5 Reasons to Use Primary Sources in the Classroom

5 Reasons to Use Primary Sources in the Classroom

Primary sources carry a heavy reputation with them, conjuring ideas of dusty bookshelves, high school or university classes and translating from some ancient language. But primary sources are so much more than that – and can be a valuable tool for us to use in the classroom. Here are five reasons you should use primary sources in your classroom.

5 Reasons to Use Primary Sources in the Classroom - Instructional materials

1. Primary Sources Bring History and Historical Events Alive

Primary sources are documents or objects from the time period being explored. They are a direct connection to a historical event or time and can range from diary entries to photographs, from televised speeches to tiny fragments of ancient pottery.

The direct connection allows our students to take a little step into history. They’re reading the words of someone who was in the trenches of World War One, examining photographs taken during the Civil Rights marches during the 1960s, or – if they’re fortunate – taking a closer look at a coin which was really used to buy things in Ancient Athens. These little things – especially the social history aspect – can bring a faraway era alive to our students.

Practical Tip: Bring history alive in your classroom – ask your students if they can bring in old photographs of their parents, grandparents or great grandparents. Explore the clothing and backgrounds of the photos. School photos and wedding photos can be especially fun for this – I have fond memories of exploring my mother’s school photos (complete with gloves, despite the summer heat of Queensland) and my great-grandmother’s 1920s wedding photo.

2. Primary Sources Allow Students to See That We Can Learn From a Variety of Sources

Often, when we teach or ask students to research history, we turn to books and websites with large amounts of text. But while text is a great way to learn about history – it’s definitely not the only way.

Photographs are a powerful way of learning about the history of the 20th and 21st Century. From famous photos in the aftermath of assassinations or disasters to equally famous photographs of notable figures like Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monrow and Winston Churchill to regular snapshots taken by amateur photographers, photographs often give us context and a sense of humanity which doesn’t always come across in text.

As well as photographs, students can also explore objects, sound recordings and even (for more recent history) video recordings. All of these things can be combined together to give us a better understanding of

Practical Tip: Examine a variety of sources in your classroom – the end of World War Two led to celebrations around the world. Your students can examine newspaper reports (like this from the Canberra Times), photographs (like these from the Imperial War Museum) or video (like the Dancing Man video from Sydney). Students can also be challenged to see if they can find audio (like speeches), letters or objects from the time.

The Dancing Man

3. Primary Sources are Often at the Core of Our Countries

Countries are built on documents. Sometimes they’re inspiring documents:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence, 1776)

Sometimes they’re hard to read, sometimes they’re open to interpretation and sometimes they’re just a little bit boring. But people draft, discuss and develop these documents as they strive to build something new – and that makes them worth exploring.

 As well as the documents themselves, though, it’s worth exploring the primary sources which surround those documents. What were the newspapers saying? Were there speeches or letters about the creation of the documents. Did someone write 51 essays about these documents. These all give our students a deeper understanding of what makes our countries what they are today.

Practical Tip: Look at the documents of your country in the classroom: Challenge your students to find and explore the documents of your country. You might like to take a closer look with activities like this for the Bill of Rights or these for the Treaty of Waitangi. You can also look at some of the ideas underpinning countries by exploring the Magna Carta.

4. Primary Sources are Accessible

When I was at school, finding primary sources meant scouring through books searching for whichever pictures or documents the authors had thought important, or making a special trip to a museum or archives.

These days the internet is filled with primary sources – right there at our fingertips! From documents and photos to archived newspapers; audio files and videos to virtual tours of archaeological sites.

Practical Tip: Access Primary Sources in Your Classroom: Work with students to create a collection of places where they can find primary sources. This helps everyone next time primary sources are required!

5. Primary Sources Help Students Understand that We Are Creating History Right Now

While we usually see primary sources as something connected to history, we are constantly creating new primary sources which might be used by future historians.

Students can explore news stories and photos used in newspapers, popular songs or trends – even popular toys – and consider what these things might say about us today. They might also like to discuss how things can be recorded for the future – especially when we have so much information stored digitally.

Considering how our current words, photographs and objects will be seen in the future allows us room for further contemplation of the past – an understanding that these writers, photographers and creators were people very similar to us today.

Practical Tip: Create history in the classroom: Ask students to create a time capsule or display which sums up current times. It might include newspaper articles, favourite songs, toys or photographs.

Author bio:

Melina Dahms is the owner of Galarious Goods and an unapologetic primary sources fangirl (who spent way too much time exploring advertising for leather relaxer and the wage of Australian Governors General while writing this blog post). She’s the creator of a range of social studies resources including the Australian Democratic Systems Bundle which explores some of the primary sources mentioned here.

Magna Carta Fact Sheet - literature curriculum resources

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