Faculty Spotlight Series: Helen Prichett 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?  

Primary sources are extremely useful resources to help teachers engage their students and also develop important critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills. As first-hand accounts of topics from those who lived during specific time periods, primary sources provide detailed information about people, events, places, objects, and everyday life. By giving learners a window into the past, we can help them connect on a personal level to historical events which allows them to develop a deeper understanding. 

"By giving learners a window into the past, we can help them connect on a personal level to historical events which allows them to develop a deeper understanding."

Utilizing primary sources to pique the interest of students when introducing a new topic can have a significant impact on their overall learning. As primary sources are real and concrete, they are both alluring and appealing to learners. Students often comment that primary sources help make the topic more real and motivate them to read and research more. Enabling learners to create connections between topics and ideas allows their understanding to grow. Furthermore, examining primary sources encourages students to make correlations between past and present events and also put current events into context.  

In addition, using primary sources is not limited to history and research classes. They can be incorporated into math, science, language, and literature. For example, primary sources are able to add historical and cultural context and possibly make connections between a fictional story and real-life events that might have inspired the story. 

Since primary sources are fragments of history, students are inspired to find out more information through research. By assisting them with identifying questions that they would like to further investigate, we can help students develop research strategies and skills for locating the answers. Students can build on their knowledge through comparing different primary sources, expanding and elaborating on explanations for historical events, and also evaluating how primary sources either strengthen or dispute accepted facts.  

In conclusion, primary sources are important tools for teachers to use on a frequent basis as they enable student engagement, development of critical thinking skills, and construction of knowledge.