We all want our kids to think critically when messing with primary sources. But what sorts of things can we use to encourage this kind of thinking?
The Library of Congress has some great ideas for helping you support high level thinking when using primary sources:
- Try using sticky notes. Your kids can easily attach (and move) their notes directly onto whatever they’re looking at. Have multiple copies of the same primary source (or different sources on the same topic) on tables around the room. Have small groups attach their notes with observations to the source in front of them. Ask students to rotate around the room, adding notes not only to the source but to other sticky notes. You can create a series of specific questions or allow students to make general observations. Lead a whole group activity summarizing and categorizing student observations with a graphic organizer.
- Challenge students to a “30 second look” using an image such as a photograph, map or work of art. Project the image or provide hard copies for kids. Give them 30 seconds to memorize as many details as possible without talking or taking notes. Remove the image or have kids flip over their copy and have them record as many observations as possible in a minute. Have them form small groups and combine their lists. Lead a whole group discussion to compare and discuss observations, particularly any conflicting or missing details. Reveal the image again to compare and contrast while adding any missed details.
- Challenge K-3 students to a game of hide and seek using an interesting photograph such as this photograph of a Washington, D.C. classroom. Invite students to pretend to be as small as a fly and find a secret hiding place within the projected image. Model an example (“I’ll hide inside this desk”) before students individually locate their own hiding places. Act as the “seeker,” identifying possible hiding places in the photograph; students must raise hands when “found.” Encourage students to describe what they see, hear, touch or smell in their hiding places.
- Challenge upper elementary and middle school kids to practice close observational skills by working in small groups to put together pieces of a map such as the 1507 World Map by Martin Waldseemüller. Ask groups to record the observations that enabled them to piece the map together. Have each group create a title for their finished map that summarizes what they think is the most important aspect of their map. Lead a whole group conversation that compares and contrasts the different map titles.
- Ask high school students to observe evidence of the creative process by identifying and comparing differences between draft and final versions of the same source, such as Langston Hughes’ “Ballad of Booker T” or the Declaration of Independence. Ask small groups to make note of edits made to vocabulary, style, and formatting to “observe” the creation process. Have the groups post their observations on large sheets of butcher paper or sticky notes and have each group do a gallery walk of the different groups. Ask them to reflect on why the observations may differ.
But work to ensure that any of the activities your kids are doing focuses on a meaningful purpose for observation. Ask students to:
- Look for details that provide evidence of their thinking.
- Look for clues to the authorship or time period.
- Make personal connections to the item.
Have students focus on small areas of the primary source first rather than looking at the “big picture.” This encourages deep thinking and a focus on details. Different ideas to encourage this could include:
- Magnifying glasses
- Frames of cardboard with a square cut in the middle to act as a “Magic Window.” Students move the cardboard around the source providing a specific area for them to focus on.
- Two L-shaped pieces of cardboard – same idea but allows for a smaller or larger “view.”
- Attach a sturdy sheet of paper to a yardstick. Hold this “Magic Wand” in front of an LCD projected image to highlight a specific section of the image.
- Divide the projected image or provided copies into four quadrants. Reveal just one quadrant at a time.
And be sure to create a encouraging environment where students’ ideas are respected and students feel safe to share.
- Reinforce that these activities are about what the student is thinking and wondering about. Questions are a good thing. This is as much about the process as the final answer.
- Teach students to support their ideas with evidence “I think_______, because_______.”
This helps support the idea that history is the study of the unknown, that the mystery needs to be uncovered. The only “wrong” answers are those that are unsupported by student observation. By encouraging students to solve problems with what they can see and observe, we’re training our students to think at high levels.
And encouraging them to “look harder.”