Category Archives: social studies

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?

Why social studies should teach empathy

I have seen some teachers argue against teaching empathy in social studies. I admit I don’t really get their point of view, but in danger of simplifying it, it sounds to me something like “it is not our job to teach students how to feel about a topic” or “you are presenting history in a (liberal) bias on this topic.”

I totally disagree. It is our job to teach multiple points of view. And to be honest almost all history textbooks are extremely biased towards WASP viewpoints (aka the “winners” of history). That is why I use Howard Zinn in my classroom to show the other side (but of course not exclusively). My other argument is that every person, every source, and yes every teacher is biased. Therefore just by the materials the teacher selects she is making a biased decision. The best option is to give multiple sources from multiple viewpoints and PBL takes it one step further by encouraging students to go out and research and find these different views.

The problem with student research sometimes is that it too is biased. Students often lack the historical background to start their research and identify different viewpoints. My approach to this is that during “work time” I give them specific articles, primary sources, etc to steer them into interesting questions and alternative viewpoints for their topic. Then I encourage them to continue to research on the topic and go deeper. Then we come back in a class discussion or Socratic circle and they can discuss different aspects of it.

Case in point is the 9/11 project we are currently working on where students will design a monument commemorating that time period. Students immediately gravitated toward the American victims/heroes side of history. But our driving question was “Why did 9/11 happen and how should we respond to terrorism?”
We read Ender’s Game and used the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” to shift students to think of 9/11 and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from a Middle Eastern perspective. After researching all of the American Interventions since the end of the Cold War students were able to see (but not justify) the motives of terrorism. Looking at the events post 9/11 such as the civilian casualties in the wars, Abu Graib, Guantanamo Bay, and abuses of the Patriot Act students were also critical of many of our responses to 9/11. Now students are designing much more complex monuments that are not just American “hero worship” but actual critiques of history.

In reality I believe we do our students an injustice if we do NOT ask them to be empathetic and look at history from the viewpoint of its “losers”-the weak, the down trodden, the humble citizens who are just trying to raise their families and live the best they know how. Because that is ultimately the category that most humans (including myself) fall into as few of us will ever be famous or huge centers of power. I also think most of the greatest heroes humans in history such as Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela fall into the “loser” category but rise above through humility, justice, and love. And isn’t that the goal of social studies? To teach students to be responsible, critical thinking citizens? But what good is critical thinking without an empathetic heart to go with it.