President George W. Bush greets fourth graders, January 5, 2004, at Pierre Laclede Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri. (P36885-10)

Primary Sources Toolkit

President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush tour the National Archives in Washington, D. C., January 19, 2005.

Courtesy George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. (P44280-089)

Whether using primary sources for the first time, a veteran teacher looking for new sources, or a teacher who needs help finding analysis strategies to improve student understanding, this page will help! The education program at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum has provided analysis strategies, lesson plans, and links to a variety of primary sources for the classroom.

Why Primary Sources? 

Primary sources are the original records that document events of the past. When incorporating primary sources into lesson plans, students can engage with history in a way that cannot be done with a textbook. Students become detectives seeking to understand why records were created, what messages they impart, and their impact on history. When students analyze the records to find these answers, they actively participate in higher-level thinking and learner-led inquiry. When you think about all they can accomplish, primary sources are incredibly powerful tools!

The Whole Shebang: Documents Are Not the Only Primary Sources!

Yes, primary sources are often documents.  Yet, the grammar and vocabulary that documents contain is often too difficult for students to understand. Students often lack the analytical framework to understand these complex sources.  So how about solving these problems by starting with primary sources such as objects and images?

If working with younger students or students not experienced in document analysis, introduce them to the process using objects and images. Often containing the same historical information as documents, objects and images are more approachable for younger students. These primary sources often tie into their prior knowledge schema in a way documents do not and build analytical abilities that will encourage students to develop the skills necessary to engage with documents and more complicated objects. For students who frequently engage with documents, incorporating objects and images into lesson plans serves to further develop their analytical skills and ensure a more well-rounded understanding of historical events. 

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Differentiating Between Primary & Secondary Sources 

Primary sources are the original records of the political, economic, artistic, scientific, social, and intellectual thoughts and achievements of specific historical periods. Used or created  by someone who participated in and witnessed the past firsthand, primary sources offer a variety of perspectives and experiences about events, issues, people, and places. These records can be found anywhere—in a home, a government archive, etc. Examples of primary sources include: oral histories, photographs, clothing, weapons, weather records, letters, diaries, treaties, legal agreements, sound recordings, etc.

Secondary sources are documents, texts, images, and objects about events, issues, people, and places used or created by someone who typically referenced the primary sources for their information. Textbooks are excellent examples of secondary sources.

When incorporating primary sources into the classroom, make sure students know how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources. Both the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Library of Congress have created extensive resource guides for using primary sources in the classroom. Explore these two helpful sites for more in-depth suggestions! 

Finding Primary Sources 

As digitizing primary source materials continues to increase, a few useful sites for accessing them and incorporating them into lesson plans can be found at Education Resources. Also, check out The First Lady and Education for interactive modules highlighting some of the domestic and global initiatives of First Lady Laura Bush as well as the Photo & Video Galleries, which highlight  some of the photographs, videos, documents, and artifacts from the holdings at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. 

Analyzing Primary Sources 

How educators choose to introduce analysis of primary sources into the classroom is often dependent on the students’ level. However, the best strategy to ensure their success is to give students a consistent method for analyzing primary sources and ensure that they consistently apply it. This not only provides a concrete schema for approaching primary sources, but it encourages them to develop their inquiry skills.

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Teaching Object & Image Analysis

It is sometimes easier to introduce analytical strategies with objects and images because students often do not need the historical context of an object to gain a basic understanding of what they see. When students are not struggling to understand the historical context and are free to explore the object or image with analytical strategies alone, they often experience success, which encourages them to engage with more complex primary sources.

To help introduce object analysis strategies into the classroom, the education program has created the Analyzing Historical Objects lesson plan that includes resources, activities, and a PowerPoint of objects and images.

Strategies to Simplify Documents 

The grammar and vocabulary in primary source documents may be too advanced for students to use in the classroom, consider trying a strategy to simplify them. Use a tag cloud generator, such as Wordle, to highlight key words and concepts. Another strategy is to practice “Divide and Conquer”—assign students one sentence of the document to rewrite into their own words. By sharing their interpretations, students engage in analysis and put together the full meaning of the document. Finally, consider a performance of the document—this could mean partnering with a drama teacher, asking older students to assist, or finding a pre-recorded version to share.

Wordles: US Documents


Analysis Methods & Worksheets

Analysis Methods and Worksheets can help students understand how to analyze and evaluate the holdings of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. 

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