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U.S. History Students Become History Makers through Primary Sources

By Carolyn Bennett

How can we make history come alive for students in online courses? How can we help students feel more connected to each other, and to history, through their online classroom experiences? During the 2023-2024 school year, VHS Learning explored these important questions through a Teaching with Primary Sources grant with the Library of Congress.

During the 2023-2024 school year, VHS Learning piloted a newly-designed U.S. History curriculum. The curriculum was redesigned with an emphasis on inquiry-based exploration of historical primary sources in each weekly class discussion. Weekly discussion activities were co-authored by VHS Learning specialists, an experienced U.S. History teacher and elected lawmaker, a former Library of Congress teacher-in-residence, and several renowned guest experts. Through primary sources, students adopted the viewpoint of diverse history-makers - especially young people. They learned to see the world through the eyes of a child laborer during the Industrial Revolution, a displaced American Indian student at a residential school; an isolated teen in the 1918 influenza epidemic. Though each weekly discussion was unique, students revisited the powerful idea that primary sources could help them understand and empathize with people across history.

Many students reflected that their most powerful primary-source experience was in the Library of Congress collection, Voices Remembering Slavery as they listened to freed people tell their own stories, in their own voice.

Student responses on the end-of-year survey highlighted the powerful impact of the Teaching with Primary Sources pedagogy. When comparing student responses to the previous school year, the new curriculum helped students connect to the content more deeply. Significantly more students this year reported that with the Teaching with Primary Sources curriculum they:

  • Learned a lot
  • Found the course to be interesting
  • Had the opportunity to connect topics to real-world situations.

Not only did the emphasis on primary sources empower students to connect with history, but it also allowed them to connect with each other in authentic and meaningful ways. Students in the course hailed from several U.S. states as well as nations across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Students’ unique perspectives and experiences were assets they proudly shared through their weekly discussions with classmates. On this year’s end-of-year survey, significantly more U.S. History students reported that:

  • Discussion prompts led to meaningful conversations with classmates
  • Students worked together effectively in group activities
  • Group activities deepened their understanding of course content
  • Group work helped them improve their communication skills

At the end of the course, students shared a personal primary source from their own lives as they said goodbye to their classmates. Students shared family recipes that had been passed down several generations; art and photography they had created; prized possessions like ballet slippers, baby blankets, and airpods. Students recognized the power of these primary sources to tell their story to the world. One student explained how her cell phone keeps her connected to family outside the United States; another hopes her photography will inspire others to prioritize protecting the environment; another aspires to make a positive difference through volunteerism and kindness. This, perhaps, is the greatest marker of success in the new VHS Learning U.S. History course: VHS Learning U.S. History students are ready to step into their unique roles as tomorrow’s history-makers!

VHS Learning’s Teaching with Primary Sources discussion prompts are freely available to use in online and face-to-face classrooms. Professional development is also available to help educators facilitate primary-source analysis in the classroom. These free resources are available here.



Funded by a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources [Eastern, Midwestern or Western] Region program, managed by Waynesburg University. Content created and featured in partnership with the TPS program does not indicate an endorsement by the Library of Congress.

About the Teaching with Primary Sources Partner Program

Since 2006, the Library has awarded Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) grants to build a nationwide network of organizations that deliver educational programming and create teaching materials and tools based on the Library’s digitized primary sources and other online resources.

Each year members of this network, called the TPS Consortium, support tens of thousands of learners to build knowledge, engagement and critical thinking skills with items from the Library’s collections.