The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources

Evaluating Eyewitness Reports

When I give workshops on teaching with primary sources, I always ask participants to define the term primary source and to give examples. Participants always offer “eyewitness reports” as an example. It stands to reason, then, that the ability to analyze eyewitness reports for point of view, accuracy, and context is an essential primary source learning skill.

EDSITEment LogoI found one of the best lessons I have ever seen on evaluating eyewitness reports on the EDSITEment website from the National Endowment for the Humanities (in partnership with the National Trust for the Humanities and the Verizon Foundation). You won’t believe the fabulous lessons on this site! They’re not all based on primary sources, but whoever said every lesson had to be a primary source lesson?

Before you get lost in EDSITEment-land, be sure to take a look at the Great Chicago Fire lesson I discovered called Evaluating Eyewitness Reports. (Although this lesson is written for grades 9-12, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it with middle school kids, and I think most of it could be revised for elementary school, too.)

Here’s the lesson description from the website:

This lesson offers students experience in drawing historical meaning from eyewitness accounts that present a range of different perspectives. Students begin with a case study including alternative reports of a single event: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Students compare two newspaper reports on the fire and two memoirs of the fire written many decades later, with an eye on how these accounts complement and compete with one another, and how these sources can be used to draw historical meaning from them. Students then apply the lessons learned in their investigation of the eyewitness accounts of the Chicago fire by considering a unique eyewitness account: the diary kept by a Confederate girl when her Tennessee town was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War.

The “Guiding Question” of the lesson fits right into best practices for teaching with primary sources: “How can we evaluate eyewitness accounts of historical events and periods, and what historical meanings can be drawn from them?”

The lesson links to a basic Written Document Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives. A special Student Launchpad includes links to the eyewitness reports and questions about them, so students can work through the assignments online. It has complete assessments, links to state standards, and one great suggestion for applying developing analytic skills to today’s news:

If you have time you might have students put their new analytic skills to work by having them collect eyewitness reports from present-day newspapers or conduct their own interviews of family members who have witnessed some significant event (for example, an athletic competition, a natural disaster, a public celebration, the coming of some new technology….).

Even if you have no opportunity to teach this lesson, you will enjoy exploring the extensive website on which it is based: The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory. Carl Smith, Curator of the Online Exhibition, writes about how various acts of memory contribute to our understandings of the Great Chicago Fire.

Journalists, novelists, poets, artists, politicians, scholars, clergy, businessmen, and private citizens have continuously reworked this epic occasion over the years, simultaneously drawing from and contributing to a massive body of remembrance.

The same could be said of more current events, such as the Iraq war or the World Trade Center bombing or Hurricane Katrina. Think of the extent to which our collective memory of these events is growing and changing through primary and secondary sources.

For a little added fun, don’t miss the special media features of The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory. They include a Shockwave interactive 360-degree view of Chicago in 1858, MIDI music files that play fire songs, three-dimensional stereographs of the post-fire city (you’ll need 3-D glasses), and a QuickTime digital video of a 1955 newsreel clip about the fate of the site where the fire started.

The Great Chicago Fire, an artists rendering

Chicago in Flames: The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge

Originally published in Harpers Weekly, 1871

Wikimedia Commons


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