Faculty Spotlight Series: Stephanie Dunn on Helping Students Learn About and Use Primary Sources

Nicole Vitale

Currently, Stephanie Dunn is the Supervisor of Library Services at The Windward School, a school serving students with language-based learning disabilities. In this role, she oversees the library collection as well as research curriculum, promoting lifelong readers and fostering 21st century research skills.  

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? 

By having the students analyze the primary source, the classroom goes from teacher directed to student centered.

Primary sources are excellent tools to actively engage students in the study of history. These firsthand accounts are artifacts which were created during the period being discussed or described. Some examples of primary sources are letters, photographs, speeches, posters, maps, videos, newspaper articles, and interviews. They are an important teaching tool because they help students conceptualize a time period, allowing many historical voices to be heard and don’t simply summarize the main ideas.   

The first step in teaching primary sources is to analyze the artifact. At an elementary level this can be done by utilizing the question words (who, what, when, where, why, how) to summarize the information being presented. At a middle/high school level, analysis can also include evaluating the source to check for relevancy, fairness, and bias. In addition to helping to explain a time period, primary sources can also be used to corroborate secondary sources for accuracy.  By having the students analyze the primary source, the classroom goes from teacher directed to student centered.

Elementary students benefit from utilizing primary sources since it brings history alive and visually illustrates a specific time period, person, event, or location. Many lessons can be supplemented with photographs in order to make the content more concrete for students. For example, when studying the Civil War, students can analyze and discuss Matthew Brady’s iconic Civil War photographs. Additionally, when studying Ellis Island and the immigrant experience, students can utilize immigration documents and letters to better understand the immigrant experience. Since language and vocabulary has changed over time, it is imperative to fast map unfamiliar vocabulary that can often be found in primary sources.   

Building on the skills taught in elementary school, middle and high school students can use primary sources to learn about evaluating bias and seeing multiple perspectives. Students should be taught how to analyze various primary sources from the same time period and identify the numerous perspectives presented. By utilizing many sources, students are able to get a robust perspective on a time period or historical event. While DBQ’s are an effective way to incorporate primary sources into the curriculum, primary sources should also be interwoven into the curriculum throughout the year  

While social studies is often the location where most teachers associate primary sources, there are also opportunities in science and language arts to incorporate primary sources. For example, science classes can analyze data from experiments or research scientific patents. In a language arts class, the teacher can supplement the reading of a trade book with primary sources from the time period described in the book.