Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Please don't tell your students a diary is a primary source.

Diary of Wilbur Wright, 1900
During most of my teaching, instead of a definition for what a primary source is, I simply provided my students examples of primary sources. "What is a primary source?" "A letter," "Diary," "Photograph." But I was doing a disservice by giving a list of formats and not an actual definition.

As time went on, I used others definitions and worked to make meaning of them, but talking to educators about their definition of a primary source has helped me again evolve and move to my own definition.

Who Were The Wright Brothers
by James Buckley Jr.
and Tim Foley
I would say that a primary source is a source directly tied to a topic and a time. Take, for instance, the 1900 diary of Wilbur Wright above. You may be studying late 19th and early 20th century attempts at flight, inventors or the Wright Brothers themselves. If I were studying any of these topics, this may be an appropriate source. Let's focus on late 19th and early 20th century attempts at flight as a topic. What makes the diary a primary source is that it was also created at the time of the event I'm studying. Of course, a book, written recently about the brothers is still connected to the topic, but not the time, and therefore is a secondary source. Some other piece, for example, a letter written to George Washington by Benedict Arnold, isn't a source at all when studying this topic.

Talking with teachers about their definition of a primary source and looking back on how I taught was a primary source was, my definition reveals some common misconceptions.

Misconception #1 A source is always primary or secondary.
Just by looking at the example, you can see that my old activity of sorting by format won't work. A letter isn't a primary source because it is a letter. It may be a primary source if it is connected with my topic of study and created during the time that the topic of study took place. Sources are primary or secondary (or not a source at all) depending on the topic and time of focus.

Misconception #2 Primary sources are "fact" while secondary sources are "opinion."
This isn't shown in the example, but many teachers, when sharing their definition of a primary source or when comparing it to a secondary source had an element of this misconception. Many teachers and students will imply that primary sources are better, truer, or more factual than secondary sources. In fact, primary sources contain plenty of opinion, bias, and perspective. The creator of the source brings that to the source itself. A written primary source has a perspective, a map has boundaries that the creator has decided to focus on and others that are not shown. A primary source photograph shows a certain view of an event and does not show other aspects, reflecting the perspective and choice of the creator.

Misconception #3 Primary sources are always "first hand accounts."
This may be the most controversial of what I perceive to be misconceptions, but hear me out. When I visit major institutions that organize primary sources by topic or event such as the Library of Congress, Docsteach, Stanford History Education Group, DPLA, and others, and I look at the sources that they identify as primary sources for a specific topic. There are countless cases where the source is not a "first hand account" of the topic it is identified under. These institutions, by their actions, if not by their definitions (and they vary) show that primary sources are not always first hand accounts.

I usually think of a definition as something static and unchanging. I think I should be able to break out the dictionary from my youth and the definition I read there should suffice. That has never quite worked for the definition of a primary source. Instead, my definition has evolved from a list of formats to others' definitions to my own. It likely will continue to evolve to inform my own understanding.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Creating Our Own Seasonal Round to Inform Us as Consumers

Coal River Seasonal Round
Two days ago, I was reading a Teaching with the Library of Congress Blog post about Seasonal Rounds. Seasonal Rounds was a term that I wasn't familiar with, but it is a visual that shows the annual pattern in the production of food. The Library of Congress example showing activities around the Coal River in Southern West Virginia goes further to add in community events and other seasonal events like splitting wood or what animals can be hunted at different times of the year.

I found the visual of the Seasonal Round intriguing. It did an exceptional job of showing the never-ending nature of the work that people do with food production. I also thought the suggestions by Danna, the author of the post, for students to look at yearly family activities could be displayed in an interesting way using the visual.

Jefferson's Vegetable Market Chart
This morning, I read a post from the Library of Congress Inside Adams Blog entitled The President and the Parsnip: Thomas Jefferson's Vegetable Market Chart (1801-1808). In the post, I discovered an interesting primary source, a chart of the typical times fruits and vegetables were at market in Washington. The detail of Jefferson's work reminded me of his weather record, a primary source some students had analyzed earlier this year. But the yearly pattern that he was displaying reminded me of the Seasonal Round graphic that I had looked at just the day before.

