Opening the Window to the Past: Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence in Social Studies Classrooms

As teachers, we all want a way to make history a fun and engaging subject for our students.  We want them to grasp the historical events that we teach about with the same passion that we have when we are planning the lessons.  As educators, we want them to hear all the amazing stories from the past that will help them understand their role in the world they live in today.

History and social studies classrooms are no longer “sit-listen-memorize” environments.  We no longer want our students to be passive listeners to lectures about ancient civilizations and events of the past, but be active investigators of those events.  Our students should be engaged in the process of learning about history and applying that to the world they live in now.

Analyze, analyze, analyze!

In today’s world of “fake news,” we are doing our students a disservice if we do not teach them how to analyze the sources from the media that they see on a daily basis. Articles and different news outlets are commonly filled with bias, both intentionally and unintentionally.

From the different sources that students are using to judge current events, both in and out of the classroom, we need them to be able to identify bias so they can make informed decisions about the information they are getting from that source.  As adults, we often distinguish the reliability of a source without thinking about it; however, the sooner we can start modeling how to do this for our students, the better.

Teachers and adults naturally look at a source and examine who the author is or where the information came from, but do our students?  They often look at a source and skim for the information they need to be able to answer the big important question.  We need to give them time to examine all parts of the source, not just use it to answer a question.  We need to give them the opportunity to learn how to look at a source and how to use the information to support their position on an issue.  I believe that as teachers we can help them learn how to do this even in our elementary school classrooms.   There are numerous graphic organizers available to hope guide students through this process.  Some of my favorite can be found on the Library of Congress website. 


Give the opportunity to debate and discuss opinions

Unfortunately analyzing and evaluating source material is only half the battle in the classroom.  We as educators often need students to share what they have learned through a claim, and use primary or secondary sources to prove their position. When students realize that this is the time they get to discuss or in some cases “argue” their position using sources, it brings the social studies classroom alive.

There are many activities out there to do an activity like this, but I love to use Debating the Documents or Decision-Making activities in the Active Classroom curriculum.  Both of these activities help the students to develop the discussion and debate skills necessary to prove their opinions and position on a source. These skills will carry them throughout their lives! I spend a great deal of time teaching my students how to agree and even disagree with someone.  I even will find that some students may agree with another student’s position, but want to keep the discussion interesting, so they start to pitch the other side or another perspective just to give their peers something think about or discuss further!

When I leave my classroom on our discussion days, I feel that I can see my student’s passion for history come alive. They leave the room as engaged as I was when they came in.  I always ask my students toward the end of the year what some of their favorite activities were, and our debate and discussion days always come out as a top answer.

Want to try a Debating the Documents activity with your students?

Try it free with an Active Classroom 30-day trial.



Karla Wienhold has been an educator for twenty-two years. She earned a bachelors’ degree in Elementary Education Education at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in 1997, a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Loyola University in 2004, and her Administration 1 Certification from Towson University in 2009.  Karla has also been a National Board Certified teacher since 2007.  In her work as a certified trainer for Active Classroom, she builds curriculum maps and trains educators on using the program, as well as leads webinars on various topics. In her spare time, she loves spending time with her family, attending musicals, and various sporting events.

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