Teaching with Primary Sources

Resources for Steed Teachers, presented by Regina Hartley and Christine Paradise, Sept. 29, 2011

Library of Congress (LOC) Website


Using Primary Sources

Teachers Page on LOC

What are Primary Sources?

"Simply put, primary sources are the original items or records that have survived from the past--such as cloting, letters, photographs, and manuscripts. They were part of a direct personal experience of a time or event."


Examples of primary sources: Artifacts, Interviews, Diaries, Photographs, Art, Music, Speeches, News Footage, Newspapers, Autobiographies, Journals, Poetry

(What are Secondary Sources?)
"Secondary sources are created by documenting or analyzing someone else's experience to provide a perspective or framework or a past event. They may have been written long after an event took place and include items such as textbooks, encyclopedias, biographies, and documentaries."

Why Would I use a Primary Source in Teaching and Learning activities?
Develop critical thinking skills.
Understand all history is local.
Acquire empathy for the human condition.
Understand the continuum of history.

Primary Source Investigation

Study items one at a time, in the numbered order, and record your observations below.

Identify person, place or event.
3 observations:
I see...
I think that...
I wonder...

Primary Source Analysis Tool

3 Columns: Observe, Reflect, Question

Observe: Have students identify and note details.
What do you notice first?
Find something small but interesting.
What do you notice that you didn't expect?
What do you notice that you can't explain?
What do you notice now that you didn't earlier?

Reflect: Encourage students to generate and test hypotheses about the source.
Where do you think this came from?
Why do you think somebody made this?
What do you think was happening when this was made?
Who do you think was the audience for this item?
What tool was used to create this?
Why do you think this item is important?
If someone made this today, what would be different?
What can you learn from examining this?

Question: Have students ask questions to lead to more observations and reflections.
What do you wonder about...

Activities in the Classroom

What's in Your Pocket?
Students gather primary sources about themselves: photographs, video, documents, receipts, handwriting, report cards, voice recording...
Students choose an item from their pockets or backpack that tells something about them.
Introduce themselves and object to partner.
Use questioning ideas above.
Listener makes a hypothesis about what the object means in the student's life.

Life in a Box
Set out boxes filled with primary sources about one individual (Bell, Edison, Jefferson, Robinson)

Found Poetry

Song Lyrics


ABC Inquiry Sheet