My first instinct was to wonder what Thomas Jefferson's chart would look like added to the Coal River Seasonal Round. I knew there may be a geographical issue with looking for overlap though. Then I started to think a little closer to home. I thought of local restaurants in St. Louis that tout their locally sourced foods. I thought of the local grocery stores (1, 2, 3) that advertises locally grown produce items available during the spring, summer, and fall. I thought of the seed packets at home that would be opened in the next few weeks to plant my home garden.

I think there is an interesting science connection here that may even tie into an idea of creating traditions, a variation of what was mentioned in the original Seasonal Rounds blog. We have a grade level that plants a garden at RM Captain. The next school year, another group of students harvest the vegetables that were grown. There is some initial knowledge of the growing season imbedded here in student learning. What if we built upon that?

Starting with Jefferson's Vegetable Market Chart, we could analyze the document to learn that different fruits and vegetables were available to Jefferson at different times. Incorporating the seed packets used by the students when planting that contain information on planting times and growing periods, students could bridge their understanding to connect the availability with the growing season of the fruits and vegetables. That would give us a very local start. From there, we could reach out to  local farms to gain more information on local planting and harvest times or grocers on the typical availability of different local produce. We could then look at the seasonal round to see how these producers tracked their information. Ultimately, we could create our own local Seasonal Round to inform us as consumers. Students would know when local fruits and vegetables are typically available.

With a focus on the health & science curriculum that deals with nutrition, we could even push the idea further. We could look at types of meals and recipes that incorporate those locally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables. We may be able to connect with a nearby restaurant that utilizes local produce to see how they make decisions about their food choices with what is available to them locally.

Ultimately, students could utilize a document from the past to launch learning that impacts choices they make in the present and future. At this point, it is still only an idea, so now it is time to get to work!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Lewis and Clark Expedition through Primary Sources

I've written several times about the amazing primary sources that are available online through the Library of Congress. Other great resources that you shouldn't ignore are the local libraries, museums, and historical societies hold primary sources that can help students uncover local history.

You can definitely make the argument that the Lewis and Clark Expedition isn't "local history", but if you visited downtown Historic St. Charles, like our fourth grade, and look at our Missouri-focused fourth grade curriculum, you would understand why most educators in the St. Louis and St. Charles area think of Lewis and Clark as "local".

Last week we had a chance to add to that local feel by incorporating primary sources into student learning that are available at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center. Our fourth grade teachers initially asked me about bringing primary sources into the student learning around the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Through a collaboration with librarian Emily Jaycox and Archivist Molly Kodner, we have developed a field trip that highlights essential elements of Lewis and Clark's expedition through the use of primary sources.

Prior to the field trip, experience revolves around the June 20th, 1803 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis. I broke the letter up into six parts. Prior to the field trip, students summarized each part in small groups and shared out to the class. The letter gives an incredible overview of the key goals of the expedition as well as how important it was to Jefferson that their findings be documented and copied. The danger of the expedition comes out as well with Jefferson suggesting they bring surgical equipment and providing safeguards for the information in case of their death.

At the Library and Research Center, Emily Jaycox gives an introduction to the Library and Research Center's mission as well as some history of the building. Molly Kodner then shares letters from Meriwether Lewis to William Clark and from Clark to Lewis that were written prior to the expedition. In addition, she shares a letter of credit from Thomas Jefferson for the men on the expedition. They both do an incredible job of introducing the space and setting the stage for the learning. Students are always in awe of the primary sources, especially the letter with Jefferson's signature.

From there, students, divided into groups, rotate through three stations, each one meant to focus on a major element of the expedition.
Molly Kodner shares speech and transcript for students to analyze

Focusing on Native Americans, students analyze a speech read by Lewis to Native American tribes as well as a list of questions posed to the nation tribes. Students groups typically react to Lewis describing the Native Americans as Jefferson's "red children" as well as him asking questions about whether the Native Americans murder each other. Several students perceive the interactions to be disrespectful or inconsiderate on the part of the Corp of Discovery and it is common for students to wonder about how the color of the Native Americans' skin impacts how they are viewed by men on the expedition and others in the U.S.

