Thursday, January 26, 2012

Using Your Life to Teach Primary Sources

Talk to any history teacher, whether they teach elementary, middle, or high school and they'll tell you the importance of using primary source documents in their classroom...and I'm certainly not one to argue!  The biggest challenge for me is finding the right time and place to work the sources into my lessons. It's admittedly a weaker point in my teaching, and one that I'm always working to improve...however, I created what I think is a great way to introduce the concept of primary sources to students - specifically, how to work with them and what you can (and can't!) learn from primary source documents.

The Plan
This might not be the most original idea, and some of you may have done it yourself...essentially, you bring in a collection of various primary sources from your life, and turn the students loose to investigate your history.  You can have the students do a formal investigation using document analysis guides - The National Archives has a really great collection of guides that you can check out here. Or, if you'd like you can have them do a more informal analysis...Then, based on the primary sources the students write a 2-3 paragraph biography of your life.  The next day you share the biographies (unbelievably entertaining!) and discuss how well the biography was written. Did they analyze the sources well? Did they use the sources in their biography? Students discuss what they did well, and then take volunteers who think they did an even better job...continue like this until you hear "the best" example of a student using primary sources.

I have a set of posters that I created a while back hanging in my room to help students analyze primary sources too - you can view the set here - and for the MS Publisher files you can download the zipped up set here.

Sources I Provided
I tried to provide a broad range of sources - pictures, official documents, letters, audio recordings, etc...
  • Personal Recording - When I was younger, about 9, I got grounded one night in the Summer for leaving the kitchen a mess.  Bored out of my skull I resorted to popping in a blank cassette tape into my tape player, and started recording my thoughts, interspersed with music (what's up, Hootie & The Blowfish?!)...the resulting recording is a true gem, and the students found it quite hilarious.
  • College Transcript - I wasn't a straight A lowest grade was, believe it or not, in a US history class...the students really enjoyed seeing that.
  • High School Diploma
  • Assorted Pictures - Some formal, some candid, from a variety of different stages of my life
  • Copy of my Birth Certificate - No raised seal, but I don't have any plans of running for President in the near future
  • Passport
  • High School Letter Jacket
  • Various Ticket Stubs to Concerts and Sporting Events
  • 3 Notes from my High School Ex - These were the most enjoyed, and most talked about piece of the collection...we titled this 3 note series "The JoJo Chronicles" after my high school ex. Note one explained why she turned me down but provided hope that we'd be together...Note two (sappy beyond belief) was when we were dating (success!) and about how great I was and how much time she wanted to spend with me, and Note three was a not so nice note post-breakup...I bared a bit of my 10th grade soul here, but the kids loved it! Sparked a lot of great discussions about what written sources could, and could not, tell you...
Tales of Love and Heartbreak

This was a great way to introduce the students to the concept of primary sources, and how to use them. Part of why it was successful was that they were interested in the subject matter, and the sources themselves were engaging.  We then went on to use a set of primary source documents about Andrew Jackson as they prepared their Superman or Scumbag essays. The level of analysis and comfort with the sources this year, compared to past years, was higher.

I did this after a couple of months of class, so they also had some familiarity with the subject (me).  However, I plan on starting the year with this activity next year as a way to introduce the class, primary sources, and their history teacher. You could take it further and have students bring in 3-5 sources from their lives, and share a little about the sources and themselves as an icebreaker too.

The Standford History Education Group has an AWESOME site for "Reading Like a Historian" that I plan to draw on more and more, I'd encourage you to check it out. also has some tremendous resources to look at too.

The Future
What do you do to introduce primary sources and how to work with them to your students? Any great DBQ or primary source lessons? Ever bring in sources from your life?


  1. I have never read about such a personalized approach to teaching with primary sources, and I'm blown away! I'm impressed that you kept even the love notes. My guess is that your students will understand the concept of primary sources informing history better than ever before. Kudos!

  2. What a great way to personalize Primary/Secondary sources and to bring it to a level that your students will understand (AND REMEMBER)! :D

  3. Great lesson! I love your openness with your students. You're not only introducing them to primary documents, but to yourself. Hopefully this will open the door for a classroom community to form as they will feel more comfortable expressing themselves in your class also. Best of luck!