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5 Ways to add Primary Source Analysis to your Social Studies Lessons

Bring history to life in your classroom! Instead of just reading through a textbook or lecturing, allow your students to become historians within your own classroom through primary source analysis. Here are five ways to get your students to actively and skillfully conceptualize and evaluate information.

1. Gallery Walk

A gallery walk is a classroom-based activity where your students silently walk around the classroom to view images that are placed on the wall, just like at an art gallery or museum. It doesn’t take a lot of time or money to do this room transformation.

I purchase cheap, black tablecloths from the party section to cover my walls and create a solid colored backdrop. This removes distractions. I also like to hang some, dim the main lights, use a lamp as a spotlight, and add some quiet calming music for an added effect. I hang the gallery images to the backdrop.

In my Civil Rights Movement Gallery Walk, students view photographs from the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech. While students are viewing images, they fill out an analysis sheet and a final reflection. A picture is worth a thousand words, and this is one way to stir emotion and meaning as we learn our nation’s history.

Sometimes I use a gallery walk that is set up in different categories. For example, in my Roaring Twenties Gallery Walk, students are looking at the difference between life in the city and life in rural America. I set up my gallery walk as before, but have students rotate through different parts of the room for each category of images.

You can learn more about gallery walks, and check out some of my helpful tips for an effective lesson here.

March on Washington Gallery Walk

2. Artifact Analysis

Have you ever considered bringing in artifacts during a unit of study? Especially if you are studying state or local history, check with your local museum. Many times the curator is willing to bring in artifacts or ephemera for viewing and discussion. I have also utilized our local university. Many times the history or science department will loan out items to use with your unit of study. Cool huh!

Do you know anyone that travels? Ask your friends if they have items from their travels that could be used in your lessons. I ran across a gentleman at a community yard sale that was a world traveler who was downsizing his collection. I obtained replicas of several ancient civilization tools and a few pieces from Egypt that he gave to me for practically free when he found out I was a teacher.

If you are having a difficult time coming across artifacts to bring into your classroom, consider photographs of artifacts. For example, finding a shovel used to dig trenches during WWI was just not possible for me to bring into my classroom, however I was able to find a photograph of one. Check online with museums and historical societies for scanned images. You will be surprised what has been digitized.

3. Ephemera Analysis

First of all, you might be asking, "What is ephemera?" This term refers to items produced or made during a specific time period that were meant to be shorted-lived. Newspapers are a perfect example of ephemera.

Using primary source documents such as political cartoons, newspaper clippings, photographs, journal entries, and historical documents are a great way to get your students thinking about history critically. This also provides an opportunity for students to learn about bias, perspective, and intention.

During our study of the 18th amendment, for example, my students analyzed not only political cartoons and pictures, but viewed a copy of an official doctor’s prescription for medicinal whiskey. This stirred up great discussion about the problems with Prohibition.

Prohibition Primary Source Analysis

4. Stations

Get your students moving, through the use of stations! Often when we think of stations, we think of cut and paste activities that are done at each rotation. But there are other ways of implementing stations. All of the above strategies can be implemented as stations.

Instead of having your students view a primary source image on your projector, print out the images or documents and place them in categories on different tables around the room. Have your students rotate around the room to view the images and complete synthesizing and analysis questions. For example, when studying the assimilation of Native Americans through the use of boarding schools, students rotate through stations to view images, read interview statements, and analyze the laws surrounding this time period.

Instead of lecturing, students get up and moving. Then we circle back and discuss several wrap-up questions together as a class.

Native American Studies Primary Source Analsyis Stations

A gallery walk can also be segmented into stations around your room. In my World War One Gallery Walk, students view images by category (trench warfare, chemical warfare, stormtroopers, etc). At each station, they view a select number of images and answer analysis questions. All of the stations help students answer the overarching question of “what was life like for a soldier on the front lines?”

Sometimes I use stations with different activities that involve cutting and pasting and partner games. Typically it takes a little longer to get set up, so I like to use them for review. For example, in my WWI unit, students rotate through stations to review before a test. They place events in chronological order, sort battles by Eastern and Western front, and play the game of Two Truths and a Lie about the life of Red Baron.

Just a side note, these rotations are called “stations” with older students--not to be confused with "centers." ;)

5. Categorize Primary Sources

Give each of your students one image to analyze. Place category labels on tables around the room.

Each student must place their image under a category and justify why they believe the image is appropriate for that placement. This is a great activity, because as historians, there may be more than one correct conclusion, but one might also reach an incorrect conclusion if he or she is not careful.

One way that I implement this is in my Roaring Twenties Fashion Analysis. Students are given a photo and must categorize the image. Then after all the images are categorized, students rotate through stations to view and analyze all of the images in each category.

Do you use any of these primary source analysis strategies in your classroom? Share what you do in the comments below!


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