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Using Historical Documents K-3 Related Activities and Web Sites
by Mary Broadbent Sullivan
Searching the Internet for useful teaching information can be a very daunting task! Turning the information into a relevant lesson is even harder. There are many wonderful social studies sites with content that can be adapted to use with all grade levels. Many of these sites contain original historical documents. Using copies of original documents with your students can give them a real sense of what history is.
The web is full of opportunities to use these "primary" documents. You will find local historical sites that are relevant to your students or historical sites from around the world to compliment the curriculum you teach. Once you begin to use these documents in your class and breath life into them your students may just catch the history bug!
Adapting Historical Documents K-3:
In the younger grades it is much harder to find lessons for using primary and secondary documents. Here are a few sample activities that you can use to introduce your students to history through exposure to original historical documents.
Creating Class History Books:
- Find the historical document that you want your students to learn about.
- Read them all or some of the document to find out if they can understand the document.
- Explain to them that many primary documents are written for adults but the information contained in them can be exciting and relevant to children.
- Ask them how they think they could break down the information so that they could turn it into a book with pictures and words. Discuss how they would be providing the opportunity to share this exciting history with other children.
- You then lead them in a lesson where you break the document down into a storybook format with simple yet informative text. (This is very challenging!)
- Each student then helps illustrate the book.
- Now your class has created their own historical book that can be shared with other children.
- The final product and observations of the children sharing the book with other classes and each other makes a wonderful final assessment.
*I first used this format to bring an African American History Marker to life that stood a block away from my school. It tells the story of two African American brothers who escaped slavery and became important leaders in our city. We began with a History Walk and "discovered" the African American History marker. The kindergarten students could not read the sign and had difficulty understanding the complex language used to describe the historical event when I read it to them. I asked them if we should turn the information into a class book and a resounding cheer went up. On the walk back to school they proceeded to tell every passerby that we had discovered history on Norfolk Street! The book won a local award and I now use it each year with my new class.
Diaries and Letters:
- Find diary excerpts or letters that you will use with your students.
- Share a few of the excerpts with your students by having them read them independently or you can read them to the class.
- Discuss the excerpts as a group and brainstorm about the time period and why people would keep a diary. How do these diaries teach us about life in the past?
- A. Inform the students that they will be keeping their own diary. (Having the students create the actual diaries they will be using to write in from various materials can become a wonderfully creative art activity.) Follow up with periodic discussions about writing in a diary. How much of their daily lives is left out of the diary? How much is included? Does their diary give a perspective of what is going on in the greater world around them?
B. Have the students create a diary for a historical figure that did not keep one or no writings from them have ever been found. This is a great way to assess what the students are learning and how they perceive history.
- Continue to read with the class the relevant diaries or letters that you have discovered.
First Hand Accounts: Whose perspective is it?
- Plan a dramatic skit with a few fellow teachers or students from another class.
- Have them come into the class unexpectedly.
- Act out the skit like a real event without the class knowing it is planned.
- Have your students write, draw, or describe what they saw first hand after the skit is done. (Depending on grade level)
- Share the information together as a group. Compare and contrast first hand accounts of the same event. This should start a great discussion about primary sources, secondary sources, and how we interpret current events!
* These sites are suggested only as teacher resource sites. Any web sites that you might use with students you as a teacher would have to deem if they are appropriate or not.
Examples of Primary Document Sites:
Sallie Bingham Center For Women’s History and Culture:
(diaries and letters)
Constitution of the Iroquois Nations:
Constitution for the United States of America:
An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries Of Broadsides/Library of Congress (digitized collection of posters, advertisements, leaflets, and more that can be used to supplement American History Studies):
Comprehensive Social Studies Sites:
Teacher.Net Social Studies Lesson Plans:
American History Lesson Plan Links:
Social Studies Lesson Plans and Resources: