Using Primary Source Sets in Remote Learning Environments

This post is by Jen Reidel, the 2019-2020 Library of Congress Civics Teacher in Residence.

The Library of Congress produces and makes available, for free, many curricular materials to integrate primary sources into the K-12 classroom that can also support student instruction in our current remote learning landscape. One such offering is the Primary Source Sets page. The page hosts more than thirty-five different sets focused on a variety of topics often taught in social studies, English, and science classrooms, across grade levels.

Detail from Primary Source Sets homepage

Sets include select primary sources relating to a specific person, event, or time period, with PDF versions of most printable items. Each set also includes a Teacher’s Guide giving contextual information for the primary source set items and teaching suggestions.

Teachers might use the sets several ways. First, consider using the Primary Source Set as a summative assessment of prior learning over the past semester or year. Determine what standards you would like to assess and choose a corresponding set for students to explore and analyze in context of their prior knowledge.

Educators might require students to choose 3-4 items (or could select the items for students) from a set that the student believes best represents the topic under study. Students could then be asked to:

  • Explain and defend their item selection using their prior knowledge of the subject.
  • Describe whether the selected primary source item accurately reflects their understanding of narratives surrounding the topic.
  • Complete a Primary Source Analysis Tool (PSAT) handout for each item analyzed and suggest possible questions for further inquiry; teachers might offer a sample PSAT completed on another topic for student reference.
  • For younger students or those with limited language skills, educators might select a photograph or image from a Primary Source Set of a topic previously studied, and ask students to create a tweet, headline, or caption that they believe best summarizes the image. Students could explain their thinking behind the caption to demonstrate their understanding of the topic and their cognitive processes.

Another strategy for using Primary Source Sets is to let the students themselves select a set that piques their curiosity and interest regardless of whether it has formally been studied in class.

  • For photographs and images, students might create a description of what happened historically before and after the image based on their current knowledge or additional research. They could explain who or what is missing from the photograph which would make it a more complete historical record.
  • Students might use the primary source item as a springboard to create a dialogue that likely relates to a chosen primary source highlighting varying viewpoints of the specific event.
  • Students could explain why the primary source set topic interested them and is significant to history.

With a little planning and creativity, teachers can use the Primary Source Sets to engage, enhance, and assess student learning and understanding. If you use any of the suggestions for using the Primary Source Sets or a variation in your classroom or in remote learning, we would love to hear from you.

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