Primary and Secondary Sources

Teacher Guide by Matt Campbell

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Primary and Secondary Sources Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Primary and Secondary Sources Include:

Any classroom that incorporates history will find an important and essential sequence here which will allow their students to think critically about documents and speeches that they attempt to understand and connect with.

Primary and Secondary Sources Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Primary vs Secondary Source Documents

For this activity, students will become introduced to Primary and Secondary sources. In the example provided, a T-chart has been created that separates primary and secondary sources by three defining aspects. The three aspects for this activity are the date of creation, strengths of using that type of source, and the drawbacks/negatives of using that type of source. This activity will allow students to demonstrate their understanding of the key components by describing these features while creating visual representations for each reason.

Date of Creation A primary source document is a document or artifact that was created by someone who was at the event they wrote or spoke about. Historians rely on these eyewitness accounts to build their ever-growing library of history. A secondary source document is a document or artifact that was created after an event occurred by someone who did not witness the event.
Strengths Primary sources are a crucial element of understanding history. A primary source can allow a moment in history to become an authentic personal experience for the reader. Primary sources allow historians to see, hear, and read about individual experiences and feelings in a way that a summary of an event can't quite accomplish. A secondary source incorporates multiple perspectives into an account which hopefully eliminates biased viewpoints. A secondary source is also beneficial because it allows the author more time to study the event before finalizing a document about it. The additional time to study the event results in a more accurate and complete version of the historical event.
Drawbacks A primary source may have certain drawbacks for historians. The source they are using may not be objective enough or contain certain biases. A primary source may be not contain complete or accurate details of an event in question. Although a secondary source can be a helpful piece of information for historians, there can be extreme biases or inaccuracies in the information it presents. A secondary source is created from primary sources and there is a possibility that misleading or biased primary sources can create just as inaccurate secondary sources.

Extension Activity:

The extension activity for this lesson will require students to determine whether they believe primary or secondary sources are the stronger option for historians to use when studying the past. Students should create a spider map that describes and visualizes their top three reasons to support their claim. Students should share their thesis with the class and defend their claims against opposing students’ opinions.

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Primary vs Secondary Sources: Identification Activity

This activity can serve as an introduction or a helpful formative assessment following the introduction of primary and secondary sources. Provided for this activity is the completed “Teacher Copy” that can serve as a helpful guide when reviewing the answers from students. The four documents and correct answers for this activity are:

The Bixby LetterThe letter written by President Lincoln, otherwise known as the Bixby Letter is a primary source document. This is a primary source document because this is the exact letter that was written in 1864 without any alterations made to it.
Time MagazineThe Time Magazine article from 1991 about the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack is a secondary source document. The main reason why this is a secondary source is because it is a summary of the events that took place 50 years prior to the article. The author of the article was not at the event which makes this a secondary source.
Birthday PhotographThe photograph of you and your friend at your 6th birthday party is a primary source. This photograph fits the criteria of a primary source because it is the same image that was taken on the day of your birthday. Although you are using a new phone as the medium to look at this picture, the picture itself hasn't changed and retains its authenticity.
Boston Tea Party Museum ArtifactAlthough the box of tea may resemble an exact box of tea that was thrown into Boston Harbor during the famous Boston Tea Party, because it is not an authentic box, it is a secondary source.

Extension Activity:

For this extension activity, students should create a four-panel storyboard that represents objects, artifacts, or other historical or personal documents and their information. Similar to the example from above, students will define whether each document is a primary or secondary source along with the required rationale.

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How to Source a Document

For this activity, students will be required to think like a historian and source a document. A helpful tip before this activity begins is to conduct a class discussion centered around the following question, “How do historians uncover the past?” This discussion will allow students to share numerous opinions which will ultimately result in a student mentioning either a document, artifact, speech, photograph, etc.

Students will be able to take five essential historical questions to a document and represent their understanding of its importance. Students should choose a historical document or speech that will serve as a visual aid for their abstract written answers. This assignment’s focus is to have students think about the questions that are essential for historians to ask before they begin their historical investigation. For each question, students must describe why they believe these questions are important to ask. The questions that should be used for this activity are:

  1. Who created the document?
  2. What was happening when the document was created?
  3. When was the source created?
  4. Where was the document created?
  5. Why was the document created?

WHO Created the Document?

From a prince to a pauper, a historian must know who was the author or creator of a document. The more a historian can uncover the background of the creator, the more a historian will be able to understand the document and the time period that the document was created in.

WHAT Was Happening When the Document Was Created?

Once a historian knows who wrote the document, it is essential for them to understand the context in which the document was created. Historians want to know if this document was created in a time of crisis, peace, hardship, or many other factors that could impact the society it was created in.

WHERE Was the Document Created?

Although understanding the time the document was created is important, it is equally important for the historian to know where the document was created. Besides the country of origin, historians want to know the more specific details such as the county, village, street, house, business, or any other detail related to its location.

WHEN Was the Source Created?

When a document is being analyzed, it is vital for the historian to know exactly when the document was created. The more specific the known date of creation is, the more a historian will understand about the context and environment of the document.

WHY Was the Document Created?

Historians attempt to discover the complexities behind why a document was created. Knowing that a document was created as a cry for help, declaration of war, or simply a creation of leisure, allows historians to place the context of the document in history.

