Thursday, September 1, 2016

Primary Sources: The Lifeblood of the SS Classroom

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard a student describe history as "boring", I'd have long since retired from teaching.  And if I had a dime for every time I'd responded to that reaction with an emphatic eye roll, I'd be a millionaire.  But the truth is, the study of history can be boring...that is if only a textbook version of it is presented.  Making a textbook the center of a social studies course is like basing your idea of romance around something seen in a Lifetime movie:  it is dangerously misleading and fills your head with woefully insignificant knowledge.  When the social studies classroom is not powered by the lifeblood that are primary sources, "boring" is likely a fair description.

Primary sources, of course, are sources which are from the time period being studied.  The sources can be anything from the time period, including journal entries, maps, photographs, speeches, music, etc.  The key is the timeliness of its creation.  They are the evidence of events long since passed, the means by which we base our knowledge of history.  Like most practicing social studies teachers, I was drilled with the importance of these sources as I proceeded through my methods courses.  And this was one lesson which most definitely stuck.

If SS teachers are committed to their students learning beyond what the textbook offers, primary sources have to be at the center of the curriculum.  Imagine trying to help students understand the changes of 1960s America without asking them to listen to Dylan, or asking them to explain the toll of the Civil War on the soldiers who fought without reading a journal entry written on the battlefield. In our classroom, at least, some of the best moments and lessons have come when the students had the chance to sit back and listen to some music, as they did when I spun my vinyl Helen Reddy album when discussing women's rights, or when they were given photographs, letters, and other sources on the Civil Rights Movement, and asked to work together to put them together in a timeline.

I fear that some teachers may shy away from primary source use because of the effort involved in finding such sources.  I assure you, it is no effort at all.  If you know what you are looking for, never underestimate the value of a well-worded search on Google or Youtube.  But if you're not sure, and simply think that primary source use is something needed in a lesson, here is a small sampling of some of my favorite places to go:

As a US History and Government teacher, this site is phenomenal, not only for the resources it provides, but the multitudes of other great elements as well.  The website is well-organized and very user-friendly, providing search options for narrowing down the effort in finding the source you want. Each source is accompanied with commentary for context, and also feature built-in discussion questions, which make the teacher's job even easier.  Sources range the gamet from image to sound. Beyond the tremendous sources Gilder-Lehrman provides, I highly recommend that teachers sign up through their website.  This will gain you access to their "History Shop", which is a great place to find hi-res posters, reading guides, books, etc. on the cheap.  In addition, our school is an "affiliate school" with GL, opening us up to additional benefits and freebies that are often offered through the Institute.  Awesome resource!

Library of Congress/ Center for Representative Government (formerly Center on Congress)
The Library of Congress, specifically its "Teaching with Primary Sources" program, is another phenomenal resource.  As one might expect, the Library has access to hundreds of thousands of primary sources, and makes most of them free and accessible to teachers.  An additional benefit of the LOC is that they offer incredible professional development opportunities.  As a teacher in Indiana, I often work with the Center on Representative Government at IU-Bloomington, which is affiliated with the Library of Congress.  I have hosted multiple primary source trainings at our school, which have been extremely well-received by all who have attended.  My favorite option with the LOC is the option for them to prepare documents for you, upon your request, that can be printed in high-quality and sent to you, free of charge!  I was recently able to obtain a series of photographs and letters pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement that we use to timeline the event. And as a shameless plug for the awesome Freedom Summer app which I helped to's awesome!  How much does it change the game for students when they can hold the photograph in their hand?

Stanford's "Reading Like a Historian"
This is a great resource for teachers of US and World History!  Extremely well-organized, Stanford groups their documents into lessons, which are centered around big questions, with the idea being that the students use the documents to fuel class discussion.  In a recent lesson detailing the Puritans I used the tremendous resources of Stanford to ask the kids to read excerpts from John Winthrop's "City on the Hill" speech and John Cotton's "Divine Reason to Conquer Land" speech to analyze the motives of the Puritan settlement.

Primary sources are the "story" of history, and are a SS teacher's best tool in bringing the story to life for the students.  Get on it!


  1. As a science teacher, I couldn't agree with you more about how textbooks will turn a student off a subject completely. I find history interesting, but only in context with the world via primary sources. Thank you for sharing--I'll be passing this along to our history teachers.

    1. Fantastic Mari! Thanks for sharing! I think it is also important that we understand that these sources are not just text-based; music, art, photographs, etc. are often even better in capturing students' attention.

  2. I think I have never liked studying history simply because my teachers used only the text book. It was always about being able to answer the questions at the end of lessons, remembering dates and facts which I felt were meaningless. But I am lucky to have had two wonderful teachers in the teacher training program I underwent who showed how to really teach social sciences. And I realized that once I connected to the lesson, remembering the facts and dates wasn't really difficult - me and my peers had long discussions about the history of education policies in India.

  3. Completely agree! For curated sets of primary sources + teaching strategies and primary source lessons and activities, check out the TPS-Barat Primary Source Nexus:

  4. It wasn't until college, 20 years ago, that I experienced primary sources, and we did so with microfiche. We are lucky to have access to these documents so easily. I agree: teachers need to Get On It!

    1. Ahh...microfiche. Yikes! Thanks Susan!

  5. We're a textbook free school and I couldn't agree with you more - our kids love their history classes because they can relate to what happened and tie it into the world today. I'll be sharing your primary source sites with our SS department. Thank you for a great post!