Primary sources make history come alive and when the history classroom becomes an active place of exploration and contemplation, lessons are meaningful and students are engaged. By presenting students with primary source materials to explore, the teacher will be able to transform their history classes. Rather than teaching students about Emancipation, ask students to analyse the invitation to Dreyfus' wedding and understand the changes that were taking place in French society of the time. As an alternative to a lengthy discourse about the waves of Jewish immigration to America, challenge students to investigate newspaper adverts from the time.
Teaching with primary sources is valuable in promoting twenty-first century skills such as critical thinking, communication skills, creativity, and collaboration. They spark students’ interest and encourage them to investigate, ask questions, and connect to prior knowledge. When encountering a primary source – be it a photograph, manuscript, poster, letter, map, or any other resource – students are taught to analyse it using four processes: observing, understanding, connecting and creating.
At the observation stage, students learn to look carefully at the primary source and develop observation skills. They look at the writing, the language, the picture and think about who created the source, when it was created and their first impression of the item. The students become aware of detail and nuance – a useful skill when encountering any type of communication in their daily lives.
Once the students have made their observations, they arrive at the stage of understanding. This is when students begin to comprehend the meaning of the primary source. Students ask about the purpose of the item, what was taking place during the item’s historical period, what specific events or people are mentioned and what can be learnt about them. In addition, students investigate if there are any mistakes on the item and what may be the cause of the mistake. This leads them to consider if the creator was trying to influence the audience and why.
Having understood the context and content of the item, the next stage is connecting. The students are given an opportunity to contemplate how the item or its accompanying story connects to their lives, their family, their community, and their country. The students are asked questions such as whether they have had a similar experience, how they would feel if they experienced the situation depicted on the item, what the item means to them and if they are familiar with a similar item or event in their community or country.
Finally, the fourth stage of the process is creating. After completing the stages of observing the details, understanding the context, and creating connections to their lives, the students are able to create something new which is inspired by the primary source. This may be updating the resource, creating their own version, reflecting on the resource or the event by writing a journal entry or creating art inspired by the resource. In their new creation students demonstrate their understanding of the primary source and their connection to it. Working with primary sources empowers students by putting the learning in their hands. It makes the learning meaningful and encourages students to express themselves while training them to be astute consumers of information.
Enjoy using the primary sources in the JTracks Modern Jewish history lessons and may they be a source of inspiration, comfort and meaning for your students.
Content for this track was written in partnership with: