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Primary Sources Starter Pack for Teachers: Activities!

Because every Subject has a History


National History Day offers many‚Äč opportunities for you and your students to think outside the box.

Encourage students to create products that show off their learning big time!     Using primary sources is a prime way to engage, encourage, and enlighten students. Giving them tasks that provide meaning and a way to show off that learning will help them stick-to-it throughout their research, building, and creating. 

2020 theme:  BREAKING BARRIERS   


Local History - what better way than to use local resources to share history? 

Remember... every subject has a history and every town has loads and loads of industries, businesses, shops, art, and other institutions that make up the history of the town.  How can you relate local history to the larger world? How did people in your town (neighborhood, village, city) react to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to 9/11, to the moon landing? 

Some activities to spark your own local history ideas: 



Read "old handwriting"


Try your hand at any of these activities - but dig deeper into the handwriting deciphering - can you read their test cases? 

EVERYDAY mysteries from the Library of Congress

15 MINUTES - while you take role, organize your thoughts, or just as a way to get students settled; try this:


Choose a question to post on the board. As students walk into the room, set them loose to think about the answer and write their speculations-or previous knowledge- into their research journal.  Reveal the answer to the entire class and hold brief discussion on the topic. How does this topic relate to every day life (science)? How did we find out the answer to this (history)?

The President's calendar

Wondering what the President was doing on your birthday? Read the diary!

Most of the  Presidential Library sites have a "daily diary" section. For example: for a student born during the Clinton administration check President Clinton's Schedule.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

...and here is President Obama's schedule.


Think beyond the bubble test... engage your students in their own assessment using primary sources, while keeping tabs on their growth, questions, and projects.

The STANFORD HISTORY EDUCATION GROUP offers a variety of teaching materials, strategies and assessment activities that can help you introduce primary sources into your classroom in a variety of ways.


Assigning reports? Instead of a paper, try this:
Pick the name of a person in history. Ask: what documents would be important to show their life? Research the docs that support their life, professional contributions etc. Create a  portfolio (make a large folder and include the documents, artifacts and/or images with brief explanations.

Example: If researching Elizabeth Cady Stanton; students might include: the Declaration of Sentiments, a map of Seneca Falls, a copy of a brochure, her obituary, some of her writings, and some images. Start with the Library of Congress to find a copy of the Declaration.

Try the National Park Service (use "women's suffrage" as your search tern - but try others also). Use PATHWAYS THROUGH AMERICAN HISTORY as a starter for loads of classroom ideas for instruction.

Make your own primary document!

Create your own primary document today.
Write a letter to their Congressperson, the President, or other elected official.



Exhibits! Virtual Visits! Museums are the BEST

Virtual visits, whether for school or personal interest are always a fun way to explore a museum's holdings. Let your students loose in the museum! Margaret Sullivan put together this excellent list of possibilities: