Publication Date

March 1, 2007

What is important to John Smith? With this one question and replicas of Captain John Smith's 17th-century map of Virginia, a fourth-grade teacher guides her students into the realm of historical inquiry. Students in this urban school district come from 75 countries; 20 percent enter with limited English proficiency and another 20 percent have special learning needs. Yet these 10-year-olds jump into the activity with enthusiasm, staring intently at the map and talking with their classmates about what they see.

Here are some of the things that they notice: the word "Virginia" in large letters; a small figure hunting with a bow and arrow, the words "Che: Sa: Peack Bay" ("Hey, that's the Chesapeake Bay!"), unfamiliar names, two large drawings of Indians, and a key identifying "Kings houses" and "Ordinary houses." They hazard guesses about why the map includes these features, drawing on their knowledge of American Indians before contact with Europeans. Finally, they discuss their observations and ideas as a class, accurately concluding that water and Indians were very important to John Smith.

Many Teaching American History grants share the goal of helping teachers reach this point—understanding how to analyze primary sources and then effectively teaching those skills with the goal of helping students develop both a strong understanding of American history and critical thinking. Primary sources have become a Teaching American History mantra, a cure-all for the problems of lagging student interest and low test scores. Through our experiences working on six Teaching American History grants, we have seen some of the benefits as well as some of the pitfalls to this approach. Primary sources can bring excitement and learning into the classroom, but not without substantive teacher training in historical thinking skills such as close analysis, sourcing, and historical context. Here are some of the lessons we have learned about using primary sources as a tool in professional development for history teachers with the goal of shaping classroom learning.

Learning to Integrate Primary Sources

Working closely with elementary, middle, and high school teachers, we developed content-rich summer institutes featuring presentations by historians, historical site visits, and workshops focused on locating and using online primary sources. Based on these experiences, teachers were asked to create a lesson plan and a curriculum unit that focused on analyzing primary sources and placing them in historical context.

When we began observing teachers in the classroom, though, we realized that we had asked teachers to make a significant leap from watching someone work with primary sources to teaching with them in the classroom. Teachers located engaging primary sources, but included far too many in their lessons. Moreover, there was little close analysis by teachers or students, historical context was thin, and many lessons depended solely on completing worksheets with generic questions.

Determined to learn from our experience and improve the projects, we asked teachers the following year to integrate one primary source into an existing lesson rather than devise an entire lesson. The goal was to focus on the careful analysis of a single source with clear historical context. We also asked presenters to spend more time modeling the skills of analyzing and teaching with primary sources. We saw improvement, but continued to observe thin historical context, lack of student engagement, and far too many worksheets.

Developing Primary Source Activities

We again evaluated the gap between what we were doing and what we were asking teachers to do. One important lesson we learned is that teachers new to the skills and strategies of historical methods needed extensive and continuous hands-on experience working with primary sources as learners before they could take them back to their classrooms as teachers. In partnership with several programs, the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, based on interactive activities developed in recent years, created eight Primary Source Activities ( Our primary goal was to focus on a set of skills: carefully analyzing a primary source, thinking about the characteristics of that particular kind of source (that is, painting, photograph, song, or advertisement), placing it in historical context, and drawing conclusions.

Our secondary goal was to create a format that emphasized these skills, something that teachers could adapt to their classrooms. Each Primary Source Activity begins with a primary source and a problem or question. The next step, the heart of each activity, is analysis, and teachers work in pairs to look closely at the source. This time, to notice and observe without answering questions or filling in a worksheet is essential, but all too easy to skip or shorten in professional development activities and in the classroom. The next step is to write down observations and questions. How was the source created? Who created it? Why? How do answers to these questions shape meaning? Teachers then come together as a group to share what they noticed, ask questions, and discuss historical context. Why was the photograph published? When were the lyrics and music to the song written? Teachers reflect on these questions as a group, sharing observations and background knowledge. What do we already know about this source and the time period? What additional information would help us analyze this source? The next step is to answer the central question. Each activity then provides historical background and, after discussion, asks the central question again. Do we see the source differently in light of this additional information?

