Saturday, September 14, 2013

My Students' first Experiences with Source Work (in my class, at least)

Two options, among others I am sure, when working with sources are as follows:
Option 1: Give all students in the room the same sources to examine.
Option 2: Give groups of students different sources to examine.

Regarding option 2, each group works on the sources they were given, eventually sharing the results of their observations and questions with the rest of the class. As each source is discussed, students place big ideas and questions on a graphic organizer, which they will refer to later when they are crafting their response to the lesson's topical question. 

It is important here, I think, for everyone in the room to get a chance to look at any visuals connected to the sources being discussed. I use an overhead projector to do this. It is also important for every student, at some point, to have an opportunity to read the sources individually or with a partner.  

This week I also reminded my students about the differences between primary and secondary sources.
I taught my students that some sources are from the period we are studying, while other sources are about the period we are studying, having been created at a later, more recent period of time.
I need to start training my students to evaluate all sources as soon as they put their hands or eyes on them.
So far, most of the sources I have used have been secondary sources. There is nothing wrong with secondary sources, but a balance of sources is important. 
What are the types of questions I want students to ask themselves when they encounter a source?
I think I need to do a better job structuring this for my students, especially early on as they are first developing the skill of sourcing. 
Stepping back for a second, when students are handed a piece of paper in my class, it is either blank, with text, with a visual or visuals, or a combination of text and visual(s).

Students will often assume, by default, that the next thing they are supposed to do is read/view the source, trying to pull as much content from it as possible.  

The first intervention that needs to be taught to students is to resist the urge to jump right in. They need to take some preliminary steps, so that they can ascertain some basic facts about the source. What is it? Where does it come from? What is the best way to approach it?

Are they reading a source that is designed primarily to provide them with some background knowledge?

Are they reading a source that will help them derive evidence as they work to answer a question we have posed or that they have constructed?

This week my students were definitely focused on reading the sources primarily for content. We did have students work on synthesizing content from three sources about the Catholic Church into a response to a topical question we provided them with:

What role did the Catholic Church play in people's lives during the Middle Ages?

My experiences this week reminded me that even if I were to only focus on teaching students content, I can do so by having students reading and analyzing sources, as opposed to me talking at them via a powerpoint presentation or worksheets. I plan on doing so much more than I did this week, but I could definitely notice a shift in my teaching.


  1. Joe,
    I usually prefer option 2 so that students are then obligated (as much as teenagers are obligated in an academic sense!) to become experts on their respective sources. Sometimes that expertise is simply asking a lot of good questions about what they can't know within such a limitation.
    Having said that, my lesson this week was in teaching cause and consequence of historical thinking, first with no sources, then 2 secondary (primary footage within the video clip) same for all. With no sources I first wanted them to come up with a list of possible reasons the government would ban something. What else was possibly going on in the world? What were the social conditions at the time? What were the most powerful social institutions? Then we watched a ten minute clip and an article on prohibition from the encyclopedia. They did a ranking of the causes, then wrote a paragraph supporting their top pick. I am hoping that the scaffolding of the process that first time will allow for some independence for tomorrow. I am doing a mock-up crime scene of Ferdinand's assassination with playmobile. There will be "stations" of primary and secondary sources, then I am hoping they will be able to put together the general causes, with a list of questions that should guide the rest of the week. Methinks I should have some sort of "history detective" badge of honour (these kids seem to really thrive on rewards).

  2. Option 2 can also create an opportunity to differentiate based on reading level. Students can also meet in expert groups who all read the same source before reconvening in base groups where students read different sources. Option 1, otoh, allows for the teacher to lead the class through a close reading of a source.