Selecting Primary Sources, Part II: Considering Historical Context

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

Administering the oath to four volunteers, 1942

How many historians are there in your classroom?

When students think like historians, they go beyond memorizing names and dates. Instead, they construct their own understanding of historical events by piecing together evidence from multiple sources — both primary and secondary.

So how can you help your students think like historians? As discussed in Part I of this series, it starts with selecting accessible primary sources that will engage your students and invite them to investigate further.

If the goal is for students to analyze primary sources and piece together evidence to construct new knowledge, then it is important for teachers to select primary sources with enough information for students to place the photograph, diary entry, or map into historical context.

Oakland, Calif., Feb. 1942

Understanding the historical context of a primary source is critical for understanding the attitudes and influences that shaped the creation of the primary source. If not placed into historical context, a primary source’s true meaning might be misinterpreted.

Here are some characteristics to look for when selecting primary sources that your students will be able to place in historical context:

  • Bibliographic information: How detailed is the item’s bibliographic record? Do your students need a primary source with a more descriptive bibliographic record so they can find more leads for their research project?
  • Creator name and creation/publication date: Are the creator’s name and creation date available on the primary source or in the bibliographic record? Are you studying point of view and therefore need to identify the creator of a particular primary source?
  • Time and topic under study in your classroom: What is the time and topic under study in your classroom? Is the source considered a primary source (created at the time under study) or a secondary source (accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience)?
  • Contextual clues: Are there clues within the primary source that will help students place the primary source into context? Will students identify clothing or technology from a certain time period?
  • Extraneous markings or annotations: Will Library of Congress cataloger’s notes or other markings distract your students and interfere with their ability to place the primary source into historical context?

High school class, Manzanar Relocation Center

Take a close look at the primary sources included in this blog post. Select one primary source that you feel provides sufficient information for your students to place the item in historical context and tell us why you chose it. Don’t forget to let us know the grade level you teach!

Stay tuned. The next post in this series will focus on considering perspective when selecting primary sources.

6 Comments

  1. Cheryl Best
    July 27, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Great information! I find this to be very helpful for me as a fifth grade teacher. Thanks!

  2. amir
    July 29, 2011 at 2:01 am

    that’s good for all student. it may be helpful for everyone who read it.

  3. Jennifer
    August 2, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    The newspaper stand would be one to start off with, urging students to ask: Ousting? Why? Who would use the term Jap, and why? When would the cost of a newspaper be 6 cents? The date of the photo will lead to the answers. The girls in high school could be a great follow-up. I teach 5-8 Enrichment and love the National History Day program.

  4. Bonnie914
    August 10, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Great ideas – if we want our students to think like historians, we need to find documents that will be engaging enough for them to want to investigate further! Thank you –

  5. KKB
    September 24, 2014 at 9:20 am

    I teach 7th and 8th grade, all ability levels.
    I think teaching students to look for ALL clues in the photos would be a valuable exercise. Listing all the pertinent information from the photos would be great for visual discrimination.

  6. Monica Dugan
    September 28, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    I teach seventh grade science. I teach all ability levels and several non-English speakers. I selected Ansel Adams’ photograph of the girls in the classroom . I think it would be important to ask students to consider the dress and hairstyles of these ladies and consider what culture and time period is reflected by these two observations. Students could comment on whether the clothing and hairstyle are reflective of the ladies’ native culture or those of the country they are interred in.
    The handwritten date on the edge of the photo reveals information about the traditional way dates were written during this time period.

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