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Mom tips: Using primary sources to teach history

Last summer, I had the chance to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Archives. I can't describe how amazing it was to see, up close, FDR's "day that will live in infamy" speech, Lincoln's memo nominating Grant as Lieutenant General of the Army, and (my personal favorite) the radar plot of fighters coming into Pearl Harbor. My thoughts alternated between "WOW" and "I wish I could show these to the kids."

Thanks to the hard work of the people at National Archives, I'm now able to do so. Many of these documents are available online, and can be examined up-close without risking the destruction of such important artifacts. Studying Pearl Harbor and its aftermath will never be the same.

Why use primary sources?

All right, so using primary documents will mean more work for both you and your child. But trust me, it's worth it.

Using primary documents in historical research is not something that most high school students have a chance to experience. The skills learned are many -- not only a better understanding of history, but general skills at analysis and critical thinking. History is far more than memorizing dates.

Teaching with primary documents: how to

If you're not sure how to use primary documents, don't worry. There are documents, lectures and even webinars available to help. Some are aimed at teachers, other directly at the students. All are well thought out and useful. We've found that the delineation of teacher/student isn't always helpful, however -- so make sure you and your child look at both areas.

Finding the documents

If you're looking for a specific document, or your child is researching a topic already and needs primary documents to support his or her work, there's an online search available. While the results can be incredible, this is probably the weakest part of the site(s). Unless you know the exact term you need, you may have to wade through many search results to get what you need. The more specific your search, however, the faster your desired document will likely appear. (Note: this of course assumes that the document has been scanned and placed online.)

Lesson plans & implementation

For many topics, you can visit the connected DocsTeach site. There, registered users have access to hundreds of lesson plans for periods in American history ranging from the Revolution to modern times. Each lesson is explained, with direct links to the necessary documents. While some lessons cover a broad scope (for instance, a timeline of women's rights), others focus closely on a single document and its importance.

Best of all, students can complete many of the activities online, and email their answers to you. This fully integrated approach is well thought out and makes learning seamless.

Building your own lessons

If none of the plans are quite what you need, you can design your own. Whether focusing in-depth on one document, exploring maps or tracing a timeline through history, your customized teaching materials give you the chance to choose exactly how you want to teach a topic. These lessons use the same interactive online method as the already prepared lesson plans -- their only down side is that they must fit a pre-ordained format.