Start Each Day With a Quick Primary Source Free-Writing Activity

The beginning of the school year can often be the toughest. The first couple months are all about getting to know each other, establishing a routine, and assessing student’s strengths and needs.

A great way to start each day is to introduce primary sources at the beginning of each class. Many Social Studies teachers start each day with a quick Observe, Reflect, Question Mystery Photo Activity by having kids grab a primary source from a bin in the front of the classroom.



Collect a large amount of primary sources that students can grab when coming into class. It is ok if students get the same sources as other students, but it is generally best if they are all never-before seen so that each one is a surprise. The sources can be anything that you think the students will enjoy and can learn from. 

Ideas for primary sources:

The Library of Congress has some great Primary Source Sets focused around topic areas that were made specifically for use in the classroom. Typically these sets will include images, maps, text, and sometimes video and audio that could be integrated in this activity if your students have their own computers.

Also available at the Library are thousands upon thousands of primary sources through their Digital Collections. These collections contain anything from Abraham Lincoln to Alan Lomax.

The World Digital Library is a great place to look for world history sources. Each source gives some historical context as well.  

Pick some primary sources at random or around a topic area you are planning to teach.


Classroom Activity

To encourage literacy, start the day with a primary source freewriting activity. Have students grab from a stack of different primary sources in large manila envelopes or in a bin at the front of class. Hiding the primary sources from students can add to the sense of mystery and help spark curiosity.

If you are teaching about a certain topic, curate the primary sources to coincide with your lesson plan. If not, print off any thought-provoking images from a variety of time frames and locations. It could be any image from the Library of Congress, National Geographic, or other collection.

Pro tip: Laminate the images so that you can use them over and over again.  

Next, have students freewrite for 3-5 minutes by writing about the primary source or by forming a narrative from a perspective in the image. Have students use the same notebook every time they freewrite so that you can track student thinking and growth. Often times students have trouble continuously writing for 5 minutes, but integrating a primary source into freewriting is a great way to give them inspiration.

After a couple of weeks students will get in the groove of critically thinking and creatively writing right when they enter into the classroom. You can change it up by having them write in a different format, like a poem or only using dialogue.

Plus, students might just be so interested and curious about a source that they will request more information or do some research on their own. Yes! Inquiry in action!


Key Questions

  • What do you think the people in the photograph are thinking?
  • What do you think happened before and after the photograph?
  • Are the people providing any emotional cues?
  • What time period is this and why was it created?



  • Creativity is a big key to this, especially because it is freewriting. Encourage students to write whatever comes to mind. This isn’t a term paper. If nothing comes to mind, start by explaining the primary source by simply jotting down observations, reflections, or questions.
  • If students really get stuck and won’t freewrite, have them complete the Primary Source Analysis Tool. This will give them ideas and keep them engaged.
  • Seriously any primary sources work for this. You never know what inspiration students will find from a primary source!


Grade Level Recommendation

  • Any grade level


Skills Used

  • Literacy – Reading and Writing
  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Visual and Textual Analysis


Helpful Links

Primary Source Sets

Digital Collections

Primary Source Analysis Tool

Featured Image: “The Ball Team. Composed mainly of glass workers.” [1908]