Selecting Primary Sources for the Classroom: Considering Moment of Use

This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence.

With millions of digitized primary sources available on the Library of Congress website, educators have choices to make when selecting sources to use in a lesson based on the learning objectives, their teaching style, and the students.  While a primary source may be only one resource within a larger lesson, deliberating during the selection process over where in the lesson the primary source will be used can lead to greater engagement, inquiry, and learning from the students.

Imagine a middle school lesson that examines the scientific ingenuity of the late 19th and early 20th century, investigating Orville and Wilbur Wright as an example. To make my search easier, I’ll begin with the primary source set The Inventive Wright Brothers.

First flight, 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 a.m.; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

To start the lesson, I may select a 1903 photograph of the first powered sustained flight by the Wright brothers. When choosing primary sources to start a lesson, I look for:

  • photographs or short pieces of text that students can engage with quickly;
  • a source that generates interest or intrigue, and encourages students to ask questions; and,
  • an item I can use to activate and gauge background knowledge.

I introduce more challenging primary sources to help students explore big ideas and develop content knowledge. Using primary sources in whole class instruction allows students to collectively analyze a primary source with the teacher interjecting as needed. They often feel a level of supported discomfort as the class works together to come to understanding.

Detail, Orville Wright to his sister Katharine, Sep. 29, 1902

For example, this 1902 letter from Orville to his sister Katharine richly describes the activities surrounding the gliding experiments, the mindset Orville has toward gliding, and the daily life of an inventor. When selecting primary sources for whole class instruction, I consider:

  • introducing items that may uncover misconceptions;
  • exposing students to a new type of primary source;
  • analyzing longer or more complex primary sources; and,
  • selecting a primary source that needs contextual support.

During independent instruction, my students work toward clarifying thinking. Whether students work individually, in pairs, or in small groups, interacting with primary sources can help them solidify or deepen their understanding. Students may choose primary sources that intrigue them. I might:

  • pair two or more primary sources together that inform each other;
  • identify several individual or sets of primary sources for students to choose from; or,
  • share types of primary sources that students are familiar with.

Lilienthalscher Gleitflieger

For example, primary sources that inform each other are Orville Wright’s deposition where he describes reading about Otto Lilienthal’s experiments in flight in 1896, a newspaper article from the same year, and a photo of Lilienthal’s glider. Students who select these sources may continue to explore the Wrights’ inspiration for flight.

Using a primary source in an assessment can give a teacher insight into not only what students know, but how they think. The primary source should lend itself to independent analysis of who created the document, what was happening when it was created, or why it was created.

A 1908 postcard from Wilbur to his brother encourages students to infer what has happened since the 1903 flight as well as explore the relationship between the two brothers. When selecting a primary source for assessment, I consider items:

  • used earlier in the lesson or unit but asking students to interact with it in a different way;
  • related to, but not directly from, the event or time period being taught;
  • representing different perspectives, purposes, or intended audiences.

Expanding the selection criteria to think deliberately about how a primary source can affect learning at different stages can enrich students’ experience with the source.

What do you consider when selecting a primary source for a lesson?

2 Comments

  1. Mary Johnson
    March 3, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    This is so helpful, Tom. Not only does your post suggest ways to roll out primary sources as students build knowledge and contextual understanding, but it gives real examples of thoughtful use of primary sources at each stage of a lesson or unit. A primary source can do so much more than generate excitement at the beginning of a lesson!

  2. Charles Dubin
    December 27, 2019 at 10:17 am

    Thought as Taught,the interesting birth of the USAF.I’m a vet in Education and at the LoC today.

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