Site menu:



Today’s post comes from Kris Jarosik, education specialist at the National Archives at Chicago.

How do you use primary sources with your students?

DocsTeach activities, analysis worksheets, or perhaps even grouped together as DBQs may be a few techniques you employ.

But have you tried a poetry slam?  A partner of ours in Chicago brought this technique to our attention, and we used it with much success during a professional development event.  So we just had to share.

Teachers with their poem

A Poetry Slam with Documents works best when you have multiple dense primary sources that are part of the same story.  With this technique, students are able to build their literacy skill sets by practicing their skimming/reading-for-gist technique and learning content knowledge.

How does it work?

Each group of four students receives a different “meaty” primary source that tells one part of a larger story.  In our workshop each group of teachers received a different document from the court case Gautreaux, et al. v. the Chicago Housing Authority.  You can tap into to locate these primary sources.

Share an overview of the topic or story that the documents cover and the process of the poetry slam.  In our teacher example, we provided an overview of the court case before we got started.  This case spanned over 30 years and was the nation’s first major public housing desegregation lawsuit. The Gautreaux lawsuit charged that by concentrating more than 10,000 public housing units in isolated African-American neighborhoods, the Chicago Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had violated both the U.S. Constitution and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.


Distribute enough copies of each document within the group so that each member of the group has their own copy of the same document.  Then, individually, students should skim and highlight key phrases and interesting sentences in their document.  Only provide students with enough time to skim the document and not completely analyze it.

Creating PoetryTeachers with their poetry strips

After time is called, each student needs to select 5 of the phrases s/he highlighted from the document and copy them directly onto large strips of paper with markers. Then, in their small groups, students should create a poem based on these exact document phrases.  Encourage students to “play around” and re-arrange the strips on the floor.  Each small group should use at least one strip from each group member.  Then the group should write out their newly created poem on one large sheet of paper.

Teachers with their poems

Performing – The Slam Part

Then the group decides how to perform their poem for the Poetry Slam. Provide students time to rehearse. Each small group will be able to learn from the other groups about the other documents.  A discussion with the entire class (large group) can facilitate and ensure complete understanding, and pave the way for deeper exploration of this complex story.

If you are raring to give this a try, the supply list below can help you get started.

Poetry Slam Supply List

  • small groups of 4
  • a different document for each small group  with enough copies of that document for each group member (each document should be related to one story or concept) is a great resource to tap.
  • highlighters and markers
  • large strips of paper — 5 strips for each class member
  • 1 large sheet of sheet of paper for each group
  • tape, or provide a way to hang poems on the wall/white board when groups are performing

Today’s post comes from eighth grader Allie Tubbs in Johnston, Iowa, who participated in the National History Day competition.

I recently competed at National History Day and was thrilled and honored to place first in the Junior Individual Performance category. In Washington, D.C., I competed against 80 other individual performers.  I believe the encouragement and helpfulness of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum staff was a critical part of my success.

Allie Performing at NHD

Allie portraying Ruth Fesler, Lou Henry Hoover’s secretary and close friend.

In January 2014, I chose my topic. I started looking for a topic by searching “2014 National History Day research topics” as a Google search.  While scrolling through the results, I found the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum website. What immediately caught my attention was the list of ideas that dealt specifically with their museum.

I clicked on this link and was searching through all the topic ideas when I found the DePriest Tea.  I was intrigued by the fact that Lou Henry Hoover was the first one to invite an African American woman to the White House and decided to make Lou Henry Hoover’s tea with Jessie DePriest my National History Day project.  The link also had ideas for the thesis and places to start researching. This gave me a path to start researching so as not to “drown” in all the research possibilities. After the initial research, I constantly had the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum website open to look for further research and thesis ideas. Using the website and tools from my teacher, I was able to construct my thesis and the very first rough draft of my script.

Portrait of Lou Henry Hoover

Portrait of Lou Henry Hoover, ca. 1929, photo-print by Berton Crandall Palo, Alto, California. Courtesy of the Hoover Library.

After using all of the resources from the website, I decided to contact the library to see if they had any primary documents I could use as research. I was put in touch with archivist Craig Wright. I had many opportunities to interview Mr. Wright. He was able to provide me with so many primary documents that changed my perspective on my topic. There were so many primary documents accumulated by the library that even after six months of research I don’t think I’ve read all of them!