The focus on maps looked at how these maps were made and how limited resources forced them to be creative in how they documented all of their findings. Students notice how the maps focus on the water ways and discussion by students typically leads to them talking about how people used those rivers as a main means of travel. Students also compare those maps to earlier maps of North America, noticing how much the U.S. and European countries did not know about the land and waterways west of the Mississippi River.

Students investigate ways Clark described flora and fauna

At my station, analyzing the journal entries that focus on flora and fauna, students are first asked to describe Lewis and Clark in one or two words. Typical answers are "Explorers", "Brave", and "Adventurers". I then ask students to look carefully at the journal entries and them to look for evidence that Clark uses observation and description to help others in the U.S. picture these plants and animals in their minds. Students typically point out Clark's use of color, measurement, comparison, description of texture, detailed counting of things like fin points or tail feathers, and location of the animal or plant. If a student doesn't wonder out loud, I usually model the wondering of how they had time to achieve such detail. Students talk about the time it would take to make the detailed drawings,  infer that the animals were killed at some point so that Clark could make such detailed observations, and wonder aloud if animals like the fish described were later eaten. I end by asking other ways Lewis and Clark could be described in one or two words. In our last visit, students described Lewis and Clark as "Scientists", "Writers", and "Artists" and I shared that while we don't talk about Lewis and Clark and the Expedition in science, writing, or art, these men really were all of those things.

Viewing an actual journal from the expedition

While we don't use a formal analysis like the Library of Congress' Primary Source Analysis Tool, students do much more than simply look at these primary sources. They make careful observations, reflect on those observations to come to understanding, and ask questions about the expedition and time period. Most important to me, this experience with primary sources allows thinking and learning that can not happen in any other way. I have not seen a textbook, movie, or web site that leads students to question how Lewis and Clark viewed the Native Americans, to discover how critical mapping the journey was, or to describe these people as artists, writers, and scientists. The use of these primary sources allows student to take their own journey of discovery as they learn about the discoveries of Lewis and Clark.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Testing the Waters: Generating Research Questions through Primary Source Analysis

This post is from an activity that took place during the 2013-2014 school year. It was previously unpublished, but as I have moved forward with the next steps and hope to share those reflections in this blog, I thought this would be a good reference on my students' journey of generating research questions through primary source analysis.

One thing I’ve rarely done is let my students develop their own research questions. I was afraid they would come up with questions that were far off the topic or impossible to answer with our available resources.

After attending the summer institute, I wondered if students could develop their own research questions through using primary sources and the LOC’s Primary Source Analysis Tool. Might it engage the students in their research and allow them to find more of their own voice through their research writing?

I recruited the fourth grade teachers in my experiment. Fourth grade students research a famous Missourian. They answer questions about the person’s childhood, adulthood, and why they are famous. The questions cover the overall person, but aren’t unique to the researcher or the person being researched.

As a trial “famous Missourian”, I chose Ella Ewing, a woman who grew up in Northeast Missouri and was thought to be the tallest woman of her time. She was a sideshow attraction for years at museums and even the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
I chose three primary sources in an effort to look at different elements of Ella’s life. The first was a 1898 Barnum and Bailey circus poster of side-show acts. While it didn’t contain Ella Ewing, these were people she could have worked with. The second was an October 1903 article from the Spokane Press describing Ella as well as other sideshow performers that were appearing at the local fairgrounds. Finally, Students would analyze a photo of Ella Ewing standing next to a chair. My hope was that these three primary sources would bring the students closer to Ella, helping them understand her enough to want to know more.

Students worked in small groups to analyze the primary sources. Magnifying glass in hand, they made observations, reflections, and asked questions using “I see, I think, and I wonder” to frame their statements.

After analyzing the circus poster, I ask students to think about what they would like to know about Ella Ewing after viewing this one connection to her life. They wrote their questions in the Further Investigation section of the Primary Source Analysis Tool.
      What did she do in the circus?
      Which circuses did she work for?
      Did Ella get an offensive “circus” name?
      I wonder why she would want to do this. (work in the circus)
      Was she embarrassed about being with these people? (other side show acts)

Even though they knew nothing of Ella Ewing, this poster gave them an idea of her world and made them wonder about her. Their questions reflect that wonder as well as an emotional reaction to Ella’s world. They were beginning to put themselves into her shoes.

