A Primary Source Mystery to Start the New School Year

By Cynthia Resor posted 20 days ago


How would you rate the historical primary source analysis skills of your students? My students often want to characterize a primary source as “true” or “false” or “right” or “wrong.” Or they completely discount the information provided by the source because the author is too “biased.” In some cases, students may completely discard a primary source without carefully considering its context, original purpose, or the information provided in the source. In other words, students want a group of primary sources to fit together perfectly, like a jigsaw puzzle. They assume that each piece of the puzzle will contribute to a complete and whole picture.  If the complete picture and all the facts don’t emerge quickly, some students become frustrated without considering what additional information is needed, what type of source could provide it, and where those sources could be found.

Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, primary source analysis and the work of historians rarely have tidy conclusions. In fact, primary source analysis is better compared to trying to assemble a puzzle from a box of pieces from several different puzzles, with many of the pieces needed to complete the job missing. Some of the missing pieces might turn up in the future and make the picture more complete, other pieces are gone forever.

Consider beginning your school year with this primary source mystery activity to illustrate the complicated nature of primary source analysis. This same activity will introduce your students to you, their new teacher.

When school begins, before delving into your history curriculum, set the scene with the following scenario:

Imagine you are teams of historians living in the year 2400. Someone just dumped a box of old stuff from their attic in your office. Your job is to discover as much as you can about this person or people based on sets of historical primary sources.

Next, give a packet of primary sources to each team of students/historians. These packets will be assembled by you in advance and each one will contain various “primary sources” from the life of an early 21st-century teacher. Who is the teacher? YOU!!

Each packet of sources will contain a variety of documents, images, and artifacts that tell something about your life. Of course, you’ll throw in a few random items to make the activity challenging. You will need 6 to 10 packages depending upon the size of your classes,

After the student teams have analyzed their first packet, encourage them to “visit another archive” by exchanging their packet with the primary source packet of another team.

After teams have analyzed most of the packets, ask the teams to discuss the following questions. Then follow up with a whole-class discussion to clarify and reinforce key points.

  • What things are still unknown about the subject? Where could this information be obtained? What type of primary source would provide this information?
  • What do you believe when the information provided conflicts? How can you confirm your theory?
  • Are primary sources true or false or does it depend on how they are interpreted by the historian? Do primary sources "lie" or mislead? 
  • What could be discovered about the person by studying a wider history of the time period?
  • What different types of sources were included in the packets? Explain how different categories of sources such as public government records, private correspondence, or photographs contribute different types of information.

The jigsaw puzzle analogy described above is useful for the lesson conclusion. Consider extending this lesson by asking students to assemble their own primary source packets. As students exchange and analyze the documentation of their own lives, they continue to hone their primary source analysis skills while getting to know each other.

For more guidance and tips for creating your own primary source mystery activity see "Who Am I?" - Primary Source Mystery Activity

For more about the history of daily life, historical primary sources, and instructional activities by this author: