Bringing Historical Events Alive In Your Classroom with Primary Sources

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On February 19, 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 which paved the way for Japanese internment camps. Teaching sensitive and complicated topics like this one is made easier with the use of primary sources. In this article entitled Teaching Difficult Topics with Primary Sources from the National Council of the Social Studies journal Social Education, the author explains that “Primary sources can serve as points of entry into challenging subjects that not only get a conversation started but also allow our students to draw important conclusions.”

Primary sources are objects created at the time being studied. They are engaging in a way that only actual pieces of history can be. There are many different places to access primary sources and primary source sets that have lessons and activities prepared for teachers. The Library of Congress (TeachersFirst review), the National Archives (TeachersFirst review), the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and even Life Magazine have online collections of resources available for educators. Many sites also have lesson plans, primary source sets, and online professional development. Primary sources can be used to teach facts, set a scene, engage in critical thinking activities, and much more.

Analyzing primary sources can take on many forms as suggested by this PBS/KQED site (TeachersFirst review). There are a variety of ways students can analyze primary sources. There are worksheets available when online access is limited or unavailable like these from the National Archives and this from Scholastic. The Library of Congress offers an online analysis tool that can be used to analyze many different types of sources and then emailed or printed out.

Making analyzing primary sources a game or developing an online activity is a sure fire way to engage students. KidCitizen (TeachersFirst review) offers a variety of interactive games for students in grades K-5 for a variety of topics exploring Congress and civic engagement.  Educators can even make their own using the KidCitizen editor/episodes. DocsTeach (TeachersFirst review) is an online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives. Teachers are able to select primary sources and create activities using online tools or search a database of activities created by other educators. CaseMaker (TeachersFirst review) from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Program (TeachersFirst review) is an online interactive program designed for use with middle school students but that can be adjusted for use with high school students. There are 20 premade challenges or teachers can create their own. Challenges are story-driven mysteries or questions that engage students with an activity that blends historical facts and current events.

TeachersFirst is a great place to start when searching for ideas for using primary sources. Check out the Library of Congress’ primary source teaching blog for excellent resources. Primary sources can be used to teach about a multitude of topics in lots of different and engaging ways. Try them out in your classes today!

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