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Using and Citing Online Sources
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Using and Citing Online Sources Activity: Chicken or the Egg: Primary and Secondary Sources

Instructions for Your Students

Do you prefer reading the book or watching the movie? Do you like real historical footage or re-enactments? Do you prefer to get the info straight from the horse's mouth, or would you rather hear the second-hand gossip? Order matters. It's all about first and second.

You've probably heard your teachers throwing around the words "primary and secondary sources"? (If you haven't yet, you soon will—probably in Social Studies class.) Primary vs. secondary doesn't just matter for school, though. It's also super important for life things, like understanding the news, voting, and getting healthcare information. 

Today we're going to cruise through some Web resources to try and find out what information is original and what is coming to you second-hand.

Step 1: Today you are going to learn about primary and secondary sources. Before you get started, though, chat with your classmates to see if anyone knows what the difference is between primary and secondary sources. Perhaps you know, or perhaps one of your classmates does. Find out!

Step 2: Now take a look at the Library and Archives Canada page to learn a little more about primary and secondary sources. You can work on this part individually, in pairs, or in small groups of 3–4 students, depending on your classroom technology situation (and your personal preference). 

As you review this page (alone or with others), answer the following questions. Keep track of your answers as you go, either using pen and paper or a Word doc (Google doc, Pages doc, etc.):

  1. Define "primary source" in your own words.
  2. Define "secondary source" in your own words.
  3. What are some examples of primary sources? List at least two primary sources that you have created. 
  4. What are some examples of secondary sources? List at least two secondary sources that you've created. 
  5. What are some places where you can find primary or secondary sources? 
  6. What's the point of primary sources? Why do we use them? 
  7. What's the point of secondary sources? When and why might you use them? 
  8. Who cares? Why does the difference between primary and secondary sources even matter? 

Step 3: Now let's examine some actual primary and secondary sources. Your teacher will give you a copy of the handout on "Primary versus Secondary Sources."

Start by visiting all of the Web sources concerning the Holocaust. Browse through the pages and determine which are primary and which are secondary sources and why. Here are the links:

Step 4: Bring your attention back to the front of the classroom again as you and your classmates review your answers (the primary or secondary column) regarding the sources on the Holocaust. 

Once you have all of your sources straight, chat some more about these sources using the following questions:

  1. Did any of the sources trip you up? What about them did you find tricky?
  2. What do the primary sources tell you that you don't think you're going to get from the others? 
  3. What do you think you can learn from the secondary sources that you can't from the primary? 
  4. You're trying to find out what it felt like to be a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe. Would you go to a primary source or a secondary source to find this out? Why?
  5. You're trying to understand the causes of the Holocaust. Do you start your research using a primary or a secondary source? Why?
  6. Which sources did you find more fun or interesting? Are all primary sources equally interesting? Are all secondary sources equally interesting?

Step 5: Bam! We're setting you loose on the next set of sources—for the Salem Witch Trials. Again, check the sites, deciding which are primary sources and which are secondary sources. And why. Always why.

Step 6: Back to the big group again to check your answers. How did you do this time? 

Once you have all the answers in terms of which sources are primary or secondary, have another chat with your class. Here are some more questions: 

  1. Did any of the sources trip you up? What about them did you find tricky?
  2. What do the primary sources tell you that you don't think you're going to get from the others? 
  3. What do you think you can learn from the secondary sources that you can't from the primary? 
  4. You want to learn more about how courts worked in New England during the time when the witch trials took place. Do you research primary sources or secondary ones? Why?
  5. You're trying to decide whether or not the court trials were fair. Do you start your research using a primary or a secondary source? Why?
  6. Which sources did you find more fun or interesting? Are all primary sources equally interesting? Are all secondary sources equally interesting?

Step 7 (Optional): Time for one more round? If so, check out these sources that focus on the sinking of the Titanic:

Step 8 (Optional—if you completed Step 7): One last time, chat with your classmates about the sources. 

  1. Did any of the sources trip you up? What about them did you find tricky?
  2. What do the primary sources tell you that you don't think you're going to get from the others? 
  3. What do you think you can learn from the secondary sources that you can't from the primary? 
  4. You want to find out how many people survived the sinking of the Titanic. Do you start your research using primary or secondary sources?
  5. You're curious about how the ship was evacuated and how long passengers waited to be rescued. Do you use primary or secondary sources to find out?
  6. Which sources did you find more fun or interesting? Are all primary sources equally interesting? Are all secondary sources equally interesting?