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I won’t ever forget watching one of my most struggling students light up when he showed me that he had written a simple story in cuneiform, using the few glyphs that were included in the social studies book. “It’s like I’m a time traveler!” he’d said.

And of course, he was right.

One of the most vivid yet everyday ways we can help our students transcend time is to consistently use primary sources as the centerpiece of our social studies curriculum.

Far too many stories and perspectives are whitewashed in an effort to streamline, simplify, or dominate. It is the teacher’s daily challenge to teach students to learn to ask the tough questions, and in doing so, bring light to more truth.

Here are some fun, practical ideas for using primary sources in your social studies classroom:

  1. Teach it first, Teach it Specifically, and Teach it Often. Learning to analyze primary sources is a tough skill. It requires higher-order thinking. Sometimes it involves reading, sometimes looking at art or an artifact, sometimes listening to music or looking at a photograph or map. Begin the year practicing this skill with various resources and circle back to it frequently. I kept Primary Source Analysis worksheets on-the-ready, printed out in an accessible location all year long. Access them here.
  2. Use Music. With online music databases and the Library of Congress National Jukebox website, teachers today can access music from a vast swath of human history. You can search by genre, time period, and much more. There is nothing like music to truly immerse your students and engage their brains. 
  3. Don’t worry about what you don’t know. I’ve had 5th graders reading Colombus’ journals. Were they edited? Of Course. I gave students manageable paragraphs that painted a picture. Did they understand every word? Of course not. And that’s okay. I had them draw pictures, after several supported, close readings, of what they DID understand, even if it was just an image or two. Then, discuss as a class or conference in small groups to fill in gaps of understanding.
  4. Act it Out. I used this strategy often. Break the students into groups and have them study different primary sources from the same event or time period. For instance, concerning the American Revolution- one group could read a snippet of the Declaration of Independencec, one group could look at Emanuel Luetze’s classic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (and here would be a good opportunity to discuss the difference between when Washington actually crossed the Delaware and when Leutze painted it in 1851!), and another group could read something from the British and/or French at the time. washington crossing.jpgAs students act out their understanding of their source, they begin to see the larger picture emerge- that multiple perspectives and agendas exist and must be examined.

So, have at it & have fun!

Write in cuneiform!

Sketch like DaVinci!

Listen to Rhapsody in Blue!

Whatever you do, don’t let your students leave your classroom thinking that history is something they find in a textbook, or that there is only one story to an event. This lesson must be repeated and practiced over and over and over.

What are your favorite ways to enliven social studies instruction? How do you like to make sure your history class is centered on primary sources?

Next Week: Using Primary Sources to Teach Social Justice

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