Teachers of the twenty-first century have the unique opportunity to tap into an enormous wealth of information through cutting edge technology that has made primary resources readily available. The internet, cellular transmissions and satellite communications have made it easier than ever before to sit in virtual classrooms, speak with eye witnesses around the world, and watch international events via satellite uplinks.
Primary sources are first person accounts or records of a historical event that are documents, raw materials, artifacts, or verbal communications. Speeches, interviews, diaries, photographs, memorabilia, newspapers, magazines, and memoirs are all examples of primary sources.
Teachers have an almost endless array of possibilities for using primary sources within the classroom. With just a click of the mouse, students can visit up-to-the-minute newsrooms via the World Wide Web, view live video feed of a historical moment in the making, or listen to the President of the United States address children right in their own classrooms. Government classes can take virtual tours of both houses of congress while they are in session, and U.S. History students can hear an eye witness account of the bombing of Pearl Harbor given by one of World War II’s remaining survivors.
While primary sources can still be tainted with human perspectives and biases, they generally contain fewer margins for error. They can also bring to life many of the academic disciplines by getting students out of the texts and into vicarious learning experiences.
Many online resources exist to provide teachers with ideas and information on how to implement primary sources into the classroom. The Smithsonian Institute provides online lesson plans on a variety of topics ranging from science and history to art and music, using wartime documents, curator exhibits, and pictures.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has preserved congressional and fiduciary documents that have been created during the course of America’s history for business purposes. Copies of these documents are available to educators, along with suggested outlines for implementing them into the classroom. NARA offers an online Archival Research Catalog (ARC) that contains detailed instructions on how to locate, upload, and print digital copies of any archived material.
The Library of Congress offers an online program which includes access to copies of its historical documents along with video-conferencing training to equip teachers to use its resources. For an extensive list of other organizations that provide access to primary source information you may visit social studies central.
Teachers who want to maximize the effectiveness of using primary sources in their classrooms will appreciate the following tips.
1. Utilize local personalities and individuals who can address the class on various subjects by giving eye witness accounts or sharing their how-to” expertise in a given area.
2. Use computers in the classroom and learning centers to help students access historical moments in the making, online interviews, and websites that provide primary source materials.
3. Visit the primary sources webpage referenced above and identify different primary sources that can be accessed via computer and/or mail, to acquire materials to enrich the overall learning experience.
4. Use Document Based Questions (DBQ’s) for classroom assignments that will require that students access primary sources for the answers.
5. Take classroom field trips to museums, historical places, and buildings where documents of historical significance are housed.
6. Visit local libraries and show students how to use archived newspapers to access historical events.
7. Encourage students to choose international pen pals as a means of learning about other cultures.
8. Show an item of historical significance that is not used today and challenge students to hunt for clues, via the internet, as to its origins and use.
9. Visit a cemetery that contains older gravestones. Ask students to choose a gravestone and then research the time frame in which the person lived and died. Challenge them to discover the culture, trends, and prevailing diseases or conditions of war that might have caused the deceased’s death.
10. Give students a photograph of an individual in period dress, or a picture of a famous painting and ask them to research to find out what they from the photo.
Primary sources can provide hours of innovative learning and endless answers to the many questions that students learn to ask. Used to stimulate a quest for knowledge, they can help students develop critical thinking skills and self-motivation. Those who are taught through the medium of primary sources become seekers of the truth and treasure hunters looking for clues from precious documents and artifacts of the past.
Students also learn that the world is really not a big place, but a community of seekers who can all come together under the umbrella of twenty-first century technology. Through the use of the internet and advanced methods of communications, classrooms have access to individuals as well as recorded information that make up an enormous pool of primary sources.
Perhaps most importantly, students who have been taught to utilize primary sources discover that studying can be fun and go on to become apprentices of the process of lifelong learning.