As a Mentor Teacher with the Library of Congress' Teaching with Primary Sources Program, I am able to collaborate with faculty across the country to share lessons and create unique ways to include original documents and works of art in the classroom to encourage a deeper level of thinking and learning.
I first participated in the Library of Congress' Summer Teacher Institute four years ago. At the weeklong institute, the Library's education specialists facilitated sessions modeling strategies for using primary sources to engage students. We drew from the millions of sources in the Library's collections to design a primary source activity to implement with our students. I first became interested in learning more about using original documents and works of art after participating in Harvard University's Project Zero, which included an exploration of visual learning. I returned to the classroom with a new outlook of how to connect boys with materials, by giving them agency in their learning.
Middle School students tend to view history as a subject requiring extensive memorization of facts and dates, but I continually work to dispel this myth in my classroom. By making students active participants in their understanding of history, they can go beyond rote memorization and arrive at an understanding of the themes and lessons history has to teach us. I have encountered and utilized a variety of strategies that allow students to think like historians.
By making students active participants in their understanding of history, they can go beyond rote memorization and arrive at an understanding of the themes and lessons history has to teach us. I have encountered and utilized a variety of strategies that allow students to think like historians.
The Haverford School's history department encourages faculty to use original documents and art to provide a unique context for learning. By investigating primary sources and asking questions, students can more deeply understand historical events. When the boys are engaged with original artwork and letters, or journals and reports created by historical figures, they are inspired to question history and to form their own opinion. Class comes to life as they discuss and argue alternative outcomes, project themselves in historical events, and connect historical concepts with current events.
I have designed a worksheet for working with primary sources, which encourages the boys to "observe, reflect, and question" all the sources they work with. I tell them to translate the language, identify the author and intended audience, and describe what the source actually is.
For example, when I teach about colonial America, students are tasked to read George Washington's letter to William Crawford after The Royal Proclamation of 1763. After they compare his report to their class notes, they brainstorm what Washington's goals were while writing the document, and also have the opportunity to create questions for Washington.
After engaging with some of these sources in this way, students create their own writing and art in response to a particular position, opinion, or theory.
This allows each boy to bring his own perspective and voice to the historical events and lessons they think are most important. Giving students this kind of agency is vital to making sure students are truly invested in what they're learning.
In one such project, I have students read the poem and analyze the painting "The Wise Men of Gotham and Their Goose" from 1776, which is a Library of Congress resource. The boys are then tasked to add their own lines to the poem, as well as make a similar cartoon or picture from the British perspective.
The boys are also challenged to create their own monument that they believe history should teach. This allows each boy to bring his own perspective and voice to the historical events and lessons they think are most important. Giving students this kind of agency is vital to making sure students are truly invested in what they're learning.
Applying new ways of learning helps students foster critical thinking skills that are essential for success in the classroom and beyond. Our Middle School history classrooms have opened a door to visual learning, curiosity and discovery, and informed discussion by using original documents and works of art to enhance the understanding of historical events.
John Suter has been teaching at The Haverford School since 2000. He attended Marietta College as an undergraduate and received his Master's Degree in Education from Saint Joseph's University.