"Primary Source Sandwich" - A Way to Teach with Primary Sources

how to teach with primary sources

Here's a simple but powerful strategy to support our struggling readers with primary source readings!

If you're hungry for innovative teaching strategies that can bring history to life in your classroom, you're in for a treat. Today, we're diving into a mini-inquiry strategy that will make history lessons engaging and memorable for your students. But before we get to that, let's address a common challenge in history education - the complexity and potential dullness of primary sources.

Using primary sources in the classroom is undeniably a fantastic way to immerse students in history. However, it can also be quite challenging, and if we're honest, a tad boring if not approached correctly. The primary issue? Many primary source texts are written at an advanced level that might as well be in another language for our students.

teaching with primary sources

I created the Primary Source Sandwich to help my reluctant readers access challenging texts, build-up their confidence, and help them develop historical thinking skills as well.

Many of our reluctant readers really struggle with primary sources and this strategy helps make challenging texts more accessible while still building up their skills and confidence! 

But fret not! I'm excited to introduce you to the "Primary Source Sandwich" – a low-prep strategy designed to make these challenging texts not only accessible but also engaging. Think of it as a bite-sized DBQ (Document-Based Question) and a mini-inquiry activity rolled into one, complete with a side of puns (I can't help myself, apologies in advance).

To get you started, I've included a link to free templates below, along with a couple of examples I've used in my US history class. The templates as so easy to modify in order to focus on different skills - gathering evidence, making inferences or observations, developing questions, and argumentative writing.

Later in the year, you could have students corroborate evidence and evaluate sources- tough skills that take time to develop!

how to teach with primary sources

How to Serve up the Primary Source Sandwich

Step 1: Select Your Source

Everything starts the primary source text. The whole activity is designed to help students be more successful reading the primary source text. For younger students, a couple of paragraphs will suffice and 3-4 paragraphs will work for high schoolers. 

Step 2: Craft an Inquiry Question

Now, let's sprinkle some curiosity into the mix. Craft an inquiry question that will grab your students' attention and set the stage for their exploration.

Step 3: Add Visual Ingredients

Add two images that will assist students in understanding the text and answering the inquiry question. Photographs are my go-to, but political cartoons, maps, art, or artifacts work well, too. The purpose of these images is to pull students into the reading, giving them context or a critical part of the story. It activates their thinking and interest so they feel more confident diving into a challenging text.

Step 4: Keep It Compact

One of the best parts about the Primary Source Sandwich is that it fits nice and neatly on a single page! If the reading is lengthy, consider placing the questions on the reverse side of the paper or the next digital slide if you're going the digital route. 

Step 5: Simple, Open-Ended Questions

Next, include a few open-ended questions on the sheet – for each document, have students record a detail, make an inference, share a reaction, or maybe formulate a question. Higher-level students can evaluate the evidence or corroborate evidence. Look at my different templates and you’ll see a range of questions that target different skills & offer a range of difficulty levels- so easy to differentiate for your student's needs!

Step 6: Putting It All Together

Finally, it's time for your students bring it all together. After inspecting and analyzing each of the sources, they answer the inquiry question in a paragraph or two. You'll notice that the open-ended questions help students confidently approach this task. 

make primary sources fun

This is a low-prep activity that's rich in skill development for your students. It's also a simple yet effective way to elevate a lesson that might otherwise involve passive reading of a single primary source.

The "Primary Source Sandwich" is just one of several primary source activities featured in my course, "Make Engaging, Exciting, and Empowering." This course is all about infusing rigorous learning with fun while nurturing critical thinking skills in your students.

Grab your free Primary Source Sandwich templates here

Bon appétit, history educators!

Dan Lewer
History For Humans
2020 Hawai'i History Teacher of the Year

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