Next, students analyzed the newspaper article that mentioned Ella Ewing. They underlined what they saw that was interesting or important to them, wrote reflections and questions. Again, I asked them to think about what they would like to know about Ella Ewing.
      How tall is she?
      Was Ella Ewing taller than the Congo Giant?
      I wonder how much Ella was paid.
      Did she join the circus for money?
      Does Ella feel good that she’s not a phoney and some of her crew is?
      Was she offended to be a circus attraction?

Students read why Ella Ewing was part of the sideshow and it is evident in their questions. Not only did they express their reaction to the second primary source, their questioning about the circus poster evolved as students wondered about the height of Ella and the Congo Giant or compared Ella’s gift of height to what they perceived as other “phoney” sideshow performers.
Finally, students saw the photo of Ella Ewing standing next to a chair. Their analysis was followed by one final chance to ask questions about her life.
      How did she get so tall?
      How big was she when she was born?
      Did she get made fun of at school?
      Did people stare at Ella?
      Were people afraid of her height?

With this stark photo, student’s questions are just as stark, but also pointed. The emotional connection continued as students wondered about how others reacted to and treated Ella Ewing.

While not all of these questions can be answered, they do allow student researchers to connect to the person being researched. The answers that students find to other questions provide rich detail that gives depth and unique perspective to a research report.

This experiment may to a larger test. An archivist at the Missouri History Museum, and I have spoken about putting together sets of primary sources around other famous Missourians. I hope that they will also help students develop research questions and connect with the person they are researching.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Reaction to The Arctic Code by Matthew Kirby

Over the winter break, I finished an advanced copy of Matthew Kirby's newest book, The Arctic Code, the first in The Dark Gravity Sequence series. Not only was I pleasantly surprised by the first book in this series, I immediately had students in mind to recommend this book to. That's a sure sign that it will be a successful addition to my library.

The only other book of Matthew Kirby's that I had read was his historical fantasy The Clockwork Three. While I was a fan of that book as well, The Arctic Code is very different and, I believe, targeted to an overlapping, but slightly younger reader.

The Arctic Code is an ecocrisis dystopian novel centered around Eleanor, the daughter of a climatologists who is searching for oil reserves in the arctic as part of a non-profit company. Energy is in dire need as the world seems to be going through a new ice age. Eleanor, because of cryptic messages from her mother, believe her mother is in danger. Her mother then goes missing and Eleanor finds her way from a frozen Phoenix to the north to find her.

As Eleanor sneaks on to a transport plane to Alaska, Kirby introduces us to the pilot, Luke, who becomes Eleanor's guide and protector through much of the story. He is also one of the most developed characters and enjoyable to read.

We are also introduced to Julian and Finn, sons of another scientist who has disappeared with Eleanor's mother. They become companions on the rest of the journey. While these two characters are not as fully developed, Kirby gives the reader enough of their sibling relationship to distinguish them and leave us hoping for more in future books.

Through the rest of the story, Eleanor does find her mother who has started working for the Global Energy Trust, an extremely profitable energy company who works closely with the government. We are also introduced to a bit of advanced science that hints at the reason for the ice age as well as a driver that will move the story forward in other installments of the series.

As I mentioned before, Kirby's story is enjoyable. I was quickly reminded of Mark Peter Hughes' A Crack in the Sky, one of my favorite dystopian stories for middle grade students in recent years. The Arctic Code is not as complex and therefore would be a great read for a slightly younger reader. The action throughout the story will be an appeal for many and the female lead character is welcome.

Action is the driving force which can leave some characters a little underdeveloped at moments. That may seem like a criticism, but it is not meant to be. I'm hoping that this strategy allows for character growth through the series while letting the continued action keep the readers engaged from book to book.

Kirby has many elements he can explore in future books along with his characters. There is the advanced technology story line that drives the characters to their next adventure as well as the reliance on fossil fuels along with the economic classes that show through Eleanor's eyes as have and have-nots. Kirby also hints at the corruption and power that can take place when corporations work too closely with or even control a government.

