Sentiments of an American (History) Teacher: Primary Sources and the Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute

This guest post was excerpted from correspondence with Becky Boswell, who teaches 8th grade social studies in Nebraska. Becky participated in a 2013 Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute. She wrote to us about her experience with taking what she learned back to her school.

Becky Boswell

Becky Boswell

This summer, attending the Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute took me back to the “awe” of history. Seeing the diary entry from the night President Lincoln was shot, and being able to see the emotion in the writing…You don’t get that in a transcript or in a modified document. The content I gained from the Institute was phenomenal. I was expecting to learn how to use the Library of Congress, but did not expect to learn so much about how to use the sources in my classroom. Both were incredibly valuable.

When I left the Summer Institute, I was overwhelmed and really needed to let my new knowledge and excitement sink in. I finally settled on one document and the question: “How did women contribute to the American Revolution?” Students began by brainstorming possible ways that women made contributions. Students worked with a partner to close read the first page of the document “Sentiments of an American Woman.”

We are constantly working on this skill, so students knew that the first thing they do is look at the source and the date. On this document, the source is “An American Woman,” and a date is not given. They used contextual clues once they read further to estimate a date, or at least know that it’s during the Revolutionary War. Additionally, there was much speculation as to why she did not list her name. Would she be punished for this? Was she concerned about retribution? Was it symbolic of all women who wanted to contribute?

The sentiments of an American woman.

The sentiments of an American woman.

They interacted with the text: looked up words they did not know, took notes, wrote questions and comments, underlined key points. Students also used the Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tool. As students wrote in the observe, reflect and question columns, they made insightful discoveries, incredible connections to content and text, and asked important questions. To facilitate discussion, I led them, one paragraph at a time, through the document, and students interpreted “Sentiments of An American Woman,” telling the class what the author said, providing text evidence, and asking questions. This is something I’ve focused on this year – having students wonder, think and question. Our discussion was powerful.

To read the second page of the document, I assigned each pair of students a section to read and summarize in one sentence. Each group reported to the rest of the class and everyone was able to learn about the plan for women collecting money door to door and eventually giving it to General George Washington.

Next, I had students read the essay Sentiments of an American Woman by Rosemary Fry Plakas. Her essay identified the “American Woman,” told of the success the women had fundraising, and gave personal details about the woman behind the fundraising.  Students were moved by the story of Esther De Berdt Reed and her untimely death.  This secondary source also gave us the opportunity to talk about the work of historians and how Plakas uncovered evidence to discover how the women of Philadelphia helped the patriot cause. They also thought it was really cool that I got to meet the author of the essay.

Boswell at STI left

Boswell (left) explores a map with colleagues at a 2013 Summer Teacher Institute

I was happy to see students engaged and analyzing the document, and the discussion always came back to the text.  Thanks to the secondary source, students were saying things like, “When Esther wrote this, she…” and, “When Sarah Franklin Bache and the other women sewed the shirts for the soldiers, it was like…” The essay allowed the students to put names to the women and make the story really come alive. They were already hooked after reading the primary source, but the essay was an added bonus.

The activity worked far better than anything else I’ve ever done, the kids were engaged, and they were the ones doing the learning, the teaching, the questioning and explaining.

I continue to be grateful for the opportunity I had this summer. The Summer Teacher Institute was one of the best professional opportunities I’ve ever had. I was in “nerd heaven” for five days, got to work with incredible people, was surrounded by history and loved every moment.

2 Comments

  1. Sheila Ferrara
    January 27, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Thanks to Becky for reflecting on her summer experience and sharing this interesting lesson. I’ve been a big fan of using primary sources from the Library of Congress with my elementary school students in CT. We happen to live in an area rich in Revolutionary War history- my students play on a beach where the British ships docked, they kick soccer balls in fields where battles occurred and some even live in homes that were spared during the Burning of Fairfield. I’ll be the first to admit that we sometimes take our surroundings for granted. Not every student loves history but using primary sources adds life to the curriculum and makes the “boring” things fun. From one history nerd to the next, my sincere thanks!

  2. Rosemary Fry Plakas
    February 10, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    Thank you Becky for sharing your Summer Institute experiences on the Teaching with LC blog. I enjoyed working with you and suggesting primary sources for teaching about women in the American Revolution. It is inspiring and uplifting to learn how thoughtfully you incorporated that material into your lesson. I have loved working with teachers for nearly forty years, so it is a special treat to know how LC’s digital collections are being utilized by master teachers. Thanks for making a difference!

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.