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Lesson Plan

History Firsthand by Library of Congress


Social Studies (NYS K-12 Framework Common Core)

Grade Levels

Elementary, Intermediate, 3rd Grade, 4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade


Students will:

  • Construct their own understanding of primary source materials.
  • Enrich their understanding of U.S. history.
  • Develop a research vocabulary.
  • Develop research skills using offline and online collections.
  • Become critically aware of the complexities of archival collections.
  • Create a poster which organizes primary source materials to tell a story.


This learning experience will combine three small units together to provide students with an understanding of primary source collections:

  • Unit I - Personal: What is a Collection?
  • Unit II - Local: How are Collections Organized?
  • Unit III - National: Searching an Online Collection


This lesson from the Library of Congress has been designed to provide elementary children with experiences which enable them to begin understanding primary sources. Students move from personal artifacts to the vast American Memory collections and learn how archival collections are organized, how to interpret artifacts and documents, how to use primary sources to tell a real story and how to do online research.


12-15 teaching periods of approximately one hour each.

Unit I - Personal: What is a Collection?

Lesson 1 - Artifact Attributes

Have the children bring in personal mementos from a previous school year. At the Dalton School, one of the first activities of the year for fourth graders is the creation of a Museum of the Old Country. The "old country" is their K-3 Lower School several blocks away. Each child brings in a memento from a previous school year and writes a caption about it. These mementos and captions are displayed in a museum (hallway, classroom, etc.). Mementos include photographs, stories, awards, and sculptures.

Use these artifacts and documents in a lesson on artifact attributes.

  1. Ask the children to identify attributes that all the items share such as color, shape, size and format (written document, photograph, etc.). You can also refer to articles of clothing or shoes the children are wearing.

  2. As children identify artifact attributes that are shared by the items, write them on a blackboard or large piece of paper.

  3. Relate the categories students identified to the way information is organized in a library. Ask about the attributes that books have. Which of these attributes is used when placing materials on the library shelf?

Lesson 2 - Primary Sources

  1. Have students sit in a line or circle.

  2. Write a one sentence message on a piece of paper Give it to a student and ask the class to play the "telephone game". The first student reads the message and returns it to the teacher. Then the student quietly tells another child what the message says. This student in turn passes the message along until everyone has heard the message. Ask the last student to stand and recite the message out loud.

  3. Write the original message and the final version of the message on the blackboard for comparison.

  4. Inform students that the original message is a "primary source" and the final version is a "secondary source".

Use the telephone game to suggest ways in which the retelling of stories over time can change our understanding of history. Primary sources can be much more reliable than secondary sources for studying past events. Ask students how they think information might change over time? Ask students to give examples of things that are primary sources. Why do people save primary sources for personal use? Why do we save primary sources as a society? It may be helpful to record student comments on a blackboard or large piece of paper. Guide the discussion keeping in mind the overarching objectives of the unit.


Students can be assessed based upon their level of engagement in group discussions.

Unit II - Local: How are Collections Organized?

Lesson 3 - Archives and Appraisal

By working with materials which are no longer personal, but are still locally relevant, students will begin to understand what archives are and the role of the archivist. The Dalton School has extensive archives which are used in this lesson and the next. Other possible sources for archives might be local historical societies, archives, and museums.

Part 1:

  1. Ask if any students have ever heard of appraisal. If they have not, explain that appraisal often means determining how much money something is worth.

  2. Ask students why people might want to know how much something is worth. Refer back to the children's personal mementos. Do they have monetary value? Do they have other kinds of value?

  3. Explain that, as primary sources, the mementos tell us about something that has happened in the past. This is called historical value. In archives, primary sources are appraised for historical value. Archivists cannot save everything because there is just too much stuff in the world. They only save the things that they think will have some kind of historical value.

  4. Ask students to come up with a list of things an archivist might think about when deciding what to save and what to throw away. This can be done as a group activity.
Part 2:
  1. Photocopy 15-20 documents of different types (correspondence, diary entry, photograph, etc.) from a manuscript collection in your local archives.

  2. Divide the class into groups of three students and give each group a set of documents.

  3. Explain that [name of collection] has just passed away and his/her family donated an important collection of documents to the local archives. Unfortunately, there is not enough room in the archives' storage area to keep the entire collection.

  4. Students are told that each group will have to get rid of approximately half of the documents in their collection. They will have to appraise the documents for historical value and decide which items are worth keeping.

  5. Hand out an Appraisal Worksheet to each group with two categories, "Reasons to Keep" and "Reasons Not to Keep."

  6. Ask each group to review the documents one at a time and make a pile of the items they think should be kept and the ones they think should be thrown away. Remind the children that historians will only be able to use the items they decide to keep when they write about this person in the future.

  7. One student in each group acts as the "recorder" and writes down important reasons why they decided to keep items and reasons why they decided not to keep other items.

  8. Collect the items which were kept by each group and save them for the next lesson. Colored folders can be used to help students (and the teacher) keep documents organized.
Part 3:
  1. Bring the students together as a class and have each group read a few of the items from their Appraisal Worksheet.

  2. Ask students if the documents kept by each group would tell a different story about the person's life. Would some of the groups be able to tell a more accurate story? Why? Could you tell who created the records in your collection? When were they created?

  3. Ask students how they would compare working with primary sources and reading books or magazines. What was surprising about the documents? What seemed familiar?

