For Educators - Part 2. Creating the Lesson Framework and the Role of Primary Sources

Adapted from the Library of Congress

Getting Started: The Essential Question, Historical Evidence and Inquiry

In using historical evidence to examine the past, we need to be certain that the evidence is appropriate to the question we seek to investigate. How we find and select historical evidence is just as important as how we use it. The following planning strategy can be useful when searching for and selecting evidence:

How do I describe/formulate what it is I am looking for?

  • Develop a main question
  • Brainstorm a list of search terms
  • Identify a list of potential search engines

How do I know I am on the right track?

  • Keep going back to the main question
  • Think like a historian – sourcing, contextualization, corroboration of sources

What information do I select?

  • What formats are accessible
  • Concept mapping
  • Evaluating sources

How do I use what I’ve selected?

  • Formats
  • Organization
  • Interpretation/construction

Did the information help answer the main question / satisfy what I was looking for?

  • Relevance
  • Authenticity

*This planning strategy should be learned by the teacher and modeled for students until they can follow these steps on their own. Based in part on research findings of Dr. Valerie M. Nesset

Planning Instruction

Considering activity type, classroom management, time, technology, and assessment

The "Lesson Framework” developed by the Library of Congress is presented below. Examples suggested from the Tourgee Papers are in parentheses. There are many factors aside from the essential question that can impact the decision of whether or not to use primary sources in the classroom, including:

Activity Type

In what ways might the materials be used in the classroom? Examples include: as a basis for class discussion; a pre-reading guide; in-class presentations; role playing, and so on.

Classroom Management

How will students be organized for the activity? Will the materials be used by individuals, pairs, small groups, whole class participation? Will materials be rotated throughout?


How much time must be allocated for completion of student tasks when using primary source materials?


What product or performance will students be creating as a result of their experience with the materials? How will assessment be performed (testing, rubric, etc.)?

Student Ability

How much do the students know about the topic? What are their skill levels in searching for, selecting and, using historical evidence including primary sources?

Types of Investigation

In which phase or phases of instruction will primary sources be incorporated?


Use primary sources to introduce a topic of study or to re-engage students during a longer unit of instruction. One or two primary sources can generally be used to begin a lesson or unit of instruction.

Ways of using primary sources as focus activities:

Present a puzzle or essential question to students

  • Challenge a stereotype or conventional wisdom
  • Present a contradiction
  • Offer an insight
  • Promote empathy
  • Present a generalization that can be compared or tested later in the lesson

Examples of focus activities:

Ask students to write freely their reactions to a thought provoking document. As a class, compare the reactions prompted by the primary source(example: #4717 Brayton letter and Manning Times article in section on Lynching or, #5743 Bruce letter)

After reviewing one or two primary sources, have small groups of students generate a list of questions about the upcoming topic of instruction. (examples: (#6170 Davis letter, #6852 Colored School #1 letter, #6273 Tourgee letter to Jenks)

The teacher generates one or two thought provoking questions related to the primary sources. As a class, or first in small groups, have students discuss possible answers to the questions.

Use contemporary primary sources to focus instruction on an historical period. Ask students to make predictions about issues of the past based on what they have learned from contemporary sources. (example: Consider social, economic, political, cultural challenges to current groups such as the GLBT community, undocumented migrant workers, and others – how are their challenges like/different from those of people of color and women in Tourgee’s time as described in letters in the collection?)

Basic Skill Building

Use primary sources to build background knowledge, learn new concepts or, reinforce past learning about concepts in history. They can also be used to help students build historical literacy skills.

Ways of using primary sources to build basic skills:

  • Encourage observations on aspects of an historical theme or topic
  • Promote making predictions based on observations
  • Introduce new information
  • Present familiar words in a new context

Examples of basic skill building activities:

Build classroom or personal word walls based on vocabulary encountered

Have students create graphic organizers that connect new words to examples and non-examples (example: use #6852 letter from Colored School #1 or #6217 Carter letter)

The teacher presents anticipatory guides based on new vocabulary

Ask students to determine meanings of words and phrases, in both their general academic and domain-specific contexts (example: #6339 Susan B. Anthony letter in "Investigate This Document Further” lesson # 4).


Primary sources can be used (often as a set) as sources to investigate and to answer questions about a topic, concept or time period in history

Ways of using primary sources for inquiry-based learning:

(Note: Ways and examples of using primary sources for inquiry described below all support the Common Core Standards for Literacy in History, Social Studies, Science and Technology Subjects that are found at EngageNY

  • Ask students to distinguish between fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a single document or set of documents
  • The teacher presents a series of documents and gives students the task of reflecting and writing about what may have happened before and/or after the event described in the set of documents.
  • Have students read several documents and identify the point of view for each, based on evidence from the materials.
  • Encourage students to reflect on a set of texts and to search for other documents for additional evidence to support or to challenge a particular idea, point of view, or belief suggested in the original materials.

