Top of page

Electricity and Primary Sources: Engaging Second Graders

Share this post:

Students examine a primary source
What is it? Doorknobs? Mushrooms? Light bulbs?

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

A colleague and I were recently invited into a classroom at The River School in Washington, D.C., which provides “educational experiences for children and their families uniting the best practices of early childhood education and oral deaf education.” We visited to observe a lesson conducted by teacher Stephanie DiFrancesco that she had developed as a 2014 Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute participant, with Kate Maina, speech pathologist, using primary source items from the Library related to electricity.

The morning began with the question: What year was electricity invented? On the white board, students wrote answers ranging from 649 to 1908.

Partners studied their first primary source, Display of different light bulb sizes [between 1923 and 1929], inside a folder with a square cut for viewing only a portion of the item at a time. Students could reach in to move the picture around. Initial observations resulted in a variety of hypotheses including doorknobs, mushrooms, and light bulbs. Prompting with “What makes you say that?” focused students on naming details they were seeing in the picture.

Students watch film about early uses of electricity
Look, right there! The Eiffel Tower!

Next, the class was split into three groups of 4-5 students. One group worked independently to make a list of items which use electricity. A second group worked with the teacher to view two film clips: Palace of Electricity, 1900 and Scene from the elevator ascending the Eiffel Tower, 1900. Students relied on prior knowledge and observation to engage with the videos. Many recognized the Eiffel Tower but wondered about the purpose of a “Palace of Electricity.” The videos provided context to help them answer the morning’s question about when electricity was invented.

Students examine primary sources
Let’s take a closer look!

The third group worked with Mrs. Maina, the speech pathologist, and two visual images: The Cotters Saturday Night, c1886 April 20 and Art Brown and family. Brown family reading in chair I, 1937 Mar. 7, to complete a See/Think/Wonder graphic organizer similar to the Library’s Primary Source Analysis tool. Students used magnifiers to focus on details. After some trial and error, Mrs. Maina discovered that offering the items one at a time focused students on observing, reflecting, and questioning more effectively than offering both items and the graphic organizer at the same time. By taking time to look at each item separately, the students focused on details they may have missed in their hurry to move to the next item, resulting in deeper reflection. Then they were able to make comparisons between the items based on close observation of each.

After everyone had worked at each station, the class came together to reflect on what they had seen. Each student shared one item that uses electricity. They also reacted to the videos and images. The culminating question of the lesson, “What else do we want to know about electricity?” yielded a flurry of questions to which Mrs. DiFrancesco replied, “That will be really interesting to find out.”

Afterward, Mrs. DiFrancesco reflected on the experience, saying, “It is important not to underestimate what early elementary students can do and understand. Primary sources appeal to my students’ innate sense of wonder and curiosity about the past. Kate and I agree that with young children you have to be flexible during the lesson so that you can adjust your methods of questioning based on how the children are answering and responding.”

This introductory activity is an example of how primary sources activate curiosity, inspire students to ask their own questions for further investigation, and build content knowledge about a topic.

How do you work with primary sources with elementary age students?



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.