Students and Original Primary Sources


I’d like to share with you a great way to get students actively involved in their understanding of basic concepts of historical investigation. We’re all familiar with the irreplaceable position primary sources hold in the expansion of student critical thinking skills. Is it possible to use primary sources that are original, and have never been interpreted before?

I have the advantage of owning quite a few historical pieces, mostly due to the avid collecting of my father-in-law, and my chosen position of family archivist. What you may not be aware of is the number of students whose families are doing the same type of collecting. In fact, many of them may be in possession of items that living family members don’t even understand.

So, i decided to have a look at what’s out there among my students’ families. For the students who had nothing to offer, I simply allowed them to use artifacts or documents in my possession.

I already had a format for how to present the student work- a WordPress MU blog system I installed and administer for my school district. For more info on how that sort of thing is done, see these related WordPress posts: beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

The blog is also already used for my History and Technology Club (which I will explain in more detail in a later post), and so includes posts about club projects and tools.

So what sort of things did we come up with? I had students take digital pictures of their artifacts, and usually had them scan any documents. Most of the images and scans were then converted into “zoomable” web images, to allow the user to see the images in great detail without having to wait for large, high res images to load. Many of the documents include transcripts as part of the post written by students.

Here’s a sampling of the varied submissions (anything “old” or “antique” was accepted):



Red Comet Fire Suppression Globe

1909 Wheat Penny

1800s Telephone

1920s Gas Mask

1845 German Bible

1890 Bangladesh Earring

1930s Iron Cross

Kristallnacht Synagogue Fragment

WWII Cartoon Book Signed By Soldiers (this post was later reviewed at WWII Memories)

1862 Civil War Letter

1799 Spanish New Orleans Passport

1799 Letter of Marque

War of 1812 Letter

WWII Ration Book

1930s Tramp Art Box

So what did students learn? First of all, they were genuinely excited about the fact that they were investigating items that few people had investigated before. Secondly, many of the items prompted very enlightening questions, like “How do I know this is not a fake?” or “How does this connect to a period, person, or place I learned about in history class?” or even “How much might this baby go for on Antiques Roadshow?”

Many of the posts enlightened the owners of the documents themselves, people who had held on to things important to their families, but had forgotten the historical context of the items. Nonetheless, we were all quite happy with the results. The blog itself won the local Regional High School Computer Fair for Curriculum Based Web Design, and the blog was one of the first times students at my school had done work that was actually made public on the internet. I’m sure to add more items to our little online museum next year, when I get new students (and new attics and basements for them to sort through!).

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Jun 02nd by admin

One Response

  1. That’s a great idea not only to help students understand the concept of a primary document better (I didn’t even know what it was until I started college) but also to help them become more interested in their own history. Great thoughts!


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