In this lesson, students will examine documents and decide which are primary sources and which are secondary sources. This lesson is intended to give students an introduction to the concept of primary versus secondary sources and to prepare them for future study using more complex documents.
The documents referenced in this lesson plan are from the Daniel M. Williams Papers, held by the State Archives of Florida. Williams collected various documents and photographs in order to write a biography of Mary McLeod Bethune. Williams interviewed Bethune in the mid-1940s, but never finished the book manuscript.
- Read definitions of primary and secondary sources.
- Study examples of primary and secondary sources.
- Learn how to distinguish between primary and secondary sources.
- Learn an anecdotal story about educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.
SS.4.A.1.1: Analyze primary and secondary resources to identify significant individuals and events throughout Florida history.
SS.4.A.6.3: Describe the contributions of significant individuals to Florida.
Examples may include, but are not limited to, John Gorrie, Henry Flagler, Henry Plant, Lue Gim Gong, Vincente Martinez Ybor, Julia Tuttle, Mary McLeod Bethune, Thomas Alva Edison, James Weldon Johnson, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
LAFS.4.RI.1.1: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
- LAFS.4.RI.2.6: Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; describe the differences in focus and the information provided.
Part I: Introducing Content
- Teachers will begin by introducing the concept of primary versus secondary sources.
Historians use primary sources to write about history. Primary sources are the “firsthand” writings or recollections of a person who actually witnessed an event.
Secondary sources are interpretations of events based on primary sources. Secondary sources are “secondhand” accounts, created by someone who read firsthand accounts but did not witness the events themselves.
- Teachers will read brief biographical information about Mary McLeod Bethune to set up the primary versus secondary sources exercise.
- Teachers will read aloud the selection from the Johnson-Bethune interview, followed by the excerpt from Williams’ unfinished biography.
Part II: Document Analysis
- Students will break into small groups to discuss what they heard, and re-read the passages amongst their groups.
- When deciding which document is a primary source and which document is a secondary source, teachers should instruct students to consider the following questions:
- What version do you think is closer to what actually happened?
- Why do you think that?
- What changes did the author make?
- Why do you think the author made those changes?
- Do you agree with them?
Part III: Writing About the Differences between Primary and Secondary Sources
- Once students have discussed the documents and considered the questions above, they should write a short paragraph explaining which document is a secondary source and why, and which document is a primary source, any why.
Students can read the entire interview by Charles S. Johnson with Mary McLeod Bethune and write a short paragraph based on the transcript. This will allow students to write about history using primary sources and introduce them to the process used by historians.