In each issue, we introduce a teacher who has participated in Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) professional development and successfully uses primary sources from the Library of Congress to support effective instructional practices.
This issue’s Teacher Spotlight features Will Colglazier, an 11th grade college preparatory and Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher at Aragon High School, in San Mateo, California. TPS at Stanford University nominated Will for his effective classroom use of primary sources. An educator for more than seven years, Will is a graduate of Stanford University’s School of Education. In this interview, he discusses teaching and assessment strategies, and his favorite Library of Congress online resources.
Describe the first time you tried using primary sources in the classroom. (What Library of Congress resources did you use? What teaching strategies? How did students respond?).
The first time I used primary documents was on my first day of teaching fresh out of graduate school. I adapted the Stanford History Education Group’s lesson on Pocahontas to engage my students in a topic they would be familiar with. The lesson plays off pre-existing “knowledge” that students have from the Disney cartoon. I assumed they would have misconceptions regarding Pochahontas’s life experiences.
The lesson uses excerpts from two published documents written by John Smith that tell totally different stories about the same events. It’s neat for the students to see the conflict and contradictions of accounts written by the same person. I like to muddy the waters a bit, so to speak. When students learned of the confusion regarding whether Pocahontas saved John Smith’s life, one of my students groaned sarcastically that I was destroying her childhood memories. Yet, I could tell she, and others, appreciated being taught the skills necessary to source information for reliability, to corroborate conflicting accounts, and to contextualize historical information. My students learn that history is not the past. Rather, it’s the story and perspectives of the past. It’s less of who and when, and more of what and why.
Based on your experiences, what questioning techniques are effective when helping students analyze primary sources? Please provide specific examples of strategies and types of questions you used to model primary source analysis and/or help your students practice this process on their own.
I have a poster on my wall that students point to repeatedly during the first couple of weeks of school. On it, I have the three main historical thinking skills – sourcing, corroborating, and contextualizing. Beneath each skill I have a series of questions that students should ask when applying each skill. For Sourcing, students ask: Who wrote/made this? When was it made? What type of source is it? Why was it written/made? Is the source reliable? For Corroborating, they ask: What do other pieces of evidence say? Where else could I look to find out about this? Which pieces of evidence are most believable? For Contextualizing, they ask: What was going on at the same time? What would this event look like through the eyes of someone who lived back then? What things were different or the same back then?
In this way, students gain necessary practice and become active in the processes of historians.
What is your favorite resource available on the Library of Congress Web site?
I enjoy using primary documents that show the soldiers’ perspectives. All too often war is glorified, and I think it’s important for students to see the reality of war, not just in present conflicts, but in past ones as well: Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWII, Vietnam, etc. I particularly like the primary sources found on the Library’s Veteran History Project site, including personal narratives from the Vietnam War excerpts from D-Day accounts and accounts from wounded veterans.
What advice do you have for teachers who have never tried teaching with primary sources?
Start small. Find one primary source and fit it into a familiar lesson. Use scaffolding techniques. For example, if you want to use a speech by President Wilson, you don’t have to give students the whole speech at once. Select portions, increase the print size; provide a definition of unfamiliar words. Allow students to read the passage, annotate it and write in the margins. Eventually, add public and private documents that offer a different perspective.
Encourage student inquiry by identifying what I call a fulcrum related to an historical event - something that students can take another look at that isn’t as obvious as it seems. For example, in a lesson about the Dust Bowl, students might investigate what life was like for the majority of people who stayed, rather than focusing on the more popular story of those who migrated. For the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event most people would classify as the closest the world ever came to nuclear war, the fulcrum could be for students to investigate why the crisis ended peacefully. Finding the fulcrum of an historical event seems hard, but through practice, one can come up appropriate and interesting historical questions to orient lessons around.
Primary documents are not a silver bullet; they must be scaffolded appropriately with a worthwhile historical inquiry guiding student learning. But, if structured effectively, your work in transitioning into the use of primary documents will pay off. The students will be happier doing history rather than just being told history. We can all tell a good story, but in the end, students need to engage in history as historians do.
Additionally, do you have any tips on assessing students’ learning using primary sources?
In the past, I used multiple choice tests to assess what students were learning with primary sources, but after three years, I realized that I had to start assessing skills. If you’re only testing content, you’re not assessing critical thinking or how well students can use primary sources.
The Beyond the Bubble Web site offers several assessments. It also helps you create your own assessments for topics that aren’t covered on the site.