The Power of Primary Sources: Primary Sources Aren't Just about History. Their Use Can Enhance Learning in All Content Areas and for Students of All Ages. the Widespread Prevalence of Digital Primary Sources Makes a Greater Range Available and Accessible to All

Article excerpt

WHAT'S a primary source? The response, "Diaries, letters, journals, oral interviews, historic documents, photos, and newspapers" is typical. But what about sheet music, drawings, maps, movies, passports, athletic event ticket stubs and statistics, campaign buttons, quilts, flyers, political cartoons, telegrams, blogs, YouTube videos, tweets, or cell phone messages? Whether it's a traditional print document or a Web 2.0 digital file, primary sources have the potential to foster an interactive classroom and deepen understanding. Primary sources have the power to do the following:

* Build awareness and knowledge

* Develop personal connections

* Enhance teaching and learning by engaging and motivating students

* Foster inquiry and critical thinking

* Support multiple strands of national and state information and technology literacy standards

* Appeal to multiple senses and many learning styles

Most states and the District of Columbia require the use of primary sources in content standards. Typically, they are aligned with social studies standards, but primary sources aren't just about history. Their use can enhance learning in all content areas and for students of all ages. The widespread prevalence of digital primary sources makes a greater range available and accessible to all. In this month's Media Center, we'll look at ways educators are using primary sources in classrooms and media centers. Instructional situations shared here range from brief teachable moments to longer instructional units.


Corey Fritz, a Wisconsin chemistry teacher, developed a lesson about the Atomic Age. "[It] uses archived primary source documents to analyze the impact of society and politics on the development of nuclear warfare," he says. "One resource is The Atomic Cafe, a powerful collection of newsreels and government propaganda videos surrounding the Cold War and nuclear program in America. The video, which has no narration or commentary, sequences original videos from the era."

Fritz also uses historical documents from the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum archives and Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, a Library of Congress collection which houses flyers about radium. "All are true collections of primary sources," says Fritz. The powerful weeklong instructional activity concludes with a written project that supports Wisconsin state science standards for 12th grade:

H.12.2 Evaluate proposed policy recommendations (local, state, and/or national) in science and technology for validity, evidence, reasoning, and implications, both short and long-term

H.12.3 Show how policy decisions in science depend on social values, ethics, beliefs, and time-frames as well as considerations of science and technology

"Primary sources are really exciting even from the point of view of a chemist or physicist," says science teacher Stacey Balbach, also from Wisconsin. "With the new accessibility of sources, the opportunities for teachers are endless. Really, you can build any type of multifaceted project that you want. The important thing is with every project that is implemented students will learn how to use technology, information, and all disciplines at the same time. Everything will be connected and true learning will take place."

Balbach uses digital archives of scientists' drawings and notebooks to teach students the importance of scientific observation and record keeping. "At the beginning of the year I work on building a scientific community and part of the community is journaling," she says. "I use Leonardo da Vinci's journal as a model for what you would find in a journal. The activity works great. Maybe the correspondence of 'old scientists' or investigations into alchemy would have made chemistry come alive for me when I was in school." She has plans to use Thomas Jefferson's drawings of a plow and Alexander Graham Bell's notebook. …


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