“The Mystery of History” Companion Lesson: Primary & Secondary Sources
What are primary and secondary resources? How can we identify them?
What are the benefits/limitations of using primary resources to understand the past?
What are the benefits/limitations of using secondary resources to understand the past?
- Examples of primary and secondary source materials that relate to content students are already familiar with
- Examples of random primary and secondary source materials (use ones from your own family, or contact a member of your local historical society or a town historian to bring in samples of each
- A listing of examples of primary sources and secondary sources (helpful website)
- Write the word “Primary” on one piece of paper and “Secondary” on another piece and post each where students can see them (or write on whiteboard/smartboard.)
- Ask students what comes to mind when they hear the word “Primary” and “Secondary” and write their associations next to each word.
- Sort sources for a familiar story: Using the sources you have provided that relate to a story your students are already familiar with, prompt the students to use their associations with “primary” and “secondary” to sort the sources into those they think might be primary sources and those they think might be secondary sources. It is ok for students to make mistakes at this point, the important thing is that they are thinking critically about the sources. The sorting could be done as a whole group or in small groups or pairs. If in small groups, have a short share out for the purpose of comparing student thinking and giving students a chance to defend their choices.
- Explain that primary sources are original, first-hand accounts written or made at the time of the event or subject being studied. Secondary sources may be about the same subject, but they are second-hand or from a later time and may analyze or interpret primary sources.
- Students adjust their original sorting to reflect any changes they need to make based on their new understanding of primary and secondary sources.
- Have a discussion/debate about the sources that students still disagree on or are having trouble categorizing.
- Develop a class list of examples of primary and secondary sources, starting on the types you sorted and adding any others that students can think of.
- As a group, brainstorm the benefits and limitations of each kind of source for helping us to understand the past.
- Final reflection: each student lists three to five sources they would like someone in the future to use to understand their life/write their story. Share out and keep a tally of how many primary vs. secondary sources were chosen.
Example of a similar lesson in a local classroom
Label Primary/Secondary Sources in a previously known story:
Several days earlier, the classroom teacher had shared a story from her own family history with the class. The story told how her mom, at age 8, had met Bette Davis back in 1954. The actress, who was vacationing in her mom’s home town, came to their home to receive a telegram that her mom’s grandfather had received in his job at the railroad station. She stayed for tea in their small home Bette Davis visited with them and asked the little girl to come and sit with her. Soon after the teacher shared the story as she had heard it, her mom was able to come in and tell the story from her perspective, and the students were able to ask her questions.
We had written “Mrs. Baker tells the story of how her mom met Bette Davis” on one paper and “Mrs. Morrill tells the story of how she met Bette Davis.” We asked students which was an example of a primary source and which was a secondary source, and then discussed why they made their choices, and then put these papers next to the appropriate “Primary Source” or “Secondary Source” headings on the board.
More practice with labeling Primary /Secondary sources in that same known story:
The family had no artifacts from this story—no photo of the family at the time, no teacup, no photo of the house. But we had googled the name of the town and Bette Davis, and emailed the Historical Society in the town, and had printed out some photos and printed material that we could ask the students to identify as primary or secondary sources. We found 1954 publicity and family photos of Bette Davis, photos of the railroad station in town, a map of the town, a postcard of the hotel where Davis had stayed, and articles about Bette Davis’ work and vacationing in the state. We passed these out to the students, and one at a time they classified their item as either primary or secondary and told how they made their decision.
Still more practice exploring Primary and Secondary sources
We had all the students sit around a large round table where we had set out all the examples of primary and secondary sources we had gathered from our own family history and other research, and also from the local historical society. (Many were in archival sleeves for protection.) We shared the handout of the list of examples primary sources, with the list of secondary sources on the reverse, but stressed that the list could be pages and pages long; these were just examples.
Students then picked an item that they were interested in and had a few minutes to look it over and try to determine what it was, and then think about whether what they were holding was a primary or secondary source. They then shared what they had selected and we all discussed their decisions of primary/secondary.
Students did find reading old handwriting challenging, but they were able to help each other to decipher what things said and what they were. We had some very interesting discussions about some items that had both primary and secondary sources—one example was a book that was a traditional history book, but with personal recollections. Others fell into a gray area; one could argue that it was a secondary source, but on the other hand could be considered a primary source, such as a grandmother’s recipe written down by her granddaughter. We showed how a photocopy is a primary source, even though the real item (an old map, in one case) has a more authentic look. We discussed that transcriptions can really help make a document easier to read, and can be called primary sources, but that you should note that it was a transcription, not the original.
Ten items were selected from the random collection of primary/secondary sources; ones that the students had not yet discussed. Students numbered their papers 1-10 and wrote either “P” (primary) or “S” (secondary) on their paper as the teacher held up an item and briefly stated some facts about it, for example: “This is a newspaper article written in 1976 about how in 1876 the town of Glover applied to have the Statue of Liberty be erected in Glover.”
The students did very well on this evaluation; many had 100%, the lowest score was 70%. We were amazed at how quickly and easily they understood the difference between primary and secondary sources.