Connecting Students to Primary Sources

Back in December, fourth grade asked me to teach their students about primary resources in the context of their social studies standards.  Primary sources can be tough if students don’t really have a connection to what they are.  I wanted to build some connection for them before we jumped into the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, so I pulled out some artifacts from the cabinets in the BTV studio that are filled with scrapbooks, boxes of photographs, journals, newspaper clippings, class projects, and more from Barrow’s history.  I spread the objects out on the table and had the students start there.  They were immediately connected.  They buzzed with energy and conversation making “noticings” about what had changed with the physical building, how people dressed, how long into the summer we went to school, the “color” of the people in the classrooms, and more.  They could have easily spent the entire class period looking at these artifacts.

Next, we shared some of our noticings and made a guess at what primary sources might be.  Many of the students said that primary sources were “old information”.  I read an excerpt from Primary Sources by Leia Tait, and we talked about the kinds of primary sources that the students are creating today.  On p. 7 of the book, there are 2 paragraphs about Thanksgiving (one primary and one secondary source).  Students were able to verbally say what a primary source was, but they still had trouble distinguishing how to tell if something was a primary source or a secondary source.  We surfaced and discussed this confusion and tried to think of ways to help us remember.  We talked about writing reports or informational writing versus writing to document an event.  This distinction seemed to help the most.

Finally, we moved to the computer lab and students used a pathfinder to explore primary sources at the Library of Congress related to the fourth grade social studies standards.  Students really took their time with this.  Most of them stayed on the first task of examining the pictures of presidents for similarities and differences.  The teacher recognized the level of engagement and said that the students would continue their exploration of primary sources as a reading center in the classroom.

This lesson really pushed my own thinking of how we are documenting the present so that future individuals can learn about the past.  So much of our work now is digital, that I wonder how these digital pieces are preserved and published so that future generations can find them.  What an interesting thought to explore with the students.  I will teach this lesson two more times and hope to ponder that with them.

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