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Sandwell, Ruth W. "Using Primary Documents in Social Studies and History." In The Anthology of Social Studies: Secondary Education, edited by Roland Case and Penney Clark, 295-307. Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press, 2008.


In this chapter, Ruth Sandwell discusses the vital importance of analyzing primary source documents in a Social Studies course. She argues that students can become “hooked” into becoming historical detectives by “interpreting evidence to piece together a narrative of historical explanation and to make richer sense of the everyday world around them.” However, her piece also discusses the difficulties of working with primary documents: first, how does a teacher decide which documents are the most “useful” and appropriate to utilize; second, how does a teacher find the time to use the documents when there is already so much content to cover in a given curriculum; and third, how do teachers deal with self-doubt regarding the most effective way to unpack the documents? The chapter breaks down how to analyze primary documents using the categories of “what,” “where,” “how,” “when,” and “why,” and gives specific explanations, examples, and activities for teachers to use. She concludes: “I have discussed how teachers can use primary documents to support the coherent narrative of history presented in most Canadian history and social studies curricula. But I have also suggested how teachers can take full advantage of the fragmentation and dissonance of primary documents to teach a history that involves students in the meaningful, active, and disciplined construction of knowledge.”

Shannon Leggett