Bringing History to Life:  Using Primary Sources in the Classroom

Bringing History to Life: Using Primary Sources in the Classroom

Bored student in libraryEntering the study of rich history, students often are faced with challenging texts, difficult writing prompts, and discussions led by passionate educators.  Ensuring that this seems relevant, exciting, and worthwhile can be a hefty challenge for educators.  Textbooks and other materials are often dense. And while they are laced with photographs, queries, and depictions of historical times, they often lack authentic opportunities for students to dig into the human connection that history provides.


Teachers who understand the importance of developing an authentic connection to history and developing a well-rounded understanding of history that lays out a desire to continuously inquire and develop further understanding look to provide students with ample opportunities to investigate.  Often this investigation includes the active investigation of primary sources.


What is a primary source?

Primary SourcesPrimary sources are the raw materials from history. They are first-hand accounts of an event or moment in time. Primary sources can be photographs, cartoons, love letters, declarations, artifacts, diaries, maps, and music. These sources were created by people or groups involved in the time period or event. 


Why use primary sources?

Primary sources help bring history to life for students. They provide enhanced awareness and understanding coupled with multiple perspectives. Primary sources allow students to experience history. Primary sources: 

  • Provide practice for 21st Century Skills.

  • Provide a human account of events from those who were present.

  • Provide varying perspectives that allow students to discern viewpoints.

  • Allow students to interpret and evaluate evidence to draw conclusions.

  • Enhance the skills of analyzing and evaluating as students consider bias and contradictions.

  • Develop dexterity in discussions and debates.


Where might I find primary sources?

Students looking at primary sourcesOf course, primary sources are discoverable in museums, archives, government offices, and library collections. However, accessing them for classroom use doesn’t take Herculean efforts and Sunday afternoon trips to beg curators for access. Rather, educators find excellent resources for primary sources accessible in a range of online platforms. In discovering the primary sources, it is imperative to remember that each primary source is disconnected from other learning and students will need support through rich texts and instruction to make logical connections, ask questions, and make determinations about what they discover through primary sources. 


Feel free to peruse a wide range of primary source resources available through Teacher Created Materials.  These curated primary sources and accompanying lesson plans provide rigorous structure to instruction using primary sources.  Each curated primary source kit contains primary sources across a range of mediums, including some reproductions and photographs. The lesson plans ensure that students are provided with supporting background knowledge and connections. The lesson plans also enhance opportunities for students to develop deep understanding and discover multiple perspectives.  This access to primary sources allows teachers to bring museum experiences into the classroom!


Strategy for Engaging with Primary Sources

Student looking at primary source
Dig in Deeper (Using a primary source photograph) 

Using a primary source photograph, plan to share the photograph with students several times during one lesson plan.

  1.  Allow students to quickly examine the primary source. Ask students to collect their observations. 

    1. Use question stems such as:  What do you notice?  What do you see?  What is there?


  2. Provide an opportunity for students to share observations with their peers.

    1. Use a strategy like, “Everybody Shares” where all students can post their observations on chart paper or an online platform.


  3. Show the primary source again.  Provide students with a focus for this observation. You may direct students to notice the individuals, the setting, the actions, etc.

    1. Use question stems such as:  Who is in this photograph?  What are they doing?  How are they interacting?


  4. Provide an opportunity for students to engage in quick conversations to showcase their new findings.

    1. Use a strategy such as “merry-go-round,” allowing for students to work with small groups sharing their different ideas and garnering additional noticings from their peers.


  5. Show the primary source another time with a very direct question, that collates their noticing to make an inference or realization.

    1. Use question stems such as:  Why do the…?  How did…?  What made…?


  6. Provide an opportunity for students to discuss and compare and contrast their findings with their peers.  Further instruction by creating sharable findings, organizing findings, and debating understandings. Students can continue to demonstrate their learning through writing or creation.


Primary sources can be used to support learning using secondary sources. 

Classroom of students with their hands in the airThey can enhance understanding, provide varying perspectives, and corroborate learning from text.  They can also be used to inspire considerations and implications of the historical times they are from. Students may brainstorm dialogue, consider emotion, and connect to other times. With the focus on allowing students to think past the main idea, students can truly discover and consider. Primary sources invite discussions and debates.  Conversations born from the study and examination of primary sources can be lively, powerful opportunities for students to use evidence, question findings, and debate assumptions. 



Whats Next?

Bringing History to Life:  Using Primary Sources in the ClassroomThe myriad of primary sources available to students and teachers is enormous. Understanding the value and contribution of primary sources to historical dialogue as well as the range of strategies needed to support this conversation will ensure that instruction is meaningful and relevant for students.  Join my FREE live coffee chat or watch my on-demand webinar where we will dive deep into primary sources.

In this session, you will learn to:

  • Identify ways to engage, explore, and extend learning using primary sources.

  • Discover several strategies to bring history to life using primary sources.


On-Demand Webinar

Register Now and watch at your own pace!



Download this Essential Guide to Teaching Outside the Textbook to discover new approaches to teaching social studies that are more inclusive, relevant, and engaging. 


Author bio

Jen Jump

Jen Jump, Academic Offer

As an Academic Offer, Jen Jump provides professional development and training on TCM curriculum materials and Shell Education professional resources for districts, teachers, and educational trainers. She is a passionate educator who has spent 15 years in various roles dedicated to student achievement. Before joining TCM, she contributed curriculum and professional development support to the fastest-growing urban school district, the public school system in Washington D.C. She led the curriculum work, providing teachers with organized, content-rich, text set curriculum for ELA in grades K-5. She also provided professional learning for both large groups of teachers and individual teaching through coaching to improve the literacy outcomes in the district.