There are several documents that are integral to and synonymous with US history: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, The Emancipation Proclamation. They can be found in every textbook, and students are often forced to memorize parts of them, but how often are students encouraged to think critically about these documents?
When students learn history solely from a textbook, they tend to get an over-generalized picture of the period. My high school and middle-school textbooks gave me the impression that everyone in the North was anti-slavery during the Civil War, all male citizens were gung-ho to join the military during the WWII, and all African-Americans agreed with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights period.
Immigration is often an interesting and personal topic for students, sparking conversations of “where did my family come from?” Many students are immigrants themselves. It is a topic that is both historical and modern, with immigration being a controversial and political issue today a well as having a rich and fascinating history in our country. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania education website has several unit plans about immigration.
On March 1, 2014, the new Pennsylvania Core Standards for Reading and Writing in History and Social Studies took effect as a supplement to the existing PA Standards for history. Recently, each unit on HSP’s website has been updated to show to show the PA Core Standards the lesson fulfills.
Learning about the Underground Railroad can engage and fascinate students in a way few other topics can. Textbooks tend to focus mostly on Harriet Tubman and neglect to mention the countless other organizations and individuals that made the escape route possible. One of these other organizations was the Vigilant Committee, whose purpose was to support runaway slaves while they stayed in or passed through Philadelphia. This committee, an auxiliary of the larger Vigilant Association, operated from 1837 to 1852, at which time it dissolved and the new Vigilance Committee was formed.
If you are an elementary school teacher looking for new and interesting ways to teach math and language arts, consider using primary source documents relevant to your curriculum. The use of primary source documents will expand student’s critical thinking skills and foster a greater understanding of our nation’s history at a young age.
Imagine you are a student, walking into a large building to complete a research task, and immediately you feel completely overwhelmed. You had no idea what to expect when first visiting an archive. You did not even think to bring a pencil or search online to find what documents would work well with your research! Well, that fear should be gone if the student is able to visit the archive as a part of their classroom curriculum.
When you think of a primary source found at HSP, the first thing that probably comes to mind is an old, handwritten document. Visual primary sources, including photographs, political cartoons, and sketches, however, are just as important to the understanding of history as written sources. Knowing how to analyze visuals is an important skill for all students to learn.
For those of you who teach 20th Century US history, you might find the most recent lesson plan on the HSP website, “America and the Red Scare” useful. This lesson includes primary sources from two opposing groups during the period.