Picture Books and Primary Sources: Teaching and Learning from Home

My reality for the past weeks has been the reality of many of my school librarian colleagues. Teaching and supporting students and teachers from home have their learning curves. 

I was finishing my March Picture Book and Primary Sources post just before spring break. It posted just after our district announced we would be working from home. In that time between, I began looking back on almost three years of Picture Book and Primary Source posts through the lens of teaching and learning from home.

These experiences of pairing picture books and primary sources can work from home. There are hurdles and considerations to take into account. I want to take time in this post to explore those issues.

My basis for thoughts about learning from home assumes that students have access to a device and have Internet access. I have spoken with many school librarians whose students do not have this access. I would welcome suggestions in the comments on how to connect to students without access.

Accessing Historically Based Picture Books

The first barrier is access. How is the student going to access the picture book so that he or she can interact with it? There are several options:

  • If you have access to the print book, consider a recorded reading. We are finding that our students are embracing asynchronous learning and may not be available for a specific time to view and listen to the book.
  • Be sure to e-mail the publisher if requested to notify them of your online reading. Many publishers have slightly different requests on how to deal with online reading. I’ve found them simple to abide by and reference SLJ’s article on publisher guidelines regularly to check for updates to terms.
  • If you do not have the books at hand, see if your building is accessible. Our principal opened a one-hour window for staff to gather things that may have been forgotten.
  • OverDrive and other e-book platforms may also have the picture book available. If your school or district does not have access, check your local public library’s e-book offerings. Even though these platforms typically allow a single checkout, they can still be used for a recorded read-aloud to share with students.
  • Does the author or illustrator do a read-aloud or talk about the book online? If the purpose of the book is to introduce an individual or event from history, this type of talk may be the next best thing.
  • If students are connected, but bandwidth is an issue, creating an audio recording of the text may be a better option for students to access the story. When appropriate, include brief descriptions of illustrations if it helps to convey the story.

Accessing and Interacting with Primary Sources

If students do have a device, accessing the accompanying primary sources should be as easy as sharing a link. All lessons within previous Picture Book and Primary Sources posts have a curated set of primary sources. Those sets are embedded within the post and link to freely available sources.

  • While it is unlikely, be sure that no sites are blocked by any software or filters on student devices.
  • If you want students to see a primary source image or text without the accompanying metadata, be sure to link directly to the primary source item and not to a page with additional information.
  • When viewing detailed items like maps, consider reminding students how they can zoom in on an image with the device they are using.
  • If students use iPads or another device that allows them to mark up saved images, encourage them to annotate directly on the file. This could include underlining parts of a historical document, circling things within an image they notice, or drawing arrows to show connections between something they see and a word or two they write themselves.
  • The Library of Congress has an online Primary Source Analysis Tool where students can digitally document their observations, reactions, and wonderings about a primary source. This can be downloaded or e-mailed. Other tools that students already use can also help them document their interactions with a primary source.

Keeping Collaboration and Communication at the Forefront

One important aspect of every interaction with picture book and primary source pairings are the opportunities for students to communicate. In addition, students need opportunities to communicate their understanding of a historical event or individual. Their building on those understandings also requires opportunities to communicate with an educator and peers.

Educators have been working on establishing communication systems in this time of learning and teaching from home. Considerations around communication can include:

  • Interacting with a primary source often involves a level of uncertainty. That uncertainty can cause stress that is higher than normal as students work in isolation. Consider how students can access support and communicate with others to express questions and get feedback.
  • Think about how students already are connecting and communicating with you and each other. How can their interactions with a primary source or picture book fit into that? Can students share a screenshot, take a photo, or record an audio response that will help communicate their thinking?
  • Some classes are able to have class meetings daily or weekly. Would this be a time to share a story or ask students to share their thinking? Can the meeting be recorded for students who are unable to attend?
  • Thinking about ways that students can collaborate online in pairs or small groups may also be beneficial. Students may be willing to think collaboratively through a primary source and picture book pairing when they’re not immediately accountable to the teacher, librarian, or whole class.

There certainly are no answers that will work for everyone, but the picture book and primary source pairings can be great resources during this time. It does require us to think through how that looks different when learning and teaching from home, identify our current structures and resources that can support this type of learning, and identify key elements in the learning that make it successful regardless of where it is implemented.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models, Technology

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