. Begin working as a whole group with an image and then help students analyze pictures in small groups by looking for clues, describing what they see, and asking questions. Sentence frames can be added to support productive language based on the proficiency level of the student.

Artifacts such as clothing, textile, and realia from a given time period also provide context when learning about a different time or place. These objects can be used as hooks to generate questions and curiosity. In addition, they provide a way to compare and contrast past cultures with what is familiar today.

Music is a powerful primary source. It facilitates scaffolding through the use of repetition in the chorus, the mood a song establishes, messages found in lyrics, and limited text. Poetry serves a similar function since works are broken into stanzas, which provides students with an opportunity to read less yet think deeply about a subject.

Working with longer texts, like the Declaration of Independence or letters and diaries, helps students expand their vocabulary and make connections across sections. However, ELs will benefit more if teachers can help chunk the information into smaller, more manageable parts. Paraphrasing long texts also helps students with comprehensibility.

The use of primary sources can seem intimidating, but many of the previously mentioned institutions provide guidance, worksheets, and examples to make the use of primary sources manageable and well worth the investment.


Primary Sources Arereare ‘Beautifully Fascinating’

Katherine Kaneko is a middle school teacher and the diversity adviser for The Windward School’s Westchester Middle School campus:

To me, the ultimate goal of an education is to free the mind. Specifically, to encourage the development of a discriminating mind that can ask questions, seek answers, analyze responses, look for patterns, and arrive at an independent understanding of a thing, rather than one that bleatingly accepts what is written in textbooks or articles or said in a lecture or reported in the news.

In many ways, what I try to foster in the classroom is research at its primary level so that students ask the questions of “why” or “how.” After asking these fundamental questions and seeking answers, the next step is to engage in the exercise of forming independent analysis. This practice teaches them how to discern the differences between facts and opinion. To be truly independent thinkers, the students should be able to form and express their analysis. They should be able to see how integral facts are in forming the foundation of analysis. Hopefully by going through these steps, the students develop a more secure confidence in their ability to think logically, flexibly, independently, and with sensitivity.

The crux of this process is in the questions. I have found the book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana to be a useful resource in guiding my own classroom practices as well as inspiring students to formulate questions that stretch and challenge their learning. When the practice of asking questions is successful, it eventually leads the student to primary sources which provide firsthand accounts and testimony from people with a direct connection or with direct evidence of the topic. Reading primary sources allows students to develop the delicate skill of parsing facts from opinion and emotion.

Even more importantly, primary sources are just simply beautifully fascinating. They stand as intimate, direct connections between the student and the past, tethering one to the other, and providing an opportunity for the student to increase their sense of understanding and empathy. Usually, with prompting, students can see these connections as well and appreciate what can be a transcendent moment of seeing one’s place in the arc of history.

An example that stands out to me occurred in February 2020. One of my students researching the Japanese-American internment during WWII understood intellectually that Japanese-Americans encountered structural racism. Yet reading the handwritten letter of a just-released Heart Mountain internee who described the arson of the barn in which they were living helped the student understand the fear, desperation, and powerlessness in the face of structural racism. The student felt a visceral understanding that was not achieved through the secondary sources they had initially used. As a result of this connection, the student then independently sought other primary sources and found a wealth of firsthand accounts and images on Densho: the Japanese American Legacy Project website, which they used to make effective and convincing arguments in their final paper.

Almost any medium can be an effective vehicle through which to animate a student to ask the essential questions and step into the exquisite world of primary sources. In class, we have used a continuum of texts, from accessible picture books to language-rich and conceptually complex articles from The Economist and Foreign Affairs. These materials have been the springboard for student inquiry into primary sources from repositories such as Densho, the Equal Justice Initiative, the American Family Immigration History Center of Ellis Island, Angel Island Immigration Station Archives, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Civil Rights in Black and Brown, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 9/11 Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, and digital archives from libraries and universities.

Once our students know that primary sources exist in so many easily accessible electronic locations, they are offered the opportunity to become empathetic, analytical researchers and thinkers and to understand the past, the present, and the future on their own terms.


