Primary Source Activity: Molly Elliot Seawell Papers

Lesson plan prepared by Leigh Soares, May 2011


Grade and Level: United States and Virginia History Grade 8 - 11
Instructional Time: Flexible, approximately 30 minutes
Essential Learning: Students will practice analyzing primary sources to learn about life and the role of women during the emergence of Modern America.
Essential Question: How do primary source documents inform us about events in the past?
Classroom Organization: Students in small groups of 2-3 students.
Materials and Resources: Computers with Internet Access (alternatively, you could print out the primary sources) and Copies of the Primary Source Analysis Sheet
Documents: Primary Source Analysis Sheet
Website for Assignment:


National Standards for History
Standard 3: The Student engages in historical analysis and interpretation.
Standard 4: The student conducts historical research.

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890 - 1930) Standard 3A The student understands social tensions and their consequences in the postwar era. Standard 3C The student understands how new cultural movements reflected and changed American society.

Virginia Standards, Benchmarks and Indicators
Era 5, Topic 3: The student will demonstrate knowledge of the emerging role of the United States in world affairs and key domestic events after 1890 by 9.3 Performance Indicators D. Analyze how the emergence of the “New Woman” challenged Victorian values. National History Standard Assessment


1. Begin this assignment with a brief review/presentation on primary and secondary sources.

Suggestion: Free Write - List Primary Sources that a future historian might find from your life, or create two lists of examples of primary and secondary sources.

Remember: To explain the difference between primary and secondary sources, ask students when historians might use each type of source. Introduce the idea of bias in sources, ask students how the speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject, or tone might change the meaning of the document.

2. Directions for Students: Give students an overview of today's assignment. As historians use primary sources, today you will be analyzing a variety of different primary sources.

3. To the computer lab: Place students in small groups of 2-3. Tell students to access the William and Mary SCRC Digital Archives record for Molly Elliot Seawell. While students are accessing this site, hand out a Primary Source Analysis Sheet. Give students a few minutes to become familiar with the website. Ask students what type of information is available in the collection, who is the author, what organization is this website connected to, etc. You might ask students the difference between a .com and .edu or .org web page and which one they think would be more useful in research.

4. Once students are familiar with the digitized collection, have students either pick one primary source or assign one. If you are planning on culminating this with oral reports, you might assign different primary sources to ensure variety.

5. When they finish the first document, have students complete the Primary Source Analysis Sheet.

6. In the computer lab or back in the classroom: Instruct students to create a brief summary of their primary source for their classmates. Encourage each group member to describe what they learned about history from this document. What did they find surprising in the documents? What seems different or similar to today? As group discussion continues, end by summarizing what the next steps of a research project would be: choosing questions, developing a thesis, organizing research, and writing or presenting the information.

Differentiation/Enrichment: Scaffold the activity by assigning dates with largely visual primary sources for low reading levels or shorter primary sources with background information. For enrichment, encourage students to follow links to other Special Collection materials and offer opportunities to write their own analysis or design their own research project.

Assessment Criteria: Students will be assessed through collecting the Primary Source Analysis Sheet, in addition to class discussion following the computer activity. The Primary Source Analysis Sheets should be graded on quality, but teachers should not presume a single correct answer for the open ended questions.