NCAIS 2014 Presentation

Today I’m presenting at the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS) Annual Educators Conference. The session is from 3-4pm in Carolina C room.  Here’s the session description and slide deck.

Primary sources allow students the opportunity to “do” history and can be rich wells of inspiration for writing in Language Arts. Primary source analysis allows students construct meaning and more carefully examine the world around them. This session will offer participants the opportunity to participate in a primary source analysis activity and discuss several examples of activities from History and Language Arts classes, including activities using digital analysis tools. Finally, we’ll explore a host of resources for locating useful primary sources for the classroom, so teachers can easily and successfully locate primary sources for their classes.

Goal Setting with Ben Franklin

As part of 8th grade US History, I ask students to set goals for the year. (The goals sheet also turns into a faux certificate for 8th grade Celebration practice at the end of the year.) In the past this lesson has been a little meh. I was happy with the change I made to ask students tie their goals/reflection to our school’s mission statement, but I also wanted a way to introduce the lesson in a way that felt a bit more authentic and related to US History.

After the Teaching with Primary Sources Institute at the Library of Congress this summer I wondered if there was a primary source doc that could be used for a quick intro. I remembered a LifeHacker post that I’d seen describing Ben Franklin’s system for monitoring his habits as outlined in his autobiography. The LoC didn’t have a digital copy of the Autobiograpy, but they were able to point me to one.


I began by giving students a portion of the document. I asked them to make observations, guesses*, and questions about the document. They fairly quickly guessed that the letters at the top of the chert represented days of the week. Students had some interesting ideas about what the document might represent (a chart for showing which days to feed children? a diet? a chart to help alcoholics stay sober?) We also talked about who the author might be and students guessed by the way that the definition of temperance was written that it was probably an old document.

I then projected page 215 of the Autobiography that lists the virtues Franklin was trying to cultivate and asked students to revisit their guesses about what the purpose of the document was based on them. After they’d shared, I projected a page from Franklin’s Autobiography describing his method. We briefly discussed whether students thought this was a useful system and then segued into writing their own goals/reflections.


*The Library of Congress’s materials refer to these as reflections, but I’ve found that this terms doesn’t seem to resonate with students and hypotheses or guesses works better.

Last Day of LoC STI

Today was the final day of the LoC STI. It has been a fantastic week. I’m truly sad to part company with the other participants and facilitators.

As a culminating activity, we presented the primary sources activity plan that we had created in a sort of speed learning format. It was incredible to hear just a few of the activities that participants had developed. One of my biggest takeaways was the importance of creating time and space for wonder and questioning. Hopefully that shows up in the lesson plan I created for discussing what coming to the colonies represented for slaves and indentured servants. It’s still a work in progress,  but I’m looking forward to teaching it in the fall.


Arianna, while presenting her activity, said that she was going to ask students, “What do you notice in the document that you can’t explain?” I thought this was a fantastic question that would push students into deeper inquiry.

I got several emails today about the first days of school. Hard to believe that teachers head back to school in a little over a week. It’s been a great summer and LoC STI was a huge part of that. The picture below I think illustrates the joy of discovery and learning that the week represented for me.


Images from Day 4

A quick post composed mostly of pictures tonight because I still need to write up my activity plan to share at our gallery walk tomorrow.


We spent some time writing as a way to demonstrate the knowledge we’d gained from the NYC draft riot primary sources we’d analyzed in the Thinking Like a Historian exercises. I chose to present my writing as a series of tweets from a reporter.


In the afternoon, I visited the African American Civil War museum. It was a very small museum and not a lot of new information to me, but it was interesting to look at photos of southern legislatures during Reconstruction.

Had dinner at Busboys & Poets with a former colleague and got a chance to browse the bookstore. What an awesome selection!

Had dinner at Busboys & Poets with a former colleague and got a chance to browse the bookstore. What an awesome selection! I was bummed that the screening of the Emmett Till documentary that I had a ticket for was overbooked and I didn’t get a seat 😦


It was a beautiful night, so we walked down to Dupont and made a stop at Krispy Kreme. Sadly none for me, since flour makes my stomach hurt, but it was fun to watch Tim to decide what flavors to get.

Making Choices About Primary Sources

One of the afternoon sessions at the LoC STI today focused on the question focused on how to chose which primary sources you use in a lesson. This led to some interesting conversations about considerations related to required background knowledge for interpretation, reading levels, and the desired role of the primary source in the lesson. (Hopefully the handout that we received including a list of questions to consider when selecting a primary source for use in a classroom will be posted online soon.)

Earlier in the day, we participated in a map activity to put into practice some of the strategies described in an article we read on helping students make their thinking visible. We were asked to make hypothesis based on small sections of a map we were given and then revise our hypothesis once we had seen other sections of the map.


I’ve started working on the activity I want to develop for teaching about indentured servant-hood and slavery in the colonies. I also want to work to develop language to help the colonies unit feel a bit more cohesive, so students don’t get the sense that today is “slave day” and feel it is disconnected from the rest of the content. I’m thinking about having the sort of framing questions be- What did coming to the colonies represent for different groups of people? What motivated their travel or what motivated others to bring them by force? 

After the building had closed to the public, we got to visit the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress and the Card Catalog. Yes, Virginia, there is a nerd heaven.



Important advice from the card catalog

LoC STI Day 1

Day 1 of the Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute has wrapped up. A few quick reflections…


I’ve got a few pages left in John Dewey’s Experience and Education. In it, he says, “teachers need to plan intelligently, considering the capacities, needs, and past experiences” of their students. Design of learning is so important in both the classroom and professional development. Even in the first day of the STI, I’ve been impressed by the design of the sessions. A small, but important, example…

We began the day by choosing from a series of primary source documents. We wrote on a post-it why we chose the particular document and what connection we felt to it. We then grouped up with others with related documents and drafted a newspaper headline that could encompass all our primary source documents. Then as a group we introduced ourselves, shared our headline, and the connection we made to our document. Starting like this gave participants a means for sharing and self-disclosure but set that sharing within the frame of a collaborative exercise. I despise pointless ice breakers, but an activity like this accomplished what icebreakers attempt to do, minus the needless embarrassment factor.

In the afternoon, we toured the Library’s Civil War in America exhibit. Much of the information wasn’t new to me, but there were two highlights. The first was the content of Lincoln’s pockets from the night he was assassinated. I love that he’d fixed his broken glasses with a tiny string. That kind of detail makes you feel a connection to a historical figure who feels kind of mythical in US history.


The second was an alphabet book produced in the South to teach students, not only their ABCs, but as a way of inculcating a particular set of values from an early age. I think it might be a fun model/mentor text for student projects.


One of the things that I’m hoping to think about while I’m at the LoC STI is the interplay of primary and secondary sources in the classroom. I wrote a bit about that here. Some of the questions I’m pondering…

Should primary sources be “primary” in the classroom? Are there dangers in relying too heavily on primary sources? How do we teach about bias and reliability in primary sources? In what way do primary and secondary sources interact? How can they best be used in tandem in the classroom?

Gorgeous floor of the Great Hall after the Library was closed to the public for the evening

Gorgeous floor of the Great Hall after the Library was closed to the public for the evening

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.