• By Michelle Martínez Vega • Knowledge is Power • February, 2022 •

The practice of using primary sources for teaching history has been part of classroom censorship debates. Primary resources have long since been regarded as points of truth in academic research and classroom learning. Studied carefully for legitimacy and unbiased in their delivery, these sources are neither for nor against an issue. Rather, primary resources simply present factual information for the consumer to develop their own understanding or opinion about the information.

Primary sources are the raw materials of history. Original documents and objects contain immediate, first-hand accounts of an event or time in history. They are different from secondary sources that retell, analyze or interpret events, usually at a distance of time or place. Helping students critically analyze primary sources can prompt curiosity and improve critical thinking and analysis skills.

In the current political climate, teachers today may feel intimidated to speak on a controversial subject. Integrating primary source documents gives the opportunity to bring light to truth rather than responding to the rhetoric of pundits who offer contentious opinions about the past in today’s 24-second news cycle. Such commentators often claim to seek truth but refuse to cite actual sources. They ignore historical events or withhold details to suit hidden agendas.

Yet students today have more information at their fingertips than previous generations had access to during their entire academic careers. The Internet provides access to a wealth of information, and it can be daunting for students to go out into the world of academic research without having a solid foundation of information literacy.

What is information literacy? According to the American Library Association, “Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information.’”

Given this definition, how well are students equipped to discern what information they find online as credible and factual? Ultimately, can students tell the difference between real and fake online resources? With the prevalence of misinformation and fake news in online media, how can teachers teach the truth?

These are questions many educators grapple with as they plan lessons. One solution is to provide students with a set of guiding questions that they may use as reference when evaluating resources that they find online. Another option is to provide students with a list of primary resources they can use to begin their research.

With these tools, educators can feel confident that students are learning and forming their own opinions about their world and the historical events that have shaped it. For example, The National Archives provide document analysis worksheets to help students at every grade level learn to use primary sources using the following steps:

1. Meet the document.

2. Observe its parts.

3. Try to make sense of it.

4. Use it as historical evidence

The following are some examples of where to find primary document sources.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture – has many free lesson plans.

Learning History Through Objects: The Founding Documents – a lesson plan that ties the history of enslaved African peoples to U.S. foundational documents to ask an overarching question: How have founding documents supported, protected, or attempted to (or not) reconcile with the concept of liberty and the institution of slavery?

Library of Congress Digital Collections – has a number of documents on the experiences of enslaved peoples. (Trigger warning: Some of these original documents may contain phrases and words that may cause discomfort to students of color.)

See Questions to Evaluate Online Content

[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 17, 2022, edition of Knowledge is Power by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]