The Mystery of History: Original Sources
- Grades: 3–5
- Unit Plan:
The student will be able to identify primary source items in their own home, and categorize data as coming from primary or secondary sources. (Fifth grade)
- Become aware that historical "fact," as written in textbooks, is ultimately based on the "interpretation" of primary and secondary source material.
- See copies of primary source material from history such as the Constitution of the United States.
- Overhead projector, chart paper, or blackboard to use to record brainstorming
- Markers or pens
- Examples of primary and secondary source artifacts
Set Up and Prepare
- Hang up chart paper or use overhead projector.
- Decide how to break students into small groups.
Step 1: Introduction
"Students, we have found a man wandering in the Texas desert, claiming that he is one of the few survivors of a massacre that occurred in the spring of 1836. (We're referring to the Alamo, but don't tell the kids.) Medical examinations prove that he is at least 150 years old. How could we go about discovering if what he says is true about being a survivor of something in 1836?"
(Realize your students could get very caught up in the why and how of this man's existence. So, you'll need a couple of minutes to stomp out the fires. The students love the fantasy features of this scenario, but you need to keep them focused on the question you asked.)
Brainstorming: Students brainstorm possible answers, which you write on the chalkboard, chart paper, or overhead projector. Probe for more specifics or clarification as necessary. Possible answers: textbooks, encyclopedias, library books, magazines, legends (or oral stories about the incident), church records, court records, gravestones, army records, diaries, letters, newspapers of the time, going to the area and finding artifacts (define artifacts as man made items for the students. Use this vocabulary often during the lesson.
Grade 4 Activity: After the brainstorming is recorded, the teacher says, "Take another look at this. Which of these items actually existed in the time period of 1836."
(Tip: You could use a different color pen or marker to make a star next to those items.)
"This is what historians use to figure out what happened in the past. History is a mystery that historians need to solve, using the artifacts, documents, and/or oral stories from that time period." (At this point someone may ask, "What about the ones that aren't starred?" (Example: videos, Internet, history books, etc.) You could respond, "That's a good question. How did the historians decide what information went in the video, on the Internet or in books?" Students will quickly realize they used the first hand (primary) sources to piece together the story. "The stuff we use, write, and say today will become what historians of the future will use to tell our story." Grade 4 can go to assessment.
Grade 5 Activity: The students work in small cooperative groups. They are to divide the results of their brainstorming into two lists. The teacher question might be, "What criteria could you use to divide this list into two separate groups?" Grade 5 can extend with part II.
Depending on your class and time constrains, you may want to extend this to another day.
Grade 5: Discuss the criteria that the students used. Possibilities would include written vs. non-written, oral vs. non-oral, primary sources vs. secondary.
After the discussion, explain that all their categories are fine, because it divides the work into smaller pieces to investigate. Historians need ways to categorize information, too. One of the ways frequently used by historians is to distinguish between the material that was actually written during the time period or comes from the time period, versus material that was written or developed after the time period. The first is called primary sources (or first - the first person to do it) and the latter is called secondary sources (the second person to hear about it).
Step 5: Categorize: List the information on the chalkboard, overhead projector, or chart paper in 2 categories:
letters of people involved
diaries of people involved
court records of the time
church records of the time
wandering man's story (eyewitness)
magazine articles about it
textbooks written later
legends or oral stories about it
history professor's interpretation
Step 6: Explain how the Internet can be both a primary and secondary source of information. Mostly it reports secondary information compiled by others, but it can have primary source information in the form of copies of original documents. Remember our man in the Texas Desert? Give the students a copy of the page in the encyclopedia (Texas History) that explains the Alamo. Read aloud and discuss whether or not the man was telling the truth. (Optional Activity: send one person from each small group to the class computer with a task card.)
- Access the Internet.
- Type www.google.com in the top address bar.
- Press Enter or Return.
- In the search bar type, Texas Battle 1863.
- Click on Search.
- Read through the results.
- What happened in Texas in the spring of 1863?
- Did anyone survive?
- Bring your information back to the class.
Step 7: Ask students why the information they are reading from the paper and the computer is considered to be from secondary sources.
Grade 4: Homework tonight will be to find three artifacts (man-made items) from or about your family. Example: photo of your family, a drawing you made in another grade, a favorite computer game, a newspaper article, shopping list, school newsletter, stuffed toy, etc. Then draw a quick sketch of your three items on a piece of paper. Under each item write a sentence telling about your article.
Grade 5: Same as Grade 4 but they can do 5 artifacts and sort by primary or secondary source if possible.
What part of this lesson was most enjoyable for the students? Did the man in the desert story work or distract? What would I change next time I do this lesson? Are the students pretty solid with primary and secondary sources?
Make sure students understand primary and secondary sources. Have several objects to hold up. Tell students to fold their hands on the desk in front of them. When you hold up an article they are to keep their hands folded, but pull them close to their body if the object is a primary source. That is because the primary source is closer to the facts. If a secondary source object is held up students are to push their folded hands forward on the desk. Secondary sources are farther from the facts. Tell students you are expecting a response from everyone. Be sure to look at each child's signal. After each artifact, explain the correct answer. You will quickly be able to see who understands and who does not.