Selecting Primary Sources, Part III: Thinking about Perspective

Suffrage Parade, May 6, 1912.

This blog post is the third in a series discussing characteristics to consider when selecting primary sources to use with your students.

Four years ago on a backpacking trip through Eastern Europe I stumbled unexpectedly on a memorial in Budapest that really got me thinking. I noticed a group of dark objects on the banks of the Danube and as I got closer, I realized they were metal shoes of all shapes and sizes. Reading a nearby plaque I learned that the Shoes on the Danube Promenade was a memorial honoring Jewish victims who were shot into the river by Nazi-allied Arrow Cross militiamen near the end of World War II.

Among the many emotions I felt was anger–why didn’t I learn about this in school? I felt let down by my teachers, my textbooks, and myself. Why didn’t I push myself beyond the Americentric narrative presented in my textbooks–one that seldom focused on events in Eastern Europe–and seek out other perspectives, other stories?

Election Day!, c1909.

When I became a teacher, I realized some of the challenges–geographically-focused standards, big-picture textbooks, and amount of content vs. instructional time–that impact which historical events are taught and in what depth. I found that using primary sources was one way to present students with multiple perspectives and teach them to ask questions and think critically.

When students analyze primary sources, they might encounter a new idea that challenges their beliefs. They must weigh evidence from multiple sources and find information to explain incongruities. Once students have the skills to recognize that there is a point of view present in every textbook, news program, or advertisement, they will be more likely to seek out the other side–or sides–of the story.

When selecting primary sources, consider several factors that might help your students identify point of view:

  • Creator: Will your students be able to find out who created the primary source? How much information can they find out about the creator’s beliefs or other works?

    Woman’s Party Billboard Campaign, 1916.

  • Target audience and purpose of the primary source: Can students infer the intended audience for the primary source, and whether the creator might have been promoting a certain idea or agenda?
  • Circumstances of creation: Will students be familiar with any of the personal, social, cultural, or political events that surrounded the creation of the primary source?
  • Your own point of view: Consider your own beliefs about a historical event or issue. By selecting a particular primary source, are you inadvertently presenting one point of view over another?
  • Different perspectives: When using more than one primary source, have you selected items that present different perspectives?
  • Overall meaning preserved: If you plan to use an excerpt of a primary source, is the meaning of the entire primary source preserved?

Take a close look at the primary sources included in this blog post. Select two primary sources that would enable your students to compare and contrast points of view. Don’t forget to let us know the grade level you teach!

Make sure to read the final post in this series on considering quality when selecting primary sources.

6 Comments

  1. Frank Johns
    August 9, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    I think it’s also important to bear in mind that many of the sources that the student may find on his or her subject are secondary sources rather than primary. Thus newspaper articles, political speeches and comentaries are opinions on the primay source. For example, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech is a primary source. A letter by Aaron Burr commenting on this would be a secoondary source. A transcript of the Licnoln-Douglas bebates would be a primary source, whereas a newspaper article on thes would be a secondary source. The history that scholars are creating today is largely based on secondary soources, and these can be reliable if there is sufficient corroboration.

  2. Sara Suiter
    August 11, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Frank,
    You bring up some great points that are important to consider when selecting sources to use with your students. Determining whether sources are primary or secondary can be difficult and there are often shades of gray. For example, if studying the facts of a historical event (say the attack on Fort Pillow during the Civil War), a newspaper article would be considered a secondary source. You will find very different accounts of this event in northern and southern newspapers! However, if you are studying how a particular historical event was covered in the newspapers or how the historical event was remembered (e.g. A 30-year anniversary retrospective on the attack on Fort Pillow), these same newspaper articles could be considered primary sources. Whether a source is primary or secondary really depends on what the topic of study is.

  3. Cathi Franchino
    August 23, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Sara,
    Your example of how the primary or secondary nature of a source may shift subject to the topic of study is excellent. The best I’ve seen, and, if I may, I intend to use it in my future discussions with teachers and students. Thank you!

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    December 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

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  5. Christina
    September 16, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Excellent Blog Post! Giving students different perspectives through primary sources will allow students to form their own opinions and ask questions regarding historical events.

  6. Monica Dugan
    September 28, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    I teach 7th grade science and as a result frequently have students who have read secondary sources commenting on scientific discovery, but who don’t have obvious bias presented.
    I would select the Women’s Party Billboard from this set because it makes it quite clear who is presenting this information and would serve as a great jumping off point for a discussion on who puts information out there for us to receive and why they do so.

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