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 Vicki Heisler. The TPS program at University of Northern Colorado nominated Vicki for her effective classroom use of primary sources with elementary students. Vicki has taught for more than 30 years and currently teaches 5th grade at Meeker Elementary School in Greeley, Colorado. In this interview, she discusses teaching strategies and her favorite Library of Congress online resources.
What motivated you to participate in the TPS workshops in your local area?
My personal fascination with history was a strong motivator. As a “tweenager,” I lived with my family near Washington, DC while my father was stationed by the U.S. Army at the Pentagon. We visited the Library of Congress and I remember my father telling us that this was “our library.’” Years later as a teacher, I am just as thrilled that this is “my” library—and so full of things to learn! I love sharing the Library of Congress and its resources with my students.
Tell us about the first time you tried using primary sources in the classroom.
I actually used old family photos to tell students about my grandmother’s life—how she rode in a horse and buggy to board in the big city during the week to attend classes and became her family’s first high school graduate. My students were enthralled and pored over the photographs whenever they got a chance. I knew I had hit on something that was instructional magic.
How do you use primary sources to teach elementary students?
Elementary students love primary sources! For them, being told about history is not nearly as satisfying as interacting with evidence of it. I often introduce historical fiction and nonfiction texts by having students analyze related images from the Library’s collections. For example, I use a variety of Civil War-related primary sources with students when reading Paul Fleishman’s book, Bull Run, and the Westward Expansion: Encounters at a Cultural Crossroads primary source set when introducing reading anthology selections such as “Prairie Girl: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder” and “The Journal of Joshua Loper: A Black Cowboy.”
“Framing” is a great technique for helping younger students to analyze prints and photographs. Laminate L-shaped pieces of construction paper and pass one out to each student with a picture. Ask students to frame a detail, such as “covered wagon,” then ask a question about this aspect like, “How does this help you identify the time period?” Continue along: “frame the man with a plow” and, “What is a plow? What does it tell you about how people made a living?” Analyzing each detail separately helps students to see the big picture through new eyes.
What is your favorite resource available on the Library of Congress Web site?
I find it hard to pick a single favorite, but I heavily utilize the primary source sets from the Teachers Page, and I love the Veterans History Project, perhaps because I am a sergeant’s daughter. Additionally, the Library has many wonderful primary sources relating to several key historical figures we study in 5th grade, including the Wright Brothers and Abraham Lincoln. I have even used Lincoln’s student sum book to inspire my kids in math.
What advice do you have for teachers who have never tried teaching with primary sources?
Teaching with primary sources opens a world of new ideas and perspectives to students of all ages. If a manuscript is hard for your students to read, transcribe it for them and provide copies in large print. With younger students, depend heavily on the Library’s wonderful prints and photographs collections since images are often more accessible for them than text. I also recommend the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool, which students can complete as an online form or printed copy. I have actually had students request this tool to use as we work with materials not in the social studies. Primary sources are great for developing students’ critical thinking and 21st century skills.