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Reading text: What can documents tell us?

Written documents—whether typed, printed, or handwritten—reflect the people and the times during when they were produced. We record what we think is important, and the words suggest values of the author. For this activity, students read a document and interpret its meaning to its creator, to its audience, and to its owner.

Standards

Students will:

  • Demonstrate the ability to examine history from the perspectives of the participants (SS Benchmark I-D Performance Standard 7:2).
  • Describe primary and secondary sources and their uses in research (SS Benchmark I-D; 9-12:3).

Outcomes
Students will:
  • Examine a document from the collection
  • Evaluate the audience, purpose, and meaning of the document
  • Search for historical clues in the document to add depth to the story of the document
Materials
Artifact packet from Curriculum Resources, First Impression lesson
Reading Document Worksheet
Additional resources
National Archives (www.archives.gov/)
Library of Congress American Memory Project (http://memory.loc.gov/)
Procedure 

  1. Print worksheets on Reading documents (one per group) and Interpret the meaning (one per person).
  2. Select one document from Battle for Bataan Artifacts to demonstrate exercise. (Use the documents from First Impressions lesson.)
  3. Display demonstration document via overhead projector or other projection method. Model the process of completing the worksheet, facilitating student input.
  4. Divide students into groups and distribute Reading Documents worksheets.
  5. Have students examine document and describe the story it tells by completing the first impressions and second look portion of the worksheet.
  6. Students look for details that are not necessarily part of the story of the document but contain valuable historical information (Details section of the worksheet).
  7. Students deduce facts from the details of the document.
  8. Students present conclusions they have reached about their documents to the class.
  9. As a unit, the class evaluates the logic behind the deductions students made about their documents.

Assessment
Students rate each other in accordance with how you derive from meaning from your interpretation.

Rubric Students award one point for each category if well done, a half point if inadequately done, and no points if not done.

Categories Interpretation consistent with:
document content
other document details
historical facts
cultural context

Extension
What else would the author say? Imagine you are the author of the document you examined. Write a journal entry describing your day. Would this document be important enough that its author would have included it in a journal entry for that day?

Secret messages. In wartime, military forces need a way to send messages that cannot be read by their enemies. Many innovative methods, from codes to encryption machines, have been used to keep messages secret. Research one of these ways and create a presentation about it.

Audience analysis. Documents are often written for a single, primary audience, but people outside that audience may use them. For example, the slideshows in this web site were written for students, but are available to an audience that includes veterans, parents of students, historians, and others. Analyze this secondary audience for your document by creating a 5-column table. Label the columns as described below and complete each column for at least 5 possible categories of people who might be in a secondary audience.

Column 1. Audience: Who might read this document (for example, parent of soldier, local newspaper editor, historian, commanding officer, politician)?
Column 2. Intended audience: Was this reader part of the audience the document was written for?
Column 3. Background: What is the background of this type of audience in terms of education and experience with the topic?
Column 4. Interest in document: Why is this type of audience interested in this document?
Column 5. Use of document: How will this type of audience use this document?