The Craft of Teaching with Primary Documents: It's All About the Question

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The Craft of Teaching with Primary Documents: It's All About the Question

2016-12-13 09:49

This post is by Jessica Tyson, a California public high school history teacher on sabbatical in Philadelphia.


Which is the more interesting way to start history class: With a lecture or with a question?


Which is the more intriguing reading for history students: A few pages from the textbook or a primary source document?


That’s right: Questions and documents will usually engage students more readily than lectures and textbooks. For teachers planning such engaging lessons, HSP is a treasure trove of primary documents. The key is designing historical questions and pairing them with sources that will allow students to answer those questions.


One model for how to build this kind of lesson comes from the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), a collaboration between professors, graduate students, practicing teachers, and others at Stanford University. They present lessons for free use at the SHEG website.


SHEG’s Reading Like A Historian curriculum helps students practice historical inquiry using primary documents, an approach that develops student understanding of critical historical thinking skills such as sourcing, contextualization, close reading, and corroboration. I have used several of their lessons with great success in my classroom. However, the most exciting thing about the SHEG approach is that you can use it to write your own curriculum using any primary documents you like.


This is where the wealth of resources at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania comes in. HSP is home to over ninety thousand primary documents digitized for easy access. To craft your own lesson using the sources that interest you, start with a central historical question that your students can answer using the documents of your choice.


Over the next few months, keep your eyes out for several model lessons using HSP’s resources and the SHEG approach. Click here for the first lesson, called Arguments Against Slavery.


A quick preview of the lesson:


Question: What arguments did abolitionists make against slavery?


Rationale: This is a question that may seem deceptively simple at first glance, but it demands engagement and higher-order thinking from students. To answer the question, students will analyze the source and context of each document, using close reading to build their understanding of the complex history of anti-slavery thought in this country.




Just scanning these documents will give any history teacher many ideas for how to bring engaging primary sources into the classroom. Check out the unit plan for more!




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