April 2024 - History Gal

The Power of Primary Source Letters in History Class

As educators, we're always on the lookout for innovative ways to breathe life into history lessons. If you're like me, you understand the thrill of transporting students back in time to allow them to experience the past firsthand. However, sometimes our students perceive people from the past as distant or unrelatable. They easily dismiss their relevance because, before they know them, they are just random people who lived in times so different from our own. That's where primary source letters come into play! Today, we're exploring the captivating world of primary source letters and how they can transform your history lessons to engage your students! These letters bridge the gap between the past and the present. While doing so, they reveal how people from history are actually quite similar to us.

Use primary source letters in your history class to engage and inspire your students as they learn about important people, places, and facts from history.

Discovering Primary Source Letters

Let's kick things off by diving deeper into the wealth of knowledge held by primary source letters. These letters are authentic documents penned by individuals from the past. They offer us a direct line to their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. 
Primary source letters like these are a treasure trove of information relating to people in history which will be immediately exciting for your students to read.

Primary source letters are not just pieces of paper meant to collect dust. They're time capsules brimming with the hopes, fears, and dreams of their authors. From soldiers scribbling their thoughts on the battlefield to pioneers chronicling their journeys westwards, these letters capture what was happening during their eras. Whether it's an immigrant writing to family back home or a politician penning their next speech, each document offers us a different perspective of the past. They weave a tapestry of human experiences that cross continents and centuries. 

In a world where history books often focus on the big names and major events, primary source letters offer our young historians a change of pace. These letters shine a light on the everyday people whose stories might go untold—the unsung heroes and heroines who shaped history in their own small, but significant ways. 

Unveiling the Power of Personal Perspective

What sets primary source letters apart from other resources is their ability to offer a personal perspective on historical events. We care deeply for our students, but let's be honest... Our middle schoolers and high schoolers can often be solely focused on themselves. When you begin your lesson on important people throughout history, you're often met with an eye roll or a sigh, right? I know I can't be the only one seeing this unfold during class! Primary source letters help them see different perspectives of individuals who may be more similar to them than they think! 

Give your students an extra in-depth perspective on history from a very personal point of view with primary source letters like these.
Unlike textbooks that often present history from a distant, impersonal standpoint, primary source letters invite our students to step into the shoes of those who lived through pivotal moments in history. Imagine a Civil War soldier's trembling hand as he writes a letter home describing the horrors of the battle or a suffragette's passionate words as she reflects on her fight for women's rights. These letters offer a front-row seat to history, which allows our students to have an authentic experience of the past through the eyes of those who shaped it. 

In a world where our students are constantly searching for connections and reliability, primary source letters provide a bridge between past and present. They learn about the heartache and fear of a mother struggling to feed her family during the Great Depression or a young teen's experience living during the Roaring Twenties. In a way, the letters show our students that these were humans experiencing similar struggles or emotions they could be facing in their own lives. 

Integrating Primary Source Letters in the Classroom

You might wonder how exactly we can incorporate primary source letters into our history classes. You're in luck because below I share a few ideas I use in my classroom!

1. Interactive Readings: Stepping into History's Shoes

Make primary source letters interactive by reading them out loud to your students.
Interactive readings allow students to engage with primary source letters in an immersive way. They foster empathy and understanding for the individuals from the past. When I do interactive readings, I do my best to put myself in the shoes of the writer so that I can read with the likely feelings and emotions behind the words. For example, I may read out loud a primary source letter from the Civil Rights Movement. While I read, I want to portray the fear felt by many, the excitement felt during a protest, and the concern for the future.  My students listen to the hopes and struggles of the author and can hopefully connect them to emotions they themselves have felt and experienced.

I read aloud primary source letters a lot at the beginning of the year because of how writing and vernacular have changed over the years. The tricky wording can stump my students and often cause mental roadblocks.  However, as the year goes on, students do more of the reading on their own, with a partner, or in small groups.  

2. Dramatic Role-Play

You may have to do some coaxing for your older students, but hear me out; once they start, they'll get over their being too cool for some fun! Role-play or reenactments breathe life into primary source letters by taking on the role of those in the letter. 

