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Engaging students with primary sources to drive social studies education

Teacher Created Materials uses primary sources to make history real and relevant to students

Talk about using primary sources to drive students’ content knowledge and build critical-thinking skills.

I’m a huge proponent of using primary sources to support social studies instruction. Primary sources make history real and relevant and help students understand multiple perspectives. When teachers use primary sources, students don’t just hear facts and figures or read an official government document; they also get to understand the personal connections and the role that people played. And when students understand this, it allows them to think critically about history and make connections to other important events and even to things happening today.

Can you give an example of those personal connections?

Teacher Created Materials has a resource line specifically built around primary sources. It covers a variety of time periods and historical events. The resource kit for the Vietnam conflict, for example, has everything that students will read about in textbooks, but it also has more personal primary sources that help paint a picture of what life was really like during that time. Included is a letter from a Vietnamese student from the University of Michigan whose family was still in Vietnam. She wrote to her friend near the end of the war expressing her sadness, fear and anger. It’s a fabulous letter that makes students look at the conflict from a personal point of view, which is really relevant to them because it’s written by another student who is similar in age.

Teacher Created Materials celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. How has teaching social studies changed over the past 40 years?

Social studies instruction is much more global today. Teachers focus not just on history but also on geography, civics and economics. Instruction is also much more interactive and simulation-based, where teachers use primary sources to really engage the students. Social studies is also more often incorporated into literacy instruction now than in the past. By doing this, teachers are able to maximize their instructional time so that students are learning to read using meaningful and engaging information that broadens their understanding and supports critical thinking.

What kind of impact has social media had on social studies education?

Social media has changed the way teachers teach. Students have access to so much more information than in the past, and teachers need to help students evaluate whether it’s fact, fiction or something different. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of support to help teachers do that effectively. In response, we developed Thoughtful Thursdays, when we send out free lessons, eBooks, and resources for teachers on relevant topics. We also have a book titled Information Literacy: Separating Fact From Fiction that helps students analyze and understand online information. We can barely keep it in stock!

Everything that Teacher Created Materials publishes is created by teachers for teachers and students. Can you talk about the benefits of that model?

I was an elementary school teacher. Many of us at TCM are former educators. Teachers are the experts on what their students need. Everything we do is created by teachers for teachers and students because we know that what they create will work in the classroom and will help students love to learn. That’s how we’ve been for the past 40 years, and that’s how we’re going to be for the next 40 years.

For more information, visit www.teachercreatedmaterials.com