One of the most common tasks I see in the social studies classroom is the use of primary sources. The power of letting people choose their own story and bringing diverse perspectives to the historical narrative is essential and worthy work. After all, teaching with textbooks, for a wide variety of reasons, turns students off, but working with letters, posters, artifacts, and speeches can liven things up.   

To this end, we have seen countless curricular projects implement outstanding lessons that include multiple primary sources. Programs like Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) and The DBQ Project provide routine student experiences with documents. While these types of assignments can help students corroborate knowledge and move along the curriculum at a quick clip, it comes at the expense of deep thinking and making connections. For example, on the AP Exam, students are asked to read seven to eight excerpted documents in a 15-minute reading period. Quite simply, our students need more time to evaluate documents and make meaning of them.  

As an occasional alternative, I have students pick three to four documents throughout the semester to deeply analyze in the attached graphic organizer. The benefit of this is that it allows me to provide feedback on the individual components and help assess their mastery of the historical skill on the assignment. Students need time and space to wonder, do research on the primary source, and make connections. In affording this time, students will be more likely to grapple with questions such as, “How does this source corroborate or challenge what we know?” and “Whose voices are still left out?” In doing a deep dive, students are getting closer to doing the work of historians and doing the heavy lifting of rich inquiry-based work.  

The graphic organizer provided is very simple. It focuses on some of the key skills of historians: identification, argumentation, audience, historical connection, and reflection. Quite simply, we do not have the time to do this with every source one may encounter in a year-long U.S. History course. However, when we stop to ask students to connect the source to the historical time in which it was written, or the relationship between the intended audience and the writer, students are engaging in higher level tasks that will allow them to more fully understand the complex and messy work of history.  

One document I frequently have students analyze in my class is a  “Sharecropper’s Contract of 1867”. One point that will frequently come up in class is the very existence of a contract. Why a contract? Who does it benefit? Who does it not? Perhaps most importantly, what is the significance of marking an X on a contract? This allows students to evaluate the power dynamics of sharecropping and better understand the post-Reconstruction South. This whole class discussion and analysis would be lost if the contract was in a series of documents. Our students will do more by doing less with rich sources that lead to profound discussion, debate, and collaboration.  

There are many great databases to find sources online, but for efficiency I highly recommend the source book for the textbook “Give Me Liberty” by Professor Emeritus Eric Foner of Columbia University in the City of New York. These sources are brilliantly excerpted and capture the essence of what we want our students to do: read different perspectives and make connections and reflections across historical time periods.  

While coverage of content is important and meshing primary sources together has value, it is important to also let documents stand on their own. This exercise can help with deeper learning, shifting towards assessment of skills, and help students engage in the work of critical inquiry. 


New call-to-actionPat Sprinkle is a history teacher at the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, teaching AP® U.S. History and AP® U.S. Politics and Government. Pat is a graduate of The Ohio State University and Columbia University. Pat has served as a member of the Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Humanities Center, and the National Constitution Center. In addition, Pat was a 2013 James Madison Fellow along with a 2021 C-SPAN Fellow. Pat lives in Jersey City, NJ with his wife, son (Franklin), and dog (Lyndon).