Kindergarten Historians: Primary Sources in an Early Elementary Classroom

This post is co-authored by the Library of Congress Teacher in Residence, Earnestine Sweeting and a Library of Congress 2011 Summer Teacher Institute participant, Teresa St. Angelo. 

If you’ve ever wondered how early elementary students develop historical thinking skills, check out this lesson with a group of kindergarten historians. The Class of 2025 demonstrated their educational readiness while engaged in analyzing primary sources from the Library of Congress.

Discussing primary sources with an adult

Teresa St. Angelo, a Library of Congress 2011 Summer Teacher Institute participant, teaches kindergarten at the John I. Dawes Early Learning Center in Manalapan, N.J., headed by Melissa Foy. State curriculum requires students to understand different roles in the family, school, and community, including occupations.  This lesson using primary sources shows an exciting way for kindergarteners to discover how mail was transported and delivered in the past.

Motion picture discussion

The young historians watched two early motion pictures.  The first, a 1903 short film titled “Collecting mail” shows a man wearing the uniform of a mailman removing mail from the mailbox.  From the moment the class electrician shut the lights off, the students were hooked. After the video, the students were asked to express their ideas about what they thought was happening. “My dad watches black and white movies all the time” provided evidence of one student making a personal connection.

In the next short film, the students observed a train taking up a mailbag.  At the end of the film, when the mailbag was snatched from the suspension device, all the students started laughing and one girl said, “This is hilarious!”

Identifying evidence in historic photographs

The students were asked to independently analyze a photo of men working in a railway mail train. “Circle what you see that helps you guess where you think these men are working.”  One student replied, “In a kitchen.”

Teresa’s response cultivated the skills of citing evidence to support ideas and evaluating information.  She asked him to think about the things we see in a kitchen and find them in the image. When he couldn’t find the stove or the refrigerator, he reconsidered his conclusion.  Teresa emphasized that discovery learning offers students opportunities to prove, or investigate, their ideas.  The thinking routines they use to make observations and reflections when analyzing visual primary sources are carried over into other academic areas, notably literacy and science.

In small group conversations with their peers and adults, historians then expressed their thoughts and ideas around a set of three early 1900s photographs of a horse-drawn U.S Mail wagon at a railway station, unsorted mail at the post office, and a girl handing a letter to the mailman in “A letter to papa”. Their task was to describe the similarities and differences between mail delivery then and now.

To model the mail delivery that they had observed in these primary sources, each student created his or her own postcard using the 1904 stereograph “A letter to papa”. Each student wrote a message on the postcard, which was mailed home.  Some students wrote, “I love history lessons,” “I love mail,” and “I love the Library of Congress.”

Tell us how you might use primary sources to promote discovery learning and introduce new information to your students.

19 Comments

  1. faye
    March 12, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    I love the idea of using this primary source with kindergarten (and maybe even grade 1).
    Thank you so much!

  2. Martha
    March 13, 2013 at 7:25 am

    This is a wonderful article. I had the privilege to attend summer institute one year and it is a treasured experience. This article helps to clearly give an idea on how this can be used with primary students. The guiding steps make this a very approachable and understandable process. Thank you.

  3. Sue
    March 13, 2013 at 9:18 am

    This is a great example of primary source use with young children. As teachers work to address CCSS, it is important for teachers to have classroom implementation models.

    The magnifying glasses and the dry-erase sleeves really support hands-on investigation and analysis! Any idea where one could purchase sleeves like this?

  4. Marla
    March 13, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Excellent usage of primary sources in eliciting personal connections from the young historians. It’s evident the students were fully engaged with the process and are now on the road to a lifelong appreciation of history. Thank you for sharing this valuable lesson on the use of primary documents in early education.

  5. Jennifer
    March 13, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Wow, thank you for writing this! I plan to share this with the Kindergarten teachers at my school. So often they feel left out or overlooked as authors write towards older grades. Thank you for including our amazing Kindergarten teachers and students!

  6. Earnestine Sweeting
    March 13, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Sue, the sleeves are widely available from office supply stores or online.

  7. Bitsy
    March 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Great lesson. I paired it with a read aloud, “Owney the Mail Pouch Pooch” by Mona Kerby.

  8. Cheryl Lederle
    March 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Bitsy, Owney enjoyed quite a bit of press attention in the late 19th century…for sample newspaper articles, check out this “Topics” page in the Chronicling America Historic Newspaper database: http://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/owney.html.

  9. James j st. Angelo
    March 13, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    This lesson looks wonderful! It makes me wish i taught spirited kindergarteners like mrs. St. Angelo! She is the best! Also… that mailroom photo looks like my bedroom when i was a kid!!!

  10. Patrick
    March 13, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    Sounds like a great lesson that is very interactive and informative! I am very impressed with the lesson and all the information the students/historians learned from as well. Keep up the great work!

  11. Marissa
    March 14, 2013 at 7:36 am

    I had the pleasure of observing this lesson first hand. These kindergarteners were true historians! They were able to use the primary source documents to investigate and make inferences about the U.S. postal system in the 1900s.

    I was amazed at the way students were able to compare and contrast the photographs and videos to today’s current system. The dialogue of these children and the way they analyzed the sources was astounding. Thank you for sharing your classroom with us Teresa!

  12. Jill Barefoot
    March 14, 2013 at 9:58 am

    I’ve been using Primary resources and proper research techniques with my Pre-K classes for years. Using resources books, photos, video and field trip to locations gives them a full experience with the subject.

  13. June Hartig
    March 18, 2013 at 7:29 am

    I have discovered that using primary sources and introducing research skills earlier has been more successful than waiting until third or fourth grade. Primary students are naturally curious and seem open to questioning rather than just completing the task.

  14. Nicole
    March 20, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I had a fantastic time observing Teresa’s wonderful class do this lesson. The students were so enthusiastic, engaged, and made fantastic observations throughout the lesson. The students were super proud to act as historians. Their classroom was full of rich learning, and I am so glad I have been exposed to the wonders of using primary sources in my elementary classroom.
    Thank you Teresa and Earnestine for such an informative day!

  15. Jacqueline Brathwaite
    March 21, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Wow! What a treasure of a lesson. Developing historical thinking begins early and I am glad to see Earnestine Sweeting encouraging this kind of teaching using primary sources and historian strategies to foster life-long critical thinking about things that matter. Thank you.

  16. Julie
    April 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    This is a wonderful post! I have been looking for ways to use primary sources with my K-2 students and this is absolutely perfect! I was wondering if you had examples of the postcards the students sent home. How did they create them? Thank you so much!

  17. Earnestine Sweeting
    April 22, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Julie, I created the postcard template using a word processing program with light gray lines for the students to write the date, their greeting, a message and their closing. With help from the adults, the students cut them out and pasted the image on the back.

  18. Julie
    April 22, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Thank you so much!!!

  19. Danielle
    September 12, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    I love how this activity got the students engaged from the very beginning with the videos. I think that it is important for children to see how things happened in the world way before their time. As a child, I was always interest to see how things were done “back in the day”. This lesson could easily be adapted to meet the needs of any elementary grade. I will definitely be putting this activity in big book of ideas for when I have my own classroom. This activity is a great opening activity for a unit on the post office system and writing letters, which would work great for tying history and writing together.

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