An inquirED Blog

Using Primary Sources from the Library of Congress through Distance Learning

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

The Importance of Primary Sources

Primary sources should be the key evidence used in the investigations of the social studies classroom. They provide students with the crucial information, viewpoints, and perspectives they need to construct valid arguments and make decisions about the world. Likewise, as we teach the process of collecting sources, their analysis, and use, we are actually teaching the process of inquiry. We are training students to look more deeply than the social media post or the knee-jerk reaction. We are teaching them to question what they see and hear - and seek out proof - before coming to conclusions.

Only a Piece of the Puzzle

Primary sources are critical - yes - but so are the instructional practices used to select these sources for students and integrate them into social studies curriculum.

In "The Danger of a Single Story," Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes the reductive power of hearing, seeing, and learning a single story. She talks about the stories she grew up with as a Nigerian woman, then the single story that she was reduced to when she attended a university in the United States.

It's important to keep Adichie's reflections in mind as we incorporate primary sources into our curriculum. Are we using those sources to tell a single story? What biases do we hold that shape the selection of those sources? We should ensure that our use of primary sources

  • integrates the history and experiences of diverse cultures and historically underrepresented groups throughout the curriculum, avoiding the tokenism of special months and lessons that can serve to marginalize under-represented groups.

  • investigates the history of discrimination in all its forms as a determining force in shaping historical narratives and practices.

  • incorporates the voices, ideas, images, and perspectives of under-represented groups in the primary and secondary sources used during student investigations.

The content of our sources also must be aligned with the strategies and practices we use as well. The use of primary sources should

  • seek to build skills and content knowledge in students from diverse backgrounds.

  • actively engage cultural learning styles and tools.

  • include instructional approaches that mirror the cultural norms of under-represented groups.

  • approach difficult subject matter with sensitivity and awareness.

  • scaffold student learning toward indepedence

Webinar Summary

Thanks to our panelists: Sarah Westbrook (Right Question Insitute), Ann Canning (Teaching With Primary Sources Eastern Region) and Jennifer Hanson (Teaching With Primary Sources Eastern Region). During the webinar, we used resources from the Library of Congress to implement inquiry-based activities with online learning tools.