General Teaching Tips: Because of preservation concerns, there are often limitations on how much, or whether, original documents can be handled by students. Digitized copies of original documents can serve as working versions for examination, transcription, etc., and have the added benefit of being enlargable, printable and annotatable. However, whenever possible, arrange for students to see the original up close at least once. So much of modern life is in facsimile that it can be important for students to viscerally understand that historic documents are real artifacts related to real peoples' lives.
Town clerks, local librarians and historical society staff are sometimes able and willing to collaborate with schools in digitizing select documents for educational use. Scanned documents can be posted on a local website for many classes to use.
Although younger students may have difficulty reading primary source documents, they can sometimes participate in the excitement of "decoding" old handwriting by working in pairs on a small portion of a document. Using an alphabet chart to help decipher just a few words, each team contributes decoded phrases to the whole.
Critical Thinking Questions
Document Analysis Worksheet: (National Archives and Records Administration)
Resources and Websites
"Making Sense of Letters and Diaries" - by Steven Stowe. This guide offers an overview of letters and diaries as historical sources and how historians use them, tips on what questions to ask when reading these personal texts, an annotated bibliography, and a guide to finding and using letters and diaries online.
"Spy Letters of the American Revolution" University of Michigan. A superb teaching site using digitized versions of original documents. Timeline, documents, decoding, maps, portraits.
"The Virtual Yesterday Diary Database" an ongoing project to transcribe daybook diaries from Massachusetts into an online, searchable database. Transcription teams may apply to use the online database entry system to store data from local diaries.
"DoHistory.org" Basic skills and techniques for interpreting documentary fragments that survive from any period in history.
Model Lesson Materials
Teaching With Documents: Lesson Plans. Reproducible copies of primary documents from the holdings of the National Archives of the U.S., teaching activities and cross-curricular connections.
"Diary of an Individual" Youth Source: Youth and Heritage Learning Source
"Using Primary Sources in the Classroom" Suggestions for using primary sources compiled from the National Digital Library's Educators' Forum held in July 1995 and from the Library staff.
"Handwriting: Unlocking the Past" Introduction to the topic of handwriting, the history of handwriting, and learning how to transcribe old handwriting. Interactive on line resources.
resource book was developed with support from