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Primary & Secondary Sources

Curriculum Resources

Tools of the Historian: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Grades

4-6

Subjects

Social Studies

Concepts

Primary versus Secondary sources, analyzing primary sources

Skills

Critical analysis, creative thinking, application of knowledge

Materials

Primary and secondary sources, Assessment Handout: Discovery!

Time

1-2 class periods


Focus Questions

  • What does it mean to be a primary or a secondary source?
  • Why is it important to be able to analyze a source?

Students will be able to:

  • Define primary and secondary source.
  • Evaluate the difference between the two types of sources.
  • Explain the importance of evaluating all sources.
  • Apply their knowledge to identify primary and secondary sources to the colonial period.

Introductory Activity

1. Position the entire class in a large circle with everyone facing inward. Tell them they are going to play a familiar game that will help them better understand the tools of the historian. Teacher note: This game will be “telephone” where inevitably the message gets increasingly construed as it travels down the line. This will introduce them to the idea of a primary source (the student creating the phrase) and secondary sources (all the students hearing the phrase).

2. Once you have everyone in a large circle have one student come up with a phrase. Make sure it is not too simple, or too complex. Have that student whisper it in the ear of the person on the left and have it continue around the circle until the last student who announces the phrase. Typically, what the class should end up with will be quite different from the original phrase.

3. Discuss with the class how information from the past can be like the phrase circulating around; it can get distorted. Students should realize that it is the job of the historian to get to the original source of information and evaluate every source he/she encounters.


Instructional Procedure

1. Begin by discussing with students why historians need a method for analyzing sources. The first step they take is to determine if the source is primary or secondary.

2. Define for students that a “Secondary Source” is a second hand (or third, or fourth etc.) hand account of an historical event or time period. [see Rationale and Background] Students will be most familiar with this type of source since it includes information in their textbook or other books or articles on a topic. It is important to stress with students that secondary sources are often written by historians who are experts in their fields and have spent many years researching the information. Some Secondary sources can be distorted and biased, while others may provide a balanced and comprehensive view of the subject.

3. Define “Primary Source” as a first hand, or eye witness, account of an historical event, time period, etc. [see Rationale and Background]. Stress that each source needs to be evaluated to determine if it is an objective or subjective account. Relate this idea to students’ lives: when their classmate tells them something – do they automatically believe it – or do they think about who said it and why they might be saying it.

Historical Detectives

4. Teach students to investigate the PAST by first analyzing their sources. Put the letters P A S T on the Board. Use this mnemonic device to help students remember how to make an initial investigation of a source:

P

PURPOSE

What was the object used for? What does the text say? What does the picture show?

A

AUTHOR

Who created this?

S

SLANT

Is there bias? What is the point of view or frame of reference of the source?

T

TIME PERIOD

When was it created? What is the historical context or what was happening at the time it was created?

Encourage them to remember these four points of analysis. Explain to students that they help historians form their own conclusions. Ask students if they think historians work mostly with primary or secondary sources? Discuss how they try to work with primary sources as much as possible to derive their own interpretations.

5. Select a range of sources – primary and secondary – for the class to evaluate.

Primary sources could be an object, picture, newspaper, government document, painting, music, diary etc. There are many ways to access primary source documents. The school or town library will have books and DVDs; you could also go to the local historical society. Or there are published collections of primary sources, for example, Jackdaw Kits. The handiest and most abundant source however is the Internet. Secondary sources are easily found in the text or other book.

6. Present students with the first source. Have students determine if it is “primary” or “secondary” Then have them apply the PAST method through a Think Pair Share.

Think Pair Share

Have students study the source and write down their answers to the questions in the P A S T analysis. Then with a partner, have students share their responses making note of their partner’s ideas. Have each team generate a fuller analysis by asking and answering more questions about the source.

Conduct a whole class discussion on the analysis of the document.

Repeat with more documents or artifacts.

7. When the class is ready, distribute the assessment worksheet Discovery! that asks them to apply their knowledge of determining primary and secondary sources to the colonial period.

With the same partner, have students choose an object from the assessment list to further analyze and offer hypotheses.

8. Concluding Discussion questions

  • What is the difference between a primary and secondary source?
  • How reliable are historical sources?
  • Which one would you rather have in learning about a particular time period?
  • What should historians keep in mind when they find one or more views of a historical event, person, or time period?
  • How does this affect your view of your history textbook? Of any historical source?
  • What have you learned about how history is written?
  • What in your life could become a primary source for future historians?

Assessment

Students will complete both handouts and the teacher will know how well students can distinguish between primary and secondary sources based on their performance on the assessment worksheet Discovery!

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