The Power of Primary Sources



Last year, as a part of my speech unit, my seventh-grade students studied César Chávez and Martin Luther King Jr. and the persuasive techniques employed by each man. As I was attempting to set the scene for the speeches, I found it crucial to show my students as much footage as possible from the time period in which these men lived, as well as help them understand the nature of the press and other media.



Students today are part of a 24-hour-news-cycle generation whose news is not easily decipherable from their entertainment. Instead of making news more accessible, this inundation of information on the part of the media has actually blurred the line between what is “newsworthy” and what is sensationalized to compete with other outlets. As we talked about media, I realized that my students were “victims” of oversimplified sound bites of information.

For example, not a single student knew that Rosa Parks had a role in the civil rights movement prior to her arrest. They knew what I like to call the “afterschool special” version of events. They believed that she was just a lady who didn’t want to give up her seat; while that may be true on a philosophical level, it severely undersells the degree of organization and strategizing that went into the civil rights movement. As we dug deeper, we found that her husband was an early activist in the effort to free the Scottsboro Boys, defendants in a celebrated trial in the 1930s, which the students also didn’t know about. One pointed out that Mr. and Mrs. Parks were a “kind of power couple” of the civil rights movement. To me, this type of higher-order thinking about history was far more useful than a mini-lesson that reduces complexity to talking points.

As we worked through the information, it became abundantly clear that in order to help my students understand complex and nuanced historical events, I needed to rely on as many primary sources as possible. Share My Lesson’s contributors make this easy to do. Again, this generation of digital natives doesn’t even understand the nature of television—my own children don’t really understand that there ever were specified times TV shows aired. With DVRs and Netflix my kids have become accustomed to a personalized television experience. How can they comprehend the role that TV played on the collective conscience of a generation? Television in the 1950s and 1960s is a great starting place.

Another resource I plan to use this year is from Speak Truth to Power’s, John Lewis: Non-Violent Activism, that helps students develop skills necessary to describe a nonviolent campaign for social, political or cultural change; compare and contrast a campaign that advocates nonviolence versus violence; analyze the tactics of nonviolent protests; and compare the approach of the Irish Republican Army to the U.S. civil rights movement. I will not be able to use this entire resource, but I like to be able to give parents the links so they can go into it further with their children. I also share the links with my social studies teachers.

As we ponder the best way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., and to recognize the contributions of the many civil rights leaders, it is an essential decision to keep these “mini-lessons” from being oversimplified; rather, it seems that looking at even one aspect of the movement through a zoom lens is more beneficial than providing our own version of history that better fits a timeline of unit plans but fails to incorporate and reflect the actual impact of these events. The best avenue for the type of learning the Common Core State Standards promote is the use of primary sources to give our students access to the truth—not a sound bite.