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Lesson Plan Personal Stories and Primary Sources: Conversations with Elders - Unit One


Learning history from real people involved in real events brings life to history. This project provides a means to learn about the twentieth century from real people and primary sources. A 1913 newspaper provides a view of the world on the brink of a World War. An interview with a grandparent or significant elder provides a human face for life in the twentieth century. Through researching primary and secondary sources, students become conversant with significant aspects of twentieth century history.

Lesson Units


Students will learn:

  • that each person contributes to the world's story;
  • how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources and how to assess the relative importance of each in the study of history;
  • how to access, interpret, analyze, and evaluate primary sources of various kinds;
  • how to conduct an interview;
  • effective use of questions in doing research;
  • techniques and skills of research;
  • the importance of accuracy and honesty in research;
  • how to "write history" clearly so that it communicates to others;
  • how to teach others the topic on which one has become an expert; and
  • techniques for effective oral presentations

Unit 1: Through the Eyes of Contemporaries, 1900-1919

Students study the presentation of events both in a newspaper of the early twentieth century and in a contemporary newspaper to learn the process by which events are written down and become history. Students locate materials in the Library's digital collections to further explore primary source materials.

Lesson Preparation


Lesson Procedure

Lesson One: Newspapers, 1910-1919

  1. Project or print and distribute the page from the March 4, 1913, New York Tribune.
  2. Have the students study the pages and make observations by answering the question: "What can you tell about the history of this day and time in history from reading the newspaper?"
  3. Note the names of individual people, advertisements, headlines, etc. Students may be divided into groups with each group assigned one of the newspaper pages.
  4. Direct the students to create a neat, organized chart with six headings (each heading/category should have a distinct symbol on the chart). Possible headings include:
    • History and politics
    • Religion
    • Science and technology
    • Literature
    • Education
    • The arts (music, painting, theater)
    • Health and medicine
    • Daily life (births, deaths, marriages, divorce)
  5. Using the available secondary sources, each student is responsible for finding information for two of the categories in the newspaper and adding this information to the chart in a neat and orderly manner. (Skills used--charting and note-taking).
  6. Repeat the above newspaper exercise with a current newspaper. Change the groupings for the current day newspaper. Ask the students to notice if there are any sections found in the current newspaper that are not found in the 1913 newspaper.
  7. As a conclusion to this lesson, each student first writes a summary of the events from one of the categories. Next, the student writes a letter explaining what she or he would like his or her grandchildren to know about this day in history. In this lesson students are creating both a secondary source (the summary) and a primary source (the letter). Help students to understand the distinction between primary and secondary sources. Read definitions of primary and secondary sources in Using Primary Sources and discuss with students as necessary.
  8. Direct students to put these letters in envelopes in a safe place for the future generation.

Lesson Two: Searching for Primary Sources

Students learn how to locate primary sources about San Francisco in the Library of Congress online collections for 1900-1929. Note: If you are in another big city such as Chicago or New York, you may wish to substitute that city or a state for this lesson. Before making this change, be sure to do some preliminary searching using the substituted city or state name. For San Francisco, using the 1900-1929 time period provides very good results. For another city or state, it may be necessary to modify the decade selected for this lesson, which teaches searching techniques in the Library of Congress online collections.

What was happening in San Francisco from 1900 to 1929?

1. Have students access the Library of Congress online collections and complete the following:

  • From the search box at the top of, search "San Francisco".
  • Use the "Refine your results" facets in the left-hand column to narrow your results by date to 1900-1929.

Note: some collections will be more successful than others in this search.

2. Have students find something that interests them about San Francisco in the decades from 1900-1929. Some items to consider are:

  • What did the city look like?
  • What buildings existed?
  • What events were happening?
  • Who were the important people?
  • What did people wear and do?

3. After the students complete the search, have them report to the class.

  • Explain what you found.
  • Explain how you found the item. Explain your search methods.
  • Explain why it is interesting to you.
  • Explain what it reveals about life in San Francisco (or California) at that time.

Lesson Three: Presidents of the United States

Who was President of the United States during the decades of 1900-1929?

Students can also learn more about the presidents by visiting the Library's Presidents of the United States Resource Guide.

  1. Go to the digital collections list.
  2. Select Presidents.

This will bring you to a page that lists collections containing information about the presidents. Students can learn more about World War I from additional online or print resources.

Lesson Evaluation

  • Students working in groups create topical charts based on information found in the 1913 newspaper and supported by research in secondary sources.
  • Students working in groups create topical charts based on information found in a current newspaper and supported by research in secondary sources.
  • Each student creates a secondary source, writing a letter explaining what she or he would like her or his grandchildren to know about this day in history.


Deborah Dent-Samake and Carolyn Karis, American Memory Fellows, 1998