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Primary Source 5Ws

This activity can serve as a summative assessment for a student’s introduction to primary sources. Have students create a spider web which answers the major “who, what, when, where, and why” questions to understand the background of a primary source document. Teachers should assign documents that are relevant to their classroom curriculum or to documents that they will teach in the future. The example provided shows the powerful writings of Anne Frank in her globally recognized diary. The example displays how students should focus on both the content of their document along with the context it was created in. Students should choose a document based on a context that they personally find interesting in order to maximize the quality of their final product.

Example 5 Ws for The Diary of Anne Frank

WHO Created the Document?

The author of "The Secret Annex", otherwise known as "The Diary of A Young Girl" or "The Diary of Anne Frank", was written in secret by the Jewish teenager Anne Frank during her two-year period of hiding during World War II.

WHAT was the Document About?

The Diary of Anne Frank is written by Anne in her diary that received for her 13th birthday. Her writings in the diary that she nicknamed "Kitty" range from her emotions hiding during the war, her friendships, to connections to her family. This journal gave the world a very authentic and human perspective during such a horrific time in World History.

WHERE was the Document Created?

The majority of Anne Frank's diary was written while in hiding at her father Otto Frank's business, located at Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam. Amsterdam was under Nazi occupation for the majority of the time Anne wrote in her diary.

WHEN was the Document Created?

Anne Frank began writing in her diary on June 12th, 1942. Anne Frank would write quite consistently throughout the war with her final entry on August 1st, 1944 before her arrest.

WHY is this a Significant Historical Document?

The diary of Anne Frank has become an incredibly significant document in World History. This document has allowed millions to read about World War II from an authentic and very emotional perspective. This document allows the reader to remember how horrific the war was while taking countless and innocent lives like Anne Frank and so many others. This diary helps us all remember the outcomes of war and the terror it can bring.

Extension Activity:

Have students participate in an interactive activity of the documents of their peers. Once students have completed the 5W activity, they should be encouraged to share their work with their peers while answering context and content related questions from them. This activity will allow students to communicate what they learned about the source while they work on their interpersonal skills with their classmates. Once students have presented, they should be encouraged to create a three-cell storyboard of the top three documents that were presented in class. The storyboard should focus on their understanding of their peers' creations with each panel reflecting the following:

  1. What they learned about their document
  2. What they found most interesting
  3. What they want to know more of? (Remaining “Burning” Questions)

A strong teaching point that can be used at the conclusion of this extension activity is to compare the students’ extension activity with the original 5W activity from before. Students should look to see if there are any inconsistencies with their extension activity related to the facts, details, or descriptions. This is an important teaching opportunity as teachers can remind their class if there are inconsistencies or inaccuracies from their original presentation to the extension activity it only affirms the struggles that historians undergo when attempting to uncover the facts of history as a whole!

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The very backbone of understanding, researching, and recreating history rests in our ability to know as much about the past as possible. Historians for thousands of years have relied on a series of methods to uncover the past that rely on primary sources. As students begin or continue to learn history, it is vital for them to have a rich understanding of how and where to get their information. Primary and secondary sources allow students and historians to take a look into the past or explore how past historical events and figures have been perceived. In order to make authentic and meaningful connections to the past, students must use primary sources to get a first-hand account of the people, events, conflicts, ideas, and themes that have occurred in the past.

Students will be able to create rich and interactive storyboards that demonstrate their understanding of the use of primary and secondary sources throughout history. Students will first learn how to source a document, by developing the proper ways of questioning a document in order to see the credibility and reliability of the source. Students will also evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of using a primary and secondary source in their research. Students can identify the differences between a primary and secondary source with a hands-on approach that uses authentic and significant sources throughout history. Finally, students will take the core knowledge they've learned to create a summative work of a major historical primary source that demonstrates their understanding of the chosen document.

Key Vocabulary

Essential Questions for Primary and Secondary Sources

  1. What are the differences between a primary and secondary source?
  2. How do you source a document?
  3. How can primary source documents help us to understand the past?
  4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of primary and secondary sources?

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•   (English) Primary and Secondary Sources   •   (Español) Fuentes Primarias y Secundarias   •   (Français) Sources Primaires et Secondaires   •   (Deutsch) Primäre und Sekundäre Quellen   •   (Italiana) Fonti Primarie e Secondarie   •   (Nederlands) Primaire en Secundaire Bronnen   •   (Português) Fontes Primárias e Secundárias   •   (עברית) מקורות ראשוניים ומשניים   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) المصادر الأولية والثانوية   •   (हिन्दी) प्राथमिक और माध्यमिक स्रोत   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Первичные и Вторичные Источники   •   (Dansk) Primære og Sekundære Kilder   •   (Svenska) Primära och Sekundära Källor   •   (Suomi) Ensisijaisen ja Toissijaisen Lähteet   •   (Norsk) Primære og Sekundære Kilder   •   (Türkçe) Birincil ve İkincil Kaynaklar   •   (Polski) Źródła Podstawowe i Pomocnicze   •   (Româna) Surse Primare și Secundare   •   (Ceština) Primárních a Sekundárních Zdrojů   •   (Slovenský) Primárne a Sekundárne Zdroje   •   (Magyar) Elsődleges és Másodlagos Források   •   (Hrvatski) Primarni i Sekundarni Izvori   •   (български) Първични и Вторични Източници   •   (Lietuvos) Pirminių ir Antrinių Šaltinių   •   (Slovenščina) Primarnih in Sekundarnih Virov   •   (Latvijas) Primārās un Sekundārās Avoti   •   (eesti) Esmane ja Teisene Allikad