These potential future story elements, along with the initial story itself, make me think this could be a successful series for those who love adventure, female main characters, and those who wish to begin exploring middle grade dystopian novels.

On a side note, Kirby addresses the absence of Eleanor's father in his story by making her biological father a donor. This is merely hinted at in the story and while most students may read over it, unaware of what it means, others may inquire. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Discovering the Person and not the Persona in George Washington through Primary Sources

This past fall I was fortunate to be selected as a Missouri educator who was able to attend a Weekend with George Washington hosted at Mount Vernon. It was an incredible opportunity to rediscover George Washington and the amazing impact he had on not only the early country, but on us today. Several discussions made an impact on me and helped me start to see George Washington more as a person and less as a list of character traits that one might list off for the Father of our Country. I wanted to try to bring some of that to my fifth grade students during their visits to the library as they learned about the formation of the US in the classroom. I also wanted to see how they could use primary sources to help them come to their own discoveries about George Washington.

Finding a starting point was especially challenging. The fifth grade curriculum was a moving target as I looked for resources while students moved forward in their studies. I also needed to select primary sources that were both approachable as well as engaging. Students had to have enough background knowledge to interact with the resource and it had to accomplish that task of understanding the man who was George Washington.

After much searching, I selected the moment George Washington was appointed to lead the Continental Army. In multiple accounts, it states that George Washington, after being selected, refuses a salary and asks for only his expenses to be paid. His gesture at this moment seemed to fit the noble character of George Washington, sacrificing for the betterment of the country. It is also a small moment that is told in multiple books in our library so I consider it part of the lore of George Washington.

But there had to be more to the story. I searched for primary sources that would help me understand this moment and understand the man. What I found surprised me, made me wonder, and expanded my idea of who George Washington was. I couldn't wait to share them with my students to see how they would interpret them.

The lesson started with a blank SmartBoard. I knew students had been talking about the American Revolution. Part of that involved George Washington's role in the war. I asked students to think about George Washington, not only during the Revolutionary War, but throughout his life. "You know a bit about George Washington. I know you've talked about him in class. If you had to use one word or even a short phrase, how would you describe George Washington?"

"Brave" "Courageous" "Strong" "Modest" "Honest" "Leader" "Kind" "Hardworking"

Next, students, in pairs, analyzed the Journals of the Continental Congress for either June 15thJune 16th, or June 17th, 1775 where Washington is appointed to lead the army. It is reported that Washington accepts and states "I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with," and asks to only be paid for his expenses. On June 17th, the Congress officially appoints Washington. This reinforces what can be found in many other books, but there was more information. Prior to Washington accepting the position, the Congress allowed $500 per month for pay and expenses for Washington. Here we have another piece of information. After sharing their analysis with the rest of the class, I again asked students to share a word or phrase that could describe Washington related to this event.

"Noble" "Put others first" "Humble" "Modest" "Trusted" "Patriot" "Commander in Chief"
All of these continue to fit with the persona of George Washington.

On their next visit to the library, we reviewed what students had discovered about George Washington. Then we looked at several pages of his Revolutionary War Expense Account as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army that was submitted to the Continental Board of Treasury. This is all in his own handwriting and is difficult to understand. To assist students in the analysis of the pages, they paired the page with a corresponding page from a secondary source, a 1917 book by John C. Fitzpatrick where he explains some of Washington's expense account in annotations.

As students analyzed the expense account, many had a noticeable reaction to what they read. I encouraged them to write these reactions down as reflections or questions on the Primary Source Analysis Sheet.

"Why would you need to buy curtains during a war?" "So unnecessary. 217 bottles of wine." "What are 'loaves of sugar'?" "He spent a lot of money." "Why did he get slippers? He's in war right now!"

There was a lot of conversation as students were investing themselves in trying to understand George Washington. Many students looked for justification. Students talked about how life was different and the possibility that drinking wine was more common. One student spoke about how Washington was leading his army for years and would need things other than military supplies. Another pointed out an amount of money that was given to a soldier's wife and reported in the expense account. Students were finding that George Washington was not one dimensional and were trying to make sense of that discovery.

