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History: The Stories of Real People

As a child, I read a biography of Amelia Earhart, a famous pilot who disappeared in 1937. I love a great mystery, so I was captivated by the stories about where and how she disappeared. I have been fascinated with her place in history ever since. I recently saw an article in the New York Times, called “The Mrs. Files,” referencing a letter she had written to them. They posted a copy of the letter online, and it was dated June 28, 1932. The body of the letter was typed, but it had her signature at the bottom. In it, she asked to be called “Amelia Earhart” and not “Mrs. Putnam” in print. What a piece of history!

What makes this letter so interesting? It is what historians refer to as a primary source. I learned that a woman of the 1930s had to specifically request that the media use her professional name. The letter was short, but it reignited my interest from years ago in the historical era in which Earhart resided.

In the scientific fields, primary sources are research articles written by professionals for professionals. They are not accessible to novice learners. However, in the study of history, primary sources contain the real stories of real people. Drawings, paintings, and photographs show us what people and their possessions looked like, how they dressed, and what was important to them. Letters and diaries give us a glimpse into a person’s thoughts. Newspaper articles and biographies may be primary or secondary sources, depending on how the topic is presented. Documents, such as treaties, legislation, or constitutions contain the legal parameters in which people operate. While some students may describe the study of history as boring or pointless, everyone loves a good story. Captivating students with history may be as simple as including more primary sources in the lesson plans. Studying primary and secondary sources benefits student historians in several ways.

Stories promote connection.

A letter or diary tells a story about a person from his or her own unique perspective. Stories promote human connection because we see ourselves in the stories of others. We can learn from the stories of others. We are inspired by great stories. As a young girl reading about Amelia Earhart, I was inspired by her tenacity. I was moved by her desire to do what only men had done before, like flying across the Atlantic Ocean. I was saddened by her disappearance, wondering what else she might have accomplished had she lived. The stories of real people in history have the power to motivate today’s students. History is the accumulation of many such stories of real people who have gone before and shaped the world as we know it. Primary and secondary sources have the potential to connect with students in a way that history textbooks never would. These sources are like opening a time capsule and investigating its contents.

Primary sources encourage further study.

When I read Amelia Earhart’s letter, her request seemed strange to me. As a working woman living nearly 100 years later, I have never had to make such a request. The Times article I recently read was a secondary source, compiling what the journalists found in their archives about women’s historical identities. There were several examples of famous women being labeled in the Times archives as “Mrs. Husband’s Name.” This study of multiple primary sources reveals a custom of the time in which they were living. Further study of that time would put the custom into context. Women attained the right to vote a mere 12 years before Earhart’s letter to the Times. People of that era certainly thought differently about the role of women than we do today. Primary sources often incite questions. If a student is motivated to understand a primary source, then further study may happen voluntarily. Any interest can easily lead to class discussions that teachers can use to encourage students to formulate their biblical worldview.

Conflicts necessitate critical thinking.

Conflicts between primary sources are inevitable. As students are formulating their biblical worldview, they will need to use their critical-thinking skills to analyze, evaluate, and create appropriate responses to conflicting stories. Every story has at least two sides, especially those that are critical to human history. What should students do when primary sources tell conflicting stories about the historical era? It requires critical-thinking skills to understand how to resolve these conflicts in the greater historical context. More importantly, students should be able to determine standards by which they can judge each source, based on knowledge of the author, the intended audience, and the intended purpose for the source. And beyond that, it requires general knowledge of the era to put individual perspectives into place. Teachers have the responsibility to guide the students to think critically about past events. Textbooks can offer guiding questions to help students develop their critical-thinking skills and their worldview foundations. Including primary sources in your classroom gives students opportunities to further hone their own skills.

Incorporate more stories for a lasting impact.

My high school US History teacher always had at least one bulletin board full of newspaper articles or other sources that students could read and write about for extra credit. Her office was so full of filing cabinets, there was barely room for her desk. I would become absorbed in some of the articles that caught my attention. My favorite bulletin board in her class was one comparing and contrasting the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. It included newspaper articles and other source material. The teacher was not promoting any conspiracy theory. By putting the information side by side, she was telling a story that I have not forgotten, although many years have passed.

To give students every opportunity to interact with source material, BJU Press regularly includes primary and secondary sources in activity manuals in all elementary and secondary grades. Additionally, in the internet age, primary sources are readily available and can give your students opportunities to do expanded studies with their activities as a starting place. The National Archives maintains a searchable repository of primary source materials. The Smithsonian Institute offers a similar resource. These websites are both great resources for US History artifacts and articles. For a more global outlook, Spartacus Educational is a great resource for images of famous people. The Avalon Project is a source of documents, from ancient to modern, that have been transcribed into typewritten English. The latter two are organized by location and time period. It can be daunting to gather and maintain a collection of physical or online source materials, but the potential to captivate students with the stories of history has long-lasting benefits. Interacting with primary sources opens students’ eyes to what history is. History is what historians think happened in the past and what they think about it. Primary sources enable students to interpret the events of the past as student historians, not just history students.

by Valerie C. Coffman, June 2020

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Category: Teaching