Easy Activities to Get Started with Primary Sources

Start using primary sources in your classroom today with these easy yet effective activities!
Primary sources are an amazing way to bring history into your classroom and create opportunities for critical thinking and rich discussion among your students. At the same time, it can be daunting to use primary sources with elementary students if you haven't tried it before. Here are a few easy activities you can try to bring primary sources into your classroom today.
Before you decide what activities you want to try, you have to first select appropriate primary sources for your topic and students. This can be the trickiest part! (See my spring blog post for some tips on locating and selecting primary sources.) Once you've picked out your sources, you can decide how in-depth you want your lesson to go. Below are some easy-to-implement yet effective activities for using primary sources in your elementary classroom.

  • Student-led discussion: Bring in artifacts (or replicas), print images and documents, or play a slideshow, song, or recording. Give students extended time to interact with each primary source and talk with each other about what they observe, what they infer, what it tells them about history, and how it connects to their own lives. This type of open discussion is a great hook for a new unit or lesson! You can try this whole class or split students into small groups or partners. (If you're using documents, especially those that are longer or contain outdated language, you might consider reading them aloud or selecting a short quote to display.)
  • Discussion with prompts: Younger students especially will benefit from having open-ended or specific questions to answer about each particular primary source. You can use general questions that apply to multiple types of primary sources or come up with specific ones for the set you're using. Check out these discussion prompt cards that you can use with any primary source!
  • Gallery/museum walk: Display objects, images, documents, and audio files (via iPads or laptops). Give students sticky notes and have them browse the primary sources and jot down a thought about a few of them. Share some of the comments in a discussion with the class when they finish.
  • Sorting activity: Print images, documents, and quotes and have students sort them. They can do an open sort, during which they choose the categories, or you can invite them to sort according to a timeline, cause-and-effect relationships, similarities and differences, or another strategy.
  • Image peek: Use a projector to display an image on your board, but only show part of it. Have students discuss what they see and predict what they think the whole image is. Show increasingly larger parts of the image until you reveal it entirely, and then discuss what it tells us.
  • Response: A wonderful way to tie a primary source to students' own lives is by letting them respond to it through writing or art. This works especially well with artwork, photographs, and music. You can direct them to complete a specific activity or provide materials and leave it up to them!

If you aren't ready to dive deep into primary source analysis lessons, I hope these ideas will be just what you need to get started. That said, if you want to try out more focused, in-depth lessons, there are tons of ideas out there! Check out some options on my Pinterest board!

Have more ideas? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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Start using primary sources in your classroom today with these easy yet effective activities!

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