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Primary Sources: The Seeds for Student Growth

Although they may take a variety of forms, the most effective high school U.S. history courses tend to focus on chronology and causation, celebrate active global and national citizenship and an appreciation for the nation’s diversity, promote 21st century skills in technology and engage students in the work of historians via primary source based, thematic, student centered inquiry.

I remember as a kid looking in wonder at the items my dad has from his Navy days during the Korean War. Likewise, I kept every letter that my bride mailed to me when we were dating and living 400 miles apart. Why do these things we keep touch us so deeply? In part, it’s because these things are still living for us, and in being alive, they keep our memories vivid and close to our hearts.

The same can be said for the collective story of a nation’s people. These artifacts are ALIVE and help us feel the pulse of history. One of the biggest advantages of using original documents is that it throws students into the confusion of the historical moment. When students try to find their way in this new world, inevitably they begin to ask historical questions and in doing so become historians. Using carefully crafted scaffolding lessons students and teachers can work together in analyzing historical issues. This methodology works when the teacher is not afraid to say to students “I don’t know but we can try to find out together.” Part of learning is gaining the wisdom to recognize we don’t have all the answers. Generating thoughtful questions is as important as getting correct answers.

In addition, using primary source materials brings historical figures to life. No longer are they marble monuments, instead they are now dynamic, gifted, and flawed people. Perhaps students find difficulty relating to historical figures because we have placed some so high upon a pedestal that we can’t identify with them or their struggles. Perhaps if we redefined our meaning of American heroism from one of idyllic perfection to one of laudable action in the cauldron of human circumstance, students might see their future potential as heroes, as shapers of history in service to others. Students can do this through historical simulations, debates, oral history projects, webquests, wikis and podcasts. Regardless of the medium, students engage in the roles of presidents, soldiers, CEOs, protestors, judges, and laborers, while never forgetting how important it is to be themselves.

In the final analysis the effective U.S. history course fosters active citizenship. History education is the best way to reach for equity, social justice, and new hope. Sitting in our classrooms today are the century’s new leaders; within them the seeds of true equity, gentleness, compassion and service are sown.