In a previous post, I discussed how history is a verb, not a noun. What does “doing history” look like in a classroom? Here is a fun activity teachers can use to introduce students to the skill of analyzing primary sources.
Historians dissect primary sources such as letters, diaries, court documents, or song lyrics in their quest to interpret the past. They systematically examine each component of the source in order to make sense of the whole.
My former colleague, Carney Lentz, and I (Carney is a talented poet, photographer, and English teacher) created this activity to use on first day of our American Studies class. We used this in a high school class but it could be modified for lower grades.
Use Primary Sources From Your Past
We raided the folders our mothers had saved from our elementary years and our own scrapbooks and yearbooks. We found poems scribbled on scrap paper, elementary school journal entries; newspaper clippings; letters to relatives; grade transcripts and more…
(Homecoming court, 1978. Can you guess which one is me?)
Divide students into pairs. Give each pair two documents from your past.
Tell the students their job is to analyze the sources in order to answer the following research question: What kind of values, beliefs, and character does your teacher have? To answer this question, students must analyze the document by taking the following steps.
Step 1: “Source” the source—identify the creator of this source, the date or time period when it was created, the purpose of the source, and who its intended audience was.
Step 2: Find the Facts: List the information presented in the source. If it is a visual, what objects, activities, or people do you see? If it is a text, what specific information, ideas, or opinions are conveyed?
Step 3: Connect the Content: Each source is only a single window on this person’s past. What is the relationship between these two sources? Does the information in the sources complement or contradict each other? Explain.
Step 4: Evaluate: Answer the research question. Based on the sources you analyzed, what are the values, beliefs, and character of your teacher?
Step 5: Extend: What other questions do you have about this person and where could you search to find the answers to these questions?
This activity is a fun way for students to get a glimpse into their teacher’s life and to dip their toes into the process of doing history.