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 11th grade U.S. History teacher Lindsay Robinson. The TPS program at the University of California, Davis, nominated Lindsay for her effective classroom use of primary sources to support English learners (ELs). A 12-year teaching veteran, Lindsay currently teaches at Firebaugh High School in Firebaugh, California, a small agricultural community. Thirty-six percent of the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District’s 2,286 students have been classified as ELs, and many of Robinson’s students hope to be the first in their families to complete high school. In this interview, Lindsay discusses teaching strategies and her favorite Library of Congress online resources.
What motivated you to participate in the TPS workshops in your local area?
I am always looking for primary sources to use in U.S. History lesson plans, and heard about a TPS workshop with this emphasis. I’d had trouble navigating the Library of Congress website in the past, so this was an opportunity to be guided through the site by extremely knowledgeable facilitators. I was also interested in the workshop’s model activity, which provided not only an exemplary lesson plan but demonstrated the process of selecting primary sources that enable students to grasp the key concepts upon which the lesson is structured.
Tell us about the first time you tried using primary sources in the classroom.
Early in my career, I tried teaching with primary sources and was not entirely successful due to a number of factors. I only used text-based documents instead of a variety of formats, and many students had difficulty with the vocabulary and lacked historical context. They needed more previewing and scaffolding than I provided in order to analyze the documents. As a result, I led the discussion despite students’ interest.
I learned from this experience and also gained effective strategies from the TPS workshop that result in great student-driven discussions sparked by primary sources. For example, when I teach the Great Depression, I begin the unit by showing students a photograph from Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother series. I use a “description first” analysis approach, asking students to describe what they see and to develop possible scenarios about the photograph before giving them background information. All of my students respond enthusiastically because they are anticipating and “buying into” this eyewitness account of history. This technique helps my EL students practice language skills and more easily understand the Great Depression because they have this evocative image to associate with it.
How do you make primary sources accessible to English learners (ELs)?
It is important for ELs to understand context, so we often discuss historical background before they analyze a primary source. When possible, I have EL students analyze a text-based primary source in their first language before analyzing the same source in English to help them feel less intimidated by it. Another strategy is to pair a visual primary source with a text-based one because images are more accessible to ELs and other students with limited language skills. For example, I will first analyze with students a photograph before we analyze the related document. Students informally analyze the document verbally together before writing about it. This cooperative, informal learning puts EL students more at ease and is very effective. I also preview vocabulary that I know EL students will not recognize.
What is your favorite resource available on the Library of Congress Web site?
My favorite resources are the primary source sets. Each set has multiple primary sources connected to one theme or topic and includes historical background, analysis tools and lesson ideas. Two sets of particular interest to me and my students are Dust Bowl Migration and Primary Sources by State. I also use the online exhibitions with students; my current favorite is “`Suffering Under a Great Injustice:’ Ansel Adams’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar”.
What advice do you have for teachers who have never tried teaching with primary sources?
Start by using the tools and materials available on the Teachers Page. If you’ve never used primary sources before, try using a primary source set. After teaching with one or more of these sets in class, you can adapt or add layers to the lesson. I would also urge teachers to use the Teacher’s Guides and the Analysis Tool for Students, which are especially useful for EL students.
Interview conducted by Melissa Jordine, Professor of History, California State University of Fresno, and Director of the History Project at Fresno State.