This blog post is the third in a series discussing characteristics to consider when selecting primary sources to use with your students.
Four years ago on a backpacking trip through Eastern Europe I stumbled unexpectedly on a memorial in Budapest that really got me thinking. I noticed a group of dark objects on the banks of the Danube and as I got closer, I realized they were metal shoes of all shapes and sizes. Reading a nearby plaque I learned that the Shoes on the Danube Promenade was a memorial honoring Jewish victims who were shot into the river by Nazi-allied Arrow Cross militiamen near the end of World War II.
Among the many emotions I felt was anger–why didn’t I learn about this in school? I felt let down by my teachers, my textbooks, and myself. Why didn’t I push myself beyond the Americentric narrative presented in my textbooks–one that seldom focused on events in Eastern Europe–and seek out other perspectives, other stories?
When I became a teacher, I realized some of the challenges–geographically-focused standards, big-picture textbooks, and amount of content vs. instructional time–that impact which historical events are taught and in what depth. I found that using primary sources was one way to present students with multiple perspectives and teach them to ask questions and think critically.
When students analyze primary sources, they might encounter a new idea that challenges their beliefs. They must weigh evidence from multiple sources and find information to explain incongruities. Once students have the skills to recognize that there is a point of view present in every textbook, news program, or advertisement, they will be more likely to seek out the other side–or sides–of the story.
When selecting primary sources, consider several factors that might help your students identify point of view:
- Creator: Will your students be able to find out who created the primary source? How much information can they find out about the creator’s beliefs or other works?
- Target audience and purpose of the primary source: Can students infer the intended audience for the primary source, and whether the creator might have been promoting a certain idea or agenda?
- Circumstances of creation: Will students be familiar with any of the personal, social, cultural, or political events that surrounded the creation of the primary source?
- Your own point of view: Consider your own beliefs about a historical event or issue. By selecting a particular primary source, are you inadvertently presenting one point of view over another?
- Different perspectives: When using more than one primary source, have you selected items that present different perspectives?
- Overall meaning preserved: If you plan to use an excerpt of a primary source, is the meaning of the entire primary source preserved?
Take a close look at the primary sources included in this blog post. Select two primary sources that would enable your students to compare and contrast points of view. Don’t forget to let us know the grade level you teach!
Make sure to read the final post in this series on considering quality when selecting primary sources.