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Exploring the Great Migration with Primary Sources in Different Formats

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This post is by Colleen Smith of the Library of Congress.

Primary sources aren’t just for teaching content. They also give teachers tools to help their students practice integrating knowledge and ideas across related texts or sources. When students analyze diverse primary source types, they learn to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of different formats for conveying ideas, telling stories, and delivering information on a question or topic. Teachers can support that learning by selecting sources in varied formats and asking students to consider how different types of sources reveal important information about a topic, question, or idea.

So how might this work in practice? Primary source sets give teachers a curated set of diverse formats related to a particular theme or topic. The most recent primary source set on the Great Migration is an excellent collection of newspapers, maps, photographs, oral histories, and film that help to inform an understanding of the Great Migration. But how does each source type contribute to a unique insight about the Great Migration? Format-specific source analysis requires students to think about what a particular type of source can—and cannot—tell them about the Great Migration.

Practice format-specific analysis with your students. To get started, pose the question “What can this format (newspapers, maps, photographs, oral histories, film) tell me about the Great Migration?” Identify—or let students choose—items from the primary source set to launch an investigation.

  • To support students in their analysis, select questions and follow-up activities from the format-specific teacher’s guides.
  • If needed, model analyzing primary sources using one source format (newspaper, map, photograph, oral history, film).
  • Format analysis is a naturally collaborative activity and a good time for students to practice working in groups. You may:
    • Group students according to source types found in the Great Migration Source Set (newspapers, maps, photographs, oral histories, and film), or
    • Practice format analysis as a jigsaw activity: Students within a small group each analyze a different source format.
  • As students analyze their sources, build in time for them to consider the uniqueness of their source format for understanding more about the Great Migration. Introduce the related question: What doesn’t this format tell me about the Great Migration?
  • Allow time for discussion and for students to share their conclusions about the pros and cons of different source types. Discussion might form naturally in small groups or could be facilitated as a whole class activity.

Possible prompts for discussion might include:

  • What did you learn about the Great Migration from the source you analyzed?
  • Think about the perspective your source brings: How does that contribute to your understanding of the Great Migration? What questions does it raise?
  • Is your source mostly visual? Text? Combination? How does that affect the way it conveys information and your ability to understand the information?
  • How might using multiple formats together change your understanding of the Great Migration versus if you only looked at one source type?

Check out other primary source sets to practice format-specific analysis on other themes.

In what ways do you help students see the value and limitations of different source types? Let us know in the comments!

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