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14 Ways to Use Primary Sources in the Classroom

By various Wisconsin teachers
Standards: all
Grade Level: All
Topic: Wisconsin People

Lesson Plan Text:

These classroom activities were brainstormed by 100 teachers who attended the Society's "History & Critical Thinking" workshops around the state. We offer them here as a toolkit to help you engage your particular students with original documents about their history. For more ideas, see our "Thinking Like a Historian" pages.

1. Write a Letter. You were there, and write a 1-2 page letter home that describes what happened. In the final paragraph, make a judgement and explain why you support that view of the events.

2. Give a Speech. Give a speech to your classmates that uses the historical event as its starting point, but goes on to defend a more general proposition. For example, you might explain Col. Paine's refusal to obey the order to return escaping slaves to their owners, and then go on to explain why civil disobedience is or is not justifiable.

3. Draft a Political Flyer. You were there, and afterwards you and some friends decide to call a mass meeting or demonstration. Prepare a one-page handout that describes the event, takes a stand in support of a position concerning it, and call for some action to be taken. Be sure to include the reasons why you adopt the views you do.

4. Write a Newspaper Editorial. You were there, as a local newspaper editor who must report on and then propose a reaction to the events. After briefly restating what happened, write a 1-2 page editorial recommending that your readers take a specific course of action. Explain your reasons for believing that that's the right thing to do.

5. Perform a Dramatic Dialogue. Write a dialogue between two of the people involved in the incident. For example, on the question of women's rights, put the anonymous woman writer, Agricola, and the lawyer, Marshall M. Strong, together and write a dialogue in which they try to convince one another of their own viewpoint.

6. Make a Map. Draw a map that follows a traveler or diary writer, such as this anonymous Hmong girl, for the length of their journey. Indicate on the map places where important events in the text occurred.

7. Make a Poster. You were present at some event such as the Bay View Massacre, and you and some friends decide to call a mass meeting or demonstration. Design a large poster that would be pasted to walls or kiosks that graphically argues for some  specific action, and briefly explains in words why that action is the right one.

8. Draw a Comic Book. You are the public relations person for an organization involved in one of these events, such as the women's suffrage campaign. To reach people who do not read well, you decide to make a comic book that explains the issues and urges readers to take a stand. For an example, see the pictorial booklet about Social Security that the government made.

9. Write a Song. Write the lyrics and perform a song that expresses the viewpoint of one of the key people involved in the historical event. Any musical style -- blues, folk song, rap, rock ballad, etc. -- is appropriate.

10. Shoot a Video. You were there and have to shoot a TV news story about an event, such as the 1865 referendum on black voting rights. Restate or re-enact what happened, and conclude with an on-air editorial that proposes and defends some specific action in response to the events.

11. Conduct a Debate. Teachers: have students work in pairs to map the argument in a text (main point and reasons given for supporting it; see page 12 of the critical thinking handbook), and then join with another pair that mapped it the same way. Ask these foursomes to take a stand that either agrees or disagrees with the conclusion. Separate them into three groups: one that argues for the claim, one that argues against it, and the rest of the class, who will apply these evaluation criteria to each side.

12. Stage a Re-enactment. Re-enact an event, with students taking different parts. Make or assemble period costumes by looking at the Society's online childrens clothing collection ( or its Patterns of History kits (

13. Hold a Mock Trial. Teachers: assign students to play the roles of key participants in the text and hold a trial. Prosecutors, defendants, and attorneys for the defense must restate the events from their point of view and recommend a course of action. The rest of class serves as jury.

14.  Take a Field Trip. Visit a historic site or museum associated with the event. Many are linked at the bottom of the Turning Points topic pages as "Related Links" and the Society's own Museum in Madison and nine historic sites around the state are described at They often present hands-on activities and guided exhibit talks for visiting groups.

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