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Holiday History Lessons: Exploring Primary Sources

  • By Nicole Ellis
  • January 11th, 2016 9:44 am

In addition to spending time with family and friends, the holidays mark the time of many important historical events. Use the winter break to explore them by encouraging students to analyze primary sources and answer related questions.


Read on to learn about two events that happened during this time of the year, long ago. We’ve included exciting sources and a list of questions that will get students to think like historians!


George Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware


On December 25, 1776, General George Washington led his army across the Delaware River during the American Revolutionary War.


The Library of Congress offers a variety of primary and secondary sources about this brave move. Read a transcript of Washington’s papers in which he describes the harsh conditions of the crossing.




This blog post shows later paintings of the crossing and suggests some engaging classroom activities.


As students examine these sources, here are some questions for them to keep in mind:

– In his papers, whom is Washington addressing? What exactly is he describing? What hardships did his Army face?

– How are Washington and his army portrayed in his writing?

– Observe the two paintings. What details do you notice? How is Washington portrayed? And how does this compare to his papers?


After students analyze these sources, have students answer this question and support their claim with evidence: Why was George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River a significant event?


Apollo 8 Goes to the Moon


On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 was launched as it became the first manned spacecraft to go to the moon and back. On December 24, the astronauts entered the moon’s orbit and broadcast, to millions, photos of the Earth and moon.


Explore the NASA website for facts and sources on this important day. Students can read a transcript of the crew’s lunar orbits, as well as observe photos from the event. In another section of the site, students are able to listen to the broadcast, look at photos, and read more about the trip.



After students research and analyze these sources, ask them:

– Who is the intended  audience of the crew’s broadcast? How does this affect the source? Is it a reliable source?

– What message did the crew give in their broadcast? What insight does it provide about the crew?

– What details do you notice in the photos? Why do you think these photos were significant?


After students have explored these sources, have them consider: What historical questions can you answer using these sources? What are the limitations to these sources? And what additional information do you need?


Primary sources like these ones can help students better understand important events throughout history. Comment some of your own favorite sources!



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