Teaching Primary and Secondary Sources: An Earthshaking Collaboration

Does history have to be boring and dry? Not if you take the familiar and add an earthshaking twist! To begin the collaborative process, work with a willing teacher—someone like Beth, who was interested in literature circle titles for her 6th grade class. There are many good 20th century historical fiction titles, so Beth decided to have students choose individual books and create literature circle groups who were reading about the same historical time period.

Library Media Center Lesson: Book Selection

Pull a cart of 20th century historical fiction books. Invite Beth’s classes to the library media center for booktalks on books from the cart. Start the lesson by asking students what they know and what they wonder about the events of the 20th century. After booktalking about 10 or 15 titles, organize a book pass: students sit in groups of six; each student is handed a book from the cart. Review book evaluation skills: reading the front and back covers and jacket flaps, starting to read the beginning of the book to determine it if is the right level of difficulty, and deciding if the book is interesting enough to keep reading. Use a stopwatch to time students as they spend 60 seconds silently evaluating their book, then pass it to the right and spend 60 seconds with the next book. Continue until each student inspects all six books at the table. Have students choose a book from their table, other tables, or the cart to check out. As they begin to read the books in class, Beth can help them figure out the time period when the events in their books took place.

In our district, 20th century history isn’t taught until high school, so Beth is worried that our students might not have the background to understand their historical fiction novels. How about having the students create a 20th century timeline to build their knowledge about this time period? Brainstorm topics that fit the books the students have checked out—immigration from Europe during the early 1900s, World War I, Women’s Suffrage, the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, Women’s Liberation, the Vietnam War, and immigration from Asia in the 1970s and 1980s. Each student could make a timeline with a short summary of each event. In addition, a magnified timeline with more detail could be required for the particular time period covered by the fiction book each student is reading.

Library Lesson: Research

Teach the students how to access and search some subscription databases (e.g., World Book Online and ABC-CLIO). Teach a note taking strategy to help them summarize information for their timelines. Show them how to locate nonfiction books on their historical time period.

Create a set of ideas for “Reports without Copying" and distribute it to your teachers, providing a range of ways for students to show what they know. Beth likes a suggestion called “Creating an Artifact Bag" from the list. Students present their books and time periods to the class by making or locating a number of items that represent their time period and the plot, characters, and setting in their book. They pull these items out of their Artifact Bag during the oral presentation to the class. Beth wants one of the artifacts to represent a primary source.

Library Lesson: Primary and Secondary Sources

Create a lesson to teach the critical characteristics of primary and secondary sources using a “double bubble thinking map" or some other graphic organizer. Once students grasp the difference between the two kinds of sources, here’s a memorable way to check their understanding. I wrote a reader’s theater play (see “Swallowed by a Crack in the Floor" in this article) for the students to perform that was full of information, some from primary and some from secondary sources. Seattle has had two major earthquakes during my lifetime and I experienced them both at my school, once as a student and once as the library media specialist. The events in “Swallowed by a Crack in the Floor" came from my memories of both earthquakes. Have students perform the play, and during a class discussion afterward, have them identify the two different types of sources mentioned in the play.

Once the students have a grasp of the difference between primary and secondary sources, they need practice finding primary sources. The Library of Congress American Memory site has wonderful materials but is a bit hard for novices to navigate. Students could use a search engine, entering search terms such as their historical period and “American memory" or their historical period and “primary source material."

Library Lesson: Web Site Evaluation

Students use skills for evaluating Web sites they had learned from previous library media center work to locate reliable information for their primary source artifact. They choose a primary source for their artifact bag and print it out or create a replica.

Beth is pleased with the artifact bag presentations. Her students are enthusiastic about their 20th century historical fiction books and have a better grasp of 20th century history. We had fun collaborating, and though they all crowded around to look at it, no student fell through the crack in the library media center floor!

"Swallowed by a Crack in the Floor": A Reader’s Theatre about Primary and Secondary Sources

Narrator 1: Latisha’s science class headed down to the library media center.

Narrator 2: They were working in pairs, doing research on astronomy.

Latisha: Ryan, get over here! This book has an atlas of the moon.

Ryan: I want to look on the Internet.

Latisha: You can do that in a minute. Come see this huge crater.

Narrator 1: As Ryan sat down at a table next to Latisha, he heard a strange rumbling sound.

Narrator 2: He had the crazy idea that a giant was jumping up and down on the roof.

Latisha: Oh my gosh! It’s an earthquake!

Narrator 1: The books on the shelves began to shake.

Narrator 2: Ryan grabbed Latisha’s arm. They dove under the table and held on to the table legs.

Ryan: It’s not shaking any more. It’s rolling!

Narrator 1: Latisha pointed to a crack in the linoleum floor of the library media center that went right under their table.

Latisha: Ryan, look! It’s getting bigger! We’re going to fall down the crack!

Ryan: It is! It is getting bigger!

Latisha: And look at the picture!

Narrator 2: Ryan looked at the large oil painting that sat on the bookshelf above their table.

Narrator 1: It was swaying back and forth, getting ready to topple.

Ryan: Latisha, get your head back under the table!

Narrator 2: All of a sudden, the rolling stopped.

Narrator 1: Forgetting to wait to make sure the earthquake was over, students started popping out from under their tables.

Narrator 2: The teacher turned on the TV to watch the news coverage.

Narrator 1: Ryan headed for a computer.

Ryan: I want to see how soon this shows up on CNN.

Latisha: Look at the crack, Ryan. I think it’s bigger than it was before.

Ryan: Maybe a quarter of an inch. You were so hysterical about a little tiny crack.

Latisha: You thought it was getting bigger, too!

Narrator 1: Ten years later, Ryan was spending a rainy afternoon in a local bookstore.

Narrator 2: A title caught his eye: Seattle Earthquakes, a Moving History.

Ryan: Yeah, eighth grade. I don’t remember how big that earthquake was, but I sure remember I was scared.

Narrator 1: Ryan picked up the book and began to read.

Chris Gustafson

MLA Citation Gustafson, Chris. "Teaching Primary and Secondary Sources: An Earthshaking Collaboration." Library Media Connection, 24, no. 7, August 2006. School Library Connection, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2228124.

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Entry ID: 2150552

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