Using Primary Resources for Writing Instruction – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 7

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.

Emily Lead.PNG

As the title suggests, today’s first demo lesson combines writing with primary sources. This lesson comes out of an institute Emily completed through the Library of Congress. She comes from a WAC (writing across the curriculum) background.

Quickwrite: Take 3 minutes to respond to this quote: All you need to create an accurate account of any historical event are history books, photographs, motion picture film, sound recordings, maps, newspapers, and magazines.

Hmm. I’m not sure how to take the quote. Is it supposed to be a sort of ‘ha ha’ quote? As in, the only things you need to create an historical account are multifaceted and numerous? Or is it a more straight forward question? As in are the following cultural and historical documents are able to give an accurate representation of a historical event? I mean, if you were indeed able to have all of those items, I think you’d be able to construct a fairly accurate representation. They key is having historical objects that allow for deconstructive readings and counter-narratives. Having all the sources in the world isn’t that helpful when every source tells the same story from the same point of view. But if the collection of objects represents a variety of perspectives, than yea, it’s good.

We share out. As frequently happens, the sharing process reveals that many of us took the question in different directions. Some of us focused on the word ‘accurate;’ others said what sources they would add to the collection.


Today’s objectives are:
-How does an author’s purpose shape his or her creation?
-How does this point of view shape an author’s creation?

First we’re going to learn how to use primary sources for beginning a unit. Emily tells us she’s going to run through with us first before letting us tackle one with our groups. This essential teaching technique is often referred to as the ‘guided release’ model.

She puts up the following picture and asks us what we notice. What can we infer?


We notice the fashion, the desks, the stove, the classroom-like atmosphere of the room, the great expression of the kid in the right foreground. What are the two girls in the front doing? With my brief knowledge of ed history, I know that many 19th century (and early 20th, I think) schools had monitorial systems that required students to be in charge of what other students were doing, learning, and etc. According to the source website ( this 1917 image captures the daily examination of each pupil’s hands, teeth, and nails.

Emily runs us through an inquiry cycle of observe, reflect, and question. She hands us an organizer for the questioning sequence, a new picture, and releases us to work through our new image. My partner and I go to work using this:


to explore this:


So fun! Emily gave each group an image in a manila folder with the explicit instructions not to look at anyone else’s image. We share out what we noticed, wondered, inferred. Everyone has come up with such rich information about their image. Next we have a big reveal of everyone’s images. They’re all a part of Dorothea Lange’s well-known Migrant Mother series. Emily talks us through a more detailed history of the images, explaining more about the photographer, the purpose, the aftermath, etc.

Emily asks us to reflect upon how the author’s purpose shaped the composition of the images. Even though few of us in the room have formal training in photography we’re able to talk about the specifics of the image. This is how it can be with our students. We also talk about how this image (or this type of image) would play out in today’s landscape. How does the rise of the cell phone camera and the amateur photographer/videographer affect the static iconic picture? The room gets into a great discussion about authority, truthfulness, and the ethics of imagery.

She brings us to critical analysis. How can we make sure our students are engaging with the torrent of media with a critical eye?

Quickwrite: Reflect on the photographs we’ve seen.

As with most of the teachers in the room I’ve seen this set of images before. They’re incredibly powerful depictions of grief, poverty, family, and self-determination.They’re also the product of specific contexts and purposes. What counter-narratives are possible? How would a feminist or Marxist lens alter our reading of the images? 

I definitely need to use more images in class. While I use plenty of them for writing exercises, I don’t use them to push critical thinking and multiple perspectives. Can’t wait to do this in the falll!

Emily wraps up with some additional applications for using primary sources in the classroom:



One comment

  1. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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