As we begin another school year I’ve tried to rethink some of my beginning of the year activities. I have always felt it is important to expose students to the procedures and routines that are expected within my classroom. I also think it is essential for students to become comfortable in my classroom, get to know each other and get to know me. This year I have tried to incorporate all of these introductory activities into a lesson that allows students to begin practicing skills that will commonly be used in the study of history while being exposed to the idea of an inquiry-based approach to learning.
I think it is important to introduce students to the study of history early in the year. This means conveying to students the importance of approaching the study of history as a historian would; piecing together primary sources to try to form a complete picture of the past.
This year I developed an activity to try and combine these objectives into an introductory activity. This activity begins with a quick discussion of how we learn about history. Students usually respond by stating that it comes from a book or from the internet. Further prompting leads students to begin listing things such as letters, diaries, documents, etc. This opens up a discussion to explain the difference between primary and secondary sources. The differences between these two types of sources can be further clarified by the video “What is a Primary Source.”
The next phase of this lesson allows students to practice analyzing primary sources in order to form a picture of the past and, in the process, to get to know more about me as a person. Students are placed in cooperative learning groups of 2-3 and each group is given a few primary sources that relate to various aspects of my life. Some examples of the types of sources I included are my high school diploma, one of my senior pictures from high school showing the sports I was involved in, ticket stubs from football games I attend, the program from my college graduation, my diploma from my master’s degree, my first teaching contract, some of my favorite books, pictures of my wife and kids, pictures of me camping and canoeing with my family, and my wife’s school ID that shows she is also a teacher.
Students work with their groups to analyze the primary sources, completing a chart to record a description of each source and any inferences that can be drawn from the source. These inferences go beyond a mere summary of the document to draw conclusions based on evidence from the documents. These conclusions will help explain something about me as a person. This allows students practice analyzing sources and considering the significance of each source in helping to explain the past.
After analyzing each source, students put together all of their information and inferences to form a complete picture of me as a person. Groups will illustrate their image of me by filling in an outline of a human body that represents me. Students are instructed to add clothing, accessories, or anything in the background to help illustrate me as a person.
To promote a sense of community, each group is given a chance to share their picture of me and explain to the class how they arrived at their conclusions about me. Students begin to feel like they know a little about me, but they are left with more questions. After allowing students to ask additional questions about me, we discuss the benefits and shortcomings of primary sources in studying history.
Students have now had a chance to get to know a little about me, so I transition into an activity that allows me to get to know each of them. Each student needs to determine what is important about them as a person and brainstorm 5 primary sources that demonstrate these aspects of their life. Students do not need to bring these sources to school, but rather just describe them in writing. Along with the description of each source, students include an explanation of what someone could learn about them by examining the source. Lastly, students complete a picture illustrating important things about them as a person. Much like the picture they made of me, this will involve adding details to an outline of a human body.
This lesson worked very well to achieve the objectives I had for an introductory activity. Students gained experience working with primary sources on an inquiry-based activity, they got to know a little about me as a person, they were introduced to some of their classmates as they worked together, and they were exposed to the procedures and routines I expect them to follow as we work in groups and complete in class activities. I was also able learn a little about each of them as they explain primary sources from their lives and create a picture of themselves.