Examples of using primary sources for inquiry-based learning

Have students distinguish their own point of view from that of the author(s) of a text(s) (Compare #5414 Ellis letter with Mitchell essay at:

Compare and contrast a firsthand and a secondhand account of the same event or topic: describe the differences in focus and in information provided. (compare newspaper accounts from Library of Congress "Chronicling America” with eyewitness accounts or primary sources from exhibit sections on North Carolina Constitution Convention of 1868, Ku Klux Klan activities, segregation and, lynching #5757 Caldwell letter, #8055 Middlebrook letter, #1366, #1547-48)

Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent (Use Plessy v Ferguson section materials or #8202 and #8217 Ida B. Wells and Frances Willard letters)

Conduct a short - or more sustained - research project to answer a question (including self-generated ones) or solve a problem 


Use primary sources to assist students in applying new concepts and to extend their learning beyond the textbook or other instructional materials

Ways of using primary sources to build and strengthen application skills:

  • Challenge learning, by having students expand ideas and concepts from the past into more contemporary contexts
  • Students learn to use primary sources to defend or to refute conclusions drawn from secondary sources
  • Students refine or revise conclusions with the addition of new information from primary sources
  • Students can independently search for and identify additional information from primary sources

Examples of application activities using primary sources:

Ask students to identify parallel or similar themes from a historical period of study with current events (example: Use materials from Ballots, Lynching or Plessy v Ferguson sections and compare events and views from that time to views and events today such as unfair election laws, civil rights challenges, hate crimes and bullying)

The teacher presents information from the text and asks students to identify evidence in primary sources that will either support or refute the information in the text (example: use Carter letter #5533, Coffin letter #5207 or, Ida B. Wells materials in exhibit and at Library of Congress)

The teacher presents information from the text, or other secondary source, and instructs the students to expand or to alter the text explanation of history, based on primary sources they have studied. (example: Use materials from "Investigate This Document Further: After Emancipation”)

Students are presented with an historical topic or theme and asked to conduct independent research to locate and identify primary sources that support or refute their position on the topic.


Primary sources can be useful tools for evaluating student mastery of skills and concepts

Ways to assess student mastery of skills and content using primary sources:

  • Essay writing
  • Response Writing
  • Oral Presentations
  • Multi-Media Presentations

Examples of assessment activities using primary sources:

Students are asked to write an essay about one or more primary source documents, explaining how the source(s) support or challenge a commonly accepted conclusion about a time or topic in history (example: challenge or defend a section in a text by using primary source documents from exhibit to describe responses to human and civil rights issues; use Tourgee letter #5814 on the National Citizen’s Rights Association)

Have students create a multi-media presentation about a historical topic from a viewpoint of a person from the time and place in question (example, use exhibit to create both visual and oral presentation on a related topic)

After researching several primary sources, students prepare an oral presentation, taking a stand on an issue from history

Students write a response to a primary source or set of primary sources, taking the position of an individual from the time the source was created. (example, students write as a third party voice in response to Tourgee’s letter about "The Leopard’s Spots" #9691)

Sources for Instruction

Selecting sources of Instruction based on interest, reading level, length, point of view, variety and access

The educator should consider several aspects that will make a good connection between students and primary sources used for instruction. In addition to considering the type of investigation in which materials are to be employed (above), you must also take into account:

Interest level

What kinds of resources will be of interest to the students? Are they younger and therefore more inclined to respond to visual or audio materials? Are they interested in a particular time period (American Revolution, Japanese Internment in WWII, the 1960s) or a thematic subject (women, military, African Americans, American Presidents)

Reading level

What is the difficulty level of the primary sources relative to the reading abilities of the students? Can you select a range of materials that will accommodate different reading abilities?

Length of materials

How long is the material selected? 3 pages? 30 pages? 300 pages? Can an excerpt from the materials still convey the original meaning of the source?

Points of View

Are points of view represented fairly in the materials selected? Is there a balance among competing points of view?

Variety of Sources

Have different formats of materials been selected (published, unpublished, photos, text, audio, artifacts, etc.)


Where can the educator or the students find the materials needed for the lesson? Are they available over the Internet on a safe and reliable site? In the school library? A local historical society?

The educator should check on possible access restrictions that he/she or the students may encounter (copying, borrowing, hours of operation, school firewalls blocking access to certain websites, etc.)