My favorite conversation for helping students think about primary historical research begins with the question, “What did the pilgrims wear?” I’ve had the same conversation with students from second grade to graduate school and the initial responses are virtually identical, “Men wore tall black hats and shoes with buckles. Women wore long dresses, aprons, and bonnets.” Then, of course, I ask, “How do you know?” With children at least, this leads to predictable dialog.
“My teacher told me.”
“How did your teacher know?”
“She read it in a book.”
“How did the person who wrote the book know?”
Puzzled look. “Probably they read another book. With pictures.”
“Did the pilgrims have cameras?”
More puzzled looks. “But they had paintings!” That’s true. Do you think there are paintings of pilgrims?
Depending on the class, we might take a break here to look for paintings from that time period. But the conversation usually continues.
“In those days, who do you think had pictures or drawings made of them, poorer people or richer people?”
“Probably richer people.”
“Do you think they probably wore their everyday clothes or their best clothes for the paintings? Do we know?”
(Usually quite definitively) “Their best clothes!”
“So I wonder whether, if they wore shoes with buckles in the painting, that means they wore shoes with buckles all the time? I wonder what they wore when they were plowing the fields?”
This usually leads to more conversation about historical research, how historians are like detectives, and how even young students can do historical research. Of course the younger the students, the closer to home the research tends to be. One of my favorite studies involved second grade students investigating how second grade today was similar and different from second grade when their parents were in school.
But this time of year, with the Thanksgiving holidays ahead, is a great time to use primary sources to practice historical research and problem solving with students of all ages. You can investigate sources on the first Thanksgiving (which are relatively sparse and challenging) or sources on Thanksgivings past. Either way, students have the chance to as questions, seek evidence, and understand history as a discipline that grows through creativity and effort. Here are a few good resources to help you get started.
The Thanksgiving Collection from the Library of Congress. This includes both the primary resources themselves and links to a Teacher’s Guide and student tools for document analysis that are useful for many research topics.
Today in History: Thanksgiving from the TPS (Teaching with Primary Sources) Barat Primary Source Nexus. The TPS Barat Primary Source Nexus is a grant-based service that provides supports to teachers using the Library of Congress and other primary sources. Lots of treasures there.
Two documents from 1621 from Pilgrim Hall Museum
A selection of illustrations regarding Thanksgiving from the University of California
A variety of primary sources regarding the Mayflower and related settlers from MayflowerHistory.com
Sample activities at different elementary grades from Captain Library.
PS If you are interested in very good, if not primary, resources, check out these Teacher Materials from Plimoth Plantation. You can even take your students on a virtual field trip to the recreated settlement and Wampanoag village, courtesy of Scholastic.