A Story Well Told: Primary Sources and History Education

By Ankeney, Kirk; Frankel, Merrell et al. | Social Studies Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

A Story Well Told: Primary Sources and History Education


Ankeney, Kirk, Frankel, Merrell, Whisner, Rebecca, Social Studies Review


Tom Adams begins the preface to the 2001 edition of the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools with a statement from Francis Parkman that provides a wonderful context for this discussion about the use of primary sources in history education. In order to have "Faithfulness to the truth of history," Parkman wrote in 1865, "The narrator must imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes." Through the use of primary sources, this is occurring everyday in classrooms throughout California, as teachers and students work together to accomplish one of the foremost objectives of the Framework-that history be "a story well told."

If asked, every history-social science teacher in this state would undoubtedly speak to the importance of using primary sources in the classroom, and invariably he or she would launch into a list (if not outright recitation) of some of their favorite examples of the same. What follows therefore is not intended to be the definitive word on what constitutes primary sources and why they are important, nor is it a primer on where to find them and how to use them. This type of work has been done elsewhere: One might do well to revisit Amanda Podany's noteworthy essay (Appendix F in the aforementioned Framework); consult Gerald Danzer and Mark Newman's, Tuning In: Primary Sources in the Teaching of History (1991); or, simply find amongst the clutter of your desk the November/ December 2003 issue of the NCSS journal Social Education, which was devoted to the topic.

Our aim, simply, is: To share a few favorite examples of the use of primary sources at the secondary level that-to paraphrase Parkman-have helped engage students as spectators in the action of the past; to present suggestions about how teachers can imbue their lessons with the life and spirit of the times being studied; and to provide some bearings for teachers in the use of primary sources. To be sure, the challenges associated with using original materials in the classroom are many, and it takes skill and planning to make the materials relevant and accessible to the diverse students of California. Yet, it is worth the effort, for as Aristotle wrote (in one of Tom Adams' favorite primary sources), "You can't play a harp without playing a harp, you can't build a building without building one, and you can't be a citizen without taking part."

Primary sources are sometimes very hard for students in middle school to understand and read. Most often, they are turned off the moment they see the "old school" style of speaking or writing. A natural first step then, is to have students dissect the document, to break it down into smaller parts and then discuss the main ideas of each part. This can be done in a variety of ways, whether through strategies such as SOAP (Source, Occasion, Audience, Purpose), or through the use of a document analysis sheet, where students answer similar questions. The following case study, submitted by a relatively new teacher at Hoover Middle School in Long Beach exemplifies this approach:

A recent success story I had when teaching a document is when I had students read the Declaration of Independence. Not only did students dissect the significant parts of the document, they also participated in a junior Great Books Discussion. I actually had 8th graders arguing about the motivations of the signers of the Declaration! Students were asked, "Were the signers of the Declaration of Independence motivated by moral outrage or their own self-interest?" The youngsters then had to support their assertions with evidence from the document. We had a Socratic Seminar-style class discussion, where students debated their answers and shared their justifications. Students really became involved in the document and passionately expressed their arguments.

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