In February, I was able to visit the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Everybody I talked to was extremely accommodating and helpful. They were also a valuable resource to answer questions as I was doing my research.  Being able to read and touch documents that former First Lady, Lou Hoover, wrote was one of the coolest experiences in my life! Even after I had visited the library, Craig Wright still was very open to answering my questions. Craig Wright was very helpful and personal and helped in so many ways! I don’t think I could have gone nearly as far in the competition without his help!

All the way through my regional, state, and national competitions the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum was always there to help and answer any questions I had. Many times I would call and ask if there was any document that said something about the event and they were able to find it and send it to me. My favorite resource I got from the library was Ruth Fesler’s transcribed oral interview. Ruth Fesler was Lou Henry Hoover’s secretary and close friend, whom I portrayed in my play. This gave me great insight and I was able to incorporate many of Ms. Fesler’s quotes into my play. Without this resource and many others I found through the library my play would not have been nearly as historically accurate, using these primary quotes, correspondence, and newspaper articles in my script.

Even though the National Competition is now over, I cannot thank the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum enough! I will always remember this year not only as the year I won individual junior performance but as the year I gained many amazing experiences from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. The library gave me so many helpful materials and ideas. If I hadn’t contacted the museum I wouldn’t have made it to Nationals. This year has been my best year at National History Day, and I fully attribute that success to the help and resources from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum! Thank you so much!

Congratulations to Allie on placing first in the Junior Individual Performance category, and to the many other students who researched at the National Archives this past year! Find our main National History Day resource page at

Congress Creates the Bill of Rights

by on September 18, 2014

Within the half-billion pages of records in the care of the Center for Legislative Archives, there are some special treasures from the First Congress that show how the ratification of the Constitution necessitated the creation of the Bill of Rights, and how the creation of the Bill of Rights, in turn, completed the Constitution.

Introducing Congress Creates the Bill of Rights, consisting of three elements: an eBook, a mobile app for tablets, and online resources for teachers and students. Each provides a distinct way of exploring how the First Congress proposed amendments to the Constitution in 1789.

The eBook focuses on James Madison’s leadership role in creating the Bill of Rights, effectively completing the U.S.Congress Creates the Bill of Rights eBook Constitution. Starting with the crises facing the nation in the 1780s, the narrative traces the call for constitutional amendments from the state ratification conventions. Through close examination of the featured document, Senate Revisions to the House Proposed Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the reader goes inside the First Congress, as Madison and the leaders of rival political factions worked in the House and Senate to formulate amendments to change the recently ratified Constitution.

The eBook is available for download on our website  and available in iTunes and the iBookstore for your iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.

Mobile App
The mobile app is an interactive learning tool for tablets that situates the user in the proposals, debates, and revisions that shaped the Bill of Rights. Its menu-based organization presents a historic overview, a detailed study of the evolving language of each proposed amendment as it was shaped in the House and Senate, a close-up look at essential documents, and opportunities for participation and reflection designed for individual or collaborative exploration.

Close-up on Compromise

The app is available for download on your iPad in the App Store.

Online Resources
The online resources available for teachers and students present questions, lesson ideas, and supporting resources selected to facilitate learning with the app and eBook. Studying how Congress created the Bill of Rights teaches vital lessons about history and the timeless principles of our civic life. They also provide lessons about the history of representative government and will strengthen students’ understanding of their roles and responsibilities in civic life today.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225thAnniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents from this formative time via TumblrTwitter, and Education Updates. Follow #Congress225 for more documents you can use in your classroom.

Today’s post comes from Sydney Vaile and Marie Pellissier, interns in our Education and Public Programs division.

This summer, Primarily Teaching made its way to Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, and Washington. DC. Educators in each city searched for primary sources that shared a common theme of Leadership and Legacy in History. The participants searched through the holdings of the National Archives and chose three to five documents each to be scanned, digitized, and published on at the National Archives

We had the privilege of making the documents from all four Primarily Teaching Workshops available online for the first time. We uploaded each document or photograph, making it available for educators to create their very own online activities. During the Washington, DC, workshop, we had the opportunity to meet the participating teachers and librarians and see the end product—presentations of their newly created activities—after a long week of research, scanning, and digitizing!

