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Constructing History: Exploring Primary Sources.

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Language Arts And English +1 Age Levels Elementary (9 to 12 years old), Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old)

This unit explores different historical artifacts and the stories they tell. Students will investigate a range of objects, ranging from prescriptions to buffalo hides sourced from different Smithsonian collections.

Guiding Questions:  How do humans shape the narrative of History? Whose History is being told? Is it possible to have multiple versions of the “past”?

The collection consists of 5 sets of artifacts, connected by some aspect such as culture, time period, event or movement. However, these objects each tell a very different story. 

Working individually, in pairs or in small groups, students choose  a set to explore. The students spend time quietly and carefully looking at the sources and investigate what they can tell us about our world, both locally and globally.  This activity encourages students to reveal the multiple layers of meaning in an artifact from the most visible story to what it helps us to understand about the lives of our fellow human beings. 

Students can share their ideas in pairs, or small groups, before coming together as whole class to share their findings.

Time: 40-60 minutes

As a follow up activity, students reflect on what new connections and information they discovered, new ideas that came to light, and what they found puzzling.

Students can complete the handout individually, in pairs or groups. 

Time: 30-50 minutes depending on the length of the follow up discussion.

It might be interesting for students to watch the brief video included, where anthropologist Candace Green and curator Emil Her Many Horses, discuss the Lakota Winter Count as a form of historical record. 

The duration of the video is just under  5 minutes.

For more information about the thinking routines visit:



L Holden

Anonymous Lakota winter count on muslin, n.d

National Anthropological Archives


National Portrait Gallery



Glass Hatchet, "Carrie Nation Wyer", 1913

National Museum of American History


L. Holden

W.R.A. Leave Pass, Teiji Okuda, No. 15771

National Museum of American History



Antislavery Medallion

National Museum of American History

March from Church through Chapel Hill Stopping at Segregated Businesses

National Museum of African American History and Culture



1876 Mary W. Stow's "Centennial" Quilt

National Museum of American History

Lakota Winter Counts

Smithsonian Education