One Primary Source Activity introduces three images of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and three images of Emperor Hirohito of Japan.1 The two men appeared together in a photograph taken in September 1945, several weeks after Japan’s surrender to the United States at the end of World War II. MacArthur largely staged the photograph—published widely in newspapers throughout Japan and the U.S.—to promote demilitarization and democratization in Japan with the larger goal of helping people in both countries begin to move beyond the war. The central problem is to figure out which image of MacArthur and which image of Hirohito appeared in this historically significant photograph. Teachers examine the images, experimenting with different matches and looking carefully at the poses, dress, and expressions in each picture. They discuss the constructed nature of photographs and what images might fit with MacArthur’s message.

These Primary Source Activities were designed to fit in with the central focus of the summer institute—historical content, historical thinking skills, and primary source analysis. We began each day by working through a primary source activity, developing and reinforcing skills. The activities fit with the content presented each day and by weaving the two together, teachers incorporated new understandings of historical content and built a toolkit of resources and strategies for teaching historical topics.

Primary Sources in Practice

As teachers worked through the activities, several notable trends emerged. At first, it was difficult for participants to take off their "teacher hats," to avoid focusing only on how to adapt the activities for students. With gentle reminders, though, teachers began to engage as "adult learners," and became increasingly adept at encountering primary sources. The methodology of noticing and questioning provided a comfortable formula that began to inspire confidence and allow for interesting historical thinking and questions.

Teachers also demonstrated changes in their understanding of the past. While analyzing runaway advertisements from 18th-century Virginia, teachers developed a stronger understanding of the meaning of freedom, and of the varying conditions for people who were enslaved and indentured.2 Teachers noted that the ads gave them a more human understanding of slavery and of the individual experiences of both slaves and masters. As one teacher noted, “[We get] this idea of this mass of unskilled workers who come on the field and pick cotton. The ads bring home the idea of the skills these slaves had and how they were really important to the success of the plantation.”3 By grappling with primary sources, teachers developed deeper historical understanding and skills for effectively teaching history and historical thinking.

In the final step of the process, teachers generated ideas on how to make the primary source activities accessible to students of varying age groups and ability levels. One teacher noted the advantages of using the John Smith map in a diverse classroom: "You don't have to be able to read to know that these words look totally unlike anything that you see when you drive down the road with your mom and dad . . . to notice that there is a huge Indian over here in the right-hand corner and there's a picture of a clearly important Indian over here. So there's a lot that you can see and contribute." Teachers also discussed how the sources addressed specific curriculum standards. This debriefing process helped connect the summer institute experiences with classroom teaching, a crucial step in affecting change in teacher practice.

While the primary source activities are an extremely useful tool, they are effective only as part of a larger framework of professional development that supports meaningful integration of primary sources into classroom teaching. After the ongoing practice during the summer institute, we continue to work with teachers and provide support as they developed their own primary source activities. We are observing teachers and students working with these sources as teachers write reflective case studies, submit lesson drafts integrating primary sources, and make revisions. This ongoing support, feedback, and reinforcement are crucial to affecting change in history classrooms. In observations and case studies, we have begun to see successful lessons in which teachers use the "notice, question, historical context" format and students engage in historical inquiry and utilize higher-level critical thinking skills. By noticing details and questioning primary sources, students are able to construct their own understandings and make history meaningful. After a summer of hands-on experiences analyzing primary sources, teachers are becoming far more successful in effectively teaching them in the classroom.

—Kelly Schrum is the director of educational projects at the Center for History and New Media (George Mason University). Eleanor Greene is the project director for Peopling the American Past, a Teaching American History Grant program based in Fauquier County Public Schools. Sarah Whelan is the project coordinator for Virginia History as U.S. History, a Teaching American History Grant program in Loudoun County Public Schools. A special thanks to Roy Rosenzweig for his thoughtful comments on this article and to Kristin Lehner for her helpful edits and her dedicated work developing the Primary Source Activities.


1. This activity draws on an exercise developed in collaboration with Japanese historian Brian Platt for the World History Matters website

2. This activity draws on an exercise developed by U.S. historian Michael O’Malley for the Exploring U.S. History website

3. Virginia History as U.S. History, Loudoun County Public Schools Teaching American History Summer Institute, July 2006 (

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