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Unlocking the Potential of Primary Sources

By Eve Zehavi
 | Jun 09, 2015

In one of my first doctoral classes, my professor gave each of us an assignment to write a proposal for an imaginary book we might like to write. Clueless as to what that might be for me, I tried to think of a scenario. I had read articles about creative visualization and how it has helped athletes and entrepreneurs, so I tried to imagine myself writing a book. In my dream scenario, I am sitting among the stacks in some dusty archive, swimming in paper and artifacts, writing a fabulous biography of some unknown heroine, when my fantasy is interrupted by my own mumbling. “Oooh, this would be really cool to show my students,” or “Wow! If my kids saw this, they would miraculously understand (insert learning objective here)!” So my personal love of “old stuff” suddenly had an application in the classroom.

In case you are thinking “this doesn’t apply to me,” take a look at this in the context of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Each of the following goals fall under the standards for Language, History and Social Studies, and Science and Technical Subjects.

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources (or science and technical texts).
  • Describe (or analyze) how a text presents information (e.g., sequentially, comparatively, causally) and how this contributes to understanding.
  • Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

While I was thinking about how to make a bunch of antiquated materials accessible to kids, I Googled across a news piece about visual literacy. Turns out my passion for old stuff, particularly images, is cutting edge because visual literacy is a key skill for 21st-century learning—and even old pictures qualify. I’d like to share one example of how I use primary sources, visual artifacts in particular, across the curriculum.

When introducing primary resources, I start students with pictures. Students tend not to think of them as texts, so you haven’t lost them yet! Below is one of my favorites. It is accessible, fairly easy to interpret, provocative—What kid doesn’t think disembodied heads are cool?—and applicable to almost every discipline. The image is followed by a short plan of action.


Just as you would give students time to read and process a piece of writing, give them time to look at the image, at least 2 or 3 minutes. Then ask, “What are your overall impressions?” After looking at the piece as a whole, have students scrutinize the image in quadrants, which makes them focus on the details. In the sample image, this is particularly important, as students will begin to notice the use of markers, like “Fig. 1,” and so on.

Make connections

You can start kids thinking just by asking “What does this make you think of?” Deepen their thoughts with questions that relate to purpose. “Does this piece have a function other than to entertain?” “Why do you think the artist used this particular technique (realism, cubism, naturalism)?”


Having students talk about what they observe is an important component vital to critical thinking. It requires students to both justify their own thinking, what we teachers like to call “using evidence,” and it forces them to be open to the interpretations of other students and perhaps take a second look or reevaluate their own thinking in a new context.


As I mentioned, I love using this picture because it has so many applications. In English, I like to pair this text with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. An easy comparison relates to mood. Because the image of Aldini’s experiments is in stark contrast to Mary Shelley’s novel, talking about mood is a good gateway to thinking about author’s purpose and how it is achieved in literature.

Another application for this image, of course, is science. There is any number of issues to discuss; for example, a basic question would be about the primitive creation of electricity and what materials are conductive (human flesh?). What about the new science of electricity in the 1800s made scientists think they could reanimate people? Another fascinating conversation revolves around the relationship of these early efforts and contemporary use of defibrillators. Why does Aldini’s work seem so creepy when we cheer scenes from the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, in which the doctors bring patients back to life?

Finally, there is history and social studies. The obvious lessons are teaching about the history of medicine, but what about exploring crime and punishment in the 19th century in contrast to contemporary thought on the subject? How about delving into the ethics of experimentation? Does a cost/benefit analysis (traditionally a business model) make sense when we talk about the potential to save lives?

I guess by now you can see why I haven’t written my book yet—I’m too fascinated/distracted by all the individual treasures I come across, but I’m already working my latest interdisciplinary find—recipes!

If you are interested in incorporating primary resources into your classes, a great place to start is the National Archives. There are also simple introductions to visual literacy to check out, for use with elementary students or with older students on how journalists interpret photos.

Eve Zehavi is a PhD student in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Houston. She has 15 years of classroom experience and master’s degrees in both Library/Information Science and English. Her current research interests revolve around complex texts including primary sources.

Zehavi will present a session entitled “Critical Thinking on Steroids—Using Primary Sources in Disciplinary Literacy” on Saturday, July 18 at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis, MO, July 18–20. This session will feature how to best use primary sources in the classroom. Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.

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