Active Reading and Primary-Source Analysis: Making (K-12) Civics Sizzle


Ok, all those STEM classes have cool calculations, coding, and climate change, but is there anything more exciting and relevant than teaching civics in a presidential election year?

Explore: Primary Sources offers a collection of over 250 text and audio resources that engage students in active reading. Here are just a few suggestions:

K-5 students can consider the historical context and answer online comprehension questions as they explore the patriotic images Emma Lazarus created in her poem "The New Colossus."

The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus (1883

"The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus (1883).

Middle-school students can analyze the humility in Benjamin Franklin’s speech to the Constitutional Convention when he admits, “…there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but …having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions… The older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”

Benjamin Franklin’s speech to the Constitutional Convention (1878).

Benjamin Franklin’s speech to the Constitutional Convention (1878).

High-school students can assess the impact of the rapid-fire dialogue between two distinct dialects: a southern governor and a New England-born president. Temperatures rise as they discuss integration at Ole Miss in this 1962 Oval Office telephone conversation.

John F. Kennedy phone conversation (1962).

John F. Kennedy phone conversation (1962).

The National Center for History in Schools endorses the use of primary sources:

When we ask students to work with and learn from primary sources, we transform them into historians. Rather than passively receiving information from a teacher or textbook, students engage in the activities of historians — making sense of the stories, events, and ideas of the past through document analysis.

Too often students and teachers consider active, close reading an arduous task that technology cannot assist. Try a case-study approach to investigating key civics concepts. The resources in this Document Analysis series use an online tool to streamline the challenges of close reading. The tool prompts students to define unknown vocabulary, make comments on key passages within a text, and begin constructing arguments based on textual evidence.

The flipped classroom model also works well with these case studies. For example, to teach Freedom of Speech in Schools, you might do the following:

  • Assign background-movie tutorials as homework to teach the issues involved in the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court case and introduce the case-study question, “Should students be allowed to wear t-shirts displaying the Confederate flag in school?”
  • Have students watch the videos at home, then come to class ready to read primary-source text passages with the online document analysis tool and get ready to debate the issues.
  • The flip allows the teacher to be an active coach for the more challenging steps of the learning process.
Freedom of Speech in School background video overview.

Freedom of Speech in School examines the history, issues, and documents of this landmark case.

Rollover tool tips define key terms and ideas.

Rollover tool tips define key terms and ideas.

Each of these primary source document lessons includes this video explaining document analysis.

An animated video tutorial helps students review key steps in document analysis.

Remember analyzing documents is not just for Advanced Placement courses. All civics students should practice reading and interpreting documents!

Check out additional no-cost online case study resources available for U.S. and world history classes here.

Document Analysis Series: U.S. History
Document Analysis Series: World History
Turning Points in U.S. History
Turning Points in World History


About Author

Molly Farrow

Molly Farrow taught high school history for 11 years in Wake County and Durham County. She also taught at the Taipei American School in Taiwan. She received a M.A.T. degree from the University of North Carolina and a B.S. degree in Political Science from Wake Forest University. Outside work, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her family and their dog, Dante.

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