Expand the Vision: Cook up Some Primary-Source Analysis Activities with Sizzle


Hey NCSS 2017 attendees!  Don't let STEM classes have all the fun. It is time to add some sizzle to the challenging critical thinking task outlined in the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.

Explore: Primary Sources offers a collection of over 250 FREE 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).

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 (1778).

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).

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 onerous task that technology cannot assist. Try a case-study approach to investigating key social studies 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.

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, come to class ready to read primary-source text passages with the online document analysis tool, and get ready to debate the issues.
  • Freedom of Speech in School examines the history, issues, and documents of this landmark case.

Freedom of Speech in Schools examines the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines decision.

Rollover tool tips define key terms and ideas.

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

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

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

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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