Part I: Teaching with Primary Sources and Skills Based Assessment

This article is part I of a five part series.

Primary sources were a central part of my curriculum when I taught U.S. History. I also taught my students different methods of inquiry and the skills that go along with them. Teaching this way, using the sources that I did, was a weekly occurrence in my classroom; due to this fact, I have written five steps with supporting details on how I taught using primary sources and mastery of skills. Along with the five steps, in boxes I have written a narrative of how I would go about creating, teaching, and assessing a lesson.

First step: the teacher must select the topic and primary/secondary sources that will go along with that topic.

Teachers have standards that they must use; standards generally will include guidance on which eras should be taught. Despite standards, most social studies teachers have autonomy in what they teach and how. For example, many states possess standards that focus on the relationship between American Indians and European/American settlers/conquerors. South Dakota’s eighth grade standard 8.H.1.6 reads; “Describe the changing federal policy toward Native Americans after the Civil War.” Review this standard, a teacher can see they are only given guidance on the era and subject; it is left up to the teacher on how students should describe this moment in history. Despite the autonomy, I have witnessed and heard of teachers solely using their textbook provided activities to educate their students. Unfortunately, this method does not encourage students to participate in modern debates, in unraveling historical mysteries, or creating interpretations for themselves.

Some may feel that my assessment of teaching history is harsh. I find it imperative to lay out my belief because the problem of history teachers being simple gatekeepers of facts and figures is a historical one in the American education system, and unfortunately, one that has continued into present teaching practices. There are many great teachers out there, institutions like National History Day and Gilder Lehrman prove that through their annual teacher awards; despite excellent teachers, there are far too many who prescribe to the belief that learning history is merely the acquisition of factoids. It is my hope this example lesson will show a better way to teach history.

When searching for sources, I recommend looking through History Forge’s List of Topics and Primary Sources, which contains a multitude of primary source lesson plans. These lessons are organized chronologically and thematically. For this article, I will be using the CK-12 Pocahontas Basic and Pocahontas Advanced primary source lesson plans, which can be found in the list of topics. Both lessons cover the same topic, but are differentiated based on reading level.



The First History Lesson of Mr. Ramirez

Mr. Ramirez began planning his lesson by looking through the 8th grade South Dakota content standards. Although many teachers find the standards limiting, Mr. Ramirez believed the standards were flexible and useful guides for what should be taught in class. Not only were standards flexible, they were limited in their scope of what should be taught to South Dakota students. For example, the South Dakota content standards for 8th grade U.S. History only mentioned Native Americans once and it was only after the Civil War. Mr. Ramirez believed that teaching about Native American during colonization and the early Indian conquests was important, especially since Mr. Ramirez taught in a school with a 20% Native American population. Looking through the standards again, Mr. Ramirez saw a standard and read to himself, “analyze how westward expansion was motivated by economic gain and Manifest Destiny.” This standard seemingly only fits the time period after 1800 when the United States was settling more of the present day American west. Also, the standard does not seem to connect to Native Americans who made initial contact with European explorers. Despite this, Mr. Ramirez thought it would be a great connection to show students how early Europeans were motivated by economic gain, and similar ideas like Manifest Destiny. Mr. Ramirez would plan to bring up all of these important concepts in his first lesson, thus he decided to use the Manifest Destiny standard for his lesson. Now, he needed a topic.


Thinking about his students and what would be a good introduction to his class, Mr. Ramirez chose to do a lesson on Pocahontas and John Smith. Mr. Ramirez liked this lesson because most students knew the story, many had seen the Disney movie, and all would be shocked that Pocahontas was a teenager, and John Smith was well into his 20s; Mr. Ramirez liked to grab the kids attention with such historical facts.


Providing background knowledge, terms, places, and people

  •  The textbook can still be used to provide context, but students should not be expected to provide recall/memorization answers. These type of answers require students to memorize factoids, which does not lead to long-term learning. A small minority of students may remember some of the facts they learned, but the hyper majority will forget them in a week. If a teacher has access to different secondary sources, then they should make those sources available to students so they can see the differences in interpretation of the Pocahontas event.
  • CK-12 provides context paragraphs for their primary source lessons and can help students understand key information. CK-12 and other primary source sites can be found in the List of Topics and Primary Sources.

  • This would also be a great time for the teacher to provide a brief lecture, especially if the teacher is giving more context or alternative points of view. The teacher should not talk for more than 20 total minutes. Students can complete small activities in between the teacher talking, such as think-pair-share or Socratic Seminars. Too much lecture will lead students to check out of the assignment. 

  • Flipped classroom or video lectures can help students prepare for a topic.



The First History Lesson of Mr. Ramirez

Mr. Ramirez was planning for his first history lecture and he wanted  to ensure that it set the correct tone for his class. After choosing his standards and topic, Mr. Ramirez needed some background information for context. Mr. Ramirez did not issue a textbook to each student, he preferred to keep a classroom size pile in the back for whenever the classroom needed them. Mr. Ramirez believed textbooks were overused and prone to abuse by desperate teachers to find some busy work for students to do. What he did enjoy the textbook for was providing one source of context. Textbooks only give one perspective and should be coupled with others (this method of inquiry is called corroboration, and Mr. Ramirez would be sure to hint at it during his Pocahontas lesson). Mr. Ramirez knew the book contained a paragraph about early Native Americans, including Pocahontas, and additional information about English explorers/conquerors. Mr. Ramirez also could use the context paragraphs located in the CK-12 Pocahontas Basic and Pocahontas Advanced primary source lesson plans. Both lessons covered the same primary sources, but the basic version contained reworded sources that helped students with lower reading levels. Mr. Ramirez possessed chromebooks so students could look at the primary sources online, but the sources could also be printed. Mr. Ramirez planned to use the textbook and CK-12 paragraphs as contextual information. Since this was the first lesson, Mr. Ramirez would also introduce students to note taking in his class. This note taking system did not focus on copying down definitions from overheads or whiteboards. He planned to do this on the first day of the lesson.


Final Thoughts

This lesson comes in five parts, the second part can be found at Part II: Teaching with Primary Sources and Skill Based Learning. This lesson is part of the Research Part I: How to “Do History”; Finding Student Strengths, Interests, and Desires; Understanding Historical Themes and Concepts. This curriculum map covers my first weeks and sets the stage for the big National History Day project and skill based learning that I teach.

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