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A Teacher’s Perspective: Buckle Up! Engaging Today’s Learners with Primary Sources

By: Robbie Marsden

Interacting with Washington’s OWN words from his OWN pen on his OWN property brought primary sources alive for me, and has now allowed me to bring them alive for my students. Looking back, prior to attending the George Washington Teacher Institute Residential Program (GWTI) at Mount Vernon, I had no idea how to teach primary sources. Without a true emotional investment, I can’t imagine what my first batch of students thought when we would “analyze” a speech or document.

I will never forget the moment it hit me. Our teacher cohort was being led in a document analysis of Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport” from August 1790. It was in this letter that Washington explicitly condemned religious intolerance, writing that the United States “gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He continued to the congregation’s leader, Moses Seixas, that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Let’s unpack that. Over 200 years ago, George Washington, on behalf of the then brand new United States, clearly and concisely disavowed religious intolerance. He followed that up by intentionally citing the Old Testament of the Bible to reassure the Hebrews, and in turn Americans of all faiths and creeds, that they were safe here—in this new America. Washington’s words brought a wave of emotion over me, when I realized how relevant his words are today—with religious intolerance remaining evident across the country and the world.

This was the first time I truly felt the words I was reading, and I have since devoted myself to presenting primary sources in a way that allows my students to connect with them as well. Attending the GWTI was the spark I needed to realize the true power of primary sources, and how to make them digestible for my middle and high school students.

After a month or so back at school, all of my students knew the answer to “What is Mr. Marsden’s favorite thing?” “Primary sources!” When teaching primary sources effectively, students need to be prepared for a journey back in time. “Buckle up!” I say—while simulating the motions of putting on a seat belt to our time machine. When I introduce these documents to my students, we go back to the exact moment in time in which the words on a piece of 8x10 paper were penned or spoken. We put ourselves in their shoes, read it through their lens, and then take a step back and interpret the same words through our modern-day lens.

Throw the textbooks out the window! In-depth analysis of primary sources hits at the core goal of social studies—to foster critical thinkers who are prepared to be engaged citizens and the leaders of tomorrow.

…The best means of forming a manly, virtuous, and happy people will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail...

Letter from George Washington to George Chapman (December 15th, 1784)


Robbie Marsden is an 11th Grade US History Teacher at Vaux Big Picture High School in Philadelphia, PA. He formerly taught 8th Grade US History at Universal Vare Charter School.