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Choose one or two documents to quickly engage students, focus classroom activity, and spark conversations. Pick from one of five modes — Discussion Topic, Spotlight, Zoom/Crop, Compare and Contrast, or White out/Black out — to frame documents and guide students as they analyze, focus on specific content, examine document details, and form hypotheses.

Learning Objectives and Historical Thinking Skills

Focusing on Details activities teach students to pay close attention to detail in primary sources and understand them in context. Create Focusing on Details activities to get class started, to introduce students to a topic, to pose a historical problem or question to students, to get students to focus critically on a document or set of documents, or to introduce or reinforce document analysis techniques. Often Focusing on Details activities will be displayed in a whole-class setting; but they can focus group or individual investigation as well.…more

Focusing on Details activities teach students to pay close attention to detail in primary sources and understand them in context. Create Focusing on Details activities to get class started, to introduce students to a topic, to pose a historical problem or question to students, to get students to focus critically on a document or set of documents, or to introduce or reinforce document analysis techniques. Often Focusing on Details activities will be displayed in a whole-class setting; but they can focus group or individual investigation as well.

Set up an activity in the Discussion Topic mode to showcase one document while posing a question, comment, or directions for students.

This flexible tool has a broad range of uses because the teacher writes in the text. For example, the discussion topic can prompt students to begin thinking about a particular topic or analyzing a document as they enter the classroom, without oral directions from the teacher. Enter writing prompts into the text box for students. Or start a classroom conversation at any time by displaying a document with instructions to students about what to think about and comment on in regard to the document.

This mode is also helpful for introducing students to document analysis. Teach and model careful document analysis while displaying a document. Ask students to look at a document very generally, to consider what type of document it is and any unique characteristics or telling features. Students should determine the content and speculate for whom and why it was created. Help students understand the document in historical context. Remind students to do the same careful document analysis with all primary sources.

The Spotlight mode can be used to highlight a specific part of a document.

Use this mode to help students learn to notice unique document features to inform their analysis. For instance, focus students’ attention on one signature, word choice, stamp, or other characteristic of a document and ask them to speculate about who made the mark. This helps students understand the life of the document and its context. Or use the tool to direct students to examine particular content within a document. In an activity on word choice in a Language Arts class, for example, use the spotlight tool to highlight the words “date which will live in infamy” in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 speech in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Use the Zoom/Crop mode to intrigue students about a particular document and give them practice forming hypotheses.

Begin the activity focused in on one part of a document and ask students to pay close attention to the details to try to determine the document’s significance. Zoom out of the document to reveal more of the picture, asking students to rethink their hypotheses based on new evidence. Or use the Zoom/Crop tool to go from more of a document to less, or to shift the view from one part to another, focusing student attention on particular details within a document.

Teach students to use visual cues and context to understand a document using the White out/Black out tool.

Students can make an educated guess about what is happening in a photograph, for instance, by analyzing the physical environment or facial expressions it has captured. To help students practice this skill, use the tool to obscure most of a document so that students must hypothesize what the document is. In “The Reagan YearsFocusing on Details activity, for example, students begin by seeing only President Reagan; the rest of the photograph is obscured. Students closely examine his face and expression to hypothesize who he is and what he is doing. When the rest of the photograph is revealed, students will test their hypotheses and begin to use more clues in the photograph to contextualize the event. Students learn at the conclusion of the activity that the president and his staff were watching a televised replay of the Space Shuttle “Challenger” explosion. Another way to use the white out/black out tool is to obscure just a part or one major feature of a document. Ask students to use the context clues in the document to hypothesize what is being obscured.

Use the Compare and Contrast mode to display two documents side by side to prompt students to observe and point out similarities and differences.

For instance, the “Comparing Civil War Posters” activity asks students to compare and contrast military recruitment posters to analyze various perspectives regarding slavery and African Americans during the Civil War. The mode can point out before-and-after differences, regional differences, etc.

Teaching Tips

  • Consider the goals you have for your students before planning your activity. Choose documents and one of the five different modes in the tool based upon those goals.
  • Focusing on Details activities can be tailored to all grade levels. They can introduce primary sources to younger students and help them learn basic document analysis. For students in secondary grades, choose documents that require more extensive analysis and contextualization, or even further research, to practice higher-order thinking skills.…more
  • Consider the goals you have for your students before planning your activity. Choose documents and one of the five different modes in the tool based upon those goals.
  • Focusing on Details activities can be tailored to all grade levels. They can introduce primary sources to younger students and help them learn basic document analysis. For students in secondary grades, choose documents that require more extensive analysis and contextualization, or even further research, to practice higher-order thinking skills.
  • It is important to model careful document analysis when working with primary sources. Whether document analysis is the focus of the activity or not, ask the class try to pull apart the document to better understand it. First ask students to look at the document generally; ask about the type of document and any unique physical characteristics. Ask students to identify the date, creator(s), and content of the document. Be sure to remind students to do the same careful analysis with primary sources any time they use them.

Focusing on Details

Showcase an intriguing document or a pair of documents to prompt students to think critically about primary source documents.

Lessons Created Using this Template