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10 Ways to Enrich Your Classroom with Primary Sources – Part 1

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This is a guest post by Mary J. Johnson, an educational consultant to the Library of Congress.

As a teacher, you can saturate your classroom with primary sources from the Library of Congress to promote critical thinking and inquiry. Think of every surface, including computer screens, as potential display spaces for primary sources – photographs, cartoons, music, films, maps, historic newspapers, artifacts, and more. Teaching with the Library of Congress offers timely suggestions. Add questions and critical thinking prompts from the Library’s page for teachers, and you’ll have a constant source of primary source conversation starters at your fingertips.

Carte figurative et approximative représentant pour l'année 1858 les émigrants du globe, les pays dóu ils partent et ceux oú ils arrivent /
Carte figurative et approximative représentant pour l’année 1858 les émigrants du globe, les pays dóu ils partent et ceux oú ils arrivent /

Part 1 of this two-part post offers ten ideas for filling your classroom environment with primary sources. In an upcoming Part 2, we will list ten additional easy ways to introduce primary sources into your classroom.

  1. Teacher Mystery. On your door, display a photograph that says something about your past. For example, if your grandmother was a teacher (or singer, tennis player, immigrant, etc.), locate and print a representative photograph from the Library of Congress collections. Can your students discover the connection?
  2. Jigsaw Maps. On a table, fill a basket with cut up pieces of a laminated historic map for your students to assemble. Bird’s eye view maps work well for all ages. You may also choose maps related to your curriculum. Help students think critically about the maps by posting questions from Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Maps nearby.
  3. What Makes You Say That? Pin cutout letters to a wall to guide primary source analyses all year long:  What do you observe? What do you think you know? Why? What do you wonder about?
  4. Timeline Builders. Run an empty timeline with dates all around the room. As questions about the past come up throughout the year, students can search for images or texts in the Library of Congress collections to illustrate the timeline.
  5. What’s That Sound? As students enter the room, play a recording from the Library’s audio collections. Promote curiosity with questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Sound Recordings.
  6. Sticky Thinking. Place an enlarged primary source photograph in the center of a large piece of butcher paper on the wall. Print “I think…because…” above the image. Ask students to post their observations and inferences on sticky notes around the image.
  7. Primary Source Me. Each week, feature a student photo surrounded by the student’s choice of Library of Congress primary sources that say something about personal interests, family, or ancestors.
  8. Book Bags. On a wall, display the cover of a favorite book surrounded by paper lunch bags. Ask students to search
    Primary Source Sets
    Primary Source Sets

    the Library of Congress website for historical images that illustrate the context of the story. Attach the images to the bags.

  9. Primary Source Set of the Month. Make a large wall display of items in a Primary Source Set from the Teachers Page. Ask students to write observations, reflections, or questions on post-it notes to place around the primary sources.
  10. Quotation Nation. Copy quotations from historical newspapers in Chronicling America onto butcher sized paper. (Start with Topics in Chronicling America to save time.) Ask students to guess who might have said each, as well as when and why.

How have you enriched your own classroom environment with primary source displays? We hope you will share more ideas in the comments.


Comments (11)

  1. Teachers will love these short, but powerful ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  2. the teacher strategy for training student for primary sources is very good but attention that this important factor:when we arecertain that zccured the learning all studnets to using primary sources all homeworks and to using in your life

  3. Talk about making it real! These suggestions are a perfect way to get started using primary documents in any class setting. I know they will spring board into many more ideas.

  4. I have used a timeline in my classroom for reference throughout the year but I also allow the students to add content to the timeline as they learn and discover. Primary sources that the students find and analyze from the Library of Congress provide great sources for the timeline. By the end of the school year, it provides a snapshot of the content covered.

  5. I love to see ideas like these that are so practical and be implemented so easily. Coincidentally a middle school teacher who was my American Memory Fellow partner just showed me a “flipped classroom” resource page she created that asks students to examine the same map depicted here.
    These (and those in Part 2) are all great ideas that I can use in upcoming workshops. Thank you for this blog post.

  6. Great ideas! I especially like Quotation Nation to use with my high school English classes. Thanks for sharing!

  7. You have provided a powerful and easy way for me to introduce primary sources into my classroom. I am particularly excited to try #10 – Quotation Nation. My kids are struggling with quoting directly from a source, so I am hoping the visual examples with help.

  8. What great ideas for immersing your classroom in primary sources. As I was reading this, my mind was working through how I can integrate these ideas into my current and future classes.

  9. These are great ideas! I’m going to print these and start integrating them into my daily routine. I love the music idea. This is also a great way to introduce students to new things.

  10. This is an excellent site with so many useful and interesting ideas of way s to use primary sources in classrooms of any grade level or subject. I especially like the “Book Bags” idea. What a great way to for students to learn more about a favorite book.

  11. Wonderful ideas! Thank you for posting. I can see myself incorporating many of these ideas into my classroom.

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