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Using Primary Sources

For Teachers Only - Introduction:
This lesson is designed to introduce your students to researching with primary sources. They will be presented with a set of sources about an event that could have happened in their community. Students will be provided with source data and questions designed to help them draw conclusions about the sources they have seen and about primary source research in general.

What You Will Need for This Lesson:

Skills Objectives:
The student will be able to:

  • Define a primary and a secondary source
  • Evaluate a primary source for accuracy
  • Identify advantages and disadvantages to using particular primary sources
  • Compare and contrast primary and secondary sources

Using this Lesson in Your Classroom:
Provide the students with the following definitions of a primary and a secondary source. Inform the students that you will be discussing primary and secondary sources in class today.

  • Primary Source — A source of information that was created by an eye-witness to or participant in an event during the time period being studied. Some examples of primary sources include: letters, reports, diaries, newspapers, art, and photographs.

  • Secondary Source — A secondary is a source that uses primary and secondary sources to study and interpret a past event. The books and articles we use to study history are usually secondary sources.

Thought Questions for Exploration:
Hand out the three accident reports (two drivers and eyewitness) to the students. Ask them to read the reports and compare them to each other while they consider the following questions:

  • What is the same about all three accounts?
  • What differences are there?
  • What might make you think that one account is more reliable than another?
  • Does any account seem completely unreliable? why?

After students have had a chance to evaluate the three accounts, provide them with the insurance report of the accident. Have students compare this report to the other three accounts using the following questions:

  • What details from the eyewitness accounts were included in the insurance report? What details were left out?
  • Can you trust the insurance report to be completely reliable? What might impact your trust in the insurance report? How might the insurance report from the other driver be different?

Extending the Lesson Activity 2

Hand out the three accounts of the bank robbery to the students. Ask them to read the reports and compare there to each other while they consider the following questions:

  • What is the same about all three accounts?
  • What differences are there?
  • What might make you think that one account is more reliable than another?
  • Does any account seem completely unreliable? Why?

After students have had a chance to evaluate the three accounts, ask them to use those accounts to write the police report. They should consider the following issues when doing this activity:

  • What details are important include in the final report? (Remember that the police report cannot contradict itself — they will have to decide what to include and what to exclude)
  • What details should be excluded from the report (for reasons of unreliability)?
  • What influences your decisions about what to include and exclude in the report?

When students have completed their police reports, ask them to read them aloud to the class and compare the similarities and differences between the reports.

Discuss how primary sources (like the accounts of the accidents and the bank robbery) can be interpreted in many different ways and how secondary sources (the police or insurance reports) may not always be the "whole truth" about an event.