Get your students involved in reading the primary source letters with a dramatic role play reading.
I divide my class into partners or small groups depending on how many people are in the letter. I then give each group their letter. Working together, they fill out the analyzing page, and then they plan out how they'll retell the letter's story through acting. 

You can give your students the choice to bring in costumes, or props. You could even put on a small production in the school library for the staff or invite a group from a local elementary school to come to see the performances. 

This approach fosters creativity and collaboration and helps them place themselves in the shoes of those from the past. 

3. Historical Debates

Use primary source letters to spark debate about specific subjects your students are studying.
Primary source letters aren't just standalone documents. They're pieces of a larger puzzle. In historical debates, I have my students use primary source letters as evidence to support their arguments. This helps them explore different perspectives on key historical events. 

Whether they are debating the causes of World War I or the impact of the Great Depression, primary source letters provide exposure to the voices of the past who lived the events. This enriches our classroom discussions and definitely deepens my students' understanding of historical events. 

Navigating Primary Source Letters

Be warned that working with primary source letters will always present challenges. Deciphering archaic handwriting, unfamiliar language, and cultural contexts may seem alien to how we write and word things in modern times. However, with anything, the more exposure and practice, the easier it will become over time. 

To help guide my students through analyzing these letters, I always have my Analyzing Historical Letters Doodle Page on hand for them to fill out. This tool serves as our compass, helping my students navigate the complexities of primary source letters with ease. With this page in hand, my students can focus on the essential details of the letter without getting bogged down by fancy wording or extra information. 

Use worksheets like these to help your students navigate primary source letters and dive deep into the meaning written on the pages.
As my students begin, they zero in on the basics. They look at who wrote the letter, when it was written, and who was receiving it. Then, they scour the letter for context clues that reveal the time period or historical event that could have occurred at the time of the writing of the letter. Whether it's a passing mention of a famous figure or a reference to a significant event, these clues lead them to a particular moment in history. 

The page also provides a space for them to jot down an interesting quote. They can also record any unfamiliar words or confusing sentences. These help to guide our class discussions when we come back together. So, while working with primary source letters may pose its own set of challenges, it's also an opportunity for students to sharpen their analyzing skills. 

Finding Primary Source Letters

There's no shortage of resources for finding primary source letters. From digital archives, exploring museum collections, or even visiting local historical societies will help build your own collection. The time it takes to find these letters is so worthwhile for enriching your lessons that will help your students buy-in to history. Here are three of my go-to sources for finding primary source letters.

1. Digital Archives

Digital archives are a goldmine for primary source letters, offering a wealth of documents at the click of a button. Institutions like the Library of Congress and the National Archives boast extensive collections covering a wide range of historical periods and topics. 

2. Museum Collections
Use websites like the Smithsonian to find excellent sources of primary source letters to include in your history lessons.

Museums are truly the guardians of history. Many museums around the world digitize their collections. This makes primary source letters accessible to educators and students. Whether it's a local historical society or a renowned museum like the Smithsonian, museum collections offer an array of letters that will help build our students' knowledge.

3. Historical Societies

Don't overlook the invaluable resources offered by your local historical societies. Our historical societies often house letters that provide a window into our region's history. My students are always amazed by the historical events that took place in our area. I find those moments so impactful because they help them see how close history touches our lives. 

Enhance History Class with Primary Source Letters

Primary source letters like these will breathe life and excitement into your history classes.
Primary source letters offer powerful tools for immersing our students in history. By diving into the personal perspectives of individuals who lived through major moments in history, our students gain a deeper understanding of the past. While doing so, they also build their empathy, critical thinking skills, and a sense of connection to those who came before them. 

So, continue to explore, engage, and unearth the stories of the past. By doing so, we can empower our historians of tomorrow to make meaningful connections with history. 

Additional Resources

Looking for other resources for primary sources? Make sure to check out the resources below!

Save for Later

Remember to save this post to your favorite history Pinterest board for planning to use primary source letters. 

Looking for fun ways to keep your students engaged as your focus on specific concepts, time periods, people, or places in history this year? Consider adding primary source letters to your curriculum. They are a great way to help students build connections with people and events in history through the words of ordinary and extraordinary individuals. #thehistorygal #primarysourceletters #lettersinhistory #usingreallifelettersinhistoryclass #highschoolhistoryclassideas
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