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Dr. Joanne Meier

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Using primary sources in the classroom

March 19, 2013

Primary sources are finding their way into elementary classrooms. This is so exciting — students usually love to work with primary sources because they provide such an inside view into a time period or event. "Mom! It was a REAL picture of a REAL bank robber!" Primary sources, or original materials, are often artifacts such as pottery and clothing, or documents such as diaries, speeches, letters and photographs.

The Library of Congress has an enormous digital collection that provides access to print, pictorial and audio-visual collections. Besides housing a huge collection of primary sources, the LOC also provides helpful advice for teachers looking to use primary sources with students through their Teaching With the Library of Congress blog.

It was within that section of the LOC website that I recently came across Teacher's Guides and Analysis Tools for working with primary sources. The Primary Source Analysis tool provides an online place (or print it as a PDF) where students can record observations, reflections and questions about primary sources. If a student isn't sure what to do within an area, sample questions provide some help. For example, within the Observe section, students benefit from online prompts which include Describe what you see, What do you notice first?, What people and objects are shown? and others.

There are several other helpful Teacher's Guides that provide frameworks for analyzing other types of primary sources, including photographs and prints, oral histories, maps and more. Hopefully something within these guides and documents will be helpful to you!


Children learn by doing, touching and being involved in their own learning (active learning). The incooperation of primary resources into the classrooms is a huge incentive to help primary school students to be fascinated and captivated by the lessons that are being taught/delivered in the classrooms. It was stated that this intervention was generating excitement this is particularly encouraging for educators because classrooms should be a place in which students learn with vigour and enthusiasm. The writer refers to time periods or events I believe this is useful when the lesson is based on history or social studies; this is also an avenue for students to make comparisons based on what was used then and what is in use now."Primary sources fascinate students because they are real and they are personal; history is humanized through them. Using original sources with students touch the lives of the people about whom history is written."Examining primary sources gives students a powerful sense of history and the complexity of the past. Helping students analyze primary sources can also guide them toward higher-order thinking and better critical thinking and analysis skills. Furthermore a child learns by doing and exploring so why not allow the future men and women to be more active in the process of Discovery Learning as was put forward by the theorist Jerome Bruner.

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"Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. " — Neil Gaiman