In Their Words — Interviews With Teachers On the Power of Primary Documents

ByEllen Tucker
On October 22, 2020

We’re delighted to announce the launch of a new podcast featuring our teacher partners—dedicated professionals, working in a range of teaching situations throughout the country, who are re-energizing the study of American history and government at the secondary level. Each episode of the In Their Words podcast is a thirty-minute conversation on the power of teaching through primary documents. Our Teacher Program Managers Jeremy Gypton and Ray Tyler—both of whom were teachers themselves before joining our staff—host the conversations. We asked Jeremy and Ray to tell us about the series. 

In these conversations with our teacher partners, what are you learning? 

Jeremy: We’re learning how our programs are inspiring teachers to improve their teaching practices. Teachers are telling us that our content-focused seminars actually changed their pedagogical approach. That’s interesting. We don’t teach pedagogy in our seminars—we focus entirely on eras or themes in American history—or on the historical development of American institutions of government. 

Ray: It’s true, we don’t teach pedagogy. Yet we have a pedagogy that we model in our seminars. In fact, we’re kind of militant about it. All of our seminars are conversations about primary documents. 

Jeremy: That’s what distinguishes our approach. Our professors don’t lecture for 30 minutes and then take teachers’ questions. They invite teachers to have a serious discussion about what the documents say. Of course, the professor begins the discussion with a brief talk on the document’s historical context. Then he or she will throw out a question for the group to wrestle with. 

Ray: One of the reasons our TAH and MAHG faculty love teaching in our programs is that teachers arrive with a great deal of contextual background. They already know the basic story. So, it doesn’t take long before the conversation begins.

Are most of the teachers who attend TAH seminars comfortable engaging in these conversations? 

Jeremy: Some are hesitant in the beginning. They don’t want to venture an opinion that might be “wrong.” After a while, they realize that the professors really want to hear what they think. There are always more dimensions to a primary document—things that you don’t see until you’ve heard what someone else sees in it. 

Ray: That’s what I love about the professors who lead our seminars. They teach because they want to keep learning. Last week, I was in a seminar on the political ferment leading up to the Revolution led by Professor Todd Estes. At one point he grinned and said, “I never get tired of talking about this!”

Jeremy: The teachers we’re interviewing say that talking with other teachers—colleagues who care about history and government as much as they do—gives them an energy boost. They tell us they want to go back to the classroom and share what they learned. 

The interesting thing is, they want to share the experience of learning it in the way that they learned it. They carry a primary document back to their classroom, ask students to read it, and start a discussion there.

So you’re saying that Teaching American History seminars inspire teachers to use primary documents much more frequently than they did before. Aren’t some of those documents difficult to read? Especially if you’re a high school student who lacks the historical background the teacher has?

Ray: Teachers admit that teaching through primary documents can seem like more work in the beginning. They use a variety of strategies to help students pull the meaning from the texts. When they take the time to teach these skills of reading and analysis, they find that their students prefer learning history in this way. 

Jeremy:  Kids can sense real. When they read the actual words of a real historical figure, they meet a personality who speaks with passion. This energizes them.

Ray: It also humanizes history. Whenever I taught Federalist 10, I would tell students about Madison asking Jefferson to send him a load of books on political theory, then locking himself in his study for six months until he came up with a plan for government that became the basis of our Constitution. Primary documents show us real people doing real things to solve real problems. 

Are there particular documents that teachers find valuable?

Ray: Often the documents teachers use in their classes are ones they wouldn’t have known about had they not gone to one of our seminars. 

Jeremy:  In the course of each interview, we ask the teacher to talk about a particular primary document they often use. We ask what insights the document opens up for students. When you listen to these interviews, you’ll find links to the documents the teachers talk about.

So, Teaching American History seminars are not passive experiences. Those who attend are given a packet of primary documents to read ahead of time. Then they are encouraged to talk about them during the seminar. This is not your usual “professional development.” Why do busy teachers make the effort?

Jeremy:  Many attend a first seminar because they need the professional development credit. But they return because they enjoyed the experience.

Ray: And they’ve reached a point in their career when they realize that teaching social studies is their life’s work. They want to be good at it.

Listen to In Their Words Now


Documents in Detail: Thomas Jefferson's Letters to John Holmes and Henry Lee


Did American Imperialism Threaten American Values?

Join your fellow teachers in exploring America’s history.