Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: Discovering the Power of Primary Sources

In the classic television show about a talking horse, Mr. Ed, the theme song encourages viewers to “go right to the source and ask the horse.” Mr. Ed is a primary source—the “horse’s mouth,” so to speak.

Increasingly, teachers across grade levels and content areas are discovering the power of primary sources to inform and engage students. Primary sources enable students to go “behind the scenes” and see details and, sometimes, even the thought processes involved in scientific discoveries, historical and political events, and creative works.

“Primary source materials encourage students to ask questions. This really does create an environment for thinking critically and reading closely.”

Two key differences between primary and secondary sources are authenticity and filters. Autobiographies or diaries, for example, provide authentic insight from the authors about their lives. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl offers first-person immediacy that no secondary source can duplicate.

Secondary sources, such as biographies or textbooks, typically interpret and analyze primary sources. The information is filtered through the lens of the writer or editor. No matter how skillfully the information is presented or how thoroughly it has been researched, the secondary source remains an interpretation. Although the document could still be a reliable source, its author is more likely to have added his or her own biases or perspectives.

Bob Nasson, executive director of the National History Club, likens this concept to the party game Whisper Down the Lane. “Each time a story gets passed along, it gets changed a little bit,” he says.

More Than Historical Documents

Because every source, primary or secondary, is subject to the individual creator’s own bias, the best way to get a firsthand view of an event is to rely on a number of primary sources. Primary sources are not limited to historical documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, and can include correspondence, diaries, interviews, original manuscripts and artwork, speeches, personal narratives, government publications, or song lyrics. Teachers can use primary sources across the content areas—for an art class, try Leonardo da Vinci’sMona Lisa or Andy Warhol’s 100 Cans (reproductions count as long as they haven’t been altered), and for a science lesson on hurricanes, try data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For a current events study on trademark litigation around the NFL team name “Washington Redskins,” even tweets could be a useful primary source, says Deborah Cunningham, senior program director of the nonprofit organization Primary Source. Tweets offer a quick way of gauging public views on a controversial topic (but are by no means a scientific analysis).

Websites and YouTube videos also can be primary sources. Students can watch Stephen Hawking discussing his theories on artificial intelligence, Taylor Swift describing lyrics to her songs, or presidential candidates outlining their policies on immigration.
From the Marshall Islands to the Sierra Nevada Mountains
As a school rooted in progressive education and inquiry, the preK–6 UCLA Lab School in California has always engaged students in hands-on experiences and connections to authentic sources. The Lab School and the Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching, in partnership with the Library of Congress’s Teaching with Primary Sources program, recently developed a website for K–6 teachers with videos, lessons, and primary source sets.

Teachers at the Lab School have been working collaboratively to incorporate primary sources across the curriculum. For instance, last year during a unit on climate change, 6th graders watched a video of Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner presenting at the opening of the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit. Jetnil-Kijiner read a moving poem that she’d written for her young daughter about how climate change is threatening the very existence of their homeland.

Then, students examined climate change around the world. They compared photos of the Sierra Nevada Mountains taken by professional photographers in the early 20th and 21st centuries to see how the snowpacks and glaciers have thinned. They analyzed data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about sea-level rise and examined temperature patterns from the last 100 years. “Kids compared data and had incredible conversations about climate change and what we can do about it,” says UCLA Lab School demonstration teacher Sylvia Gentile.
The Real Thing
The UCLA Lab School’s hands-on projects intertwine elements of social studies, science, math, art, and music—and the primary source materials engage students in ways that textbooks might not have. “We want children to learn through the inquiry approach,” says Judith Kantor, the school’s library media teacher. “Primary source materials encourage students to ask questions. This really does create an environment for thinking critically and reading closely.”

Further, teachers at the Lab School encourage students to bring in their own primary sources from home to share and discuss—items such as letters, diaries, or photographs. “We want kids to see that they are creators of primary sources,” says Kantor. “They are a part of history—a part of the story as well.”

From historical documents to children’s diaries, from scientific data tables to YouTube videos, primary sources offer fresh and interesting ways to inform and engage students. “Primary sources are extraordinarily powerful,” confirms Lee Ann Potter, director of educational outreach for the Library of Congress. “They are the real thing.”

(This article was published in Education Update, Vol. 57, Number 11, November 2105 by ASCD; Reprinted with permission)