Primary Sources Activities

Primary Sources Activities

This lesson plan focuses on how to analyze primary visual sources like a historian. Students will use photographs and paintings from the Civil War and World War I to help them learn about the time period and how to use visual materials to understand the past. This lesson includes many activities designed to guide students understanding of primary visual materials.

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?


Students will be able to:

  • Analyze primary visual sources from the Civil War and World War I.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

1) Show and Tell:

  • Have students show and tell the class, or a small group, their own primary visual sources that they found for homework.
  • Have students explain why they chose their source, if the image has an biases, and if it tells a story.

2) Images from the Past Activity

  • This activity is designed to help students learn how to analyze historic images.

2) Philosophy Talk:

  • "Insta"-history
    • Many people take pictures and automatically edit them. For example, the iPhone App called "Instagram" allow users to take pictures on their phone and then edit them to create different looks. Does digital editing effect the validity of a photo? Can historians still use these photos as primary sources?
  • Fake history?
    • One of the most famous photos taken during the Civil War was by Alexander Gardner. It has been argued, however, that this photo was manipulated by Gardner to create a more dramatic image. Can this image still be considered a primary source?
  • Do photographs from the past tell us everything about an event or time period? What are the pros and cons of using historical photographs?

3) Introduction to the Civil War and World War I Images


  • Primary Source: Material from the time period involved that has not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation.
  • Secondary Source: An accounts written or made after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.