Exploring Primary Sources is series of four sets of cards that can be used as supplemental resources for U.S. History for grades five and up--even into high school. The 32 cards in each set use mostly primary source images from the era. Images might be a painting or drawing of a famous event, map, photograph, political cartoon, famous document, news report, or portrait. The 6” x 8” cards are large enough for students to be able to see at least some of the small details in the images. Images are sometimes accompanied by text such as with the Declaration of Independence; an image of the Declaration is accompanied by an excerpted paragraph.
The four sets are titled:
America’s Industrial Transformation
The American Revolution and its Aftermath
The Civil War
The Western Frontier in the 1800s
The cards in each set are numbered to present topics in chronological order, although you can use cards individually or out of order if you want. The image on each card is meant to engage student interest. Often these are dramatic or curious images that will provoke discussion.
On the back of each card are learning activities. First there is a background paragraph that explains the image and its historical significance. Next, “What do you see?” asks the student a question that requires them to examine the image and perhaps make an observation about an event based on what they see. The third activity, “Thinking about the picture,” requires students to analyze or evaluate. They might have to make an inference, determine the point of view expressed, identify evidence for an opinion, or apply more challenging thinking skills in some other way. These questions are generally most suitable for grades five through eight and are usually too easy for high school level. However, a card about Thomas Paine’s Common Sense instructs students: “Look through Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and find a passage to go with this illustration. Post the passage with this picture card and explain your choice.” More challenging activities such as this can easily prompt broader discussion that is very appropriate for high school level. On most cards, the final activity is “Using your imagination.” Most of these activities involved writing, although a few involve art activities. This is very much in line with the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts that require students to engage with primary source documents within their reading and writing activities. Some of the writing assignments are relatively easy, such as one that directs students to, “Look up some of the brief sayings for which [Benjamin] Franklin is famous. Choose one you think best goes with this painting.” An example of a more challenging assignment would be, “Write your own ‘Common Sense’ essay to citizens about a need to make a big change of some sort.”
On just a few of the cards there is an extension activity such as one that asks students to compare snake symbols (representing the U.S.) in cartoons on two different cards within one set.
Each set comes with a very brief teacher guide. The most helpful element in the guide is likely to be the list of the cards with a brief description of each one. There’s enough information here that you can easily identify where within your curriculum you might use each card. The parent or teacher might need to do a little advance preparation such as locating an online source for Common Sense or famous quotations from Benjamin Franklin. But that might also be left for students to accomplish on their own. Generally, using these cards won’t require much if any teacher preparation time.
Cards are ideal for homeschoolers since each student can easily study the image on a card when there are only one or two students working with them.
I think the Exploring Primary Sources cards offer an easy way to add an interesting element to the study of U.S. History, and they help sharpen students’ critical thinking skills as they learn about history.