Lesson 4 - Arrangement and Description

  1. Hand out the saved items from the last unit to each group of children. Ask them to look at the documents and write down some of the attributes the items share.

  2. After about ten minutes reconvene class and compile a master list of the attributes students identified. This list should include the fact that somebody created each item, they were created at a specific time, and each item is "about" something or has a subject.

  3. Explain that primary sources can be organized in many different ways. In archives this is called "arrangement and description." Why do they need to be organized at all?

  4. Explain to students that they can organize their collections by using some of the attributes that have been identified as a guide. Ask each group to put their collection in the order that will be most useful for a historian who will be using the collection in the future. Each group will have to discuss this before organizing the documents.

  5. When they are done organizing, have the students report to the class on how they arranged their collection and why. Foster discussion about the various strategies. Explain that there is no right way. Archivists arrange collections in many different ways depending on what the documents are about and how they might be used in the future.

  6. Ask students if they think someone could find things easily in their collection. Do you think an index or table of contents for the collection would help people find things? Since you can only put the items in order one way at a time archivists use something like a table of contents called a "finding aid" to help people do research with primary sources. Computers have also made it easier to find things when collections are available on computer. Most primary source collections are only on paper, but some have been computerized.
In the next few lessons we will be working with archival collections on the computer.


Students can be assessed based upon their completion of the Appraisal Worksheet, their collaborative efforts, and their ability to justify appraisal decisions.

Unit III - National: Searching an Online Collection

Note: These lessons were designed for use after students had already been immersed in the topic of Immigration for some time. At the Dalton School fourth graders study Immigration for the fall semester and this portion of History Firsthand was taught in December and January. The children by then had a very solid foundation in historic and contemporary immigration issues.

Lesson 5 - Introduction to Online Searching and the American Memory Collection: Early Motion Pictures, 1897-1916

The American Memory Collection is introduced via the collection entitled, Early Motion Pictures, 1897-1916. The teacher demonstrates a search using the keyword immigration. Three titles should come up in the search (preload these three films beforehand since it is too time consuming to download them during class). The class views them and discusses why or why not they would be useful in learning more about immigration. Two films are about Ellis Island and provide information on the topic of immigration. The third film shows an arrest in San Francisco's Chinatown. It appears to have little which will advance knowledge about immigration. The teacher should lead the discussion and record the children's statements on chart paper or on the computer.

Lesson 6 - Searching Texts: American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

  1. Place the children in groups of three or four to a computer.

  2. Give some background on the WPA Life History Collection. The children should know something about why the collection was made, how it was made and when it was made. They should be prepared to encounter difficult vocabulary, dialect and a range of beliefs, some of which are racist. There should be ample discussion of this before the children work with the Collection. It is assumed that the teacher will have thoroughly familiarized himself or herself with the documents before the children use them.

  3. Depending on students' prior experience and grade level it might be worthwhile to demonstrate how to read one of the WPA documents before the children begin their group work.

  4. Guide children in searching the WPA Life History Collection using the keyword immigration.

  5. The groups should select as many titles as possible and skim them to determine which will advance their understanding of immigration and which will not.

  6. They should keep notes on their process. For example, some of the titles will have nothing to do with the immigrant experience. The title will come up because an interviewee simply referred to immigrants.

  7. Each group should select a number of documents to save. These should be documents they view as having advanced their understanding of immigration.

  8. At the end of the session the whole class should discuss why they saved certain documents and not others. The teacher should record their discussion on chart paper or on the computer.

Lesson 7 - Searching Photographs Independently: Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company,1880-1920

  1. Place the children in groups of three or four per computer (ideally the same groups as the previous session).

  2. Review the collection. Explain what it was, why it was made and when it was made. Again, it might be worthwhile to demonstrate how to examine a photograph from the collection before the children work on their own.

  3. The children should do two searches in the collection. For the first, they will use the keyword immigration. For the second search they will try a synonym.

  4. Each group should save several photographs which advance their understanding of immigration.

  5. They can keep a record of their search process in order to discuss what worked and what didn't.

  6. At the end of the session the class should come together and discuss their experiences. Their comments can be recorded on a large piece of paper.

Lessons 8 & 9 - Assessment

For the next two sessions each group should review the documents and photos collected and organize them into a poster. These posters can be done off- or online depending on the resources available. The posters should tell a story about immigration. The children will utilize their prior knowledge of immigration along with their new knowledge gained through the previous lessons to create these posters.

Lesson 10 - Celebration

The final session should be one where the children can present their posters. Each group should present their poster to the class and explain why they did the poster as they did. Administrators and parents can be invited to this session. The posters should then be exhibited.


The Library of Congress Learning Page contains a unit which introduces students to primary sources -- what they are, their great variety and how they can be analyzed. The lesson begins with an activity that helps students understand the historical record. Students then learn techniques for analyzing primary sources. Finally, students apply these techniques to analyze documents about slavery in the United States. Students can also find primary source material about immigrant life at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum web site.


1. Offline

  • Student mementos - baby pictures, artwork, stories, toys, awards.
  • Textual and graphical materials from local archives - school archives or those from a local historical society .
  • Colored folders for student organization of archival materials.
  • Poster construction materials (poster board, glue, scissors, etc.)

2. Online

3. Technology Resources

  • Classroom Internet access
  • Demonstration computer
  • A minimum of one computer for every three students
  • Networked printer


Reproduced from the Library of Congress web site for teachers. Original lesson plan created as part of the Library of Congress American Memory Fellows Program.

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