Greater Denver Metro NHD



While secondary sources aide students in seeing “the big picture”, the heart of any NHD project is primary source research. Judges want to see that students have discovered sources that give first-hand accounts of their topic, and that they have analyzed those sources to garner information. While the secondary sources can give them an understanding of the event or person, primary sources serve as proof for what the secondary sources assert.



Last week your students learned about using secondary sources and began their research. This week we will be using those secondary sources to discover primary sources. You might wish to tie this lesson to your current classroom topic. For this lesson we will be working with non-digital sources. Next week we will tackle using the internet to identify and analyze primary source documents. To begin, brainstorm with your students a list of items that might be considered primary sources. (government documents, journals, letters, pictures, maps, speeches, etc.)


The point of today’s lesson is to show students how to use a secondary source to locate primary sources. Begin with a secondary source book about your topic of choice that gives examples of primary sources. This might be as simple as using your classroom textbook if it has good examples of primary sources supporting the text. If you are not relating today’s lesson to your classroom topic, a book such as Thomas F. Schwartz Lincoln: An Illustrated Life and Legacy is a good choice. While this is a secondary source, it is filled with actually copies of primary source documents.


First, demonstrate to students how they might be able to find primary sources simply by reading the text of the secondary source. In Schwartz’ Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation is discussed several times. Because this book also has copies of the documents, a large copy of the Emancipation Proclamation is present to show students. Point out that any information the author wrote about the Emancipation Proclamation, including picture captions, is not a primary source. The primary source is the wording of the Proclamation itself, or a visual representation of the original document.


Next, show students that using the index might help them locate a primary source document. “The Gettysburg Address” is mentioned in the table of contents of our example source. Finding those pages will lead to the discovery that a copy of the speech is found in the supplements to the book. Remind students that the speech itself is the primary source, and the analysis provided by the author of the book is a secondary source. Point out that often in an index will italicize pictures, making them easy to locate in the index.


Next, demonstrate to your students that your book might have a bibliography or source page of its own. Often the author will list the primary sources he used in researching the book here. This will give the students an idea of where they might look for primary sources. The Lincoln book has both a list of sources and a list of credits that might give students some ideas for research. For example, The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is listed in the credits. A simple internet search will lead students to the Library/Museum website where more than 52,000 primary sources can be accessed!


Finally, show students how footnotes or endnotes can lead them to research ideas. In our sample, endnotes are provided under the heading “Sources”. Reading through this list might give students some ideas of sources to look for, both secondary and primary.


Once students have located primary sources, they will need to learn to analyze them. As to not overwhelm them, we will begin by simply looking and bookmarking primary sources they might find. We will begin working on analyzing documents after next week’s lesson on locating internet sources. Do not discourage students from taking notes on what they have found, but warn them we will be returning to the documents they will be finding, so remind them to keep track of their sources. This could be as simple as placing sticky notes in their secondary sources when they find a reference to a primary source, making a photocopy of the page and keeping it in their research log, or taking a picture to keep in their digital file.


Work time:

A worksheet is available here that helps students evaluate the primary sources they find. This may be helpful for students who need a more structured framework, but may be overwhelming to other students.



Using the secondary sources they already have, students should locate _____ number of primary sources related to their topic before the next workshop. Require one of these sources to be a photograph, map or political cartoon, as they will be working with these types of sources in a future workshop. (Choose a number appropriate for the age and ability level of your class).

Other documents:

Evaluating Secondary Sources

Why Use Primary Sources

Primary Source Graphic Organizer

How to Use Primary Sources

Millions of Primary Source Tools for Teachers


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