This post is by Caneisha Mills, the 2022-23 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence. This is the first in a series of blog posts on using primary sources in the classroom.
As the Library of Congress Teacher in Residence, I review items in the Library’s collections that inspire curiosity and wonder and reflect the power of relationships and community. In the past few months, I have listened to Library content specialists, historians, librarians, and staff discuss, analyze, and choose songs, speeches, manuscripts, photographs, newspaper articles, ephemera, and other primary sources to curate a small collection of items that convey the story of the Library of Congress to children and families.
I started asking myself how educators use sources to introduce a topic or theme and how sources encourage critical thinking. And I thought about how sources within a specific unit of study are selected. It led me to reflect on the necessity of collaboration and reflection when building a curriculum.
One of my favorite items within the collections is a map of Fairyland created by Bernard Sleigh in 1920. The map features characters and mythical creatures from folk tales, Greek mythology, and stories that are still popular today, including Peter Pan, Perseus and Andromeda, Hercules, Little Bo Peep, Jack and Jill, and more. Its arrival was applauded in the New York Herald, which suggested it “should hang on every nursery wall.”
An educator could use Sleigh’s illustration to introduce absolute location in a geography course. Or an English class could use it to discuss the impact of fiction on society, using his illustration of “The Enchanted Sea,” “Beauty and her Beast,” and “Never-Never Land.” Civics teachers could use this imaginary place to introduce and discuss government structures. Finally, teachers with a homeroom or advisory group could use this source to discuss the impact of relationships and the power of place. The possibilities are endless.
Before using this source, a team of educators across disciplines could analyze the source collectively using the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Each educator could reflect and share how they would use the map to introduce content within their discipline. Questions that could foster collaboration include:
- What did you notice first about this source?
- Where would you be able to use this source in your curriculum?
- How would you introduce this source?
- Should another educator introduce this source, and if so, how and why?
These suggestions are only a few ways to plan collaboratively and discuss the skills students might need to engage with this source. The goal of analyzing a primary source is not to find a correct answer but to process – to observe, reflect, and question, to think and think again.
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