History teachers have always used primary sources in their classrooms, usually in one of two ways.

The first might be called the single source approach. A teacher intersperses a single document (such as the Declaration of Independence) throughout a unit to support their instruction and content.

The second can be described as the multiple source approach. A teacher who uses this method will provide a variety of documents to help students discover for themselves what the teacher already knows. This method allows students to construct their own learning and gives kids an opportunity to practice some high-level historical thinking skills.

I’m going to suggest a third way.

And, yes, it is more complex in terms of your time and effort but the reward is increased student learning. Developed by Frederick Drake of Illinois State, this third way is a “systematic way to engage your students in historical thinking and to increase their knowledge of the past.”

In a nutshell, a teacher provides a First Order document to her students and leads an in-depth analysis of the document. Drake calls this document the “epicenter” of your instruction.

Next, a teacher provides three to five Second Order documents for students. These documents should both support and contrast the First Order document. Through discussion and analysis, kids get the chance to gain a more nuanced view of the topic and the original document.

Finally, the teacher provides an opportunity for students to discover their own Third Order documents supporting or contrasting the First Order document.

What might a middle school example look like?

I might start with Paul Revere’s woodcut of the Boston Massacre as my First Order document. For my Second Order documents, I could select three to five from the following list:

  • Alonzo Chappell’s graphical version of the same event
  • transcripts from the trial of Captain Preston
  • the journal of Deacon John Tudor
  • local and London newspaper accounts
  • the legal deposition of William Wyat
  • I might even include a variety of US history textbook selections from past and present

I would then provide time and assistance for students to find their own documents that support or contrast the Revere woodcut. A final product could take the shape of a digital narrative, a re-write of their own textbook’s version of the event or an oral presentation arguing for the inclusion of their document in a Library of Congress exhibit.

The beauty of this third way is that kids see you modeling historical skills at the same time that they are learning them. And while this method does take longer and requires a bit more work on your part, the benefits for your students are tremendous!

(You can get a much more in-depth description of the method by going to A Systematic Approach to Improve Students’ Historical Thinking by Drake.)

First Order

  • The most essential primary source for the teacher on a particular topic in history. This is the document that you cannot live without.

Second Order

  • Primary or secondary sources that challenge or corroborate the central idea in the First Order document. These documents, selected by the teacher, provide a nuanced understanding of the topic by offering multiple perspectives.

Third Order

  • Additional primary or secondary sources that students find to challenge or corroborate the First-Order document. Ultimately, students should select a Third Order document to serve as their First Order document


  • Be sure to include images and other multi-media in either the First or Second Order documents
  • Use analysis worksheets to help students “break down” the documents
  • During discussion, begin with low-level questions before moving onto more complex questions
  • Require a product for students’ Third Order documents

Have fun!