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.