historical evidence, they practice inquiry, evaluation, problem solving, judgement, and synthesis ‐ ‐ the very skills needed to be a useful friend and an effective citizen. Historical documents are one of the easiest and most engaging ways to teach young people how to think clearly and make sound decisions.
But because students donʹt usually see primary sources in history classes, they report in overwhelming numbers that history bores them. One former student called his history classes ʺabout as exciting as a clam race. All they wanted to talk about was numbers and dates. It ceased to be about people.ʺ (Roger Daltry in the New York Post, Oct 4, 2003).
Using primary sources puts the people back in; real people, who actually ate breakfast, went to the bathroom, had passionate emotions, and were caught in terrible dilemmas. Their own words about their own lives will often seize a studentʹs attention. And by using eyewitness accounts that come from the studentʹs own city or county, or that were created by someone in their own ethnic group, or were written by a person of their own gender and age, teachers can quickly engage students with their past. This opens the door to helping them learn to think critically.
No teenager cares about names and dates from the Civil War. But give him or her a manuscript letter written by an 18‐year‐old from the next town that describes his life in a Confederate prison, and their interest will pick up. Show them the iron collar that a Wisconsin soldier removed from an escaping slave and let them read what the slave said about where it came from, and their intelligence, imagination, and feelings will all shift into gear. Many will display a reaction like the very first we got to our American Journeys digital collection, from a student in Florida: ʺThis is soooo cool! Thanks!ʺ
Causing these emotional reactions is one of the goals of the Wisconsin Historical Societyʹs digitization program. When a student experiences that ʺWow!ʺ or ʺAha!ʺ moment, they can be inspired to analyze, evaluate, and think critically ‐‐ skills that enrich them for an entire lifetime. As educators, weʹve encouraged kids for years to ʺmake smart choicesʺ without always teaching them the skills to do it. By middle and high school, theyʹre able to learn the elements of critical thinking; using historical documents that engage their hearts as well as their heads is a perfect method for teaching them.
All the materials here ‐‐ every page of the handbook, and each of the 50 essays and 900 documents on the Turning Points Web site ‐ ‐ may be freely copied, downloaded, and reproduced for non‐profit educational use such as classroom handouts, homework assignments, and PowerPoint presentations to teachers and students. They may not, however, be copied and resold for commercial purposes without prior permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society, 816 State St., Madison, WI 53706.