Teaching Civics through History with the National Archives

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

This week, IllinoisCivics.org hosted Dr. Charles Flanagan, Outreach Supervisor for the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives and Records Administration, for an interactive webinar to demonstrate how primary sources can be used to teach civics through history. If you missed the webinar, you can view a recording of the one-hour session that modeled how their popular lesson plan, Teaching Six Ideas in the Constitution from the Center for Legislative Archives, can be iterated for virtual learning.

Direct instruction on democratic institutions is one of the civic learning practices embedded in the Illinois civics course requirements for both middle and high school. The National Archives has numerous resources through both its Educator Resources and DocsTeach websites that allow students to evaluate sources and use evidence per the Illinois social science standards to dig deeper into the foundational concepts that undergird our constitutional republic. The National Archives has four principles that guide the development of classroom resources:
  • Honor the standards
  • Start where the students are
  • Study primary sources
  • Apply what the students learn to their daily lives
We asked two of our Illinois Civics Instructional Coaches what some of their favorite resources are to teach civics through history with primary sources. Here are some of their recommendations.
  • Dr. Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston elevated resources to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “We often talk about the right to vote in Civics, and the modern debate over Voting Rights. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which granted (white) women the right to vote. The National Archives has a lesson integrating primary documents with the 19th Amendment. Smithsonian Magazine put together a great website and series about that achievement, with multiple document deep dives and articles about the complexity of this. Who gained the vote in 1920, and what arguments enabled it? How did the suppression of Black voting live on in 1920? Who argued against women’s voting rights — and why? All of these can be examined with engaging primary documents (not just written documents but visuals as well).
  • Chris Johnson from Oneida sees a plethora of options to teach civics through history with primary sources. “There are so many options here. One that was a great one for my students is the Hamilton Education Program Online. It provides a wealth of knowledge about the writings of our founders as they debated and created our new nation. It’s free to use and just requires a simple sign up.

    Looking at the founding era and the idea of big vs little government, Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has a great lesson plan examining the arguments of the federalists and anti-federalists. It includes primary readings (with an adapted version) for students to read and examine.

    Common Lit Has a lot of great resources for students of many grades. Washington’s Farewell Address is a good example of how students can examine an 18th-century primary document and apply its advice to our life today. To what extent do presidents today follow Washington’s advice? Should they do so more? This is a great tool for students of many grade levels both in the traditional and in the remote classroom.”
What are you doing to teach civics through history with primary sources? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.


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