map and studentsPrimary Sources in Social Studies

Primary source documents lay the foundation for historical inquiry. My GGGGGGrandfather William Kinnick was promoted quickly. Was it because he was a great soldier or because he was the only one left in his unit? Examining primary documents can provide insights.

My father has been posting diary entries from his mother's diary from 75 years ago in the Kinnick Project blog. When he first read the diaries, he was disappointed that they were mostly about everyday activities. It wasn't until he started making connections with other primary sources that the time period came alive.

Rather than using excerpts from primary documents like the article The Conscription a Great National Benefit from 1863, involve students in reading whole documents. Immerse them in history. Context is critical. Excerpts can easily be misunderstood when out of context.

Primary Sources & the Women's Movement

What do students need in terms of primary source materials in learning?

There are thousands of websites with many excerpts, but it's important to find the original source. For instance, many teachers provide students with the poem The New Paradise. However it's often given as text rather than within the larger book without the author, date, or other information to help establish the context. Instead, provide The New Womanhood by Winnifred Harper Cooley. The book provides the title, author, place, date, publisher, dedication, and context.

Try It!
If we just provide the poem, what information are students missing? Excerpts aren't enough. We need the context of primary sources. Are we providing students with the "whole picture"? Can you think of an example of a time when the digital reproduction is needed in additional to the transcription?

When studying the women's suffrage movement, students need the music, photos, maps, letters, diaries, and other original materials to get the whole picture of the time period or theme.

Students need to see the classic photos. Like First Vote in New York. However they also need to see the everyday person during the same time period. Examine the photograph below. What is she doing? Where is she from?


Consider the following questions:

If you're interested, this is a photo of Annette Lamb's great grandmother Hazel Bolger taken in 1916.

Examine a woman working in a Salt Lake City law office or the group of high school teachers from Salt Lake City the 1910s.

Students then identify their own primary source and explore the perspective represented. Encourage them to select sources of personal interest. For example, the photo below left shows as woman in Salt Lake City in 1942 training to drive busses and taxicabs. The project on the right shows a student who selected a photo about the Women's Movement in the 1970s.

Salt Lake City womanwomens movement comic

Annie OakleyTry It!
Read Annie Oakley's letter to President William McKinley from the National Archives.

NARA Description:
Letter to President William McKinley from Annie Oakley in which she offers the services of a company of fifty lady American sharpshooters who would provide their own arms and ammunition, to the government should war break out with Spain., 04/05/1898 - 04/05/1898

What other primary sources would help immerse students in history?
What other primary sources are related to this document and might be connected before or after this event?
How might this document fit into a larger, motivating theme?


Thematic Approaches to Teaching History

I teach two history courses: The History of Libraries and the Book: 1450+. The History of Libraries is taught chronologically and the Book: 1450+ is taught thematically with topics such as the book as an artifact, an author's work, intellectual property, a commodity, a cultural icon, a reader's perspective, etc. I've found that when teaching chronologically, students seem to get bogged down and often too focused on the names and dates. However the thematic approach becomes a story of the connection among people, places, and events. It makes the individual documents and pieces of information come together. I still use chronology, but it's within a context. I use chronology to help students see the patterns of change and flow of ideas over time.

Try It!
Is it "best" to teach history chronologically or thematically or both? Defend your position with examples.

In the mid 1990's the idea of teaching history thematic was very popular. However the standards movement of the 2000s stopped much of the progress.

Diana Laufenberg teaches American history thematically using the following a three step approach:

Diana Laufenberg teaches American history thematically using the following topics:

Mary Connor also uses a thematic approach using the following categories:

Scott Small's approach focuses on eight themes:

Other approaches include

Try It!
Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the themes suggested. What's missing?
Select a theme that you'd like to develop for next year.
Talk about how librarians and teachers can work together.
Discuss the essential questions and key concepts.

Organizing Materials for Teaching and Learning

Think about how you'll organize primary source materials and other resources that will help guide your thematic story.

Resources for the Civil Rights Movement and Racism can be found with other themes on the Primary Resources: Themes page.

Think about how the 100 resources at Our Documents might be organized thematically.

Try It!
Think about the theme you discussed earlier.
Discuss what primary sources could serve as the core resources for one of these themes. How will primary sources help you tell the story?
What other resources are needed including background information, nonfiction readings, and historical fiction?
Discuss realistic ways these resources might be organized for students use.
Looking for ideas? Go to the Primary Resources: Themes page.

Tips for Locating Primary Sources

Primary Source Activity Planning

Use in-class time to focus on primary source activities. Use out-of-class time to stress background information. Introduce documents as part of in-class activities to prevent students from Googling for interpretations. For instance, in-class have students compare The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croley with Wilson's New Freedom by Woodrow Wilson. Then, ask them to learn more "out of class".

  1. Identify the essential questions, key ideas, and standards being addressed such as "what can we learn about life in Roman times from the ruins of Pompeii?"
  2. Collect key documents related to the time period or theme. Go to Wikimedia Commons and Pompeiisites. Go to the Pompeii Interactive Dig for field notes, journals, and current information.
  3. Categorize documents in different ways (i.e., by type (i.e., diary, letter, treaty), by function (i.e., narrative/literary, diplomatic, social), by perspective (i.e., for, against, neutral), by author (i.e., general public, government, gender, social class)) and think about how they could be used as evidence in developing arguments or drawing conclusions.
  4. Identify key ideas. Consider how the documents can be used to understand the essential questions.
  5. Develop background information, opportunities for exploration, focused practice activities, and assessments. Adapt activity ideas from lessons you find to other time periods or sets of documents. Examples include Pompeii Interactive, Old Pompeii Lesson and Pompeii and the Roman Villa.

Try It!
Try the activity, Belief Systems of the Silk Road. Read your quote. Go to the category. Share and discuss. Adapt the activity with different content, sources, and categories. Download the Powerpoint and edit for your own categories.


Think about how you could adapt the idea of stations around the room:

Try It!
What’s your favorite class activity?
What is it about this activity that engages students and increases retention?

A Couple Dozen Activity Ideas

Teacher Resource Materials

Explore other activity ideas at TeachingHistory.

The America's History in the Making from Annenberg Learner provides lots of professional development materials for history teachers.

America's History in the Making: Resource Archive from Annenberg Learner contains resources for each time period with explanations. These would serve as good models to get started.

Use Edsitement, PBS Learning Media and Teacher's Domain for photo sets and activities. Search for "primary sources".

Classroom Management

The key to fluid environments is connecting students to resources as well as tools for building social and collaborative connections. Create learning experiences that build concepts and skills through whole group, collaborative team, individual work, and global experience.

Bodies from the IceWhole GroupWatch NOVA Ice Mummies program on DVD and explore the NOVA Ice Mummies website. Watch The Ice Mummy from Discovery channel. Explore general ice mummie resources:

Collaborative Team. Explore ice mummies from around the world. Then share the similarities and differences.

Click the image below to see the image map web page with links to information about each ice mummy.

ice mummies

Individual Work. Explore an area of interest and report back to the group.

Global Connection. Encourage students to explore their own questions and interests.



Wineburg, Samuel S. (1991). Historical problem solving. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(1), 73-87.

Wineburg, Samuel S., Martin, Daisy, Monte-Sano, Chauncey (2012). Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classes. Teachers College Press.


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