How to Use Primary Sources in the Classroom

Using primary sources in the classroom is like using a key to unlock a Pandora’s Box full of skills students need to succeed in the 21st century. Critical thinking, visual and textual literacy, understanding bias and historical context, and encouraging higher-order cognitive skills all come when you teach with primary sources. Plus, students love engaging with primary sources! And luckily, there is a virtually infinite amount of ways to implement primary source instruction, no matter the grade or skill level.

The Mystery Photo Primary Source Activity is one of the most common ways to use a primary source. Give your students a primary source that goes with the lesson you are currently teaching, but don’t tell them what it is. Let them find out for themselves. It can be anything – an article from an historical newspaper, a political cartoon, a photograph, a transcribed speech, a movie, a song – the possibilities are truly boundless.


Schoolchildren raising hands in classroom, Sikkim


Using the Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tool, have your students go through the Observe, Reflect, Question activity. Encourage students to observe everything they notice. No detail is unwanted. Next, have students reflect on their observations about the primary source. What sort of assumptions can they begin to make? Finally, get students to begin formulating questions about the primary source. What do they want to know? Remember to not skip ahead – compartmentalizing certain aspects of inquiry is a great way to learn how to recognize details that aren’t apparent upon first look.

One of the ways teachers conduct this activity is by hanging up three poster papers labeled Observe, Reflect, and Question. Students are given sticky notes with different colors for each of the categories, and then they collaborate in groups and discuss, filling out the sticky notes with their observations, reflections, and questions, being sure that they don’t skip ahead. After students have finished with each category, they stick their notes to the poster paper and the teacher will discuss a number of the sticky notes with the entire class, moving ones that fit better in a different category, for example, moving a reflection that was at first considered an observation.

After each category is discussed, students are then prepared with the tools they need to write a short analysis of the primary source and know where to begin researching to answer the questions they came up with during the activity. And trust me, students will want to find out more when their curiosity about the primary source gets the best of them!


*Image courtesy of Library of Congress |

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