Primary Sources

I received an email last night notifying me that I’d been accepted to the Library of Congress’s Summer Teacher Institute. The STI focuses on helping teachers develop lessons based on the primary sources available in the LoC’s collection. I am super-excited about the opportunity, both for the work we’ll do at the STI and the chance to spend a week in DC, one of my favorite cities, other than the amazing city where I live.

The acceptance email also reminded me of a thought-provoking post Mike wrote a few weeks ago questioning why it is that we teach primary sources (specifically text-based ones) and whether they provide the most value in instruction, especially when a video or image might be more accessible to students. Mike’s point was that, while professional historians examine these text-based sources to construct historical understanding, a video might give the same content and yet be more accessible, especially to struggling readers. He asks whether a teacher risks being a literacy snob by valuing (text-based) primary sources over other types of literacy. I appreciated Mike’s post because it questioned what seems to be a fundamental assumption from the Common Core to the Stanford University’s Reading Like a Historian curriculum.

In response to Mike’s post are a few thoughts about why I think there is value in working through text-based primary sources with students.

1. We study text-based primary sources because they are primary, that is, they were composed by those who experienced the events we are studying. To avoid exploring these sources with students suggests that we trust the interpreters more than the people who experienced an event. Certainly humans can be unreliable narrators, but I think we at least owe those who have lived the opportunity to narrate their experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to value these sources more highly than others, but I think at the least, we give them a charitable reading and value their perspective.

2. Reading primary sources helps demystify the work of historians and challenge the myth of a single story. In my experience, the best uses of primary sources are to challenge the conventional narrative of a particular event. While they may not be the best for an initial presentation of a topic or event, especially in the language in the text is complex or challenging, they can help complicate a simplistic understanding of an event. Studying them can demonstrate to students how many choices a historian has to make in his or her interpretation of them.

3. There’s value in working through difficult material, in whatever form in might take. While only a small percentage of the students that we teach will become professional historians, the skill of reading challenging texts is transferable to a number of fields. At the same time, it’s important to choose texts that challenge students, but don’t frustrate them to the point that they tune out. (Think Vygotsky’s concept of a zone of proximal development.) The use of primary sources ought to be age and skill level-appropriate. I don’t think that means that the use of primary sources should be limited to the upper grades, but it means that teachers and curriculum writers ought to chose texts that students will be able to analyze successfully with guidance.

6 thoughts on “Primary Sources

  1. Meredith,

    I think your second reason is very important. I am finding some students latching on to one viewpoint because it is easy. I feel like they are trying to grasp something that may be complex and once they understand it from one angle they feel like they have “got” it. This is especially true of students with limited historical background knowledge and weaker research skills. It is important to challenge them when they quickly settle for one view of history.

    I think one of my weaknesses as a teacher is sometimes leading students to jump into the deep end of a complex primary source without providing sufficient scaffolding for them. That is definitely something that I want to get better at.

    And thanks for the response to my post. I was hoping for some critical feedback, but got little until now.


    1. I think one of my weaknesses as a teacher is sometimes leading students to jump into the deep end of a complex primary source without providing sufficient scaffolding for them.

      This is totally true for me as well.

  2. Fully agree with reasons one and two. Have reservations with three. I teach AP and dual enrollment, liberally utilizing primary sources of various difficulty. I also conduct professional development for elementary teachers(TAH) and model using selective editing of sources for the younger grades.
    While that brings another argument, whether editing the document negates the purpose, my teachers have had success using a sentence, or two or three, with their students.
    It teaches primary source, close critical reading, challenges but doesn’t overwhelm and creates an early habit of seeing primary sources as integral party of doing history. As a secondary teacher
    take it.

    1. I agree that it’s important to make good choices about the sources you use with primary students. Finding the writing of children (Anne Frank’s diary, for example) is another possible strategy.

  3. Depending on the situation, there may be good reasons to prefer one form of literacy or another or a combination of literacies, but it’s not a bad thing, at least for the present, to value text forms of literacy over other types for the simple reason that most careers requiring a college degree also require strong reading skills.

    1. That is certainly another reason to include them, although for me that wouldn’t necessarily be a primary reason.

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