Why use primary sources? What is history and how can we make sense of it? How can we excite our students about the past and teach them to think like historians? One way we can learn about the past is by examining primary sources. They make history come alive. They offer different points of view. Students will find them engaging. Analyzing them will encourage historical thinking. Making connections to the past will help them understand the present.
What are primary sources? Textbooks, encyclopedias and biographies are examples of secondary sources that use information provided by someone else. Primary sources come from direct personal experiences or observations. Examples include photographs, journals, newspapers, letters, music, interviews, movies or songsheets. This activity links to a sampling of the millions of primary sources in the American Memory collections.
Observe, think and ask. Holidays and celebrations are an important part of America's culture. Use the holiday-related primary source links in this activity to help your students connect to the past. As they examine the featured documents, encourage them to carefully observe what they see and hear. Draw on their prior knowledge to find out what understanding they already have about the documents. Stimulate their critical thinking skills to encourage further questioning and research. Practice the process with various media types – written documents, images, sound, and movie files. We have provided a simple graphic organizer to use as a note-taking tool. When you finish analyzing these sample documents, search for more examples throughout the collections. Once you get started, it will be hard to stop!