10 Web Resources To Help Teach About Primary Sources


This year, I’m teaching Current Events. One of the things we do is discuss perspective–news has changed in so many ways. The print media is declining. Today, we have access to digital and multimedia news sources.  We also have access to immediate first-hand accounts of news. One of the first places I go when something serious is happening locally, nationally, or globally is to my Twitter stream. Entire revolutions have been tweeted and spread on Facebook.

There is such an overload of information. Students need to be able to identify and decode sources, then make a decision as to what they mean in terms of causes and consequences. It is a skill that touches upon several of the Common Cores–standards that deal with identifying and analyzing the perspective of the speaker, standards that deal with research, formulating arguments, and even standards that ask students to pick out and effectively create analyses based on mathematics–either by interpreting the numbers in in front of them, or by creating experiments or analyzing random samples to arrive at and communicate conclusions.  Students must be able to seek out, recognize, and use sources effectively and appropriately. Primary sources–whether they are numerical, documents, interviews, tweets, or posts allow them to go right to the source. This helps them in life–as anyone who has ever compiled reports, researched, made a business decision, worked with customers, or managed people knows, these skills are higher-level thinking and completely transferable to life.

Last year, I presented students with some of the founding documents from our nation.

“Miss, this is boring!” one student said. “This is a bunch of dead white guys!”

“Dead white guys with awesome handwriting!” I put the image of the Declaration up on the smartboard. I told a story…why the Founding Fathers picked Jefferson to write the document.

“Ladies, if you wanted to have someone write a love letter to you, it’d be Jefferson. That man could write. But this is no love letter–it’s more like a divorce decree.” We looked through the document. We noted the “breakup clause,” the “nothing personal King George, we’ll go our own separate ways and be equal…” Equal to the KING??  We continued, “But we should tell you why we’re dumping you. Who’s dumped people without telling them why?” Not many hands go up. “Who’s dumped someone?” Lots of hands go up.

The English-to-English translation. The document started to come to life. We went through the complaints. We broke them up and found examples from our day. Everyone became interested. The parchment was alive.

We did something similar to the Articles of Confederation. Students identified the key players and the agenda–what did each person really want?  What was their background? Why did the document fail miserably?

The documents lived on. Students connected them to present-day. For the whole year, they cited those documents and others. They broke down unfair treaties, mentally traveling back in time like some armchair quarterback on a Monday morning telling the world what Tom Brady should have done.  That is the power of a primary source.

This week’s Learnist feature is about primary sources. Please add to these boards using the “+add to this board feature,” and create some of your own. If you create any boards on this topic, I’d love for you to tweet them to me @runningdmc or @LearnistTweets to be shared out. One of my personal goals is to continue to collaborate and share best lessons and practices, bringing the best of the best educators together on topics that matter most to our students.

Discover the British Library

This learning board brings learners to the British Library, an online resource of over 30,000 items you will find useful when teaching just about any subject.

Relationship Between Primary and Secondary Sources

This board helps teach Common Core 6-8.RH.9, which entails differentiating between primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources for the Science Classroom

This board links to several of the most popular science journals for students. There are plenty of primary sources in these journals, along with some secondary sources and features of interest to teens and future scientists.

Incarceration of Japanese Americans During WWII: Introduction and Task

This learning links to primary source documents dealing with incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. This is a troubling period in the story of the United States. Allowing students to dig into the primary sources helps them to understand the importance of advocating for social justice–especially today.

Using Primary Source Documents

This board is by English teacher Brenda Sanbulte, who is using primary sources in her instruction. This would be helpful in a social studies class, too. Many times, documents cannot be separated clearly into one field. This is a great board for integrating curriculum.

Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles virtually guaranteed another world war. When I dig into this with students, they are outraged. My lesson usually starts with students designing their own treaty. They then uncover some of the tenets of the actual treaty using the primary source. This reinforces skills in perspective, agenda, decoding, analysis, and cause and effect. Scaffolding students through the documents is an experience they can transfer into so many other practical areas of their lives.

Teaching Document Analysis: Stanford History Education Group

Stanford’s compendium of over seventy-five lessons includes the methodology behind decoding primary source documents, identifying perspective, agenda, and many other things necessary to get a clear understanding of the documents.

Citing Textual Evidence

Citing Textual Evidence is a Common Core standard I cannot live without. Students often think that citations are so I can catch them cheating–nothing can be farther from the truth. Learning to cite primary sources is critical, especially in today’s digital society, when sources are fairly easy to come by. Sources must always receive their proper attribution, not only to credit someone’s hard work, but so that the reader knows where to look for higher-level learning.

Primary Sources for Weather

Weather is something you should analyze right at the source. This board provides sources for getting your weather and for studying the weather with a class. It could be used to generate data, predict weather outcomes, or simply to find a good day to go to the beach.

Primary Sources

School librarian Francesca Mellin made this board of primary sources, including the National Archives, primary sources by state, and Docuteach, and the Library of Congress.

1 Comment

  1. TPS-Barat

    October 1, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Also check out the TPS-Barat Primary Source Nexus, which features primary source collections & learning activities using primary sources from the Library of Congress digitized collections.