April 26, 2017

Teaching Now: Scaffolding Primary Source Learning


This is a guest post from George Mueller, a high school U.S. history and world studies teacher at Dunbar Vocational Academy in Chicago, Illinois.

As part of the CPS Social Science Academy, we were tasked with developing and implementing a lesson using primary sources from the Library of Congress. The TPS-Barat Primary Source Nexus has so many resources and is easy to use so that’s where I started. I wanted something that related to Chicago and related to my students. So when I found the primary source lesson Learning from the Source: Chicago Meatpackers & the Unions and saw that many of the addresses on the interviews were in the areas where my students lived, I knew I wanted to build a learning experience based on these interviews. They also fit in with the CPS Social Science 3.0 Framework theme of Conflict/Compromise, which we were working on in class at the time. In addition, the analysis of primary sources is closely aligned with the skills emphasized in the Common Core State Standards.

I knew I needed to scaffold the learning for my students so I decided to begin with some attention-grabbing images. These came from a set of about 10 images related to the Chicago meat packing industry that provided a good overview of the whole process from animals in the yard to butchering to sausage making and would help provide background knowledge prior to reading the interviews. The first images we looked at were fairly easy to understand and didn’t take a lot of prior knowledge for the students to understand what was going on. I modeled how to analyze a photo using the Image Analysis Guiding Questions, selecting the questions that would help students dive deeper into the content and making sure to include questions that required higher order thinking.

Next I read aloud one of the interview excerpts, modeling proper pacing and inflection. Then we annotated the text together, using Close Reading Markup Strategies to focus on the pros and cons of belonging to a meatpacking union. Then I divided up the interviews among groups of students. First I told students to fill out a historical thinking chart, that asked them to source and contextualize the interviews. Then I directed students to annotate the transcript excerpts and complete Oral History Analysis Guiding Questions. After reading the texts, we discussed the analyses as a class.

Once we had finished with the interviews, I had students working on more image analyses. Each student in the group analyzed a couple of different images and reported their discoveries back to the group. Students were then allowed to choose one of the images to work with.

To scaffold this next part of the lesson, I used the student activity from another lesson—Learning from the Source: Zooming into Documentary Photography. This lesson has students consider the emotional impact of images and helps them work on vocabulary development. Students then used the word banks they generated to help them fill out the Primary Source Thinking Triangle.

Students used their completed primary source thinking triangles as a basis for the culminating narrative assignment—story, song, poem—that demonstrated their learning about institutional struggles for worker rights from the point of view of Chicago meat packing workers in the 1930s. In effect, the primary source thinking triangles they created served as rough drafts for their narratives and allowed them to create richer, more insightful final products.

What primary source activity remixes have you made with the teaching tools, learning activities and Library resources that you find on the TPS-Barat Primary Source Nexus? Let us know!

Lesson resources

Related resources


  1. Ruth Ferris says:

    As I read your post I was amazed at the knowledge, growth, and understanding your students must have gained. What a great unit you developed! I always enjoy learning how other teachers do things. Actually I just want to know what ideas I might be able to “steal”. Thank you for sharing.

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