In each issue, we introduce a teacher who has participated in Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) professional development and successfully used primary sources from the Library of Congress to support effective instructional practices.
The teacher spotlighted for this issue's literacy integration theme is Emily Frazier, a middle-school history teacher at Irving Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Emily recalls signing up "on a whim" for her first TPS workshop. As a first-year teacher, she wanted ideas for engaging seventh-grade students in history. "I had a really rough group of kids who were really hard to engage," Emily explains. "I was ready to try anything."
TPS-Northern Virginia Partnership (NVA)'s Level One workshop series introduced Emily to ideas and strategies for incorporating digitized primary sources into her classroom instruction. She has since participated in two additional courses. TPS-NVA Director Rhonda Clevenson spotlighted Emily for this issue of the TPS Newsletter because "she has used student writing about primary sources to both promote literacy skills and deepen content knowledge." Rhonda adds, "Often literacy skills are thought about in terms of reading, the ability to comprehend primary sources. Being able to communicate your ideas to others and support your viewpoints with evidence is also a critical part of literacy."
Using Primary Sources for the First Time
Emily remembers feeling "a little uneasy" the first time she brought primary sources into her classroom. She had created a "Life in a Box" activity on Eleanor Roosevelt using documents and photographs from the Library of Congress Web site. Local curriculum standards include Roosevelt and her role in women's rights, but Emily doubted students would connect with the topic. To her surprise, "My students were enthralled because [the activity] was something different. It was one of the first times in my class the whole year I felt like [students] were engaged in academic talk that wasn't forced."
Building Literacy with Primary Sources
Primary source-based activities improve students' overall literacy and critical thinking skills, according to Emily. She describes a class project in which students created a digital documentary about topics related to the Great Depression using Library of Congress images. "One thing that really struck me was that [students] were writing pages and pages and pages of material for this without prompting," Emily recalls. "And [students] made some really interesting connections . . . between Hoover's popularity and the actual Depression, and they were asking really important questions like 'Did FDR and his programs really pull us out of the Depression or did World War II pull us out of the Depression?'"
Emily says students of all abilities learn important literacy skills from primary sources, including identifying a main idea, recognizing multiple perspectives and drawing conclusions. "I can give [students] different types of primary sources—a newspaper article, a picture and a song and they're much better at pulling it together [than from reading a textbook]," she says. "I think that's a really hard skill, especially for seventh graders, to be able to look at multiple perspectives and multiple media and to be able to pull those together into a main idea."
Emily adds, "I've found [primary sources] to be powerful in teaching the literacy strategy of recognizing bias. Part of our curriculum is to teach propaganda and different biases that people have towards things."
Sometimes primary sources teach students unintended but important literacy lessons, notes Emily. Local curriculum standards include Langston Hughes. "And on the Library's Web site there's a document with all of [Hughes]'s drafts of one of his poems…. There was also a draft of Aaron Copland's 'Appalachian Spring' on there, and [students] said, 'Wow! Even these people revised their work over and over and over again.' It wasn't something that I intended . . . but [students] made this connection between the writer, the musician, and something I'm always trying to drive into their heads—to revise their work!"
Collaborating to Integrate Literacy and Primary Sources Across the Curriculum
In Emily's experience, primary sources are most effective in supporting literacy instruction when integrated across the curriculum. She describes coordinating lessons with a colleague so that while students read Out of the Dust in English class, they studied Dorothea Lange's 1930s photographs on the same topic in Emily's history class. "It was really powerful for my students to be able to connect photographs like 'Migrant Mother' with the Out of the Dust book about the Dust Bowl," Emily says. "I think [students] got a more vivid picture in their mind and they could see 'Migrant Mother' being somebody in that book."
Now in her fourth year of teaching, Emily says she teaches with primary sources every day. Her colleagues at Irving Middle School share her enthusiasm for primary sources. "We have taken many of the Library's [digitized primary] sources and created a unit preview for each unit because it's such a good way to draw kids into the lesson," says Emily.
Emily's advice for teachers still uncertain about teaching with primary sources is "just to try it" but suggests taking a TPS workshop if possible. She adds, "The Library's Web site is an invaluable resource."