Teaching Citizenship Through Primary Resources: A Unique Approach to Civic Education

June 28, 2016

Teaching civics to students can be a daunting task; the ideas are illusive, the concepts vague, and the vocabulary advanced. So how do we do it?? How do we, as evolving educators, teach students about the valuable topic of civic engagement, and inspire active, participating citizens? More and more, research is now suggesting we turn to the familiar tools that have been there all along: primary sources.


Why Primary Sources?

Primary Sources: so they’ve been there all along! What on earth is new about them?? Why nothing, of course. Nothing is new about the primary source itself; what’s new, is our viewpoint on using them as a teaching tool. Primary sources are first person sources; they are a “gateway” into unique topics. These living documents, pictures, and artifacts add context and relevance, and allow students to figure things out on their own. Using them will allow students to critically think about their role in civics, which will lead to authentic change in the future of our political world.
What would it even look like for me???
It’s easy to understand WHY we would want to use primary sources to teach our students about civic involvement; the harder question is HOW do we do this? What would it look like in our real classroom activities? To meet the needs of our students today, we are moving away from lectures, and towards interactive classrooms. In my personal experience, the lessons that make the most lasting impression are those that students teach themselves! Why not teach about the contents of our Constitution by using the actual Constitution?? (Novel idea huh..?) Instead of passively teaching classes about separation of powers, SHOW the students what it means to divide the governmental powers, using relevant primary sources. Teach students the importance of voting and civic participation through different collections of primary works; show the need for reform and change through first hand accounts and pictures from our nation’s history! Yes, this will take more planning on the front-end, but that “light bulb-moment” where they understand civics through their own discovery is worth it!
How to get started...
To get started, every single day, you should show students 5-10 authentic primary sources to help...wait! Pump the breaks! That is exactly now NOT to get started. Start small, and then work your way up! Teaching civics and government ideas through primary sources is a progression; don’t overwhelm your students (or yourself!) on day one! Start by showing ONE source you have found on a topic that you they’ll relate to. (Here’s the secret...it doesn’t even have to be about social studies at this point! This is just practice!) Once you have selected a document with your students in mind, make questions (document based questions, or DBQs) to guide them towards an end goal. Once students understand the practice, they’ll feel more comfortable when dealing with heavier documents, such as the U.S. Constitution. The key is again, start small, and work your way up; find documents that support your civic ideas, create DBQs to guide SOME of your students’ thoughts, and allow them to take the wheel! Your end goal could even be to have students find their own primary sources, and create their own questions about these particular documents. (Rigor rigor!)
Possible challenges…

There are unique challenges to all teaching styles, whether it be student-related, or issues completely outside of our control. Primary source documents can be challenging tools to work with. One of the biggest issues is that they contain hard-to-understand language (whether due to reading level or handwriting!) Ways to combat this issue: translate the document for your students, chunk the larger piece into smaller portions to tackle, or even (gasp!) EDIT the actual document! There is nothing wrong with showing the student the actual document, and providing a “summary” next to it; this serves the same purpose, which is to get students to formulate ideas on their own from primary sources! Actually planning the lessons can also be hard. Finding primary sources to use takes time (which we are all a little short on these days!) However, once you get used to it, it becomes like second nature. Collaborate with your educator counterparts in your school and work together to create cross-curricular units that involve everyone. In the end, we all have the same goal: to educate and create active, future civic participants in the world.

You can do it!

It’s time to step up as teachers -- rise to the challenge and make a change in the way we think and educate our students about our government! Step away from the carefully planned worksheets and textbook follow-alongs, and towards critically engaging discovery-based lessons. Standards in education are changing, and the hunt is now on for “best practices” in the field: primary sources are the key you’re looking for. These documents will allow your students to discover using their own abilities, allow you to engage authentically, and will in the end, catapult our future civic participants into the future.


Need more ideas?

  • iCivics has a great tool -- which is ready to use! Try DBQuest to see how primary sources can be used to gain a better understanding of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • The Library of Congress has an amazing collection of primary sources, ready to use! Once you narrow your search to your particular topic, you can choose from any type of source you want: favorites of mine?? Legislation, manuscripts and photos (just for starters!)
  • Lesson Plans from Stanford History Education Group - Reading Like a Historian




Natalie Jansing is a Baylor University Master's Degree candidate who currently teaches 8th grade U.S. History in Waco, Texas. She is also a mom, wife and avid traveller. She loves her students and loves history -- which makes teaching Social Studies the perfect fit for her.  Follow her on Twitter: @natjansing