Engaging Young Learners with Primary Sources

Engaging Young Learners with Primary Sources


>>From the Library of Congress
in Washington, D.C.>>Can teaching with primary
sources engage young learners? Skeptics might argue historical
materials are boring. There’s too much text. The vocabulary’s too difficult. Students won’t understand the history. However, current research, teacher
testimonials, and personal experience indicate that primary sources can bring
history alive for younger students. Nearly all state standards acknowledge the
importance of teaching with primary sources. Exposure to these raw materials can spark
students’ imaginations and support inquiry, historical thinking, and constructive learning. If you’ve ever wondered how early elementary
students develop historical thinking skills, take a look at this lesson from Teresa St.
Angelo with a group of kindergarten historians. Teresa teaches kindergarten at the John I. Dawes Early Learning Center in Manalapan,
New Jersey, and is the 2016-17 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.>>Using primary sources in my classroom is
just so important that I want to get students and parents excited and involved from
the very beginning of the school year. I send home a newsletter and
then explain to parents at back to school night how their children
will become kindergarten historians through analysing primary sources. I outline a schedule of lessons and show
how parents can get involved throughout the whole year. For the students, the year begins with a
short lesson on the Library of Congress and what it has for all learners. I follow this with an activity on
the important job of a historian. And finally, we examine what a primary source
is and students do an analysis together. Once the groundwork is complete, we jump
into actually using primary sources. We establish the analysis as
a routine so they can’t wait for the new primary source to analyse. Here’s an example of a primary
source lesson I did in February when we were discussing Valentines
cards in the post office. Prior to this unit, we had spent time as a class
identifying key people in their communities, their jobs and job descriptions, and
identified locations of those jobs. Planning lessons that are relevant and related
to students’ lives allows them to process on a deeper level and adds to their engagement. All students gathered on the carpet. The classroom lights were
turned off and the boys and girls began wondering
what they were going to watch. They saw a short film from
1903 titled Collecting Mail. Some students couldn’t contain
themselves and called out what they saw or a connection they made with the film. One girl called out, my dad watches
black and white movies all the time! The students were so interested that when
I asked them to turn and talk to a buddy, they started talking immediately. When the film was over, the
students did a turn and talk about what they noticed or what happened. I then had the students work
independently to analyse a photograph. The guiding question for them was,
where do you think the men are working? I told them to circle the evidence that
helped them guess where the men were working. One student thought they were in a kitchen. I asked the student to think
about things we see in a kitchen and find evidence of them in the image. When he couldn’t find any, he
reconsidered his conclusion. Responding to observations this way
allows the students to develop the skills of citing evidence to support
ideas and evaluate information. In small group discussions, the boys
and girls analysed a set of photographs. They shared their thoughts and ideas
around a set of early 1900s photographs of a horse-drawn mail wagon at a railway
station, unsorted mail at a post office, and a girl handing a letter to a
mailman titled, A Letter to Papa. They had to describe similarities and
differences between mail delivery then and what they know about
mail delivery today based on their experiences and background knowledge. This was followed with the
boys and girls writing a letter to their family that was mailed home. A recap of the lesson was sent home to parents. It included a copy of the railway mail
train image along with an assignment which asked parents to discuss
the image with their child. I asked parents to submit a statement
about what they learned from their child. Using primary sources allows my kindergarten
students to develop their critical thinking, questioning, and analysis skills. I see the students carry those skills over into other academic areas
such as literacy and science. It takes their natural curiosity and allows
them to discover and grow as young learners.>>Such introductory activities help teachers
and younger students become more comfortable with connecting to and analysing
primary sources. But this is only the beginning. The possibilities are endless for helping
students in elementary grades delve more deeply into learning with primary sources.>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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