Faculty Spotlight Series: Katherine Kaneko on Helping Students Learn About and Use Primary Sources

Nicole Vitale

Ms. Katherine Kaneko shares tips on helping students learn about and use primary sources.

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? 

To me, the ultimate goal of education is to free the mind. Specifically, to encourage the development of a discriminating mind that can ask questions, seek answers, analyze responses, look for patterns, and arrive at an independent understanding of a thing, rather than one that bleatingly accepts what is written in textbooks or articles or said in a lecture or reported in the news. In many ways, what I try to foster in the classroom is research at its primary level so that students ask the questions of “why” or “how.” After asking these fundamental questions and seeking answers, the next step is to engage in the exercise of forming independent analysis. This practice teaches them how to discern the differences between facts and opinion. To be truly independent thinkers, the students should be able to form and express their analysis. They should be able to see how integral facts are in forming the foundation of analysis. Hopefully, by going through these steps, the students develop more secure confidence in their ability to think logically, flexibly, independently, and with sensitivity. 

The crux of this process is in the questions. I have found the book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana to be a useful resource in guiding my own classroom practices as well as inspiring students to formulate questions that stretch and challenge their learning. When the practice of asking questions is successful, it eventually leads the student to primary sources which provide first-hand accounts and testimony from people with a direct connection or with direct evidence of the topic. Reading primary sources allows students to develop the delicate skill of parsing facts from opinion and emotion. 

"When the practice of asking questions is successful, it eventually leads the student to primary sources which provide first-hand accounts and testimony from people with a direct connection or with direct evidence of the topic."

Even more importantly, primary sources are just simply beautifully fascinating. They stand as intimate, direct connections between the student and the past, tethering one to the other, and providing an opportunity for the student to increase their sense of understanding and empathy. Usually, with prompting, students can see these connections as well and appreciate what can be a transcendent moment of seeing one’s place in the arc of history. An example that stands out to me occurred in February 2020. One of my students researching the Japanese-American internment during WWII understood intellectually that Japanese-Americans encountered structural racism. Yet reading the handwritten letter of a just-released Heart Mountain internee who described the arson of the barn in which they were living helped the student understand the fear, desperation, and powerlessness in the face of structural racism. The student felt a visceral understanding that was not achieved through the secondary sources they had initially used. As a result of this connection, the student then independently sought other primary sources and found a wealth of first-hand accounts and images on Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project website, which they used to make effective and convincing arguments in their final paper. 

Almost any medium can be an effective vehicle through which to animate a student to ask the essential questions and step into the exquisite world of primary sources. In class, we have used a continuum of texts, from accessible picture books to language-rich and conceptually complex articles from The Economist and Foreign Affairs. These materials have been the springboard for student inquiry into primary sources from repositories such as Densho, the Equal Justice Initiative, the American Family Immigration History Center of Ellis Island, Angel Island Immigration Station Archives, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Civil Rights in Black and Brown, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 9/11 Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, and digital archives from libraries and universities. 

Once our students know that primary sources exist in so many easily accessible electronic locations, they are offered the opportunity to become empathetic, analytical researchers and thinkers, and to understand the past, the present, and the future on their own terms.