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        Using Primary Sources to Connect the Past and Present

        Drivers wait in long lines at gas stations because of shortages resulting from the oil crisis in this 1979 television news footage from the Northeast Historic Film Archive.

        Lesson Summary

        Primary source materials provide a first-hand account of history. We can use them to draw conclusions about people, issues, and events from the past. While the subjects and primary source materials themselves may belong to a different time and place, they invariably allow us to draw connections to the present day. In this lesson, students will learn to critically examine primary source news footage. Specifically, they will observe, interpret, and ask questions of historical evidence.

        Time Allotment

        1 or 2 class periods, plus time for the Final Assignment

        Learning Objectives

        Students will:

        • Understand what primary source materials are and what historians can learn from them
        • Learn how to analyze primary sources and gain a sense of how people at a particular time in history felt about individuals, issues, and events of the day
        • Examine a primary source in depth and prepare a detailed analysis of it


        Prep for Teachers

        Teachers should review the Support Materials on the media resource pages if they’re not familiar with a subject featured in the primary source materials used in this lesson.


        Computers with Internet connection, [Using Primary Sources to Connect the Past and Present: Guiding Questions] handout, journals or paper for note taking

        Introductory Activity

        Part I. Introductory Activity (10–15 minutes)

        1. Explain to students that when historians research the past, they often draw conclusions based on their analysis of primary sources: original documents, photographs, film, and other evidence from the time being studied. Other examples of primary source materials include recorded interviews or speeches, newspaper articles, letters and postcards, and video recordings. Even social media posts and blogs—products of our digital age—fit within the definition.

        Not everything that is recorded by news crews gets edited and used in on-air reports. Even raw film footage that lacks narration can effectively record an event and the public sentiment surrounding it. Tell students that they are going to watch a short video made from local television news footage.

        2. Show the video The Oil Crisis, 1979.
        Optional introduction: This news footage from 1979 shows drivers waiting in long lines at gas stations because of the second petroleum crisis of the decade.

        After watching the video, lead a brief discussion around the following questions:

        • What’s happening in the footage? What image or details stick in your mind?
        • Why do you think the video was made?
        • What questions come to mind after watching the video?

        3. Next, explain to students that when historians analyze primary sources in their research, they often follow three simple steps: Observe, Interpret, and Question.

        Review the following definitions. You may choose to display them somewhere visible in the classroom for the remainder of the lesson.

        • Observe—Identify and note details in the source.
        • Interpret—Develop and test ideas about the source.
        • Question—Ask questions that lead to more observations and interpretations. These questions may help you make important connections.

        Explain to students that over the remainder of the lesson, they will watch more footage from news reports carried on Boston television channels over the last five decades. They will use the three steps to analyze the news footage and gain a sense of how people at that time felt about the events being presented. They will be assigned one video to analyze as a group and then prepare a detailed essay or blog on their own.

        Learning Activities

        Part II. Learning Activities

        1. Observe (10 minutes)

        A. Remind students that the first step in analyzing a primary source is to observe. Tell them to watch and listen closely to the following news footage so they can identify details that will help support their analysis. They should pay special attention to who’s being interviewed and the classroom scenes captured in the footage.

        B. Show the video Boston Desegregation Four Years Later, 1978.
        Optional introduction: This news footage from 1978 highlights the state of Boston public schools four years after the courts instituted mandatory busing. Busing black and white children to schools in racially divided neighborhoods was designed to afford all students equal educational opportunities.

        C. After watching the video, ask the class for their observations. Some important details from the footage include:

        • Classrooms appear mostly empty (supporting the teacher’s comment that attendance at school was sporadic and student enrollment was down)
        • Black students and white students attend the same schools and share tables in class (evidence of increased racial diversity)
        • There is a lighter police presence, and comments from students and teachers describe a more harmonious environment (suggesting subdued racial tension)

        2. Interpret (10 minutes)

        A. Tell students that the next step in analyzing primary source material is to interpret what they’ve observed. In other words, they should try to discover what the footage can tell them about the historical event and the time it represents—and recognize what it can’t.

        B. Show the video Breaking the Gender Barrier in Little League, 1974.
        Optional introduction: In this news footage from 1974, a girl who wants to play Little League baseball has been denied the opportunity because of her gender.

        As they watch, ask students to pay special attention to how statements made by people being interviewed are supported by what appears in the footage.

        C. After watching the video, have students make some inferences that are supported by the footage. Here are some questions to help direct your discussion:

        • What questions does the interviewer ask? What does she not ask?
        • What action, if any, was being taken to address the injustice? How do you know this?
        • What does the footage tell you about the United States in 1974? Explain how you reached that conclusion.

        3. Question (10 minutes; 30 minutes with the Optional Extension Activity)

        A. Tell students that it’s time to ask questions, like a good journalist does. This means they shouldn’t just report what they see; they must dig deeper into the subject and the people involved through independent research.

        B. Show students the video Racial Profiling Case, 1990.
        Optional introduction: In this 1990 news footage, leaders of Boston’s black community speak out against racial profiling after Charles Stuart, a white man, murders his wife and blames the incident on a black assailant.

        C. After watching the video, ask students what questions they have that weren’t answered in the footage. Perhaps the most obvious one is: Who is Charles Stuart and what did he do? Other questions might include: How did his actions hurt this community? What did the police do or not do to make these leaders so angry? Where is Mission Hill, and has the community healed over time? Emphasize to students that if viewing the primary source again doesn’t answer their questions, they’ll need to look for more information from sources like the library or the Internet.

        Optional Extension Activity: Divide the class into small groups and see what they can learn together in 10 to 15 minutes about the Charles Stuart case. You may allow students to practice their Internet research skills or direct them to the Background Essay in the Support Materials section of the media resource page.

        After they have completed their research, ask students, Now that you better understand the subject in context, does the footage make sense? Then explore how the subject of the footage might relate to today’s society. Ask students to name any present-day examples of injustice that may have occurred based on racial profiling. Students may mention the Trayvon Martin case, and incidents in which people of Middle Eastern descent are accused of being terrorists or Hispanics of being illegal immigrants. Lead a short discussion on the subject. If time allows, ask students to find articles on profiling and extend your discussion.

        Culminating Activity

        Part III. Culminating Activity (30 minutes plus Final Assignment time)
        Note: If you can only dedicate one class period to this lesson, you may adapt the Final Assignment so that steps 1 and 2 are completed outside of class. Distribute a handout to each student with a video title assignment marked on it. Students will conduct research entirely on their own, then reconvene to complete their analyses in class.

        1. To demonstrate learning, students will examine a primary source in depth and prepare a detailed analysis of it. To begin, distribute copies of the handout. Then divide the class into small groups and assign each group a video title from the following selections:

        2. Explain to students that each group will now watch a new video whose footage is related to an event of the past that remains relevant today. Using the handout to guide them, the groups should watch their assigned video and complete the first two steps of their analysis—Observe and Interpret—in group discussions. Circulate in the classroom to listen to the group discussions and intervene as needed. If any class time remains, the groups may identify questions unanswered by the primary source footage that will require additional research.

        3. Students will complete a Final Assignment independently, using the following guidelines:

        • Conduct off-site research in a library or on the Internet to learn more details about the subject of your video. Use the Questions section of the handout to direct this research.
        • Using notes from group work and independent research, prepare an analysis of the primary source in the form of an essay or blog post (Note: Teacher should indicate which format to use.)
        • Be sure that your essay or blog post cites examples from the video news footage and addresses each step in the analysis process: Observe, Interpret, Question. Your work should also demonstrate your understanding of the content in its historical context and its potential relevance to present-day society.



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