Choosing and using documents
Simple documentary evidence can play an important part in personal and local studies and it may be used to investigate aspects of national or international history. Apart from oral evidence, written documents give us our best opportunities to gain some impression of the thoughts and feelings of people involved in events in the past.
Many written sources can pose a number of difficulties for the primary school child and these should be borne in mind when selecting documents for the classroom:
- a variety of documentary sources will be important in encouraging children to use written sources. Most documents will need to be edited before being presented to primary school pupils
- the vocabulary level in many letters, books and other documents will be suitable only for adults, so children will need to have many terms explained in advance if they are to find the examination of documents useful and intelligible
- handwritten documents and older printed sources will be difficult for children to decipher. Presenting photocopied or photographed documents in the original handwriting or printing lends an air of authenticity to the extract, but they may be difficult for the child to read. A typed version of the extract will allow children to access the essential information in the document more readily. If possible, both typed and original versions should be made available to pupils
- at times the line between documentary and pictorial sources may become blurred. Advertisements and newspaper articles, for example, can contain text and photographs; maps and diagrams are largely pictorial. In general, such material will be much more accessible to children
- consideration might also be given to the teacher reading from important sources to the children rather than having pupils attempt to access the material themselves.
Suitable sources for documentary history include:
- items from the child’s own history, including birthday cards, first books, scrapbooks, etc.
- advertisements, packaging, labels, tickets; many older examples of these may be seen in local museums, but the homes of children’s parents will contain several items no longer in use or no longer available generally
- back issues of magazines, often sold on second-hand book stalls. The pictures and advertisements from these would be very useful in re-creating the appearance of homes, clothes, cars, etc. of decades just past
- school records, including textbooks, enrolment registers, roll books and sometimes punishment books. Many schools will have old school records and, judiciously used, they can be very valuable. Some of these books will contain sensitive information and should be examined carefully by the teacher before use. While it is important that children can handle the original source material, extensive handling of the records should be avoided and photocopies or photographic copies used in their place
- newspapers, especially local papers, copies of which should be available in local libraries
- postcards and letters
- stamps, coins and paper money
- old timetables to be found in second-hand bookshops. Train timetables are particularly interesting, as children can investigate the changes which have taken place in the network or trace the journeys undertaken by their grandparents or great-grandparents and which they would now complete by car
- inscriptions on memorials, gravestones, foundation stones, etc. Graveyard inscriptions are often short but they can tell us about the life expectancy of people in the past and they can reflect social distinctions
- document packs produced by the major national depositories. These can include many useful documents and excellent background information. However, they are more generally suited to post-primary children and need careful selection and editing for use with primary school pupils
- textbooks and their illustrations. Most textbooks include copies of documentary sources and when choosing textbooks the range and suitability of the extracts used should be examined.
|Coins and notes are documentary sources, yet their potential in the classroom is often overlooked. The alterations to the inscriptions on the 5p/scilling and 10p/flóirín coins following decimalisation illustrate the changes involved. Older children might be asked to speculate on the reasons why certain animals were chosen to be included on the set of coins introduced following the foundation of the Irish Free State. Paper notes may also be historical artefacts, while designs on contemporary notes may have been inspired by historical figures or themes.|
Discussion of documents, especially in pairs or groups, can be stimulated through questioning and the setting of tasks that require pupils to apply a number of different skills. These should include:
- extracting facts and selecting information. This is the simplest level at which documentary evidence can be used. Questions should encourage children to find out certain facts about a period or incident from the source. This can be used even with relatively young children and may be made easier for the child by supplying a sheet of statements which the child will mark ‘true’ or ‘false’. At least some of the statements should be somewhat ambiguous so as to provoke debate and further discussion.
For example, statements accompanying extracts from a roll book and school register might include
More boys went to school than girls. True/false
Most boys were the sons of farmers. True/false
Children came to school at four years of age. True/false
All children left school when they were twelve. True/false
- translation of information. This involves changing information from one form into another: for example, roll book entries for a fixed period could be translated into graph format to assess how attendance varied from month to month during the year
- making deductions. For example, analysing the evidence of attendance might suggest that it was low in January, March and October. Further examination might show that the attendance of boys was particularly low in these months. Children might then be asked to suggest reasons for this pattern. It is important that children feel free to suggest any explanation which they can justify from the evidence
- assessing the feelings and perspective of the person who wrote the document. Some types of document, such as diaries and personal letters, are excellent for assessing the emotions and motivations of characters
- comparing two or more pieces of written evidence. This is a much more complex skill than the activities above and will mainly be confined to the senior classes. For example, two accounts of the same event could be written from very different perspectives. Contrast, for example, the headlines in the newspapers immediately following the 1916 Rising and the perspective of Pearse as he wrote to open negotiations for surrender with the British commander
- synthesising an account from two or more pieces of evidence. This skill requires some knowledge about the period and the context from which the documents have come. Pupils studying the evidence of the roll books and school records might be encouraged to draw on this evidence and their knowledge of nineteenthcentury schools to write an account of a school day in the 1870s.