Faculty Spotlight Series: Jessica Sorna on Helping Students Learn About and Use Primary Sources

Nicole Vitale

Jessica Sorna is a fourth-grade teacher at The Windward School’s Westchester Lower School. She has a master’s degree in Literacy from Fordham University and is IMSLEC certified at the teaching level. Jessica was the 2018 recipient of the Sandi Galst Scholar Award, given annually to an outstanding Windward reading teacher.

The Windward School is a learning community that recognizes the profession of teaching is a craft that takes an incredible amount of study, practice, and reflection to perfect. Thus, it is part of the School's mission to develop a faculty that is expert in teaching children with language-based learning disabilities. In our Faculty Friday series, we will be highlighting Windward faculty members and their expertise on a variety of educational topics. 

What are good ways to have students learn about – and use – primary sources?

Prior to using primary sources, students must have a solid understanding of what constitutes a primary source. While there are many ways to introduce the concept of a primary source, I prefer to introduce them through a vocabulary routine. Using the Isabel Beck Model, students receive explicit instruction on the definition, an introduction of the term through context, and opportunities to use the term beyond the lesson. 

For instance, if you are teaching a lesson about the Declaration of Independence, your lesson might define a primary source as an original document that gives first-hand information about what happened in the past. Connect the term through context by showing the students that the Declaration of Independence is a primary source because it gives first-hand information about the decisions made by the Second Continental Congress. Next, display a picture of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” poem. The Star-Spangled Banner is a primary source because it gives first-hand information about what happened during the War of 1812. Then, show the students a picture of a primary source, such as a letter written by George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and a biography of George Washington. Have the students identify which document is a primary source and explain the reason why. Conclude the lesson by having students brainstorm other examples of primary sources.   

"Using the Isabel Beck Model, students receive explicit instruction on the definition, an introduction of the term through context, and opportunities to use the term beyond the lesson."

Once students understand what primary sources are, they can begin to analyze them completing Document Based Questions (DBQs). Even at the primary level, students can learn how to analyze primary sources by answering carefully planned questions. In the beginning, elicit information about the document itself.

For example, if students are analyzing a painting, ask for the title and artist; if they are looking at a document, ask for the year it was written. Teach students that there is value in identifying titles and time periods when studying a primary source. Once students are proficient in identifying the components of a primary source, they can begin to think critically about the documents themselves.

In the painting The Surrender of General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga by Godefroy, the students will be able to identify the winning side based on the flag that is flying and the image of a British General surrendering his sword to an American General. However, students’ background knowledge will allow them to answer more complex questions about the painting, such as who the Generals are and why this was a significant victory for the Americans.  

What are your tips for classroom “organization” – procedures, dealing with paper, helping students stay organized, online student work, etc.?  

I like to follow a top-down approach when it comes to organizing. First, I think about the space as a whole: classroom procedures and how they affect student movement within the room. Many of my students struggle with executive functioning skills, so I plan the path from the door to their seats with as little “back and forth” as possible.

Before the students even enter the room, I greet them at the door with simple directions for what they need that day. My students would probably say that, “Pencil, dictation book, slash date” is my favorite phrase! I set up a station near the door where I group like items. Pencils, erasers, and the pencil sharpener remind students to grab a pencil and sharpen it before sitting down. This will eliminate the need to get up once students pick up their pencil to write for the first time, only then realizing that the tip is broken or dull.

Next, students arrive at a shelf where they can grab the materials they need that day. Each shelf is designated for a specific class, so the students know exactly where to locate their materials. Label binders and books with students’ names on the spines so they can grab and go. If the spine is too narrow to write on, consider putting a strip of colored tape on the spine that students can quickly identify. Coloring masking tape with sharpies also gets the job done! When class is over, exiting the room is just as seamless because the students can drop their materials off in the same, linear path that they were collected.   

In a remote setting, this looks different. However, you can still help your students organize their environment by prompting them with the materials they will need for class. If you communicate with families about the work for each day, include a list of materials that the students will need before they sign on for class. As students arrive to the virtual classroom, I share my screen with a list of materials they need for that day, and I prompt them to gather those items quickly.   

After helping students organize their routine, I think about how to help them organize their materials. In my school, all students use an accordion-type folder to hold their papers for each class. At the beginning of the year, we label the tabs of each section with the names of the children’s classes. There is also a section for “Notes” – or important notices that must go home to families – and “Keep at Home” for papers that have been graded and can be removed from the folder. If I see a student’s folder overflowing with papers, I will take a few minutes to sit with them and re-organize. I always model how to take everything out of the folder and sort by class, notes, keep at home, and recycle. I am also a big fan of the occasional (or sometimes frequent) “Throw It Out Thursday,” where the whole class takes 10 minutes to re-organize the papers in their desks and folders, using the same system for sorting.