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Introduction to Primary and Secondary Sources

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Language Arts And English +6 Age Levels Elementary (9 to 12 years old), Middle School (13 to 15 years old)

In this activity, students will learn about the differences between primary and secondary sources by comparing and analyzing different resources from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement

This collection provides ideas and strategies on how to spark discussions in the classroom about these types of resources, focusing primarily on students' interpretations of resources found here in Smithsonian Learning Lab.

Students will examine three different types of sources (documents, images, and objects). The activity consists of the following:

  •  In small groups, have your class examine the primary source, and have them summarize and report on its content, and discuss its strengths and limitations
  • For each primary source, review the groups' responses as a class.  
  • Then, have each group analyze the corresponding secondary source. Have them spot the differences between the primary and secondary source, and evaluate the reasons for using a primary source versus a secondary source. 
    • The primary and secondary sources in this collection focus on the same topic (the documents are about the Black Panther Party, the images feature Marian Anderson, and the objects relate to Rosa Parks)
  • Near the end of the collection is the students' task to sort through sources to identify which are primary vs. secondary sources.  
  • The final activity will call on students to reflect on the information that they have learned from the collection and ask them to think about how they would categorize digital resources  such as texts and tweets as either primary or secondary.

This collection and activity is based on the “Engaging Students with Primary Sources” guide from Smithsonian’s History Explorer, which can be found here: https://historyexplorer.si.edu/sites/default/files/PrimarySources.pdf. The guide is also included at the end of the collection, and can be used to develop other activities and/or collections on the topic of primary and secondary resources.


Museum of History and Technology Library

Smithsonian Institution Archives

Spacer (Documents)

Alexander Graves

General Documents: Strengths and Limitations.

Smithsonian’s History Explorer

Flier for the Black Community Survival Conference

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Spacer (Images)

Alexander Graves

Photographs: Strengths and Limitations

Smithsonian’s History Explorer

Marian Anderson

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Spacer (Objects)

Alexander Graves

Objects: Strengths and Limitations

Smithsonian’s History Explorer

Dress sewn by Rosa Parks

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Rosa Parks

National Portrait Gallery

8c Parcel Post Sorting single

National Postal Museum

Technology

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Engaging Students with Primary Sources Guide

Smithsonian’s History Explorer