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Primary Sources: Unlocking Student Voices: Instructional Ideas

Workshop for the Oswego Writing Institute, August 20 & 21, 2014.

Engaging Students with Primary Sources

Drawing on student's prior knowledge.

Ask students to closely observe each primary source.

  • Who created this primary source?
  • When was it created?
  • Where does your eye go first?

Help students see key details.

  • What do you see that you didn’t expect?
  • What powerful words and ideas are expressed?

Encourage students to think about their personal response to the source.

  • What feelings and thoughts does the primary source trigger in you?
  • What questions does it raise?

*Information retreived from Library of Congress

Promote Student Inquiry

Encourage students to speculate about each source, its creator, and its context.

  • What was happening during this time period?
  • What was the creator’s purpose in making this primary source?
  • What does the creator do to get his or her point across?
  • What was this primary source’s audience?
  • What biases or stereotypes do you see?

Ask if this source agrees with other primary sources, or with what the students already know.

  • Ask students to test their assumptions about the past.
  • Ask students to find other primary or secondary sources that offer support or contradiction.

*Information retreived from Library of Congress

Assess How Students Apply Critical Thinking and Analysis Skills to Primary Sources

Have students summarize what they’ve learned.

  • Ask for reasons and specific evidence to support their conclusions.
  • Help students identify questions for further investigation, and develop strategies for how they might answer them.

*Information retreived from Library of Congress

Classroom Activities

Warm up Activities

Use primary sources as an anticipatory set

Students write a short answer/response


Primary Source of the Day - use to review yesterday's lesson or transition to a new topic


Writing Activities

Personal reflections/journals/blogs

Analysis of primary source

Develop research plan based on primary source

Compare/Constrast primary sources and another source

Write from the perspective of the person in the primary source

Translate documents into current day language


Other Activities

Group Discussions

Oral Presentations

Web Quests 

Research Investigations - treat the primary source as a mystery and have students perform a research investigation

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