Using primary sources can sometimes be a hassle for social studies teachers. There seems to be no way of making primary sources engaging for students.

I use to use primary sources in one way, and that was through DBQ’s. It was not until I started building relationships with students when I realized how middle schoolers hate DBQ’s. Even highschoolers who come and visit me tell me how much they dislike DBQ’s.

What is the hatred for DBQ’s which is a staple of our social studies curriculum?

The answer is, students make no connection to the primary sources and questions asked in the DBQ’s.

I know, you are probably thinking, “but they are supposed to do it, I did it!”

Undoubtedly, you did do it but these are different times. Our students are not like you or

That is why I want to share three ways to use primary sources in the classroom. 

  1. Stations
  2. Gallery walks


Using stations can be intimidating to social studies teachers. The key to success in using stations is planning, not the actual station’s rotations. Before creating the stations, you want to have activities for each station. Here is my rule of thumb for each station

  1. Time each station correctly: If you have 45 minutes, create 5-minute stations; if you have 90 minutes, create 10-minute stations.
  2. Pre-select groups: Do not randomly put students in a group together or do it by last names. Take your time and analyze your class. Think about who will work well together and not just based on behavior. You know your students the best, at this point you should know your students and your class. If you still feel as if you do not ask your self these questions
    1. How are my students academically? 
    2. How do they work together? 
    3. What is the classroom culture in the classroom? 
  3. How will students complete the activity? Do you want students to record answers on a worksheet? Or complete activities as a group? 

Now that you have the basis for each station, you want to select primary sources for each station and the activities that you will use at each station. Let’s look at an example.

Activities for Stations

Let’s say we are examining George’s Washington farewell address. Choose a section of the text you want the students to examine. Next, choose an activity you want to do in relation to the text. Here are some possibilities:

  1. Answer questions
  2. Create a blackout poem based on the source
  3. Create a visual representation of George Washington’s warning

You want to have a different activity for each station. It is ok to do questions if you are stumped, but create activities that incorporate all of the styles of learning.

If you are still skeptical about using stations, you can download my stations checklist!

primary sources stations checklist download

Gallery Walk

Gallery walks are fantastic! Now, I will admit it is a lot of pre-planning like the stations mentioned above.

For gallery walks to be successful with primary sources, you need to use photos or images. Using a full-blown text that students have to analyze will not work!

Keep it short and straightforward, because the students do not want to stand up long, and if it is too hard, they will give up!

Keep the questions to the who, what, where, and why. For example: 

  1. Who would have taken the photo?
  2. When and where was the photo taken?
  3. Why was the photo taken? What is the author’s point of view?
  4. What does the photograph show you?
  5. What is the historical context of the photo?

When I create a goal for gallery walks, I want students to interact with knowledge. I want to make sure students are answering questions that have them look in-depth to each photograph. 

Need help finding good primary source photos? Below are the links to my favorite online sources: 

  1. Library of Congress 
  2. National Geographic 
  3. New York Times
  4. The New Yorker

Using Discussion Boards (Distant Learning)

Are you interested in doing something engaging with primary sources, and you do distant learning?

Discussions boards are an excellent way for students to analyze primary sources. Not only do students have to explain the source, but develop their opinions.

Discussions will be easy for teachers. We are used to initiating and adding to discussion through years of practice. Our students may feel uncomfortable with sharing ideas and adding to a discussion thread. 

Before starting a discussion, give your students clear guidelines. For example, when I conduct a discussion in class, I require students to complete two tasks: 

  1. Answer the following question: Why do you think the primary source is essential to history?
  2. Respond to a peer’s response in 2-3 sentnences, either agreeing with a statement or disagree. Any response must have reasoning behind the answer.

In conclusion, do not feel obligated to use DBQ’s or any typical social studies learning method (I surely do not lol). Let me know about the different ways you teach primary sources in the classroom! 

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