Category Archives: primary sources

Why teach primary sources?

I am debating in my mind an assumption of social studies teachers everywhere and I know it’s in the Common Core: having students interpret primary source documents. Just to be clear this is one of those rough drafts of my thoughts kind of posts. What that means is critique my ideas like crazy but don’t hold me to any position I might take here because I am not taking a stance that primary sources shouldn’t be taught. I am asking why we do and if we have good reasons.

I probably need to differentiate between types of primary source materials. Photos, art, movies, images of time period objects, seem like great primary sources to use to help students comprehend a time period. I am really thinking about text-based primary sources that are often written at a very high vocabulary level and use obscure words.

Analyzing primary sources of many types is the primary job of historians. Most of our students will not grow up to be historians. I am thinking about primary sources in much the same way that I think about the quadratic formula in algebra: important to mathematicians but not very practical to the rest of us. So future historians need to know how to read and interpret primary sources documents but do all students?

 Is it our job to teach the skills one needs to be a professional historian or is it our job to expose students to the patterns of history and to teach them to think critically?

This week we spent a day exploring the Triangle Waistshirt Factory Fire. We watched this short clip from the history channel:

This is a historical re-enactment of the tragic fire that includes many important details to the context of the situation and why it is important historically. Afterward students gave correct and thoughtful answers in a discussion about what happened, the results, and why it still matters today. We could have read historical accounts from journals of survivors, looked at newspaper articles the next day, etc. Some of my students would have really engaged with that. The truth is though that I have many reluctant readers who would probably just stare at the documents, bored and never engage because of difficult vocabulary, complex, sentence structures, and old English words. If a video gives the same content that a primary source does, but in a more interesting format, and leads to a deep level of understanding and solid discussion, what is the advantage of using the primary source?

Is it being a “literacy snob” to value primary sources over other forms of literacy?

Some teachers will argue that the critical thinking skills and interpretation skills learned through analyzing primary source documents are important for all students.  Again I think that we can teach those skills without using primary source materials necessarily. My goal in my classes is to challenge students to become thoughtful citizens.

Are we forcing a “skill” on students that is not relevant to them and actually makes the subject boring to students?