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Ten Tips to Start the Year with Primary Sources

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Collaborative Learning with Primary Sources
Collaborative Learning with Primary Sources

Looking for easy ways to create a classroom environment that encourages inquiry-based, interactive use of primary sources from the Library of Congress? Here are some ideas from teachers and librarians across the United States.

  1. Bookmark the interactive Primary Source Analysis Tool on your classroom computers or iPads.
  2. Assemble a box of tools for primary source analysis – students can help:
    • A class set of papers with a quadrant cut away to focus observations on 1/4 of the source at a time.  For K-1, cut out a “window” instead.
    • A few magnifying glasses.
    • A stack of blank Primary Source Analysis Tools.
  3. Have students do an analysis of an old photo that just happens to be of you as a child.
  4. Have each student bring in five primary sources from home. Create a mini-museum.
  5. Post the following prominently: “I think____________ because __________” to help students get in the habit of supporting their ideas when examining primary sources.
  6. Try asking, “What makes you say that?” to help students think about their thinking.
  7. Allow more wait time and “trust the silence.” Give students time to form their ideas.

    Students Assemble a Map
    Students Assemble a Map from Sir Francis Drake’s West Indian Voyage
  8. Have young students put together pieces of a primary source image to practice working together while exploring an item.  Print an item and cut it up, or print a map that’s already in pieces.
  9. Try moving desks out of rows and into groups, for more collaborative work with primary and secondary sources. Try small groups and “think/pair/share.”
  10. Have students deepen observation skills by looking at the “background” in a primary source, as well as the foreground.

If you have a beginning-of-the-year tip, please take a moment to share it in the comments below.

Comments (6)

  1. Gather together a set of primary source images that includes the content the students studied in the previous year and the content that will be studied in the coming school year. A suggested amount is 20-30. First, have the students divide the documents into two groups. For instance, my students divided the set of documents into events that occurred before 1900 and after 1900. From each section, as a group, students should select the five most important documents. Then, have the groups sequence the events from least important to most important. This allows students to review the previous year’s content and practice working in a group along with analysis of the events and identifying the importance of perspective. If time allows each group can explain the justification of their selections. The students usually acknowledge that this is a challenge to do as a group.

  2. all ways and methods are good for encouraged students for use primary sources but i think first we learned about philasophy subjects and why the primary sourse is important then use any ways or methods for using primary sourse .
    if you can,t to making needs to primary source between students they don,t get up enough ability for using that source.
    first all students teaching and learning 4 skills:
    reading -writing-repeating -reviewing(4R)

  3. This is great! Thank you for compiling this Anne! I’m going to pass this along now!

  4. I begin my year with my students analysis of my primary sources as a way to introduce what a primary source is. I use my birth certificate, a photo, a letter , a receipt and usually something from my fifth grade year. Then the students analyze each source to find out information about me, their teacher. They love it! They find out how old I am and other interesting facts about me.

    I then have them bring in five primary sources about themselves. Once each has their set ,we display them on our desk as a “Mini Museum About Me”. I give them each some post-it-notes to walk around and ask a quesiton of their friends sources. We use a lot of notes but it beocmes a great way to have the students understand the power of questions and how primary sources tell their story.

  5. I love the idea of using any of these simple activities to open a class period and let students take control of their own learning. If a basic primary source analysis can become a habit of mind for students upon arrival, then the “admin time” (taking roll, setup, etc.) isn’t lost. Not to mention, with some strategic selections, the conversation will already be moving in the desired direction of the intended learning goals.

  6. I am a teacher currently taking an online class and am researching blogs. This is an excellent article that I enjoyed reading. I will definitely use these ideas in my classroom.

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