Studying Primary Documents in the Elementary School Classroom

Last week my class and I had a special treat.  Dayna Wells (@daywells), visited my classroom with at social studies lesson — how to read like a historian using primary documents on the battle of Lexington.

Her lesson was developed in collaboration with the Stanford History Education Group‘s reading like a historian program. This curriculum was designed for high schoolers, but Dayna thought she could bring it to the elementary level. Reading primary documents presents many barriers for young students, I couldn’t wait to see what she had in mind.

She shared some pictures of the battle of Lexington. One done by a craftsmen of the time, the other done nearly 100 years after the battle. Then she shared two accounts of the battle: one from a British officer’s journal and one that was a sworn statement of 34 minutemen.  Students were to study the documents and then determine which document they felt was the most “trustworthy.”

1. Consider the source.
 One of the big objectives of the lesson was to teach students to look at the source first.  This is huge. Reading top to bottom, the last thing a student encounters is the source. Dayna taught students to read like a historian by looking at the source first.  Brilliant, and a huge aha for me. The source helps us determine a point of view and allows us to be critical readers. Knowing the author colors our thinking and provides a hint as to its potential bias.  

2. Read modified documents that approximate students’ reading level. One of the big hurdles for elementary students when studying primary document is the language of the time. Dayna accommodated the students by modifying the language, making the task more appropriate. For example, one document was sourced “a sworn statement in front of the Justice of the Peace.” Knowing our students wouldn’t know what a Justice of the Peace did at the time she changed it to “a court.” 

3. Ferret out the facts by comparing the documents. After studying and discussing the documents, students were asked to consider the facts. Distinguishing fact from opinion is hard for 5th graders. What they found == what the documents had in common, the date, the place, the time and who was there, should be considered facts. Other details in the documents conflicted, hence they must be opinion.

4. Determine which document is most “trustworthy.” This took some discussion and judgement on their part. The key issue was who fired the first shot.  After examining the documents and the paintings students determined the most trustworthy source was the sworn statement of 34 minutemen.

5. What we learned. The following day students explained in a quick write what they learned and what document they felt was most trustworthy.

I always use the source first and that I should always make notes whenever I read anything.

I learned about how to use sources, how to see pictures in a way of an artist and that is how you can be an historian.

Read the source before the text to find out who wrote it and the date.

The Lexington battle was at 5 o’clock in the morning. British say the minutemen fired the first shot. The minutemen say the British shot first. I believe that Document B was more trustworthy because it was sworn by 34 minutemen in front of court judges . . . it also says that the minutemen ran away and that was also in a picture.

I was bowled over by the power of this work. It provided great engagement in a content area, inquiry-based lesson. It taught a transferable skill for any document. But the most powerful part of this work was teaching students to be critical readers and thinkers. Students had to read closely. Determine facts, opinions. Compare multiple documents and points of view and then determine the value of the documents in terms of trustworthiness.  This type of thinking leads students to not only meet Common Core objectives, but creates critical thinkers and responsible citizens. 

History rocks! So do you Dayna.  Thank you for making my classroom a test kitchen.

Slice of Life: Unexpected Sunshine

I left school early. Had to get my daughter to a physical therapy appointment, I text her. No response. I call. No response. I’m hoping she’s home because school is in the opposite direction. I pull up, she’s sitting outside with friends chatting.

“Get in I call out, you have physical therapy at 4:30.”

“No I don’t. I’m not scheduled.”

“Get in, I’ll call.” The beauty of cell phones and information. In less than 60 seconds it’s confirmed. Yes in fact she is scheduled.

“I’m not going,” she says.

“Get in the car.”

“I don’t have an appointment.”

“They think you do.”

This continues in the yes you do, no I don’t fashion.

“I have to go to an event on Saturday, ” she informs me as we drive to the appointment.

So what does this have to do with now, I think.

“It’s a Great Gatsby theme. I have to go if I want to be an officer next year. They are going shopping,” she explains.

“They” are the friends outside my house. Now I get it.

“They can pick me up from physical therapy. Don’t worry we’re going to thrift stores. We won’t spend a lot. Can I have your ATM?”

Geeesh, I think. While this is annoying on one level, I get to drop her off and it is still light out. This NEVER happens. On the way home I take a few pics to commemorate the occasion..


Once home I make a cup of coffee, sit down and think, I can actually get a slice done and get to other work before a crazy hour. Maybe even make dinner.

5:15. I get a text: “Can you get me.”

So much for time. I pick her up.  As we drive home, I am informed we have “nothing” to eat. (My meals aren’t to her liking.) We stop at the store, buy salads and load up the car. A homeless man sits at the exit with a sign reading, “Hungry — Please Help –Thank you.”

“We should give him some food,” she says.

“Sure, give him one of the salads.”

“That’s not something to give someone who is hungry. Next time I’ll think of something good to get him,” she tells me.

“Assuming he’s there next time.”

“Oh he’s always there, or someone else,” she says

I’ve never noticed that.

As we pull up to our house she says, “We should have offered to pay for that woman’s bags.”

“What bags?” I ask.

“The woman in front of us in line had to carry all of her stuff out without bags because she didn’t have a bag and didn’t want to pay for a bag,” she tells me.

I had no idea this was going on. But my daughter noticed. “Next time offer help, don’t hesitate,” I say.

“But it’s not my money to offer,” she says.

“You see what needs to be done. You know I’ll agree with you.”

She notices. When she was a little bit, I would watch her noticing. She studies her environment. She pays attention. This has led to an extreme sense of style, but also an awareness of humanity around her. Today the teenager self receded and the person, the whole person, surfaced, shined, and offered up what she noticed.

So happy to see the sun shine today.