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Political Parties and Primary Sources: Fostering Student Inquiry

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At first glance, this source in the Library’s Political Parties primary source set is visually compelling, but is there too much going on for classroom use? Where would a teacher or student even start?

While the poster does offer a treasure trove of historical content, explaining the names, dates, and issues would require a lot of work and patience from the teacher. However, if presented in manageable parts, this content can emerge as a result of the questions that students ask. With some purposeful scaffolding from a teacher, students can use this poster to practice and refine primary source analysis, using their own questions to seek content and construct understanding.

Below are ideas for how to break up the poster into its component parts, along with potential prompts for students. You might opt to use some, one, or all of these ideas.

Tip! Use the Library’s clip tool to select the section of the poster that you want students to analyze. You can view, download and print, or share the clipped image. 


  • Observe: What do you notice first? What words do you see? What people are shown and how are they arranged? What symbols do you recognize?
  • Reflect: When do you think this was made? What can you learn from examining these images? What information is missing?
  • Question: What new questions do you have? Where could you go to learn more?


  • Observe: What do you notice first about the map? What places does the map show? What on the map looks unfamiliar or strange? What words and colors do you see?
  • Reflect: What do you think is the purpose of the colors on the map and why? What clues can you find about when this map was made? If this map was made today, what would be different?
  • Question: What new questions does this map bring? What additional information do you want to know?


Charts: Popular Votes and Presidential Electors 

  • Observe: What do you notice first? What different kinds of information do you see? How is the information organized?
  • Reflect: What is the purpose of these charts? What can you learn from these charts? What information is missing?
  • Question: Where could you go to learn more about historical context (what was happening at the time these charts were made)?


Text: Political Party Platforms 

Note: Encourage students to try and read at least two platforms. While the text is dense, reflecting on how the platforms “talk” to one another may help students construct meaning about different parties’ positions on issues of the day. 



  • Observe:
    • What do you notice first? What does the text say? What dates, places, and events are named in the text? What do you see that is unfamiliar?
  • Reflect: 
    • Whose viewpoints are represented in this document? What clues does the text give you about what was happening at the time? What terms and phrases seem to be important and why? If someone created something like this today, how would it be different? What might be the same?
  • Question:
    • What additional questions do you have? Where might you go to find more information?


Breaking a complex source into discrete parts can help students make sense of sophisticated content. It also builds students’ experience and confidence in examining different types of source formats. As students have more practice with primary sources, putting the component parts together and examining complex sources might not feel so intimidating.

How do you foster student inquiry with complex sources? Tell us in the comments!

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