Integrating Primary Sources

The focus of Education Resources at the Library of Congress is on using primary sources to have students understand how people and events have shaped history. To encourage interest and introduce the lesson, the teacher starts by presenting students with a short article or picture. This will give some background information and allow students to ask and answer questions about the materials. The lessons provide an easy to understand format for both teachers and students. There are plenty of materials provided for the lesson and suggestions as to how the teacher can adapt the lessons to suit individual needs.

This site can be really useful for teachers. It is invaluable for social studies lesson plans and activities. The teacher lesson sets are centered on primary source images, texts, and documents. Their podcasts and webcasts are another way to spark interest and encourage participation. Educators can search for grade levels and find appropriate materials aligned with both Common Core and State Standards.

One section of the site I highly recommend is the Parents and Educators section related to reading. The lessons connect historical events such as those discussed in The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird to the readings. They can give students a deeper understanding of events and create interest in subjects not usually covered in a reading or English Language Arts class. Also, the lessons on poetry are useful as they give a different perspective on history.

Migrant children from Oklahoma on California highway
Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards, Baltimore, Maryland. A drinking fountain

I also use the Primary Source Sets for finding images related to subjects we are studying in class. These sets have some great images of people and original documents related to big topics in U.S. history, including The Constitution, The Civil War, Jim Crow & Segregation, and many others.

African American children on way to PS204, 82nd Street and 15th Avenue, pass mothers protesting the busing of children to achieve integration

As part of a lesson on the Constitution, I put an image of George Washington on the Smartboard. We discuss, as a class, why students think he was a strong leader. They have great comments as to his physical appearance, and it gives students a chance to practice vocabulary.

George Washington / painted by G. Stuart ; engraved by H.S. Sadd, N.Y.

The lesson includes a letter by George Washington presenting The Constitution to Congress. I highlight the introduction and the powers of The Congress. We usually have a discussion about the rights ALL people in this country have because they live here. Another useful lesson is on the presidents Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

George Washington to United States Congress. 17 September 1787

I have also used the Immigration images; the maps and pictures of Ellis Island are valuable additions to the lesson on Immigrants. I show the students the older pictures of Ellis Island and contrast it with the museum that is in the building today. Some students have visited the museum and share their own experiences.

Historic photo of Ellis Island
Goodbye to old Ireland!–Passengers on tender at Queenstown, going out to an ocean-liner

The web site also includes blogs, in which historians and educators working at the Library of Congress provide interesting discussions about history. The blogs are indexed by month and year. Many of the blog entries are focused on “this day in history” or important events of the month. They can also be used as lessons or partial lessons. Tips on how to use blogs in the classroom are also included.

This web site has been an asset to my classroom. Having primary source historical pictures and documents at my fingertips has enriched my classroom discussions and lessons. The pictures engage the students and enable them to be active participants in the classroom. Many English Language Learners are familiar with American history, but are still unable to read detailed historical text. These documents and pictures are a way for them to be part of the lesson, even if they have limited reading ability.

Teachers can also use this site to strengthen their own knowledge of historical events. It has an outstanding collection of primary source documents and the teacher can use these to create their own lesson plans as well. Teachers can search by topic, Common Core standard or state standard. This is an extensive collection of materials, well-organized and easy to follow. As a first time user, I recommend having a particular topic or standard in mind. It will make the experience more productive. When you have time, delve into the voluminous content of loc.gov/education.

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About Kathleen Richardson

ESL Teacher/Coordinator with 14 years experience in adult education and 20 years as both a K-12 teacher and administrator in NYC and Long Island. Definitely a life-long learner with a great interest in history and culture. Adult education is my passion and I have the privilege of doing what I love every day.

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