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Primary Sources and Research Part II: Sourcing and Contextualizing to Strengthen Analysis

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress 2013-14 Teacher in Residence.

Why Women Should Protest, October 1904
Why Women Should Protest, October 1904

Once a student has used primary source items to develop research questions, as in our previous post in this series,  a next step is to begin delving deeply into primary and secondary sources to seek answers.

For example, a student exploring the women’s suffrage movement might ask the question: What methods did suffragists use to petition the government for redress of their grievances?  To develop answers, the student might analyze multiple primary sources representing varied perspectives.

Two concrete strategies for grappling with primary sources are to source (think about the documents’ creator) and to contextualize (situate the document in time and place). You can help students develop these skills by asking a series of questions about the primary source and the event being studied:

  • Who was the creator and what was the role of the creator in the event?
  • What credentials does the creator have that make this a credible source?
  • When was the item created in relation to the time of the events?
  • Who was the item’s intended audience?
  • What was the item’s intended purpose?
  • What was happening when the item was created?
  • Who played important roles in the event?
Women's Arguments Against Woman Suffrage, 1907
Women’s Arguments Against Woman Suffrage, 1907

The answers to some of these questions can be found in observing and reflecting on an item. In other cases, consulting the bibliographic record or item record may provide additional insight. What cannot be discovered in one of these two ways can become a question to answer through further investigation, perhaps by analyzing another primary source. By interacting with items in this way, students analyze historical documents and objects as individual pieces while they construct a more complete picture of history.

Invite students to source and contextualize “Why Women Should Protest,” applying the questions as needed. As they build knowledge about the movement by consulting a variety of primary and secondary sources, the ease with which they interact with items will increase.

Compare “Why Women Should Protest” with the point-counterpoint arguments in “Women’s Arguments Against Woman Suffrage.”

These two pieces illustrate the importance of gathering a wide variety of items to identify key differences in point of view. Look closely at the language of those opposed to suffrage, juxtaposed with that of suffrage supporters. Ask students to cite passages that illustrate each perspective. Ask how each quotation contributes to understanding the positions of the suffragists and of their opponents.

Additionally, identifying the source and context of the items via a close look at details guides students to a deeper understanding of the movement in general. Consulting items from across a broad array of views develops a more complete understanding of attitudes in the United States concerning women’s suffrage.

You can further challenge students with this political cartoon. Because students have built prior knowledge and context about the suffrage movement and its opponents through their analysis of previous items, they should be able to do a high-level analysis of the cartoon. Ask students:

  • What details has the artist used to advance a particular point of view?
  • Who was the intended audience for the item?
  • How does the cartoon add to your understanding of the struggle for women’s suffrage?
Election Day!, c. 1909
Election Day!, c. 1909

The women’s suffrage movement left behind a rich trove of historical documentation, preserving for posterity evidence of their struggle. Access a variety of perspectives on, and approaches to, the issue of women’s rights in:

In what other ways can these items enable students to deepen their understanding of the women’s suffrage movement and its historical importance by sourcing and contextualizing?

Comments (3)

  1. Great job o this piece! I can’t agree more – students need to really work on developing skills to source and contextualize – essential elements of critical reading! I have worked with local teachers here and after taking them to the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, NY (where they have an incredible docent and education program!), I came up with my own lesson ideas, including one on protest as one form of invoking change – would be happy to send it to anyone interested!

  2. What a wonderful methodology! All too often, teachers and students stop with the basic analysis. That limits the value of analysis. This strategy gets students thinking more deeply and this deeper thinking is what prepares them to be college and career ready. Student questioning is evidence that students are engaging in critical thinking.

  3. I love these next steps. At an elementary level, these become very abstract ideas for students. We’re working on ways to make contextualizing more concrete, but we have not done much with looking at the source to help create understanding. I love the questions here.
    The other piece that comes across as so important in these examples is the selection of primary sources to create research questions and to then help to answer those questions. Very thought provoking and appreciated!

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