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 Jennifer Kelly, an eighth-grade geography teacher at Gunston Middle School in Arlington, Virginia. This is Jennifer’s eleventh year teaching, her eighth as a World Geography teacher. The TPS program in Northern Virginia nominated Jennifer for her effective use of primary sources in her lesson design and classroom instruction. In this interview, conducted the day after Jennifer submitted her NBCT (National Board Certified Teacher) portfolio, she discusses teaching strategies and some of her favorite Library of Congress online resources.
How did you become involved with the TPS Program?
I first gained an appreciation of the Library of Congress in 1995 when I was doing research as an intern at the OAS (Organization of American States) in Washington, D.C. I still have my original reader’s card.
In 2005, I was teaching American History when I became involved with An Adventure of the American Mind (AAM), a program sponsored by the Library. I found the early American history resources particularly strong, so it was the beginning of learning what the Library of Congress offered for teachers, even back then.
Please describe your use of primary sources in your classroom.
Primary sources are tailor-made for teaching World Geography. I begin each unit with engaging Library of Congress primary sources to introduce concepts and pose questions. Once our study is underway, we use lots of primary source maps – geophysical and political – to go deeper in our understanding of the culture of a region. More primary source images contextualize the places we are studying. For example, in a unit on Africa, students first look at the physical geography of the continent and then analyze images in a visual discovery process. They develop hypotheses about the culture, religion, economic development, etc. based on the images they examine and analyze.
How do you use primary sources to support teaching and learning about geography?
Using primary sources allows students to make connections with the people who live in the places we explore. When I studied geography in school, it was largely memorization and maps. Much later, I realized that the study of geography can take us in many other directions. We use lots of maps because I love maps, but it’s important for students to realize that geography is not just the study of places, but also of people and the way we are all connected to places. For the topic of Apartheid in South Africa, for example, I will certainly use maps, but I will also use speeches, manuscripts, photographs, and other primary sources so that my students can develop more dimensions and layers of understanding.
Recently, I created a lesson focused on Latin America’s physical geography. I gathered Library of Congress primary sources reflecting various locales and assigned the class the task of planning a trip. Students were placed in groups of four with each having a unique role: travel agent, cartographer, tour guide, and travel writer. First, the students worked together to identify the places and locate them. They mapped the trip, predicting obstacles and potential problems, and then presented their plan to the class. The students really liked this activity; it forced them to think critically about geographical features: where, why and how they would travel to a particular place.
What are some of your favorite teacher resources from the Library’s website?
Maps, maps, and more maps! I have a closet full and use the cartographic materials available online in so many formats. And, every year, without fail, I display the unit posters I mentioned previously. These have been updated to reflect state standards, but the statements of essential understanding that accompany the interesting primary sources help students synthesize their learning and respond to the poster’s investigative question.
I am thankful for how accessible the materials from the Library have become for time-strapped teachers. Very user-friendly, and the search engine is really helpful. The Teacher Page (www.loc.gov/teachers) is particularly valuable and has lesson plans, primary source sets, and professional development. The World Digital Library (www.wdl.org) is another great resource for teaching geography and I’d like to explore more of the audiovisual collections as well.
What advice do you have for teachers who never/seldom use primary sources in their classrooms?
It’s hard to imagine who might not see the benefit of using primary sources in the classroom. They’re a natural fit for Social Studies, of course, but using primary sources should be an essential tool for teachers of other subjects as well. Carefully chosen primary sources can enrich a topic and lend authenticity, which students find intriguing. Ideally, they want to know more and are willing to do the research to find out.
With everything that teachers have to do, it might sometimes seem daunting to search and find primary sources, but the Library of Congress and other institutions have become much more user-friendly, making it easy to collect powerful images that are in the public domain. Once you start gathering primary sources to use in your classrooms, it becomes almost addictive – I find myself constantly looking for new material.
It’s very easy to do the same thing over and over, but I read somewhere that good teachers change at least 25% of the curriculum every year, and that makes sense to me. One of the best ways I know to do this is gathering new primary sources, particularly when textbook adoption cycles can take many years. To keep current in my instruction and to keep material fresh, I make it a point to find new resources, particularly primary sources. I love to travel and often use my own photos to get my students excited about what we’re studying whether it’s the Great Wall of China or Macchu Pichu. I don’t just teach geography; I live it and love it!