Leaving Evidence of Our Lives
How can the historical record be both huge and limited? To consider the strengths and limitations of the historical record, do the following activity:
- Assign students to work individually or in small groups. Alert students that they will share their activity responses with the class.
- Ask students to think about all the activities they were involved in during the past 24 hours, and list as many of these activities as they can remember.
- Have students write down what evidence, if any, each activity might have left behind.
- Direct students to review their lists, and then answer these questions:
- Which of the daily activities were most likely to leave trace evidence behind?
- What, if any, of that evidence might be preserved for the future? Why?
- What might be left out of a historical record of these activities? Why?
- What would a future historian be able to tell about your life and your society based on evidence of your daily activities that might be preserved for the future?
- Now think about a more public event currently happening (a court case, election, public controversy, law being debated), and answer these questions:
- What kinds of evidence might this event leave behind?
- Who records information about this event?
- For what purpose are different records of this event made?
- Based on this activity, students will write one sentence that describes how the historical record can be huge and limited at the same time. As time allows, discuss as the strengths and limitations of the historical record.
In this section, students analyze primary source documents.
- Assign two primary sources from the primary source gallery Slavery in the United States, 1790-1865 to individuals or groups. Students should be assigned to look at two different kinds of primary sources to allow for comparison.
- Allow 30 to 50 minutes for students to analyze the documents. Students analyze the documents, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Primary Sources to focus the group work, and select additional questions to focus and prompt a whole class discussion of their analysis.
In this section, students discuss their primary source analysis with the entire class and compare and contrast analysis results.
- Have student groups summarize their analysis of a primary source document for the class. Ask students to comment on the credibility of the source. If several groups have analyzed the same document, encourage supporting or refuting statements from other groups.
- Conclude the lesson with a general discussion of the following questions:
- What was slavery like for African-Americans in the period before the Civil War?
- Was any document completely believable? Completely unbelievable? Why or why not?
- Did some types of primary sources seem less believable than other kinds of sources? Why do you think this is true?
- What information about slavery did each document provide? How did looking at several documents expand your understanding of slavery?
- If you found contradictory information in the sources, which sources did you tend to believe? Why?
- What generalizations about primary historical sources can you make based on this document set?
- What additional sources (and types of sources) would you like to see to give you greater confidence in your understanding of slavery?
Each student might be asked to find one additional primary source on slavery. Individuals or groups might be challenged to research and gather a set of primary sources on a topic other than slavery.
Additional activity suggestions for different types of primary sources:
- Objects -
- Hypothesize about the uses of an unknown object pictured in an old photograph. Conduct research to support or refute the hypothesis. Make a presentation to the class to "show and tell" the object, hypothesis, search methods, and results.
- Study old photographs to trace the development of an invention over time (examples: automobiles, tractors, trains, airplanes, weapons). What do the photographs tell you about the technology, tools, and materials available through time?
- Images -
- Use a historic photograph or film of a street scene. Describe the sights, sounds, and smells that might surround the scene. Closely examine the image to find clues that will help you. (weather, time of day, clothing of people, vehicles and other technology, architecture, etc.)
- Select a historical photograph or film frame. Predict what will happen one minute or one hour after the photograph or film was taken. Explain the reasoning behind your predictions
- Audio -
- Research your family history by interviewing relatives. Make note of differing recollections about the same event.
- Listen to audio recordings from old radio broadcasts. Compare the language, style of speaking, and content to radio and television programs today. How do they differ? What do they tell you about the beliefs and attitudes of the time?
- Statistics -
- Study historical maps of a city, state, or region to find evidence of changes in population, industry, and settlement over time.
- Choose a famous, historical, public building in your area. Research blueprints or architectural drawings of the building. Compare the plans to the building as it exists today. What changes do you see? Why do you think the changes occurred?
- Text –
- Select a cookbook from another era. Look at the ingredients lists from a large number of recipes. What do the ingredients lists tell you about the types of foods available and the lifestyle of the time?
- Select a time period or era. Research and read personal letters that comment on events of the time. Analyze the point of view of the letter writer. Compose a return letter that tells the author how those historical events have affected modern society.
- The Community -
- Make a record of family treasures (books, tools, musical instruments, tickets, letters, photographs) using photographs, photocopies, drawings, recordings, or videotapes. What was happening in the world when ancestors were using these family treasures? How did those events affect your family?
- Prepare a community time capsule. What primary sources will you include to describe your present day community for future generations? When should your time capsule be opened?