Top of page

10 Ways to Enrich Your Classroom with Primary Sources – Part 2

Share this post:

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

The first post of this two-part series offered ten tips for filling classroom spaces with engaging primary source displays. This second post lists ten ways to introduce primary sources into a wide variety of lessons and learning activities to promote systematic critical thinking. No matter your grade level or subject, the ten ideas start from this basic premise: For every lesson a primary source!

  1. Connecting to Primary Sources. Distribute copies of a Primary Source Set from the Teachers Page and ask students to select one primary source that relates to them personally in some way. With a partner, play “Twenty Questions” until each partner discovers what makes the primary source meaningful. Only Yes/No questions and answers are allowed!
  2. Connecting Primary Sources. Extend Activity #1 by asking students to find one classmate whose primary source connects to theirs in some way – topic, event, time period, cause and effect, and so on. Discuss how one primary source adds to understanding of another. Why do historians connect primary sources?
  3. It’s My Birthday! Every student celebrates a birthday by selecting 2 or 3 primary sources related to an event or famous person connected to that special date and telling the class about the person or event. If time allows, the class can take turns naming one thing they can learn about the person or event from one of the selected primary sources. Students can search by date in Today in History or Jump Back in Time to discover what happened on their birthdays, with related primary sources.
  4. Question Everything. Select one or more primary source images on a theme and write a short, intriguing statement about each one. Ask student groups to generate and record as many questions as possible related to each image and statement. Which questions hold the most promise for further research and why? Sample image and statement: Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial was a prelude to the Civil Rights movement.
  5. Challenge the Text. Ask students to compare primary sources to potentially controversial passages from their textbooks, looking for additional evidence or alternative perspectives. Write alternative passages based on the additional evidence.
  6. Visiting Archivists. Contact local archivists, librarians, or museum educators to bring primary sources into your classroom. Combine the visit with a lesson contrasting primary and secondary sources. The Introduction to the Library of Congress Professional Development Module for Teachers includes definitions and examples to help you prepare.
  7. Testing Text. Select a primary source text from Chronicling America and write its most challenging vocabulary words on a white board. Ask students to read the passages and guess the meanings from the context. Work together as a class or in small groups to look up the words and then rewrite the sentences as they might appear in a current newspaper article.
  8. Science Spies. Pick any current technology – cellular phones, gene therapy, space exploration – and ask students to locate primary source evidence of that technology’s precursors.
  9. Kids Do Tech. Introduce basic analysis of a Library of Congress primary source using any of the analysis guides by format. Use the interactive primary source analysis tool and  let the students decide how to present their analyses using their choice of tools and devices.
  10. Map Flyover. Share links to birds-eye view maps from the Library’s rich collections and give students time to zoom into each map and closely observe details. What inferences or conclusions can they draw from the evidence? Sample: 1863 Birds eye view of Alexandria, Va

How have you successfully introduced primary sources into your classroom? We invite you to share still more ideas in the comments.

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for more great ideas of how teachers can easily expose students to primary sources! I think “Question Everything” can be used as a bellringer in my classroom to get students thinking and writing.

  2. We are just completing a unit of study on Paul Revere, I am iterested in trying out “Challenge the Text” using Longfellow’s poem and a an article from the unit of study. But now I’m wondering…, did I really use any primary sources in the unit of study?

  3. Even more great ideas for integrating primary sources into the classroom. I especially like #8 Science Spies and can already picture developing a unit based on this. I also like #1 Connecting to Primary Sources (twenty questions with primary sources. It sounds like a nice spin on a familiar game.

  4. Another site with great ideas of ways to include primary sources in your classroom or library. After reading all of these, it really gives me a lot of good ideas of ways to use primary sources in my lessons. I like “It’s my birthday”. It’s a good way for students to find out events that happened on their birthdays.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.