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Who’s “job” is it to teach the Declaration of Independence? The Social Studies teacher teaches the dates, times, historical significance and the English teacher goes over the vocabulary, tone, mood and point of view? Perhaps that is an excellent breakdown, except who’s to say when during the year it will happen? By the time the English teacher is teaching Non-Fiction, the Social Studies teacher might be teaching World War One. Therefore, there is a gap in the learning instruction.
How can we change this so that students in Social Studies classrooms can study primary source documents using the skill base they have in English classrooms? We can begin by integrating more reading of primary and secondary sources, outside of the textbook into middle through high school Social Studies classrooms.
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Reading Primary Sources
As a teacher, have you ever one of the following things? That text is too difficult for my students. The vocabulary in that primary source is too hard. The students do not have enough historical background to understand a primary source document. It will be EASIER for all of us if I just explain/summarize what is being said.
As a teacher, of sixth graders through twelve graders, I have had all of those thoughts. However, I came to realize that if I just fed them the information in summary, while it made everyone’s day a lot easier, my students were missing out on essential interpretation skills. They have to be able to read, analyze and synthesize documents written in more formal language. So, slowly, I began to introduce short primary source readings in the classroom.
The reality is, most primary source documents can be read by students ages 12 and up with little difficulty. Even if they do not comprehend every single word, they can infer enough information to discuss the source. Struggling readers in your class? There’s a way to help them as well. It just takes a bit of time and effort. When first introducing the idea of reading primary source documents in addition to the textbook, some students will resist. Parents may resist. Even educators may resist, for many of the reasons I was initially resistant. However in the long run, we will see students who are better readers and better thinkers as a result of this practice.
The attached power point and writing assignment illustrates a simple way to break down primary source documents for reading in the Social Studies classroom. Teachers should read the brief letter written to George Washington with their students. Teachers should have already identified any and all vocabulary words that may be unfamiliar to their students. Have students themselves define the words and then review the meanings as a class to ensure comprehension. Then, ask the students to re write the letter in their notebooks, substituting the unknown vocabulary words with the meanings they are more familiar with. And, all of a sudden, students have a copy of a primary source, as well as a translation of that source that they understand and can use to answer content and analysis questions.
The longer the primary source, the longer this type of lesson will take. However, when you just want your students to get a sense of what the writing and feelings of the time period were really like, this is an excellent way for them to dig deeper and really explore the words and language of our forefathers. Who knows? It may spark an interest in reading that has not yet been lit underneath a particular student.
- Photo: Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons