A New Take on Constitution Day: Engaging Students with Primary Sources

Every year, the halls of Meadowlark Elementary School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, fill with students as first-graders parade up and down for the annual Constitution Day Parade, a longstanding Meadowlark tradition. The parade is the culminating event in a unit on primary source documents—a unit one might be tempted to leave well-enough alone. After all, the kids sure are cute, the parents love it, and everyone leaves happy! But when I attended the Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute called “Teaching with Primary Sources,” I immediately knew that the content was going to change the way that I teach my students.

About the Institute

I arrived to find a cross-section of teachers from various grade levels and subject areas, representing a wide range of teaching styles. The Institute included instruction in using a wide range of primary sources: photographs, letters, newspapers, music, film, and official documents like the United States Constitution. Participants explored the causes of the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and women’s suffrage using a variety of primary sources. Through active inquiry, we participants became detectives in trying to determine the origin and significance of these primary sources.

I grew excited by the possibility of using these primary source strategies in a variety of subjects. Not only could these techniques be used in a social studies setting, but they would also be great for English and language arts, math, and science lessons.

Creating a New Constitution Day Lesson

Participation in the Institute also includes the creation and implementation of a lesson using primary sources. The lesson is fully prepared as part of the program and then is taught to students as participants return to their schools.

For my lesson, I chose to engage students by giving very little explanation of the sources and allowing students to participate in the activity in an inquiry style, a method that I often use in math and science but had not previously used in social studies. From the very beginning of the lesson, my students were hooked. We began by looking at The Foundation of American Government painting by Henry Hintermeister, which portrays the signing of the Constitution. The students started by circling the points of interest they found in the picture. While this particular material is not a primary source, as it was painted in 1925, it served as an excellent starting point that immediately aroused curiosity in students. Their hands shot up quickly as they asked questions. I asked them to consider and describe the painting in terms of “Observations,” “Reflections,” and “Questions,” or “I see…,” “I think…,” and “I wonder…” As part of a chart called the Primary Source Analysis Tool, these terms help students organize their thinking (Library of Congress; See Figure 1). 

This practice activity served as an excellent starting point for the lesson. Because the source was a painting, it was fairly easy for students to practice the observation, reflection, and questioning required for primary source exploration. I created a list of questions about the source in case students had difficulty generating responses:

  • At what time in history did this image take place?
  • Who is in the painting?
  • What are the people in the painting doing?
  • Where did this take place?

After my students were accustomed to thinking in these terms, we moved on to our investigation of primary sources. We started with George Washington’s copy of a draft of the Constitution. This activity was more challenging for students. Not only are there a lot of words on the document, but the wording is also complicated, even when read aloud.

The questions that I wrote for discussion purposes were even more helpful for this portion of the lesson because of the more difficult nature of this document. The students were excited to note the huge number of words on the document. They noted the black marks that show Washington’s revisions and even attempted to estimate the date that the document was created; the 1990s was a popular response. The students immediately connected this document to the picture we used as our practice activity, which helped me confirm they were successfully engaged.

Following our discussion of Washington’s draft copy, we examined the final copy of the Constitution. Students immediately recognized the document as the Constitution. They noticed the markings and signatures and made connections between this document and what they had seen in the draft copy.

In a final exercise, students looked at the Constitution draft and the final copy of the Constitution side by side. They noted the differences in the writing and the cleanness of the final copy. As I did for all of the previous activities, I prepared a list of questions to prompt students if needed. With each activity, there was less and less need for the questions. Students became accustomed to observing, reflecting, and questioning without the help of the prompts.

To complete this unit and assess student learning, we returned to The Foundation of American Government print. I asked students to observe this source once again and then to write about what was happening in the picture.

Going Forward

In my new role as media coordinator at Meadowlark, I teach this series of lessons with all first-grade classes. I also have identified additional times I can incorporate my new approach to primary source exploration. For example, we now examine old maps of the state capital prior to taking field trips to the area, and we also study 100-year-old photographs on the 100th day of school.

I also am pursuing ongoing professional development as a result of my participation in the Summer Institute. Following the workshop, participants join together online to discuss their implementation of teaching with primary sources. Also, the Teaching with Primary Sources Institute online network has recently added a group specifically for school librarians. I look forward to further collaboration with colleagues using this tool.

What started as a desire to build on a successful Meadowlark tradition – involving lots of patriotic music and students marching up and down the hallways wearing red, white, and blue – ultimately has changed the ways I teach a number of lessons. Now, as our students sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the intercom and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I am grateful for my Library of Congress experience as I recognize that they might understand even better than before how the foundations of American government were formed.


Work Cited:

Library of Congress. Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tool. http://www.loc.gov/teachers/primary-source-analysis-tool/ (accessed September 5, 2015).

Constitution Day Activities At-A-Glance

  1. Engage students with Foundations of American Government painting using the primary source analysis tool, which encourages students to observe, reflect, and question.
  2. Continue investigation as students examine George Washington’s draft of the Constitution.
  3. Students explore the copy of the Constitution as we know it today.
  4. As a group, compare George Washington’s Constitution draft and the Constitution final copy.
  5. Revisit The Foundation of American Government print and ask students to explain what is happening in the picture based on their exploration of primary sources.


Library of Congress Teacher’s page: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/

Constitution Primary Source Set: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/primarysourcesets/constitution/

Using Primary Sources page: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/

About the Author

Emily Michael Cagle, MLIS, is the media coordinator at Meadowlark Elementary School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She earned her bachelor’s in elementary education from Wake Forest University and her master’s in library and information studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Cagle is also a National Board Certified Teacher. In 2013, she attended “Teaching with Primary Sources,” a week-long Summer Institute for Teachers at the Library of Congress.

MLA Citation Cagle, Emily. "A New Take on Constitution Day: Engaging Students with Primary Sources." School Library Connection, May 2016, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2186194.

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Entry ID: 2015992

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