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 elementary school teacher Renee Van Pelt. The TPS program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois nominated Renee for her effective classroom use of primary sources to differentiate instruction. Renee has taught for 32 years at Pinckneyville Elementary School in Pinckneyville, Illinois. She taught in a Learning Disabilities (LD) resource room (grades 1-8) for three years, second grade for eleven years, and full-day kindergarten for fourteen years. She is now in her fourth year teaching fourth grade. In this interview, Renee discusses some of her teaching strategies and her favorite Library of Congress online resources.
How did you first learn about the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program?
I learned about Teaching with Primary Sources from fellow teachers who had participated in the program a few years ago. They recommended TPS as a professional development program that gives teachers a lot of useful information instead of just a lot of busy work.
What motivated you to participate in the TPS workshops in your local area?
I was looking for a class to help complete my teacher recertification, and I wanted something interesting and different from other professional development classes that I have taken in the past. Most of all, I was looking for something that would provide me with strategies and materials that I could actually use in my classroom.
Tell us about the first time you tried using primary sources in the classroom.
One requirement of the TPS course I enrolled in at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) was to field test existing primary source-based lesson plans. So the first time I used primary sources in my classroom, I was actually testing a lesson about the White House created by another teacher in the national TPS program. To my surprise, it was very easy to carry out the lesson plan. During the lesson, students examine historic photographs of the White House from the Library of Congress Web site. Looking at these images, my students became really excited! Just listening to me read aloud a description of the White House or reading about its history in their textbooks would not have had the same effect because each student would have visualized something different. By examining these primary sources together, we were all on the same page and students could compare and contrast what they observed and discuss their findings.
How do primary sources help you differentiate instruction?
Teaching with primary sources has resulted in all students learning and showing interest in the topic under study. Primary sources have enabled me to differentiate instruction using various methods, including auditory, visual and tactile, to include all of my students in learning. For example, I created a lesson titled “The Life of a Slave” that engages students with primary sources in different formats. The lesson brought the issue of slavery to life for my students by using former slaves’ narratives and photographs of the individuals themselves from the Library of Congress collection, “Voices From the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories.” The core of the lesson was the oral history itself. When they were listening to the narratives, students were mesmerized; you could have heard a pin drop in the classroom!
What is your favorite resource available on the Library of Congress Web site?
My favorite resource is American Memory because I really enjoy history. American Memory provides maps, photographs and documents that give insight into our nation's history and culture. Not only is it a great teaching tool, but I have learned lots of new information by visiting the site frequently and just looking around.
What advice do you have for teachers who have never tried teaching with primary sources?
I would encourage teachers to go to the Library of Congress Web site and just explore! [Editor's note: The Teachers Page provides a good starting point.] You will find so many interesting primary sources, analysis tools and other resources. As you are looking at all of the information available to you, you will find your mind racing in many different directions just thinking of all the ways you could use primary sources in your classroom. And if you use primary sources in your lesson plans, you will be surprised at how much easier your students will be able to relate to the content of your lessons.