Montana Historical Society

Big Sky ~ Big History

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Teaching with Primary Sources

Many of the Montana Historical Society's lesson plans use primary sources. In addition to the lessons listed below, teachers are encouraged to explore the following links:

  • Hands-On History Footlockers (Designed for use in elementary school, but adaptable to middle and high school) Bring reproduction artifacts, photographs, documents and other resources to your classroom to enrich your students' experience of Montana history. (Or use some of the standard's-based lesson planseven without ordering the footlocker).
  • Indian Education for All Lesson Plans The Montana Historical Society has produced a number of lesson plans to help your students grasp the Essential Understandings regarding Montana Indians while learning more about specific Montana history topics and learning how to analyze primary sources.
  • Integrating Art and History Discover lesson plans on Charlie Russell, Montana's Cowboy Artist; Plains Indian pictographic art; and Plateau Indian beaded bags.
  • Learning from Historical Documents The Montana Historical Society posted primary sources relating to almost every era in Montana history when they created the Montana: Stories of the Land Companion Website. They are aggregated on this page. A typed excerpt, a link to the original , a brief context, and a copy of the National Archives Document Analysis Worksheet is posted for each document.
  • Annotated Resource Sets The Montana Historical Society has created topical resource sets that include links to photographs, maps, illustrations, and documents. Many, but not all, of the images linked in these sets were also used to illustrate the textbook Montana: Stories of the Land. These sources can be used to build PowerPoints or to create DBQs or other primary-source based activities.

Additional Primary Source Based Lesson Plans and Resources

Reader's Theater: Letters Home from Montanans at War (Designed for 7th-12th). This three-to-five period unit asks students to work in groups to read and interpret letters written by soldiers at war, from the Civil War to the Operation Iraqi Freedom. After engaging in close reading and conducting research to interpret the letters, they will perform the letters as reader’s theater. Preview this lesson by watching Rob Hoffman perform one of the letters, a 2005 email from Helenan Cory Swanson, who was serving in Iraq.

Hazel Hunkins, Billings Suffragist: A Primary Source Investigation(Designed for grades 7-12) In this lesson, student historians will analyze photos, letters, newspaper articles, and other sources to learn more about the suffrage movement as experienced by Billings, Montana, native and National Woman's Party activist Hazel Hunkins.

Montana’s State Flower: A Lesson in Civic Engagement (Designed for 4th-7th). This seven-period unit introduces students to the electoral process while providing an opportunity to develop research skills and to explore historical newspapers. By organizing an election for class flower, students will learn about the electoral process and experience civic engagement first hand while practicing such Common Core skills as close reading of complex texts and persuasive writing.

Women at Work Lesson Plan: Clothesline Timeline. This primary-source based lesson asks students to analyze historic photographs to draw conclusions about women and work from the 1870s through the 2010s. Students will discover that Montana women have always worked, but that discrimination, cultural expectations, and changing technology have influenced the types of work women undertook.

"Montana's Landless Indians and the Assimilation Era of Federal Indian Policy: A Case of Contradiction" is a week-long primary-source based unit designed to introduce students to the history of the landless Métis, Cree, and Chippewa Indians in Montana between 1889 and 1916, while giving them an opportunity to do their own guided analysis of historical and primary source materials. In this Common Core-aligned unit, students will wrestle with issues of perspective, power, ideology, and prejudice and will closely examine the role Montana newspapers played in shaping public opinion toward the tribes’ attempts to maintain economic independence and gain a land base and political recognition.

Thinking Like a Historian: Using Digital Newspapers in the Classroom (Designed for 4th-8th). Have students exercise their historical imaginations as while introducing them to the research, the richness of historic newspapers, and the social history of gold-rush era Montana.

Girl from the Gulches: The Story of Mary Ronan Study Guide (Designed for students 6-10). This study guide includes lesson plans, vocabulary, chapter summaries and questions, alignment to the Common Core, and other information to facilitate classroom use of Girl from the Gulches: The Story of Mary Ronan, as told to Margaret Ronan, edited by Ellen Baumler. Set in the second half of the nineteenth century, this highly readable 222-page memoir details Mary Sheehan Ronan’s journey across the Great Plains, her childhood on the Colorado and Montana mining frontiers, her ascent to young womanhood in Southern California, her return to Montana as a young bride, and her life on the Flathead Indian Reservation as the wife of an Indian agent. Book One, which provides a child’s-eye view of the mining frontier, is available to download as a PDF. Classroom sets of Girl from the Gulches can be purchased from the Montana Historical Society Museum Store by calling toll free 1-800-243-9900.

Digitized Montana Newspapers Online Newspapers are the closest thing we have to a time machine. See which issues and papers are available for online research.

Oral History in the Classroom This handy pamphlet includes the information you need (including legal forms and classroom exercises) to teach your students to conduct oral histories. The Montana Historical Society loans digital recorders and transcription machines on a first come, first served basis. Find the Equipment Loan Form here.