A Change in Practice: How I Use Primary Documents

Cross posted from the NYC Social Studies Critical Friends Group Blog, based on this prompt.

Last year, I began really changing how I used primary source documents in class. For most of my career, I used primary documents to give students factual information and eyewitness accounts to what was going on in various times and places. I had somewhat blindly accepted that it was better to use primary document to “bring history alive,” rather than relying on the deadened accounts found in textbooks. I also imagined I was “empowering” my students to become historical interpreters, rather than relying on politically correct interpretations put forth in the textbook. In reality though, I don’t believe my students experienced primary documents that differently from how they would have experienced the textbook. I wasn’t teaching them to interpret, but rather to find factual information in relatively unproblematic texts I had chosen with a clear takeaway in mind.

Last year, I began doing much more work putting primary documents in opposition to each other. This forced students to do the critical work of historians in order to construct history for their selves. I began selecting primary document sets that, if not outright contradicting each other, forced students to take multiple documents into account in order to draw complex conclusions about causation and historical significance. Very much connected, I shifted from having my students do analytical writing to doing persuasive writing using primary documents, thereby forcing them to use the documents as evidence to support their claims.

I initially made the change because I realized that in my previous years teaching US, I wasn’t really having my students doing much thinking about history outside of their project work. When I began constructing a new global curriculum last year, I wanted to ensure students were playing authentic roles not only on projects, but also regularly in class. While my major assessments had always asked students to include more than “just the facts,” the way students had been learning hadn’t done the same. I was asking myself, “How can this work be more engaging, challenging, and worthwhile?”

My initial change was just on some gut hunches; I’m not sure I could have articulated any of this at the time. The “data” that led me to the change was the mostly boring writing I was getting from students. Once upon a time I had looked forward to reading student essays, but I realized that since I was no longer asking students to think in service of the Regents gods, I was also not getting the best work from students that allowed them some level of individual expression.

I knew the change was successful when students started being excited by what they found in primary documents, and when I saw them actually using that information in their work on a regular basis.

My thinking on this got pushed exponentially farther than it ever would have otherwise when I started working on the NYC local assessment pilot for the new teacher evaluation system. The three other people on my team were all brilliant at doing this kind of work. Most importantly, they named some of the things I had been doing, but not doing so intentionally, so that I could recreate some of my successes. They also named the specific skills students needed, and gave me tools to teach these skills.

Now, I’m wondering about how to fully integrate this kind of learning into my government & economics course in a way that moves students beyond the dominant “token-liberal vs. token-conservative talking head” political discourse so prevalent right now in the country. How do I get students to move beyond the simplistic “I agree with this perspective over that perspective,” and towards one where they can critically articulate and analyze the rhetorical structures and tools being used to manipulate viewpoints, and the discourse itself.

3 thoughts on “A Change in Practice: How I Use Primary Documents

  1. I am also revisiting how I use primary sources. This year I spoke to students about my work as a historian and my search for primary sources (http://historystuff.shutterfly.com/)after they were tasked with reading a powerpoint about primary sources (http://www.library.illinois.edu/village/primarysource/). I then brought in some primary sources (yellowed and aged newspapers, a funeral program, the contents of Malcolm X’s pocket when he was assassinated, a flyer for a demonstration in 1966, a government document, a photograph, a ticket stub, an excerpt from a speech etc.) and put them in groups of three and tasked them to interpret the source and fill out a worksheet. Then they had to go home and write about 3 primary sources and what they might tell future historians about their life and times. They also had to generate a list of follow up questions. Many of them remarked about the detective work aspect of primary source analysis, and I loved reading the essays and finding out more about their lives.

    We are also going to be visiting an archive and getting a collection presentation–free at Schomburg. In the class we are using a book that sets up primary sources as debates. http://www.amazon.com/African-Americans-Opposing-Viewpoints-Greenhaven/dp/1565105214. I am hoping that all of these different interventions will really get students excited about how to find sources and how to interpret them.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Robyn! It’s great to hear that some of the things I’m doing in the HS classroom are preparing students for success in your college one.


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