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Teaching American History:
The Magic of Primary Sources

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About the Teaching American History Project

The Teaching American History Project, administered by EASTCONN for the Windham Public Schools and other school systems in northeastern Connecticut, has recently finished its third year. The project is a professional development program for teachers of American history in grades 5-12. During the academic year, project teachers participate in a variety of hands-on, activity based workshops and seminars. In addition, when school ends, they participate in a ten-day Summer Institute. The workshops and summer institutes are designed to improve teachers’ content understanding of American history; their skills analyzing, interpreting, and effectively using primary source materials; and their awareness and understanding of the many local resources (museums, historical sites, and historical societies) available in our region. Some sessions are held on site at EASTCONN, others involve field trips to visit these local resources. During seminars, teachers discuss effective classroom strategies as well as the challenges involved in engaging all students in the process of doing and learning history.

Project teachers are developing a “curriculum” of lessons based on primary sources and local resources. The lessons are grouped by related historical content or eras and are tied to Connecticut’s Social Studies Frameworks. Wanting students in all history classes to be involved higher level thinking, each lesson starts with an inquiry statement or question identifying the essential question students will be asked to answer, the decision they will be asked to make, or the problem they will be asked to solve. These lessons and the primary sources on which they are based are posted here for all teachers to access.

Much has been written about the benefits of having students learn history through the study of primary sources. Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, devoted its November/December 2003 issue completely to the topic. In the introduction to the issue, Michael Simpson writes: “The use of primary sources in the classroom represents a unique way of bringing history into the lives of students. The magic of seeing an original document and the sense of being transported back in time capture the imagination of young people. Spurred by rising curiosity, students can enter naturally into the role of historian in exploring and explaining life in the past.” In the introduction to the 2005 publication Why Documents Matter: American Originals and the Historical Imagination, James G. Basker, and Ann Whitney Olin itemize the important skills students gain from analyzing primary sources. They then add, “But perhaps above all, such documents can be stimulus to the imagination. They can “humanize” history. And once the imagination is engaged, there is no limit to learning.” In Using Primary Sources in the Classroom, author Kathleen Vest clearly discusses in depth, “Why Use Primary Sources in the Classroom?” Along with developing observation, vocabulary, and reading comprehension, inquiry and research skills, she explains how working with primary sources can help students understand that history has local links, relate to events in the past in a personal way, and analyze historical events from different points of view.

It is hoped that teachers will find these lessons helpful in engaging their students in higher level thinking about American history. We welcome you to share lessons that you have developed in which students are actively “doing history”.

For information about the Teaching American History project, contact:

Dan Coughlin
(860) 455-0707
dcoughlin@eastconn.org

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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