HM - June 2019 - Teaching Tools

Teaching Tools


Document Analysis for all Learners: TPS Inquiry Kits

By Grace Leatherman
Maryland Humanities

I love historical documents. I love digging for them, analyzing them, and writing about them. I spent much of graduate school happily buried in archives. When I began teaching, however, I found that I did not know how to translate my love of document analysis to my students. I knew how to find and interpret colonial diaries, but I had trouble locating documents that my English Language Learners and special education students could access. None of my students were excited about wading through pages of spidery script. I could write a twenty-page treatise on women in Maryland Agriculture in the 1820s, but I could not explain to my students how to write a thesis statement. I wanted to do document-based projects with my students, but I just did not have the skills or tools, despite my own solid history education.
                I went to work for Maryland History Day, a program of Maryland Humanities and a state affiliate of National History Day, because I wanted more students to learn to make historical research projects. National History Day is a program in which students research a historical topic of their choice, and then present their findings through creative projects like exhibits, performances, papers, websites, or documentaries. Students were more excited about learning when allowed to choose what they learned and how to show their knowledge. This is, of course, one of the beliefs behind Universal Design for Learning and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework.[1] I still ran into the problem of accessibility. Teachers would tell me that they did not teach honors kids, so they could not do History Day in their classrooms. They told me that they didn’t know how teach their students with low reading levels how to create a project or said that research was impossible for their students who had just arrived from El Salvador.
                With a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program, Maryland Humanities and Maryland Public Television set out to address this problem. In consultation with the Maryland State Department of Education, our organizations built the “TPS Inquiry Kit” website ( The site features 120 Inquiry Kits on a wide variety of topics in United States and World History. United States Government Kits are coming out this summer. Each kit has five primary sources, mostly from the Library of Congress, and one secondary source. Each kit also features three thinking questions. While teachers might use the kits as part of warm-ups, lessons, or short writing assignments, they were designed as starter kits for student research projects.

“Teenagers in World War II: The Victory Corps,”

Many of the documents in the TPS Inquiry Kits are accessible to a wide variety of learners. We looked for images, video, audio, and sources with simple text. Some sources have accessibility features like transcriptions, translations, or read-to functions, like this map of St. Augustine, Florida from the World Digital Library (click the flag by the search bar for a translation of the secondary text.) We believe that students should be able to choose a topic that interests them and to have a meaningful experience with accessible documents related to that topic. For example, a Maryland student might get excited about studying the Oyster Wars. After all, who doesn’t love the idea of an Oyster Pirate? Our Oyster Wars Inquiry Kit features documents like this magazine cover that any student can analyze, regardless of reading level, language of origin, or disability.

The oyster war in the Chesapeake Bay, 1884. Mar. 1. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

A student interested in the Civil Rights Movement could analyze documents like this photograph of a Little Rock student in 1958. While many teachers teach the Little Rock Nine, many of us don’t know that after the desegregation of Little Rock Schools, Governor Faubus shut down the school district due to “safety concerns.” For a few weeks, students were expected to view lessons on television. Any modern student can have a meaningful conversation about why the governor took such an action, who in Little Rock may or may not have had a television, what this student might have thought about the situation, and so much more.

O'Halloran, Thomas J, photographer. Little Rock, Ark., re: anti-integration story. Classes on TV, after school closings / TOH. Arkansas Little Rock, 1958. Sept. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
                The Inquiry Kits feature many accessible documents and are written in accessible language, but they are also presented with tools to help students and teachers with the process of creating research projects. On every page, students can link to document analysis organizers from the Library of Congress. These organizers help students Observe, Reflect, and Question as they view the document. Each page also has links to eight Research Learning Modules. These interactive lessons, complete with video, teach students different steps in the research process, like sorting primary and secondary sources, analyzing documents, writing a thesis statement, and organizing a project. A new module on Media Literacy helps students evaluate both historical sources and the modern documents they come across on the Internet and social media. The Research Learning Modules help teachers present research skills in an accessible way. They are tools for the classroom, the computer lab, or at home as part of a flipped classroom.
                The TPS Inquiry Kit website makes research projects, including those for National History Day, accessible to English Language Learners and students with disabilities, but they are also valuable for any student looking for an interesting research topic and initial documents. As Maryland Humanities and Maryland Public Television continue to build the site, we look forward to seeing what students produce!

[1] Sheryl Burgstahler, “Universal Design in Education: Principles and Applications,” University of Washington, accessed May 8, 2019.; ”College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework,” National Council for Social Studies, accessed May 8, 2019.



About NCHE

The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.