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Creative Means to Model Inquiry

Published on Tue, 09/04/2012

Teachers Karen McKay and Caroline Allison first posted these ideas as part of the Emerging America Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Training of Trainers program.

It is essential that teachers gauge the level of primary source analysis their class has done before getting too involved in an activity.  As mentioned in the article, "Teaching Inquiry with Primary Sources" by Barbara Stripling, many students may not know or understand what they are looking for in a primary source.  To gauge this in my classroom, I use a PowerPoint to have students analyze a variety of documents side-by-side with pieces of modern writing.

An example would be the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 compared to a passage from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which the treatment of “Muggles” is discussed. It seems a little remedial for high school students, but they can see the parallels between the two. By doing it in a group setting, students seem to feel more comfortable to voice their interpretations. As more images and documents are shown, more students begin to interpret the documents and images. It is an informal way of assessing level of understanding using primary source documents.

To make sure that students aren’t overwhelmed by irrelevant information, I usually provide a streamlined version of the source. Continuing with the Harry Potter example, I retype the passage so that it is not instantly recognized as being from the book. Students have to read through until they see key words like “muggle.” This is featured in the "wonder" section of the Stripling article in she cautions that students can get lost in graphics and fail to look at the heart of a document. Once students have seen historical thinking modeled, they are more able to read into a document. Some students may need prompts, but that is easily modified once a teacher is able to see the student’s abilities.

• Karen McKay, Essex Agricultural and Technical High School


Hello Karen – I really love your example, especially using the passage from Harry Potter. Using a familiar passage like that can often get students comfortable and confident voicing their analysis of both sources. One problem that I have encountered when using group analysis in my class is that a small group of students will often lead the conversation and most of the other students feel comfortable just sitting and observing. Although this is usually a negative in classroom setting, sometimes I use it to my advantage. When we are analyzing a set of documents I will often ask the class to analyze the first one or two as a class, and these confident students will model analysis for some of the students who might not be as comfortable. Then students analyze the rest of the documents individually or in small groups. Each has a chance to share out with the class. At the end, all of the students are required to participate, but at different times during the activity.


• Caroline Allison, Reading Memorial High School


Rich Cairn

Civics and Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Collaborative for Educational Services
Rich Cairn founded Emerging America in 2006, which features the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History program, "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry." The Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse, supported by the Library of Congress TPS program promotes full inclusion of students with disabilities and English Learners in civics and social studies education.