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Using Primary Sources in the Classroom


What is a Primary Source?

When teaching and learning history, the term "primary source" generally refers to official documents, letters, diaries, photographs, advertisements and about any other print material found in its original form. These materials may be transcribed and/or reproduced. However, for purposes of historical accuracy the content will reflect the original document.

The term "historical artifact" on the other hand is generally understood to be broader and includes primary sources, as well as a host of other objects not limited to print material. Ranging from farmhouse kitchen utensils to farm equipment, historical artifacts can be found almost anywhere.

A "secondary source" is a summary of history based upon the historical record drawn from artifacts and primary sources. The most obvious example of a secondary source would be the traditional history textbook found in every classroom library.

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Teaching With Primary Sources

For decades, history educators have advocated the use of primary source materials in teaching history. The instructional advantages are numerous. Among them is the power of primary sources to unlock for students a genuine interest in history, to stimulate thinking and to encourage the formation of judgments about the past.

When using primary sources, consider the following tips that will help bridge the readability gap and conceptual load carried by most primary sources.

  • Select a specific and limited section of a document for students to read with a partner.
  • Give students a key idea to think about while reading/skimming a section of primary source text.
  • Introduce key words or key ideas before reading. Have students focus on these terms when reading a section.
  • Have students skim a passage to locate specific words or ideas.
  • Use the copy and paste function of your computer to place a particular passage of reading in a word processing document that can be reproduced as a hard copy.
  • Read a limited passage aloud to students. Provide key ideas to help focus student listening.
  • Guide students to use context clues when defining unfamiliar terms or phrases.

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Assets and Liabilities of Primary Sources

In the article, History Goes Digital: Teaching With On-line Primary Sources, by Bill Tally, Tally suggests primary sources offer the following assets as instructional tools:

  • Online primary source materials promise authentic resources that enliven history for students and teachers.
  • With primary source materials, students work with the fragmentary and detailed pieces of evidence that historians themselves use as building blocks in retelling the past.
  • Online historical archives invite teachers and students to confront new kinds of materials, new perspectives on historical events, and a new need for historical context.
  • Primary sources, approached critically, can help students build an authentic and complete portrait of the past unlike textbook material that tends to be softened for students through editing.

Tally also warns of the following liabilities:

  • Practical considerations are the most common challenges for instructors using online primary source archives. These include access to good quality sources of information, up-to-date operating equipment and the time to make use of online materials.
  • Online collections often include photographs, films, audio recordings, pamphlets, and political cartoons. Teachers and students need a wide array of skills to successfully interpret the different media.
  • The faithful depiction of the language, thinking, and behavior of historical actors, when out of step with contemporary values or when patently offensive to many, is another challenge for teachers. Online historical sources may include racist language in its raw unedited form with little if any contextual explanation or interpretation.
  • The multiple perspectives presented by primary source archives make history, and history teaching, more complicated. They may also touch emotional nerves in students that can result in the history classroom becoming a more volatile place.
  • Online primary sources are both vast and fragmentary and finding resources for specific curriculum topics can be difficult.
  • Because most documents relate to specific events such as an impending treaty, a wounded soldier's convalescence or the opening of a world's fair, students need assistance with the historical context in order to make sense of the documents.

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