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 Connie Lawson. The TPS program at Middle Tennessee State University nominated Connie for her effective classroom use of primary sources to support project-based learning. A 13-year veteran teacher at Richard Hardy Memorial School in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Connie currently teaches fourth grade math, social studies, science, and writing. She’s previously taught at the second, third and fifth grade levels and is trained to work with special education and visually impaired students. In this interview, Connie discusses teaching strategies and her favorite Library of Congress online resources.
How did you learn about the Library of Congress TPS Program?
Through my participation in many academic and curriculum workshops, I was introduced to the
Library of Congress Web site and its millions of primary sources, such as political cartoons, historical documents, photographs, manuscripts, and artifacts.
What motivated you to participate in the TPS workshops in your local area?
I had occasionally used primary sources in my classroom. I wanted to improve my teaching techniques and learn about new methods and strategies that would enhance and motivate my students’ learning, so one of my colleagues recommended the introductory-level workshop to me. Teaching with primary sources was one way for me to connect the curriculum content to my students’ real life experiences, and guide my students toward higher-order thinking skills.
Tell us about the first time you tried using primary sources in the classroom.
I first began implementing primary sources into my teaching of units such as “Our Colonial Heritage,” “The American Revolution,” “The New Nation,” and “Our Nation Grows.” My students engaged in learning about early U.S. history by analyzing historical documents, political cartoons, poems, and artifacts. For example, Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” political cartoon really captured their interest. My students had only thought of cartoons as funny, not political, so analyzing this image of the snake in pieces representing the colonies really challenged their assumptions and helped them to grasp its historical significance.
How do primary sources help you support project-based learning?
I use primary sources to develop learning experiences that connect historical events or processes with students’ everyday lives and the world around them. For example, my “Lewis and Clark Expedition” lesson plan uses historic maps and written accounts to help students imagine what such an exploration would be like, while learning historical content at the same time. In this lesson, I guided my students to closely observe each primary source and develop hypotheses about its content. I asked them guiding questions such as: Why were maps and journals essential to the Lewis and Clark expedition? What did these explorers encounter on their journey? How did the recording of the maps influence settlers to move westward? How did the journals influence the country’s expansion? Next, students conducted their own “expeditions” around our school grounds to experience how an explorer observes flora and fauna, and what an explorer decides to record as data. Later, students compare their journal notes of what they encountered during the journey to Lewis and Clark’s mission. Lessons like “Lewis and Clark Expedition” help my students to learn more than one subject as part of a larger project and to work in cooperative learning groups. Project-based learning motivates my students to “think outside the box” and investigate additional primary and secondary sources. Students solve problems and achieve collective goals while their creativity is encouraged.
What is your favorite resource available on the Library of Congress Web site?
I enjoy viewing the variety of other teachers' lesson plans and units available. As a teacher, the lesson plans and units shared by my peers are extremely helpful in planning group activities and engaging my students in critical thinking challenges. It's hard to pick a favorite resource from the unlimited materials available but recently I used photographs of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee from the Selected Civil War Photographs Collection. I guide my students in searching this and other Library of Congress online collections to research topics and create projects using primary sources, which increases and expands their curiosity and knowledge about history.
What advice do you have for teachers who have never tried teaching with primary sources?
Dive in and explore the intriguing adventures of the past! The more I implement primary sources into my classroom teaching, the greater my students’ motivation and eagerness to learn about different historical topics. Sometimes, it can be very difficult to maintain students’ attention, especially when teaching about the past; however, using primary sources gives students an opportunity to connect real-life current events with historical events. Incorporating primary sources into my lesson plans inspired me to teach content across academic subject areas. As a mentor teacher and cluster leader, my role is to provide my colleagues with vital information and resources that will help their students to become life-long learners and responsible citizens.