Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Focus on Primary Sources

I have had an absolute blast facilitating social studies professional development this summer for Tennessee teachers.  I have no doubt that I've learned more from them than they have from me, and the experience has left me with a lot of information and resources for teaching social studies this year.  So, I'm going to start this Focus on Social Studies series, and share some of my favorite findings!

Let me take a moment and back up and explain a bit about Tennessee social studies standards.  Last year, we adopted and implemented new - way more rigorous - standards.  You can read about them here.  So, this summer, the Department of Education offered free training for teachers across the state in how to understand, implement, and provide instruction in the standards, along with continued training about our ELA and math standards.

Today, we're focusing on primary sources - and what exactly that means.  
Primary sources are any kind of artifact that provides a firsthand account of a historical event.  When we think about primary sources, text-based ones often spring to mind first - diaries, autobiographies, memoirs - but there is so much more than that!  Here is a sampling of primary sources you may not have considered:
  • Photographs
  • Maps
  • Legal documents - birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, land deeds, court rulings, immigration records, etc.
  • Weapons
  • Clothing
  • Political cartoons
  • Video footage - think news footage, home movies, films, etc.
  • Advertisements
  • Propaganda - think Rosie the Riveter, etc.
  • Archaeological artifacts - rocks, arrowheads, fossils, etc.
  • Flags
  • Speeches - text and audio
  • Poems
  • Songs and music
  • Research data - census records, etc.
  • Art - paintings, sculpture, etc.
  • Literature - poems, plays, novels, manuscripts
So . . . what's the big deal about primary sources you ask?  To me, there are two main reasons to use primary sources.

1.  It's what historians DO.  You can't get much closer to history than looking at, examining, and studying the things that were really there during that time period.  And we need our kids to think like historians - to analyze multiple sources of information and then synthesize across all of those sources to make sound, values-based judgements about what they think and why they think it.  Because that, people, is what good, informed citizens do when they are part of a community.  I am TIRED - tired, I tell you - of people basing personal decisions or even public policy on things as innocuous as Facebook and Twitter feeds!  We need for our kids to analyze the information straight from the source and then make a decision - not simply accept whatever they hear.  

2.  It's FUN.  These are the things kids love to work with when we "do" social studies!  They love to listen to period music, wear costumes or uniforms, take time to analyze photos, and compare political cartoons.  And it's really fun for our struggling readers, because when you're working with non-text-based primary sources, such as pictures or advertisements, they can do some really deep thinking without worrying about not being able to access the text.

I hope that this gets your wheels turning about what types of things you can pull for your classroom next year.  I have tons of resources for finding and using primary sources, and I'll be sharing those over the course of this series, but start thinking about these things:

1.  What do I have at home, right now, that I could use as a primary source?  Do you have family members who came through Ellis Island?  Do you have newspaper clippings from major news events?  Do your parents or grandparents have military uniforms, pictures, or souvenirs?  

2.  How could I use these resources in my classroom?  To introduce a unit?  As a daily thinking routine?  In a center or as part of reading or writing workshop?

Check back soon.  In my next post, I'll share some top resources for finding primary sources to use in your classroom!



  1. I like this!!! I am so excited about our plans for social studies this year! I can't wait to get a hold of ALL kinds of primary sources!


  2. There's SO much great stuff out there!! Too much fun. :)