Studying Primary Documents in the Elementary School Classroom

Last week my class and I had a special treat.  Dayna Wells (@daywells), visited my classroom with at social studies lesson — how to read like a historian using primary documents on the battle of Lexington.

Her lesson was developed in collaboration with the Stanford History Education Group‘s reading like a historian program. This curriculum was designed for high schoolers, but Dayna thought she could bring it to the elementary level. Reading primary documents presents many barriers for young students, I couldn’t wait to see what she had in mind.

She shared some pictures of the battle of Lexington. One done by a craftsmen of the time, the other done nearly 100 years after the battle. Then she shared two accounts of the battle: one from a British officer’s journal and one that was a sworn statement of 34 minutemen.  Students were to study the documents and then determine which document they felt was the most “trustworthy.”

THE PROCESS —
1. Consider the source.
 One of the big objectives of the lesson was to teach students to look at the source first.  This is huge. Reading top to bottom, the last thing a student encounters is the source. Dayna taught students to read like a historian by looking at the source first.  Brilliant, and a huge aha for me. The source helps us determine a point of view and allows us to be critical readers. Knowing the author colors our thinking and provides a hint as to its potential bias.  

2. Read modified documents that approximate students’ reading level. One of the big hurdles for elementary students when studying primary document is the language of the time. Dayna accommodated the students by modifying the language, making the task more appropriate. For example, one document was sourced “a sworn statement in front of the Justice of the Peace.” Knowing our students wouldn’t know what a Justice of the Peace did at the time she changed it to “a court.” 

3. Ferret out the facts by comparing the documents. After studying and discussing the documents, students were asked to consider the facts. Distinguishing fact from opinion is hard for 5th graders. What they found == what the documents had in common, the date, the place, the time and who was there, should be considered facts. Other details in the documents conflicted, hence they must be opinion.

4. Determine which document is most “trustworthy.” This took some discussion and judgement on their part. The key issue was who fired the first shot.  After examining the documents and the paintings students determined the most trustworthy source was the sworn statement of 34 minutemen.

5. What we learned. The following day students explained in a quick write what they learned and what document they felt was most trustworthy.

I always use the source first and that I should always make notes whenever I read anything.

I learned about how to use sources, how to see pictures in a way of an artist and that is how you can be an historian.

Read the source before the text to find out who wrote it and the date.

The Lexington battle was at 5 o’clock in the morning. British say the minutemen fired the first shot. The minutemen say the British shot first. I believe that Document B was more trustworthy because it was sworn by 34 minutemen in front of court judges . . . it also says that the minutemen ran away and that was also in a picture.

I was bowled over by the power of this work. It provided great engagement in a content area, inquiry-based lesson. It taught a transferable skill for any document. But the most powerful part of this work was teaching students to be critical readers and thinkers. Students had to read closely. Determine facts, opinions. Compare multiple documents and points of view and then determine the value of the documents in terms of trustworthiness.  This type of thinking leads students to not only meet Common Core objectives, but creates critical thinkers and responsible citizens. 

History rocks! So do you Dayna.  Thank you for making my classroom a test kitchen.

4 thoughts on “Studying Primary Documents in the Elementary School Classroom

  1. What a powerful experience, Julieanne! That seems to be a superb example of “close reading”, isn’t it?

    On a side note, I’m struck by the place the reader’s judgment plays in all of this, right from the first step: consider the source. That seems like a pretty straightforward thing, but I know from trying to think like a historian earlier in my own life, that it is really difficult to make those judgments because we often don’t know the significance of the source in a time period. Which makes the collaborative conversation (and the justifications that are presented for a particular point of view) a very important part of the process, as well as offering the learner lots of experience doing this kind of interpretive work.

    What a cool opportunity. Thanks for sharing the “protocol” that was presented. This makes me want to try something like this in my classroom, too.

    • Your side note is so true. Judgement is involved every step of the way. For my students being aware of an “angle” is a new idea. I hope this sets them up to consider the source of information when we do research argument essays. (Think Chocolate milk good or bad for you? written by the Dairy Council.)

  2. Wow, thanks for sharing the process with us. I’m with you, looking at the source first is a big aha for me. Not something I’ve normally done, but it would definitely help to read the article/selection with that information in mind, or it might help us eliminate some sources before we waste our time reading them.

    • I really loved that perspective of source first. It will stay with me reading any document! I think it might lead to asking students and myself, now what could be this author’s point of view or perspective.

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