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Primary Sources Starter Pack for Teachers: Activities!

Because every Subject has a History

Two thoughts

Are you asking students to make something? Here are three questions you can ask them ahead of their project to help them think it through.

1. What do you want to communicate?
2. How will you tell them?
3. What is your call to action? 

These can jumstart their thinking about all the many decisions they'll be making in order to give their audience an "ah ha" moment. It is useful for all forms of media - from infographics to tik-tok videos to documentaries to 'zines'.

A second thought comes from the novel "Canyon Sacrifice" by Scott Graham. If you are an archeologist or other scientist at a work site and you've just encountered new information - perhaps a skeleton or rock formation; here are the rules of site study: 

1. Dont just do something. Stand there.


2. Begin at the very beginning.

This can apply to any investigations from our first introduction to an historical event in any book we're reading, clear to being out in the field and looking at a new neighborhood, a historical marker or even while playing a brand new game.  Take a moment to let the scene sink in, think about the perimeters of the topic, look at the possible depth...then take it all back to the beginning and timeline it out, adding in the important characters and the scene. It will help to take a deep breath and then...just jump in.


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.

One more how-to read old handwriting

There's a video here to help figure out some of the rules, but check out the list below that gives some tips on some of the well known abbreviations...


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: 

Sample Monument Project

Here's a sample Monuments Project to jumpstart your thinking. There are lots of other samples out there.  

Monument Project

Monuments are memorials to someone, an idea, a place, or an event. They help us to not only remember, but to honor something – or someone – who helped to shape who we are today. An engaging project encourages students to think about the important events, people, or ideas in their lives and to consider how to best tell the story of those events or lives so others can understand the importance. 

Look first at some monuments as examples of what monuments can express. Share these via projector or on student devices.

a. The Wall: the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.

b. Little Bighorn, Montana

c. Bellmont-Paul Women’s Equality, Washington D.C.

A look at the National Park Service [] website can show hundreds of other monuments to share:

When completing a unit of study, or after reading a biography ask students to create their own monument. Here is their task: 
Students [in small groups or individually] will create an oral presentation that they will give to a  ‘Board of Directors’ outlining the reason why this Board should fund their work to build a monument. 
Funding is limited, so students must persuade the Board to fund their monument. 

A meeting has been scheduled in front of the Board so that students can present their ideas, reasons, and hopes for this monument: 

Winning elements include:

1. a brochure or other printed overview [poster, infographic, brochure, pamphlet, etc]

•overview of the event/person [the “why” we want to build this monument’]

 • a statement that sums up the event/person’s contribution that makes it important be kept in the collective memory of the community.

 •a timeline/historical facts of importance in the life of this person or event.

•a location of the monument 

•an image or description of the monument along with a statement of the meaning behind the design

• Title of work
•Name of the Association [made up by the students] that want this monument built – who are the people who support this monument? Why do they want to see homage paid to this person, place, idea, or event? 

2. 5-7 minute oral presentation to the “Board” including 

            examples of comparable designs/structures

            importance / value to the community

            materials to be used

            impact on the community

            importance of the event/person

The “Board is made up of either:

            -the rest of the class

            -community members [recommended]- especially City Council or other government    


             -the teacher

            -school administration

1. Describes the event /person in detail

2. Describes the contribution of event/person

3. Presents facts on the written material

4.Presents a student /group created  design company complete with logo, tagline, vision

5. Provides evidence from the historical record to back up claim of importance [sources – correctly cited]

Other items which can be used depending on availability of materials and time

a. a 3-D model or image representation of proposed monument

b. a drawing or scale model built

c. a cost estimate based on materials, time. Ask students to locate the costs paid to monument artists to use as comparisons for their own.