Earlier this school year, a high school librarian contacted me about how her students could interact with primary sources. Specifically, students were looking at photos of artifacts left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Students were encouraged to ask questions after looking at the photos and reading short biographies of the soldiers from the area. Ultimately, the librarian wasn’t happy with how the lesson concluded. After a few questions on my part, I had some suggestions, which included the picture book Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines. The book focuses on Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Framing the Viewing of Primary Sources
Before bringing in the picture book, I suggested guiding the analysis of the primary sources with an overarching question. Even older students, when asked to view photos may feel lost when trying to analyze photos and develop deep questions. Focusing the analysis of the photo can help students target their own observations, thinking, and questions. This lesson was centered on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and specifically on items left by visitors in honor of those listed on the wall. The idea that the visitors were leaving their own memorial stuck with me. The idea of a memorial could direct the viewing of the photos. The question can be framed in slightly different ways depending on the time and experience of students to analyze images. Two examples are:
- “Today we are going to focus our attention on what a memorial is.”
- “Today we are going to look at why people make memorials.”
The first question encourages students to develop their own definition for a memorial. This can be constructed from an understanding that all of the items left behind are memorials. Identifying commonalities between them can help with this. The second question looks at the individuals who left the items at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In some ways, it is more difficult to answer because it forces us to make assumptions based on the item itself.
Selecting Primary Sources
This is where the selection of photos becomes critical. This librarian was using photos of letters left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial from a 2006 book, Letters on the Wall. Letters can give insight not only to who sent the letter but to who received it and the relationship they had.
That relationship can play a part in students making connections to why people used these letters as memorials. Other items can be found online including at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website. Wherever you select your primary sources, think about how students will interact with them. What will students focus on in the image or letter? How will they interpret it? Will they encourage students to develop deep questions or ideas?
Introducing the Picture Book and Building Upon It
After students have viewed the images or letters, it is a perfect time to bring in the picture book. All of the other items, as memorials, do not have a person directly attached to them. The picture book, as it shares Maya’s vision and thoughtfulness, ties a person to a memorial. Ideas of a memorial being important, of symbolism and meaning behind a memorial, and of the memorial being for others are explored. Readers are given another clue to the two questions that can be posted to students through Maya Lin’s emotions, both in designing the Memorial and in experiencing it after it was built.
To build upon Maya Lin’s story in the picture book, students can then explore Maya’s competition drawings and accompanying essay from the curated list of primary sources related to the picture book. Downloading the largest file from the link allows clear reading of the essay. Before students begin their analysis, pose the guiding question again. Ask, “How do Maya Lin’s drawings and essay help to answer the earlier question?”
Returning to the Framing Question
After students have an opportunity to discuss, begin to fold in their observations from items left at the Memorial. If students struggle to make connections, pose some of the following questions:
- How are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the items left at the Memorial similar?
- How might Maya Lin’s story be similar to someone who left an item at the memorial?
- What role might intention and emotion play in creating a memorial? What evidence do you have?
Students discussing these questions can lead them back to the original question of the experience. Ending in conversations about memorials can bring the experience full circle, and hopefully to a satisfying conclusion to both the librarian and students.
Author: Tom Bober
Tom Bober is an elementary librarian at RM Captain Elementary in Clayton, Missouri, a former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and a Digital Public Library of America Community Rep. He has written about the use of primary sources in classrooms in School Library Connection, Social Education magazine, and the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog. Tom also presents at regional and national conferences, runs workshops, and has developed and presented webinars for the Library of Congress and ABC Clio on a variety of strategies and topics for students’ use of primary sources in the classroom.