Strangely enough, my first couple years teaching, I hardly ever busted out any primary source work for my history students. It’s strange because you’d think that having gone through my undergraduate studies in history, I’d be chomping at the bit to use them in my instruction. In college, there were countless nights sorting through and referencing letters, speeches, photos, and the like. But it didn’t translate into my teaching.
What provided the spark was when I was informed that I’d be taking on AP European History the following school year. I was glad to take it on, mostly because I knew I’d have some great students that were smart as well as motivated. As part of my preparation, my school enrolled me in a summer workshop specifically for AP courses. It was there that I became introduced to the DBQ (Document Based Question). Essentially on their AP exam at the end of the year, students are given an essay question in which several primary sources are provided for the students to use and cite in their answers. But, let’s back up for a second. This was all new to me even though I’d taken AP classes in high school. Taking the AP exam was optional at my high school. Most of us only took the classes to help inflate our GPA’s, since the classes were weighted. Not many actually followed through and took the exam, including me.
Anyway, during that week long workshop, me and other history teachers worked on example DBQ’s, how they’re scored, what makes a good answer, and how to prepare your students. I found it to be more of a challenging puzzle. My goal each time was to try and write a DBQ answer in which my positions were clear as well as clever. Meanwhile, I would try to subtly sprinkle in references to the primary sources that were provided. Looking back, I think some of the other teachers I was working with found my enthusiasm a little odd.
My first year teaching AP Euro turned out to be rather challenging. Specifically relating to DBQ’s, my students found the whole process, well, boring. They understood the concept and overall purpose on why it’s a part of the AP exam. No problem there. They just found the whole thing to be anything but stimulating. They really didn’t like reading through the primary sources. After that first year I was left thinking how can I get my kids jazzed up and into primary source documents, especially since I began to utilize them in my Freshmen and Sophomore classes as well.
I think a turning point came when I put myself in my students’ shoes and looked at the situation. I realized pretty quickly that most all these primary sources that are used on exams or even provided in textbooks and supplemental materials are really dull. I love history and have no problem picking apart the Magna Carta or Mayflower Compact. My students, however, would rather bang their heads up against the wall. It became apparent to me that they were right and I needed to spice things up if I wanted them to see the value in primary sources.
So what did I do? I scoured the internet and read...a lot. After that first year and even until today, I look for something that I would think is entertaining and unusual for my students to read. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t abandon the mainstream primary sources we’ve all seen and used. But I try and add in something that I find pretty cool, and that hopefully my students might too. A lot of my lesson planning time is devoted to Google searches with the ending "primary sources."
Treaty of Versailles? Sure, but back it up with a soldier’s account of fighting in the trenches against the Germans and poison gas! http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/gas.htm Would students want to read John Smith’s account of being saved by Pocahontas or Governor Percy’s gut wrenching account of the “starving time” at Jamestown? http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/settlement/text2/JamestownPercyRelation.pdf You have to give your students that “hook” that will help turn them on to reading primary sources. Go PG-13 in your documents. Look for something weird, maybe a little gory, or even unbelievable.
Having taken this approach for close to ten years now, my students have responded well and don’t really seem to roll their eyes as much when working with primary sources. Quite regularly I either photocopy a short paragraph or put it up on the overhead projector for all to see. We identify significant points as well as analyze all the elements. It just gives your lessons a little more of a kick. Your carefully chosen “exciting” documents can become a spring board for the other more “official” primary sources that students will be expected to read and know.