Library of Congress

TPS Quarterly

The Library of Congress > Teachers > TPS Program > TPS Quarterly > Teacher Spotlight

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 middle school science teacher Sharon Murphy. The TPS program at Governors State University nominated Sharon for her effective classroom use of primary sources in science instruction. Sharon has taught for 17 years, including 5th, 6th and 7th grade science, at Heritage Middle School in Lansing, Illinois. In this interview, she discusses teaching strategies and her favorite Library of Congress online resources.

Sharon Murphy, middle school science teacher.

Sharon Murphy, featured in this issue's Teacher Spotlight, teaches science at Heritage Middle School in Lansing, Illinois.

What motivated you to participate in the TPS workshops in your local area?

When I first heard about the workshop, I thought, “How am I going to use primary sources? I’m a science teacher.” But everything has a historical component, including science, and I hate to see science isolated from other disciplines. I like to help students understand science is everywhere. Teachers may think of Library of Congress primary sources as history based but you can certainly apply them to your curriculum regardless of what subject you teach.

Tell us about the first time you tried using primary sources in the classroom.

I used a 1940s image of a science classroom to introduce a unit on insects. In this picture, young students are studying insects with their teacher. I quickly discovered that my seventh-grade students get a real kick out of observing and learning from historical images. I used guiding questions to help my students discuss their observations and inferences: What insects were the students holding? How was their classroom the same or different from ours? What might their clothes tell us about where they lived (city or country) or how their parents made a living? I loved my students’ analyses of the image; they noticed things I had overlooked! I am always surprised by the details that my students notice and how they often interpret primary sources differently from me.

How do you use primary sources to teach science?

In my experience, primary source documents and visuals provide very rich learning opportunities for students’ discussion and appreciation of science and its relationship to the real world, both past and present. For example, in that same life science unit on insects, I also had students examine Civil War-era envelopes, including one featuring a grasshopper and another, a hornet’s nest, to connect different insects’ physical characteristics to their cultural interpretations.

On study guides, I often pair primary source images with sample test questions for students to do “then and now” comparisons with regard to scientific principles, technology or materials. For example, historical images can help prompt students to consider how scientific tools, such as microscopes, have evolved and the impact of new technologies on the timing of scientific discoveries. Likewise, historical illustrations can prompt students to think about improved safety standards in science laboratories or how scientific methods and materials have changed.

Using primary sources, whether films or journal excerpts, can help students understand that inventors like Thomas Edison were real people who made mistakes, and makes scientific achievement more real and attainable for students. Plus, the stories behind scientific inventions—like why Benjamin Franklin needed bifocals—can inspire students to experiment.

What is your favorite resource available on the Library of Congress Web site?

I teach seventh grade students, so I select primary sources carefully because the past is like a different culture to them; it’s new. I always remind students that we need to treat things from the past with respect even if we don’t understand them. My quest for science-related materials can lead me almost anywhere on the Library of Congress Web site but the Teachers Page never gets stale because new resources are constantly added to it. My favorites include Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress and Science and Invention Themed Resources.

What advice do you have for teachers who have never tried teaching with primary sources?

I encourage all teachers to make a commitment to try what the Library of Congress has to offer online no matter what subject area they teach. You will be very surprised by what the Library’s Web site offers and how you can adapt these resources to any curriculum. When you teach using primary sources, you open an avenue of learning to students that will be at their fingertips for the rest of their lives.