Each workshop focused on a specific topic within the common theme, so we got to read through almost 150 incredible documents. Chicago and Boston looked at Civil Rights related court cases, Washington, D.C. focused on immigration, and Atlanta studied the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Here are a couple of our personal favorites:

Marie: One of my favorites was a document from the Washington, DC, Primarily Teaching session. A 1905 statement from Margaret Dye Ellis, who spearheaded the movement to have female inspectors at Ellis Island, is about the necessity of women in such positions. She argued that an immigrant woman would be more comfortable speaking to another woman about issues such as pregnancy, and that female inspectors would be more likely to spot girls vulnerable to human trafficking. I found it really fascinating—in an age when women were discouraged from working outside the home, these female inspectors were working in very visible positions. I had never heard of female inspectors on Ellis Island, and I think their contributions are important to remember when thinking about narratives of immigration.

Sydney: One document that stood out from Boston’s Primarily Teaching session was a 1975 guidebook for African-American students. Published by Freedom House, the “how to” booklet provided students with strategies for reacting to the desegregation crisis of the 1970s. Solutions to probable situations such as violating the Boston Code of Discipline, expulsion, and violence were included so that Black students would know how and how not to act around their White counterparts. The idea of attending a segregated school today is mind-blowing, so I took great interest in reading the same instructions as the students did in the 1970s to stay out of trouble in their struggle for freedom.

Working with educators participating in Primarily Teaching allowed us to learn history on a different level. Technology has become more and more important with each passing year. DocsTeach allowed us to see the entire process behind the production of an activity. In a way, the documents came to life, and will be used to impact the rising generation of educators.

Many new primary sources are now available as teaching tools on—alert the children!

An adaptation of this post is featured on FREE, the Federal Registry for Educational Excellence from the U.S. Department of Education.

Page 1 of the United States ConstitutionSeptember 17 is designated as Constitution Day to commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. The Federal Convention had first convened in May to revise the Articles of Confederation, but the need for an entirely new frame of government became clear. State delegates debated issues such as federalism and representation all through the summer as they drafted the articles of the new Constitution.

The National Archives in Washington, DC, is the permanent home of the United States Constitution. Celebrate and learn more about our Federal Government’s founding document with these seven activities and resources.

Inside the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom1. Visit the Constitution in person at the National Archives Museum any day of the year other than Thanksgiving and December 25. And learn more about the creation and history of the Constitution, and meet America’s Founding Fathers, in the “The Charters of Freedom” online exhibit.

2. Participate in Constitution Day events from the Civics Renewal Network, an alliance of nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations providing free online resources for civics education:

  • Take the Preamble Challenge and join with schools around the country in a reading of the Preamble to the Constitution. Sign up at Ceremony at the Custom House in Salem, Mass.
  • Attend a naturalization ceremony; schools may contact their local federal court. Students can observe or participate by singing the national anthem, leading the Pledge of Allegiance, writing welcome letters to new citizens, or in other ways.
  • Find more Constitution Day Resources, including lesson plans and teaching tools.

3. Explore how the First Congress proposed amendments to the Constitution in 1789 in “Congress Creates the Bill of Rights.” The eBook, mobile app for tablets, and online teaching resources, created by the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives, launch on Constitution Day, September 17, 2014.

Kids at Computer in the Constitution in Action Learning Lab4. Plan a visit to the National Archives to participate in a Constitution-in-Action Learning Lab. School groups, families, and other groups of civic-minded individuals can take on the roles of archivists and researchers completing a very important assignment: providing the President of the United States with real-life examples of our Constitution in action.

5. Help kids understand ideas like checks and balances, separation of powers, amendments, the Bill of Rights, slavery and the Constitution, and more through online activities. Go to the Constitution homepage on DocsTeach is the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives.

6. Learn about the Constitutional Convention, drafting and ratifying the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the three branches of our Federal government, and how the National Archives is preserving our Constitution in a Constitution course on iTunes U.

The Constitution At Work Activity on DocsTeach.org7. Connect primary sources that span the course of American history to the principles found in the Constitution. Play “The Constitution at Work” and match primary sources to articles of the Constitution. Or read “Exploring the United States Constitution,” an eBook that explores the Constitutional roots of the three branches of our government.