Introducing the Concept

Jessica Sorna is a 4th grade teacher at The Windward School’s Westchester Lower School:

Prior to using primary sources, students must have a solid understanding of what constitutes a primary source. While there are many ways to introduce the concept of a primary source, I prefer to introduce them through a vocabulary routine.

Using the Isabel Beck Model, students receive explicit instruction on the definition, an introduction of the term through context, and opportunities to use the term beyond the lesson. For instance, if you are teaching a lesson about the Declaration of Independence, your lesson might define a primary source as an original document that gives firsthand information about what happened in the past. Connect the term through context by showing the students that the Declaration of Independence is a primary source because it gives firsthand information about the decisions made by the Second Continental Congress. Next, display a picture of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” poem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a primary source because it gives firsthand information about what happened during the War of 1812. Then, show the students a picture of a primary source, such as a letter written by George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and a biography of George Washington. Have the students identify which document is a primary source and explain the reason why. Conclude the lesson by having students brainstorm other examples of primary sources.

Once students understand what primary sources are, they can begin to analyze them completing Document Based Questions (DBQs). Even at the primary level, students can learn how to analyze primary sources by answering carefully planned questions.

In the beginning, elicit information about the document itself. For example, if students are analyzing a painting, ask for the title and artist; if they are looking at a document, ask for the year it was written. Teach students that there is value in identifying titles and time periods when studying a primary source. Once students are proficient in identifying the components of a primary source, they can begin to think critically about the documents themselves.

In the painting “The Surrender of General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga” by Godefroy, the students will be able to identify the winning side based on the flag that is flying and the image of a British general surrendering his sword to an American general. However, students’ background knowledge will allow them to answer more complex questions about the painting, such as who the generals are and why this was a significant victory for the Americans.


‘Connecting Firsthand’

Dr. Donna Wilson is a psychologist and the author of 20 books, including Developing Growth Mindsets, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, and Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching (2nd Edition). Dr. Wilson can be reached at donna@brainsmart.org; visit her website at www.brainsmart.org.

Diane Dahl has been a teacher for 13 years, having taught grades 2-4 throughout her career. Mrs. Dahl currently teaches 3rd and 4th grade GT-ELAR/SS in Lovejoy ISD in Fairview, Texas. Follow her on Twitter at @DahlD, and visit her website at www.fortheloveofteaching.net:

What a memory was created for Dr. Wilson when, at the age of 7, she sat on the floor together with her brother and their father, PFC Charles Wilson. “Dad showed us his seashells, coins, and letters from when he proudly fought on the front lines in the U.S. Army,” Dr. Wilson recalls. “Like most veterans, Dad didn’t talk about his experiences in the Pacific Theater very much, but we were able to sense the hot mosquito-infested jungles, mess hall food, and friendships among soldiers who fought so far from their homeland as we listened and read his letters. This experience from 50-some years ago is when I remember beginning to love history coming to life!”

Primary-source documents, such as letters, assist students in connecting firsthand with events that occurred in the past and promote a greater understanding of history [or her-story] as a series of unfolding human events. In addition to letters, primary-source documents can be maps, newspapers, diaries, videos, and more. These raw materials of history can provide a source of motivation for students to connect the snippets of knowledge obtained through primary-source documents.

To help students get a feel for, and have an initial understanding of, primary resources, Mrs. Dahl tries to refer to a source in every history lesson. Moving forward, her 4th grade students begin to connect their own learning to primary-source documents. It can be quite exciting!

While learning the history of Texas, for example, Mrs. Dahl’s students visit The Bob Bullock Museum’s interactive website. Learners are engaged as they locate letters and documents relating to events learned in class. This naturally sparks a deeper interest in primary sources as evidenced by the excitement generated upon new discoveries. Students’ appreciation and use of sources are solidified when debating historical events. They soon realize how much more powerful, and irrefutable, their arguments can be when they can cite a specific source document. Mrs. Dahl has found a significant increase in student use of such documents as a result of these experiences.


Thanks to Lisa, Katherine, Jessica, Donna, and Diane 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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