CCIRA Workshop: Using Primary Sources to Teach Literacy and Engage Learners

On Saturday, February 4th, 2017, Teaching with Primary Sources had the opportunity to host a workshop at the 50th Colorado Council International Reading Association (CCIRA) Conference on literacy. Headed by Rolly Schendel, a literacy specialist and professor at the MSU Denver School of Education department, it was a huge success.   

Pairing literacy strategies with Library of Congress primary sources helped educators understand the power of primary sources lies in student-led inquiry, increasing critical thinking and problem solving skills, and creating an agile classroom with purposeful instruction. 

Here are some of the literacy based classroom activities using primary sources that were used to engage and inspire the educators in the workshop.


Caption Writer

Caption Writer is an activity that involves using a primary source, for example a photograph, political cartoon, or artwork, as the inspiration for writing a caption. We used a photo of workmen constructing the Statue of Liberty from 1882, although nearly any thought-provoking primary source can be used.

This activity requires students to analyze the primary source closely for purpose, bias, content, and perspective before making any quick judgements. Captions can be creative, funny, informational, and above all, thoughtful. This is a great activity to help students practice writing simply and concisely.  


Four Fold Concept and Vocabulary Building Activity

The Four Fold Concept and Vocabulary Building activity using a primary source to help learners understand a complex or abstract concept. It is great to teach younger and ELL students about symbolism. We used a photo of the Liberty Bell from around 1935, but any image that contains elements of complex terms can be used.

This activity allows students to choose a concept depicted in the primary source that they would like to gain a better understanding of and break it down to its more concrete and simpler parts. Students list elements of the concept they selected, rank the list from most important to least, use a metaphor to help them better understand the concept, and then illustrate the metaphor to engage them on a more creative level.


Artwork Elementary Analysis Sheet

The Artwork Elementary Analysis worksheet was developed by the Colorado Primary Sources for Elementary School Collaborative Project, which is a collaboration of educators (TPS included) who have created free K-6 Colorado focused primary source sets. [Website will launch on February 21, 2017.] We used a painting titled, “Yankee doodle 1776,” that was painted in 1876 by A.M. Willard.   

This analysis sheet is designed and leveled to help elementary students analyze a piece of artwork as a primary source. It helps students recognize small details and break the artwork into more easily understandable parts, recognize the purpose of the story, and formulate questions. This activity sheet is great to use an an introduction to paintings and other pieces of artwork.


Levels of Listening

Levels of Listening is an activity that is intended to be used with sound bites, songs, videos, and other primary sources that contain audio. We used the Yankee Doodle song performed by Billy Murray from 1910.

The activity sheet helps students break down and analyze sources of audio from different modes of thinking, including discriminative, precise, strategic, critical, and appreciative. Each level of listening forces students to look for particular elements of the audio file in question. Close reading is important for students to learn, but so is close listening.


Save the Last Word for Me

Save the Last Word for Me is a protocol to teach patient listening, critical thinking, and allow all voices in a collaborative group the time to voice their opinion. We used a variation of the Yankee Doodle lyrics from an 1850’s newspaper from Chronicling America that helps give context to the history of the song. It can be paired with any type of primary source, though it works particularly well with text.  

All students are required to participate as active listeners and speakers, and is designed to keep them on the right track. Students choose a passage that affected them in some way, and then they share why it did so, with each student remarking on the same passage by either agreeing or disagreeing and adding their own comment. After the last person speaks, the protocol is repeated with the next student’s passage. This is a great strategy for students of any grade level as it helps them develop an active role in a discussion.


Remember, primary sources can be used with nearly any type of classroom activity to help enrich instruction, engage learners, and improve the inquiry process. What innovative strategies do you pair with primary sources in your own classroom?