There’s a cool buzz running through the history education world.

Primary sources. Documents. Using evidence. Solving problems. Historical thinking. And that’s a good thing. But I know that it can be difficult sometimes trying to figure out how to use primary sources.

First piece of advice?

Don’t worry so much about primary vs. secondary sources. Start thinking about evidence, about data, instead of focusing just on one sort of document over another. Because if we’re asking great questions, kids will be using all sorts of documents and sources to solve the problem.

I’ve always tried to preach the idea of having kids answer great questions and using a variety of evidence to help them answer those questions. So it’s not just primary sources. It needs to be all sorts of evidence – so kids might need to be using secondary sources. That might be tertiary sources such as a textbook or Wikipedia.

But kids are still using evidence and data to solve the problem. We need to be training our kids how to use that evidence – evaluating, sourcing, and asking questions about audience and purpose. So it’s not really about training them so that they can read primary sources after they graduate – it’s about the long term . . . training them to make better decisions because they now have the ability to evaluate evidence and ask good questions about all sorts of things.

  • Who to vote for?
  • What news outlet is telling the truth?
  • What program being pushed by state Republicans or Democrats is based on facts?
  • What car should I buy?
  • What college is best for me?
  • Should I take that job?
  • Is Putin crazy?
  • How is this event (or place or idea or person) the same or different than events (or place or idea or person) from the past and how will that impact me?

Second piece of advice?

Don’t re-invent the wheel. Have kids use the different tools already out there as they work to make sense of documents. As we train our kids to think historically, these sorts of analysis worksheets can be great scaffolding tools, especially with  elementary and middle school students.

Some of the best document analysis worksheets are those generated by the National Archives and the Library of Congress. But there are others out there. ( And remember – they all can and should be adapted for use with secondary sources.)

National Archives:

Library of Congress:

Analysis Tool for Students

Teacher Guides

The Wisconsin Historical Society has a few tools:

A version from the University of California:

And if you’ve got a few hours, head over to History Tech for hundreds of primary source ideas, links, and graphic organizers.