After students finished their analysis, I shared a final secondary source from the National Archives showing the amount that George Washington incurred during the American Revolution, $160, 074. To more fully understand the number, I shared with students that there were large expenses for spies as well as supplies and materials for other soldiers, something not likely taken into account by the Continental Congress initially. Many students recalled the initial $500 monthly allocation suggested by the Continental Congress and that it was far exceeded by the amount George Washington spent over approximately 8 years.

I believe there was much more we could have uncovered about Washington with this activity, but our time was limited. I asked students, one final time, to share a word that could describe George Washington based on what we had analyzed that day.

"Smart" "Wise" Clever" "Not Wise" "Rich"

Given what students had analyzed, I think all of these traits are fair. More importantly, I think they are not all traits that typically fall under the persona of George Washington. Students had begun to look beyond that persona to understand and describe the person. In the meantime, students had investigated and analyzed papers dealing with the Continental Congress and the Revolutionary War. Overall, I think this first investigation into George Washington was a success and I look forward to students building on it in future activities.

Friday, December 12, 2014

How Using Primary Sources in Science Helped Me Reshape My Definition of Primary Sources

Meetings with my librarian colleagues are usually quite amicable. Except when it comes to what makes something a primary source. Then the clashes start. I'm not kidding. There have literally been arguments where voices are raised as we've wrestled with this question as a group. I thought about those lively discussions when I recently realized that my own definition for what makes something a primary source had changed.

For the last couple of years, I had used two resources to shape my definition of a primary source. The first is from the Library of Congress. One description it gives is that primary sources are "original documents and objects created at the time under study." It also goes on to read that "They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience." The second source contradicts that somewhat. In a podcast episode from Creative Learning Factory, they focus on newspapers being a primary source. With many articles not being written by someone with firsthand experience, can we consider these primary sources? The podcast takes the position that "primary sources are either an eyewitness account or an artifact of its time." To me, if I wanted to know what a greater community would know of an event, a newspaper article would qualify as a primary source of that question.

Earlier this year, the students did an activity where they analyzed primary sources of scientists notes and writings to investigate how they organize their work and their thinking. The sources were from all different time periods and a variety of scientists. Students recognized organizational strategies of these scientists and connected them to their own writing as elementary student scientists.

During other activities where I had utilized primary sources with students, there was a focus around a date, year, or range of time. We used primary sources to focus on colonial times, the building of a American symbol, or the time when a famous individual was alive. There was a beginning date and ending date. Even when we would focus on events like Thanksgiving or Halloween, the date would be important. What was Thanksgiving like 70 years ago? How did they celebrate Halloween 100 years ago? I could even attach specific dates to these types of investigations, and more importantly, many times the dates were important for us to compare our lives with those of others or to put it into a chronological context for our understanding.

With our activity about scientists and their notes, that specific date didn't seem to matter. Instead, the moment in time mattered, that moment when the scientist was writing down his or her ideas, questions, or observations. While we had information on when those moments took place, they weren't important to the analysis of the primary source or the understanding that they were working to come to. Students didn't need the date that Alexander Graham Bell wrote about his experiment to come to understand how he decided to record his ideas and they didn't need to know the year that Leonardo da Vinci drew illustrations of a bow to compare his method to theirs.

Is this new viewpoint unique to using primary sources in certain science settings? I don't think so, but it was what moved my thinking forward. I think the same idea of a primary source not being attached to a date, but a moment in time would apply in the work our fifth graders have done when using primary sources to define geocentric and heliocentric models of the solar system. What made those resources primary sources in that case wasn't the year they were created (although you could have done another activity with that being an important factor) but that these images were products of moments when these scientists were creating or defining either a geocentric or heliocentric model of the solar system.

I realize that this original misconception was not caused by a faulty definition by the Library of Congress or a misspoken idea in a podcast. It was my interpretation of those things that was flawed. To me, that word "time" in the definitions originally meant that date or date range or era. What I failed to think about was about "time" as "moments" Those moments could be scattered over years, decades, or centuries. And artifacts could have been created in all of those moments that are connected, not by the date, but by the activity or intention by the creator of the artifact at that moment. 

I'm sure that my working definition of a primary source will continue to evolve over time. For now, I am looking forward to that next spirited discussion with my fellow librarians.