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 Valerie Ziegler, a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School in California's San Francisco Unified School District. Valerie is in her sixth year of teaching social studies at the eleventh and twelfth grade levels. The TPS program at Stanford University nominated Valerie for her effective classroom use of primary sources to teach historical thinking. In this interview, Valerie discusses teaching strategies and her favorite Library of Congress online resources.
How did you learn about the Library of Congress TPS Program?
Through my work with Stanford University’s Reading Like a Historian program. [Editor's note: The Stanford History Education Group administers Stanford’s Reading Like a Historian program as well as the Library’s TPS program at Stanford University.]
What motivated you to participate in the TPS workshops in your local area?
The leadership at Stanford recommended the program to me as a way to improve my teaching. I was looking for ways to use primary sources that went beyond simply reading them and responding to questions. I also wanted to use a variety of sources, more than are provided with the textbook. Lastly, I was looking for ways to make my course more rigorous. I want students to be inquisitive about history and to want to know more.
Tell us about the first time you tried using primary sources in the classroom.
I first began by using the U.S. Constitution for a lesson that led students on a scavenger hunt, finding information in the document related to given scenarios. Looking back, I now realize that this lesson only required students to locate and identify information in the Constitution, rather than encouraging them to practice historical thinking skills like close reading of the document and thinking about its point of view and the time period.
Based on your experiences, how do you use primary sources to encourage historical thinking in students?
My current teaching focuses much more on helping students to develop historical thinking skills by reading or interpreting primary sources. I encourage students to consider a lot of questions about each primary source they encounter. For example, now if I were to teach a lesson about the Constitution, I would require students to think about who wrote the document, when it was written, the perspective of the author, what is missing from the document, and what the writing can tell us about the time period. For homework, I might assign the Library's Creating the United States Constitution Interactive for students to further explore the antecedents of some of the document's critical phrases and principles and identify additional primary sources for investigation.
What are your favorite resources available on the Library of Congress Web site? Why?
I use the American Memory site a great deal. I have had a lot of success in the classroom using primary sources of different formats from the Library's Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection. Sound recordings as well as newsletters documenting the everyday lives of people in the Depression-era migrant work camps provide real opportunities for students to get unique insight into what life was like in these camps and in California during the Depression.
What advice do you have for teachers who have never tried teaching with primary sources?
Don't be afraid! I was worried that students would find using primary sources to think like historians to be boring, but just the opposite occurred. When students have the skills to interpret the documents I find that they enjoy it. And as students build historical knowledge, they become empowered by their ability to analyze and place primary sources in historical context. Once I began using historical documents regularly in my classes, it inspired me to create new lessons and to find additional primary sources. I have even begun to do my own historical research, something that tends to get lost in the craziness of lesson planning. Also, I have found that collaborating with coworkers to create and share primary source-based lessons has greatly improved my teaching.