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Archives and ARC

Curriculum Ideas for the Secondary Level Using Primary Sources

students and teacher

A Sense of Place

  • Compare a contemporary map and historical map of a specific area (city, residential neighborhood, school neighborhood).  Have students identify differences and similarities.  A possible enrichment activity would be drawing a map of the same area in the future.

  • Compare a series of photographs for a particular street or area.  Using photographs that span several decades, students would identify differences and similarities in the images.
  • Using original records (assessment cards, tax rolls, maps) and published sources (city directories), students would prepare a history of their school, their home, or any other building of choice.
  • Students could examine city and county records to study how a particular community developed.  Students would consider factors such as main roadways, retail, industrial, green spaces, and residential areas. 

A Sense of Person

  • Students can research and prepare family histories.  The projects would begin with oral history interviews with members of the students’ families.  The second step would incorporate use of original records typically used in genealogy or family history research.
  • Students would examine original records such as censuses and citizenship records to discover the ethnicity of their community.  By researching these records, students would gain a sense of the state’s immigrant history.  An enrichment activity would be creating an ethnic map of their county or community.
  • An individual’s occupation is a large part of their identity.  Using censuses, students would document the occupations of early residents of their communities.  As a final project, this might take the format of graphs and charts.
  • Students could create composite descriptions of various population and demographic groups using original materials.  Using diaries and letters students could create narratives of the “typical” fur trader, suffragette, soldier (any war), and immigrants.  The narrative could be in a traditional report or a creative first person account.

A Sense of Time

  • Most students do not have a very good sense of time or historical context.   To help illustrate this concept, students could examine school records from the late 1800s, the mid 1900s, and the 1960s.  The students would research the curriculum (books used, poems learned, songs sung, daily subject schedule, etc.) and compare it to what they are studying. An enrichment activity could be to actually have the class follow the historical schedule and to use some of the original lesson content.
  • Students could examine any primary source that interested them that was created the year they were born.  The goal of this lesson would be to help the students understand that historical events are not just things that happened centuries ago; but rather that history is being made every day.


  • Compare and contrast weather patterns using historical records.  Records available include the original weather bureau materials for the Green Bay Station (1886-1976) and the logbooks of lighthouse keepers.  Students could use the abundant amount of data to also learn graphing skills.
  • Genetics and human biology could be enhanced by the students studying their own family health histories.  Baldness, eye-color, and pre-disposition to certain diseases are all inherited traits.  Many of these can be traced by using original records.
  • Explore changes in the natural environment using records such as vegetation surveys and maps, oral history interviews about the Fox River, state agency files on pollution, Crandon Mine, forest management, and the correspondence of environmental activists, etc.  An enrichment activity could be to prepare a historical presentation about the natural environment surrounding the school or neighborhood.
  • Using Civilian Conservation Corps records, students can examine the developments in the 1930s that established parks, forests, landmarks, and roadways.

Arts and Music

  • Students read descriptive passages of diaries, letters, or reminiscences and create illustrations to accompany them.
  • Students write song lyrics based on the contents of original materials or historical events.
  • Students could use the Works Progress Administration files from the 1930s to identify and study WPA murals in their community.
  • Students can read portions of an original war diary and then watch a film about the same war.  Students would compare and contrast the “real” experience versus the dramatized production. 
  • Using oral history interviews, diaries, and organizational records, students could gather information about music and arts identified with a particular ethnic group.

Language and Literature

  • Students read portions of first-hand accounts about a specific event or time.  Students can then prepare summaries, turn the materials into dialogues, and/or dramatic readings.
  • Students use original materials as the basis for a creative writing project.  The original materials could include diary excerpts, photographs, or letters.  Students would learn research skills as well as create a unique piece of writing. 
  • Students would choose a diary and read any portion of it.  The students would find passages of the diary they can connect with or relate to in some way.  An analytical paper would be written describing the connection the student found with the journalist’s experiences.
  • Students would use original materials to gather factual information for speeches or debates.  Topics that could be addressed include construction of an arena, the development of shopping malls, return to basics in school curriculum, preserving historic and natural areas, and so on.  The primary sources could provide information for both pro and con viewpoints.
  • Students could examine the process of creating literary works by studying the original drafts, compositions, and writings of various Wisconsin authors.
  • Students learning foreign languages could hone their skills by reading and translating  original documents.