In each issue, we introduce a teacher who has participated in Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) professional development and successfully uses primary sources from the Library of Congress to support effective instructional practices.
This issue’s Teacher Spotlight features Vicki Martinez, a 15-year veteran teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Charleston, Illinois. Vicki began her career teaching students with special needs in a self-contained classroom; she is now a co-teacher of learning disabled fourth grade students within an immersion program. The TPS program at Eastern Illinois University nominated Vicki for her effective classroom use of primary sources with all learners, particularly students with disabilities. In this interview, Vicki discusses teaching strategies and her favorite Library of Congress online resources.
How did you learn about the Library of Congress TPS Program?
The TPS program at Eastern Illinois University offered a professional development workshop series at my school for teachers to learn about accessing and incorporating Library of Congress digitized primary sources into the curriculum.
What motivated you to participate in the TPS workshops in your local area?
The content sounded interesting; I’m always looking for new ways to reach my students. As a teacher working with students with special needs, I know that I often need to present information in multiple ways to engage each learner and help them process information. I hoped to learn about diverse types of resources—audio, video, documents, maps, etc.—to offer students when learning about a topic. Also, the opportunity to learn in our school’s computer lab was very appealing to me because it is good to know that what we do in a workshop will work when I am in my classroom.
Tell us about the first time you tried using primary sources in the classroom.
I really only began using primary sources after I was introduced to them through the TPS workshops. I created and implemented my first primary source-based lesson as part of a unit on slavery. Students first listened to excerpts of audio interviews with former slaves from the Voices from the Days of Slavery collection in American Memory. Pairs of students then discussed what they heard and created questions to ask the speaker. This encouraged students to think about what they heard, and also to use critical thinking skills to develop questions that would be answered in the interview. Based on students’ ability levels, the questions can vary from information, such as ages or locations, to organizing events and timelines to synthesis questions about cause and effect. Students then listened to the excerpt while reading a transcript and identified answers to the questions they wrote. Each pair could then choose how to share the interview with classmates. Some students recorded themselves asking questions and the answers from the audio, while others wrote articles, created PowerPoint presentations or scripted a drama. The experience was positive for everyone involved.
How do you make primary sources accessible to all learners?
With each year I find that I use primary sources more often. Because I co-teach, the class consists of students with learning disabilities and others with a wide range of ability levels. We analyze primary sources, such as photographs and maps, to engage all learners. When students are provided with a print copy of a primary source, they are encouraged to highlight, circle, write notes and draw pictures to physically interact with the material and demonstrate understanding. Sometimes I use primary sources as support materials, like music playing from a particular time period in the background while reading a story or images and maps hanging on the wall to help students feel like they are in a different place or time. This is especially beneficial to students who face challenges because primary sources physically prompt students to recall background knowledge they possess and can help them focus by connecting them to a topic.
My use of primary sources has increased over time for a couple of reasons. The digital files are easy to access on the Library of Congress Web site and are available at no cost to me or our school. Although overwhelming at first, the site is easier to navigate with regular use and guidance from The Teachers Page. An increase in differentiation with special needs students has also encouraged me to use primary sources more frequently to meet the diverse needs and learning styles of students. Primary sources provide opportunities for all learners to experience classroom success.
What are your favorite resources available on the Library of Congress Web site? Why?
One of the first things I visit is The Teachers Page. Resources are organized to help me easily locate tools for the classroom, such as the Teacher’s Guides and Primary Source Analysis Tool. Looking at the Library’s materials usually results in a new idea for a classroom activity or will make me think of a specific student who I know will respond to a certain item.
What advice do you have for teachers who have never tried teaching with primary sources?
As educators of students with learning disabilities, we want to find teaching tools that will allow us to engage each individual student. Diverse primary sources allow students with a variety of backgrounds and strengths to connect with a topic. A student who hopes to be a nurse may not show a high interest level in the Civil War, but studying photographs of medical tents or diaries of soldiers injured in battle may spark curiosity. Although the Dust Bowl may not be a priority to an auto-enthusiast student, a photograph of migrant workers living in vehicles may place events in a particular time period indicated by auto models and makes.
Teachers should allow themselves to “play” on the Library of Congress Web site. Start with a search that interests you personally and take your time browsing. Don’t be surprised to find that you have spent hours looking at treasures; finding one page that leads to another cool item, then another and another. Trust me, you will be inspired!