Tag Archives: primary source analysis

Primary Source Analysis: Letters

21 Apr

I found some letters from the Internment Camp period, written between a librarian named Ms. Breed and children she knew in the camps, that have been saved and archived.  They gave some insight into how the children of the camps thought about their predicament, as well as their general outlook.  It’s a little like a mini internment version of Ann Frank’s Diary.

I was thinking about how to share these with the students, and specifically how to have them make meaning from the letters (without me lecturing about each line).  We could have done a similar activity to what we did with previous primary source documents–a write around, a discussion of the letter with a partner, etc.  But I wanted to try something different.  I wanted each child to try to engage with the letters on their own before they began to work with others.

Enter Notice and Note, the new book by Kylene and Beers that I referenced a few weeks ago.  One of their strategies for close reading involves students reading and annotating the text on their own, and then discussing remaining questions or thoughts as a group.  I modified it slightly as follows:

1) Students read the text independently, annotating with a “!” or “?” things that surprise or confuse them.

2) Students re-read the text, writing down their questions if they still have them, or, if they interpret the meaning on the second reading, writing their new thought.

photo 1

3) Students share their remaining questions with the class.  We put questions on the SMARTboard, and then the kids discussed them in small groups.

photo 2

photo 4

4) The class discusses the most salient questions or thoughts as a whole. 

We repeated this structure for four letters.  It was an interesting experiment.  Kids came up with questions from the literal (what does “morale” mean?) to the inferential (if there was no fence up for a period, why didn’t people try to escape?)

I liked the fact that students had to grapple with the text on their own, but also got to discuss their ideas with a group and share out with the class.  On the flip side, I probably need to do some more work modeling what kinds of things you could question.  I had a fair share of students tell me they had no questions, and then when I read a line from the letter and asked them what it meant they said, “Oh, I didn’t understand that part.”  It seems like recognizing when you’re confused is still a concept we need to work on.

Primary Source Analysis: Headlines and Quotes

12 Apr

The second time we analyzed primary resources, we looked at newspaper headlines and quotes.  The Internet is truly amazing when you get into more recent history.  There are a variety of website from reputable sources such as Stanford University, Digital History, and PBS that have gathered primary source materials from recent history, such as WWII.

I made two copies of all of my materials, and I glued the quotes on one large piece of butcher paper, and the newspaper headlines on another.  Since I had made copies of both, I ended up with four stations. I randomly separated the class into four groups, so there were seven students at each station.

2013-04-04 11.06.48 2013-04-04 11.06.59

I also provided them with a prompt sheet for what they could think and write about when at the chart paper.

2013-04-03 16.47.21

I asked them to take five minutes to silently read the headlines or quotes and respond to them, in writing, directly on the paper.  As students read the resources, they wrote reactions and questions such as “That’s terrible!”  “that’s not truthful,” “why did they say Lincoln would intern the Japanese if he wasn’t even alive?” and “it sounds like the camps were very crowded.”  I circulated amongst them and answered some questions on vocabulary words and confusing sentence structures.

I wanted students to look at it silently at first so that they had a chance to grapple with the material on their own.  It gave  children who needed more time (and more quiet to think) an opportunity to work through the analysis independently.

Then I gave the groups two minutes to talk to their group about what they were thinking.  The groups had a lively discussion, and I noticed them sorting out confusions during the conversation.  They clarified vocabulary for each other and re-interpreted headlines or quotes that had been confusing, as well as pointing to details that not all had noticed.

The next step was for groups to switch to the table that had the SAME resources.  They looked at what the other group had written and talked about similarities or differences.

After that, students switched to the butcher paper with the alternate resource (headlines or quotes) and followed the same routine.

We finished up our work by coming inside and doing a quick write about their response to what they learned.

2013-04-04 11.24.25

I provided students with some beginning frames to help them get started.

“The newspaper headlines and quotes from the internment camp period are mostly about _____.

They show ______.

For example, _____.

They also show _______.”

