If you’re looking for engagement in your social studies lessons, primary sources are it! They get kids talking, thinking, and connecting to history. Plus, they help make social studies hands-on and student-centered! I love using primary sources to introduce a new topic or unit.
That said, it can feel overwhelming to use primary sources with upper elementary students for the first time. So here are a few low-stress activities you can try!
It can be challenging to find primary sources that are appropriate for your grade level. Read some tips here.
Primary Source Exploration
One simple way to start is to just give students extended time to explore primary sources! You can collect objects, photos, artwork, documents, and even audio clips via devices. Then, just set them up around your classroom.
This type of open exploration is a great hook for a new unit or lesson!
As students interact with each primary source, they can chat with each other. Some basic discussion prompts include, “What do you observe? What can you infer? Can you make any connections to this?” And if you like, you can give students sticky notes to jot down thoughts as they browse.
If you want, you can get a little fancier and set up your classroom like a museum exhibit or art gallery. Magnifying glasses and clipboards add a little fun!
Discussion Prompts for Primary Source Analysis
When you want students to analyze a particular primary source, it’s really helpful to scaffold by providing specific questions or sentence starters.
You can go with general questions or come up with specific ones for the primary source(s) you’re using. I like starting with basic 5 W’s types of questions and then going more complex. This is a great way to bring critical thinking skills into the discussion!
These primary source question cards are a helpful way to prompt discussions when your students are analyzing artifacts, documents, music, and other types of primary sources.
Also, guided observation/inference activities like “I see, I think, I wonder” work well.
Hands-on Sorting Activities
Students can get hands-on with primary sources by completing sorting activities. You can print images, photos of artifacts, documents, quotes and have students sort them different ways, like:
- sequence them in a timeline
- organize events by cause-and-effect
- group by similarities and differences (i.e., purpose, who created it, what it’s made of…)
In this Great Depression sorting activity, students sort images based on whether they think they represent problems people faced or solutions.
Another high-engagement activity that’s super easy to prep is an “image peek.” This is when you choose an image (like a photograph or painting) to project, but only show part of it. You can have students discuss what they see and predict what they think the whole image is. Then you show increasingly larger parts of the image until you reveal it entirely.
It’s a basic activity, but it really gets kids thinking critically about what they observe. And they love doing it!
I’ve found that it helps students make connections to history by responding to primary sources through writing and art. For example, if they’re studying ancient Roman mosaics, they could make their own tile mosaics in the same style.
To incorporate writing, students can add speech bubbles to portraits of important historical figures. This is a good activity to compare different perspectives on a certain topic or event.
Digital Primary Source Activities
Finally, there are some great virtual primary source collections students can explore. KidCitizen has some nice interactive digital primary source activities for elementary students.
Also, these digital social studies graphic organizers are helpful to use when completing a primary source analysis.
I hope these ideas help you feel excited to try using primary source activities in your social studies lessons!