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10 Ways to Use the Primary Source Sets in Your Classroom

10 Ways to Use the Primary Source Sets in Your Classroom

Now that the school year is well underway, we are already hearing great things about how educators and students across the country are putting DPLA and its education resources to use. The Primary Source Sets, in particular, were designed to be versatile and adaptable for a broad variety of classroom environments, lessons, assignments and grade levels, so we wanted to share a few different ideas that demonstrate that versatility in action!

Part of an 1830 pamphlet printed by the Cherokee nation discussing Indian Removal. Courtesy of Hargrett Library via Digital Library of Georgia.

An 1830 pamphlet printed by the Cherokee nation discussing Indian Removal. Courtesy of Hargrett Library via Digital Library of Georgia.

1. PRACTICE DBQs:
Document-Based Questions, or DBQs, ask students to critically engage with primary sources and use evidence to support an argument or position. DBQs have traditionally been a hallmark of the AP History class to prep for the exam, but we see room for broad applications of DBQs across a variety of courses all year long.  Pull sources from the sets to devise a DBQ for your students or assign a question from one of the teaching guides.

Example: Question 4 from Jacksonian Democracy?: “Using Jackson’s message to Congress concerning Indian Removal and the 1830 pamphlet by the Cherokee nation, determine whether Indian Removal was a democratic action taken by the federal government or an invasion of Cherokee sovereignty.”

2. INTRODUCE A TOPIC
Ask students to analyze, interpret, or respond to a specific primary source from the sets to kick off your class session or lesson unit. Alternately, let students pick one source from a set and respond.

Example: Ask students to examine this photograph from the Immigration and Americanization, 1880-1930 set to begin your class session on late nineteenth century immigration. What does it reveal about the experience of immigrating to the US? What questions does it raise?

3. BUILD STUDENTS’ INDEPENDENT RESEARCH SKILLS
Have students pick a set and use the sources in their next research project on that topic. For a more focused selection, try a thematic subset like Science and Technology or Women.

4. EXPERIMENT WITH A CLASSROOM ACTIVITY
Each Primary Source Set Teaching Guide has at least one suggested classroom activity.  Try a new way of bringing primary sources to life in your classroom:

A photo of a student protester carrying a sign depicting a burned draft card, 1969. Courtesy of Suffolk University, Moakley Archive & Institute via Digital Commonwealth.

A photo of a student protester carrying a sign depicting a burned draft card, 1969. Courtesy of Suffolk University, Moakley Archive & Institute via Digital Commonwealth.

Examples:
Be Creative
 – Explore where history meets social media in this activity from the set on The Things They Carried.
Take a Stand – Students create a vintage radio or TV advertisement in small groups to raise awareness about polio prevention in this activity from “There is no cure for Polio
Engage – Have students explore the Civil Rights Movement in stations using primary sources after reading The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 in this activity.
Debate – Students teams stake a claim and debate each other in this activity from the Texas Revolution set.

5. CONTEXTUALIZE CURRENT EVENTS
Use the primary source sets to help students make connections between past and present and add historical perspective to the headlines and news stories we see every day.

Examples:
Ida B. Wells and Anti-Lynching Activism may offer an important historical counterpart to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.

Sets on the Fifteenth Amendment and Fannie Lou Hamer and the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi could help contextualize voting rights activism today.

Sets on immigration provide a historical lens for contemporary news stories about immigration of Latinos, Muslims, and Syrian refugees.

Photograph of a Charleston dance contest in St. Louis on November 13, 1925 from The Great Gatsby set. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum via Missouri Hub.

Photograph of a Charleston dance contest in St. Louis on November 13, 1925 from The Great Gatsby set. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum via Missouri Hub.

6. CONTEXTUALIZE LITERATURE
Use the primary source sets to add historical and cultural context to works of literature.

Teacher Testimonials:
I use the literature primary source sets after we read each novel. It’s especially helpful for students to see the connection between what we read as fiction and in the real world.”

“I just started my first semester…where I learned that one of the student learning outcomes for literature courses is something like ‘students will be able to situate literary texts within their cultural contexts.’  This learning outcome is being assessed right now, and there is some room for improvement. Primary source sets to the rescue!”

7. CONNECT THE SETS TO COMPLEMENT YOUR UNIT
Starting a unit on American Colonization, the Revolutionary War, or the Civil War and Reconstruction? Use the time period filters to see all the sets from that era and mix and match sources from sets to complement your lesson and help students make connections between topics and ideas.

Teacher Testimonial:
“I will use materials from several sets, including the Underground Railroad, to teach the novel Kindred this semester.”

An American poster discouraging food waste to assist the European Allies. Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

An American poster discouraging food waste to assist the European Allies. Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

8. COMPARE MEDIA
Select five examples of a type of media featured throughout the sets and analyze how they communicate a message to their audiences. For example, analyzing five posters featured in the sets can introduce students to visual thinking and build interpretation skills.

Example: Consider starting with the World War I: America Heads to War set, which includes a great selection of posters.

9. WRITE YOUR OWN QUESTIONS
After analyzing the primary sources in a set, ask students to write their own discussion questions to add to the list provided in the teaching guide. Use student-generated questions to drive class discussion and analysis of the topic.

Example: Check out the discussion questions in the teaching guide for Attacks on American Soil: Pearl Harbor and September 11 as a starting point and then add your own.

10. CREATE YOUR OWN SETS
Using the DPLA sets as inspiration, have students create their own primary source sets. Student sets could be as simple as a list of links in a document or more elaborate using images on a website. Students can identify items in DPLA and write an overview about the chosen topic.

Teacher Testimonial: Before reading Code Name Verity, which is a Young Adult historical fiction novel, students had to locate 5 different primary sources about WWII on the DPLA website and then analyze them before sharing them with the class. Students were able to easily navigate the website.”

DPLA is an ever-growing resource and we’ll be working to create exhibitions and primary source sets and develop new educational opportunities all year so let’s keep in touch!

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  • And let us know about your experience using the primary source sets or DPLA in your class by emailing education@dp.la.  Your feedback will impact our future work!