The frames helped them to begin and then to elaborate their thinking, and I was impressed at how many students went back to the resources so that they could quote accurately.  As usual, grammar, punctuation and spelling were emphasized.

The whole process took about an hour, but it felt like we got a lot done!  There were a few things I would do differently next time.  I would preload some of the more challenging vocabulary–I ended up just writing synonyms directly on some of the headlines and quotes.  I would also include more information about who said the quotes (name, age, place).  Many students asked where the quotes came from, which was an important question for historical thinking, and I didn’t have the answer.  It would have helped them to work on considering the author’s point of view, which is hinted at in common core standard 4.6, and is required more explicitly in fifth grade.

It was fun work, and challenging too.  Next up, letters from children in the camps!

Primary Source Analysis: Photographs

9 Apr

The first primary resource we dug into was photographs.  They’re the most accessible of the resources, and students can learn a lot through close observation.

In 2012 I went to the Teacher’s College Nonfiction Institute in February, and I learned that one way they approach content area literacy is through historical thinking centers.  Students move around to different stations that have a variety of resources to analyze.  One station might be photos, one might be statistics, one is video, etc.  Each station comes with a task card that has questions for students to discuss and write about.

I wanted to adopt this kind of approach with the class, but I knew that having stations (something new) and primary resources on a brand new topic would be too much.  Instead of having everyone working at a different center each day, I chose to make each day about a type of resource.  The first day would be photos.

I went with the traditional: I do, we do, you do approach.  I put a picture up on the SMARTboard, and then modeled how I would analyze it.  First, I just described what I saw.

“Hmmm…I see a woman standing in front of a house.  She’s pointing at a sign that says, “No Japs allowed here.  Go back home.”  There’s another sign on the other side of the house.  The house has a wrap-around porch.  She’s wearing a dress, it would be considered old-fasioned today.  There are trees all around.”


Then I modeled thinking about, “What does this make me think about this time period?  Does it remind me of anything else in history I’ve learned about?  How is it similar or different from my life today?”

I talked about how it reminded me of America before the civil rights movement, when “No Coloreds Allowed” would be posted up all over the South.  It made me think that the woman thought it was totally ok for that sign to be on her house–she didn’t look ashamed or embarrassed.  Even though her house and neighborhood are similar to how I live today, I can’t imagine anyone being willing to put up a sign like that in my neighborhood.  It would be considered racist and highly offensive.



Then I put another photo on the board.  This time I asked students to describe what they say (pure observation, no analysis yet) to their partners.  After sharing as a class, I asked them to respond to the three questions:

  1. What does this make me think about this time period?  
  2. Does it remind me of anything else in history I’ve learned about?  
  3. How is it similar or different from my life today?

Finally, each partnership received a different photo.  At their desks, they first observed everything in the photo, and then analyzed it.  Initially, some children said they didn’t know what to do.  But when I reminded them that the first thing to do was simply to state what they saw, they were able to jump right in.  After observing out loud for a while, they naturally transitioned into the other questions.

Some of their analyses were quite strong!  Some students compared the housing in the internment camps to the shanty towns we studied during the dust bowl.  Others noted that the baseball team looked similar to our teams today, but they were only made up of one race, and placed in the middle of nowhere (as the camps often were.)  One group saw a family of Japanese waving a flag on a train, and holding up the peace sign, and decided that it was their way of showing the world they were American in a peaceful and positive way.

After discussing the photos, we taped the pictures to a piece of paper and students wrote a two paragraph quick write with their observations and analyses.  I pressed them to use appropriate spelling, periods, and capitals.  I also provided a frame for them to write quickly.  One of my goals in content area literacy is to have students work on their grammar and punctuation (as opposed to only in writing workshop, where my partner is also working on generating ideas, writing craft, themes, and overall organization of a piece.)

2013-04-03 10.10.46Their work came out very well.  And they have a solid picture in their minds now of what the Internment camp period looked like–from the moment people were asked to climb on a bus, to life in the camps, to the communities they left behind.


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