How to Use Primary Sources in the Elementary Classroom
The trend toward incorporating increasing numbers of primary sources into history and social studies classrooms has affected elementary education. With this new emphasis in history and social studies education, the need for a systematic approach to introducing young learners to the analysis of historical texts has become clear. On this site, the teacher-authors of elementary lessons have developed source-specific analysis guides, often using "compare and contrast" or "cause and effect" exercises that may be familiar to students from literature analysis.
As engaging and immediate as primary source analysis can be, the exercise requires preparation and context. Educators must have some background knowledge in order to lead students in a thoughtful analysis of primary sources. Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre, for example, shows the "Butcher's Hall" on the façade of the building on the right, just above the British soldiers' heads. No "Butcher's Hall" existed; rather, Revere put that name there to underline the idea that the British were slaughtering innocent colonists. Most of the lessons and sources on this site provide background information and brief essays for students to read. Supplemental material from locally required social studies texts can serve as background context as well.
For most elementary students, analyzing primary sources happens at a basic and introductory level. The questions are straightforward and are designed to encourage them to ask simple questions. Historical study is often relatively new to elementary students, who have limited depth of knowledge. In their first exposure to primary sources, students may be best led through the materials slowly and with direction.
Compare/contrast: With similar documents or sources, such as newspaper advertisements from the 1750s and 1760s, a good exercise involves comparing and contrasting their content and appearance. These students are just beginning to think critically and analyze historical texts. Many students at the elementary level have already engaged in compare and contrast exercises with regard to literature. Doing so with primary sources for history will be new to many of them, but educators can build on previously developed skills.