When teaching any type of history, whether world or United States or Asian history, you will need to teach your students how to use primary documents. Learning from primary documents instead of just reading from a book is probably going to be a different experience for your students. Here are some tips for teaching your students the value of using primary documents to learn U.S. history.
– Use primary documents in your teaching as much as possible. Instead of asking your students to purchase or even borrow textbooks, you can give them links to download and print the primary documents. Textbooks often just give short overviews of sections of history. So, for instance, if you want to learn about the American Revolution, you will most often just get a confusing conglomeration of text. However, if you give your students the chance to read texts written by people who actually experienced the American Revolution, they will also get a sense of the social experience of the event as well as the political implications.
– Make sure that you are helping your students engage with the text. Ask them to read the texts and then bring questions that they have to class. You might want to collect their hand-written questions at the end of each class. Discuss the texts in a Socratic Seminar. Your students can ask their questions during discussion, and everyone can try to answer the questions. Even if they do not find the answers, you want to at least get some discourse going. Also, whenever the students try to answer a question, they will need to use the primary documents to support their arguments.
– Ask your students to respond to the primary documents they have read. The response can be in the form of a short paper or a longer essay. They should use the text to support their arguments, but they should also broaden their arguments by looking for evidence outside of the documents. For example, what were the economic, social, and political issues that may have led to the Civil War? Primary documents will help answer this, but your students should also look at different types of media, such as paintings and posters.
One of the best ways to use primary documents in the classroom is to encourage your students to engage with the text by discussing it with others or by writing about it. As long as you implement these two ways of learning in your classroom, it will become easier to use primary documents to teach U.S. history.