Using Primary Sources in the Primary Grades. ERIC
by Otten, Evelyn Holt
What do a stamped Christmas postcard dated 1910, a Confederate one hundred
dollar bill, soda pop bottles from Egypt, ice tongs, a rug beater, and
a woven prayer rug from the Middle East with a picture of the Kaaba at
Mecca all have in common? These and many other artifacts can become primary
sources, the very real "stuff" of the social studies that can so effectively
engage the young learner in active learning. The use of primary sources
in the classroom is a way for students to develop the intellectual curiosity
that leads to further research and increased awareness of the world around
WHAT ARE PRIMARY SOURCES?
The definition of "primary sources" varies. Danzer and Newman (1996,
22) examine this conceptual problem by discussing several definitions recognized
by historians. They tend to agree with Henry Johnson's expansive concept
that "primary sources include all the traces left by the human past --
present ideals, present social customs and institutions, language, literature,
material products of human industry, physical man himself, and the physical
remains of men."
Johnson's broad definition of primary sources leads to great flexibility
for classroom use, especially for beginning readers of the primary grades.
The HISTORY-SOCIAL SCIENCE FRAMEWORK FOR CALIFORNIA PUBLIC SCHOOLS, KINDERGARTEN
THROUGH GRADE TWELVE (1997, 147) explains that "documents make up most,
but not all, of the primary source materials used by historians." Historians
may use documents but teachers of early grades will frequently use realia
or "ephemera" (Danzer and Newman 1996, 24) of the material culture.
Danzer and Newman (1991, 24) identify types of primary sources, including
(1) print documents; (2) electronic media; (3) arts -- graphic and fine;
(4) folklore, folkways, and mythology; and (5) physical environment and
material culture (built environment and artifacts). These five categories
may aid teachers in identifying primary sources. Danzer and Newman, however,
caution teachers to recognize that some primary sources materials may fit
into more than one of the categories.
WHY USE PRIMARY SOURCES?
"Primary sources are the ore from which history is made" (Danzer and
Newman 1996, 22). Using primary sources is a way to link the human in the
classroom with the humans involved in the creation of the sources. Often
students fail to see the link between the remote past and the immediate
present. Primary sources can create a bridge over that gap, a way of "tuning
in" (Danzer and Newman 1996, 21) to the teaching of social studies.
Examination of primary sources is a performance expectation for the
"Time, Continuity and Change" thematic strand of the NCSS CURRICULUM STANDARDS
FOR SOCIAL STUDIES (National Council for the Social Studies, 1994, 22).
The performance expectation for the early grades is that students should
be able to "identify and use various sources for reconstructing the past,
such as documents, letters, diaries, maps, textbooks, photos and others"
(NCSS 1994, 2D, 34). THE NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR HISTORY FOR GRADES K-4
also emphasizes student use of various kinds of primary sources in inquiries
about topics in history (National Center for History in the Schools 1994,
15-26). By introducing primary sources in the classroom, students can question,
explore, research, and draw links to the distant past in a fresh and creative
Barton and Levstik (1996) investigated the historical understanding
of time among elementary children through the use of archival photographs.
They found that "even the youngest children made some basic distinction
in historical time" (Barton and Levstik 1996, 419). As the children matured,
such distinctions of time became more sophisticated in concept. The students'
ability to place the photographs in proper time sequence based on visual
cues "indicates a significant body of understanding of historical chronology
(Barton and Levstik 1996, 416). The researchers recommend that study of
history in the elementary grades "might productively focus on helping students
refine and extend the knowledge they have gained about history" (Barton
and Levstik 1996, 419).
HOW TO USE PRIMARY SOURCES
Using primary sources in the classroom is limited only by one's creativity
and imagination. In the introductory sentence of this DIGEST, several examples
of primary sources are listed, including soda bottles from another culture,
Confederate money, ice tongs, a rug beater, a prayer rug, and Christmas
postcards. The social studies thematic strands of "Time, Continuity and
Change," "Culture," and "People, Places and Environments" (NCSS 1994) could
be addressed using these items and so could most of the national history
standards for students in the primary grades (National Center for History
in the Schools, 1994).
The stamped, dated Christmas postcards can be used to prompt inquiry
on social customs and how they change over time, technological change,
and the cost of postage using math as an extension activity.
The Confederate money addresses governmental structure, a different
way of life, social customs and values, as well as a way to explore the
institution of slavery in the United States.
Ice tongs and a rug beater can be used to stimulate investigations about
social history, technological change, household chores, and modern conveniences.
The Egyptian soda bottles and the Muslim prayer rug can be used in studies
of cultural beliefs and practices, architecture and technology, assimilation,
Whole units of instruction can be built around a single artifact that
allows students to "get involved" with the learning process and explore
the questions that naturally arise from a curious mind. Such study easily
accommodates an interdisciplinary approach, as students may study the technology
of printing money and how the process has changed over time. Math can be
incorporated into the study of how long ago something occurred and how
much the money is worth. Language arts can be used to create a story about
the origin of the Confederacy or the route the money may have traveled
over time. These ideas can all lead to further research, leading to further
questions. Teachers must be willing to allow students to find answers to
their questions as primary sources "have the power to bring history to
life, to engage students creatively and analytically" (Danzer and Newman
WHERE TO FIND PRIMARY SOURCES
Primary sources can be found everywhere. If that appears an oversimplification,
one needs only to think about the expanded definition of primary sources.
Attics, garages, basements, auctions, sales -- ad infinitum -- provide
numerous opportunities to find primary sources. Travel is another way to
acquire artifacts for classroom use. Local historical societies and places
of historical significance are often willing to loan materials to teachers
and may even provide an interpreter to explain and demonstrate how the
artifact was used.
State historical bureaus, museums, and libraries have replicas of primary
sources in their collections. Diaries, letters, photographs, drawings,
and other such items are often used to teach state and local history. State
and national parks often offer have similar materials available. Ethnic,
social, and cultural clubs may provide artifacts for classroom use or make
speakers available to schools.
Much exists in the public domain which can be used for specific topics
of research. The National Digital Library Program of the Library of Congress
recently created "American Memory," an on-line collection of digitized
versions of millions of items in its United States history collections
available to the public on the Internet (www.loc.gov). The materials can
be downloaded for classroom use.
The National Archives and Records Administration maintains the National
Archives in Washington, D.C. as well as thirteen regional offices to provide
access to its holdings. They can be contacted on the Internet (www.nara.gov)
and by e-mail ([email protected]).
World Wise Schools, maintained by the Peace Corps, provides a variety
of resources for teachers. A newsletter, lesson plans created by former
Peace Corps volunteers, a program of correspondence exchange with active
Peace Corps volunteers, speakers, videos and teacher guides, and a web
site are among their offerings. Contact World Wise Schools on the World
Wide Web (www.peacecorps.gov) or by e-mail at ([email protected]).
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
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