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.
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.
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!”
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.