Making the Grade with the Common Core: Primary Source Project

For the past 18 months, as a researcher and lead on ISKME’s Primary Source Project, I have been part of a group of twelve educators across eight states to create an open collection of primary sources and lessons that meet the Common Core’s requirement for increased used of informational and non-fiction literary texts across core subjects. We have also been working together to develop an instructional design toolkit to help teachers both create and also implement new curriculum to meet the Common Core State Standards.

We started off the project with four primary goals:

  1. Create a slim collection of digital primary source texts for K-12 teachers and students that support literacy across English Language Arts, science, social studies/history, and technical subjects, as well as math practice and skills.
  2. Create interdisciplinary “exemplar” lessons using the selected primary sources to support instructional shifts tied to addressing students’ close reading of texts, critical thinking, and building of evidence-based arguments rooted in the sources.
  3. Outline accessibility and rights issues associated with selected providers of primary source texts, and create policies and use case scenarios that encourage open access to primary sources for educational purposes.
  4. Create an online space for future teachers to access the collection of primary source texts, the interdisciplinary lessons, and Common Core-aligned professional learning resources.

To kick off the process, ISKME convened a two-day work session with twelve educators last spring to develop guidelines for selecting the initial 50 primary sources. Examples of the sources selected through this process included NASA images of the moon, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and data from the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The next step was to create sets of lessons using multiple primary sources. A main challenge for creating these lessons, or exemplars, was to ensure they met the instructional shifts identified in the new English Language Arts literacy and mathematics standards. Incorporating these standards meant that the instructional design and student activities needed to focus on close reading of the texts, development of text-based evidence, cohesive writing from the text, the use of academic language, and integration of math knowledge and practices.

The project website,, highlights the exemplar lessons, aggregated by topic. For example, you will find a high school unit on human rights that not only integrates math, science, social studies, and English, but also addresses English Language Arts and math literacy as well as subject-specific skills. The unit uses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for its core primary source text, and also draws on, for example, WHO: Child Malnutrition Country Estimates and Center for Disease Control Growth Charts for Children for its supporting texts. 

The primary sources, the exemplars, and the instructional design toolkit—which walks educators through the process of identifying and selecting the appropriate primary sources to collaborating with others and finally taking the lessons into the classroom—cap more than a year of collaborative design work and testing in the field.

Based on feedback received from groups of teachers we recruited to pilot the exemplars and test the online space, the outcomes of the Primary Source Project do support teachers in meeting the instructional shifts required through the standards, including cross-disciplinary teaching, balancing direct instruction with the literacy standards, and developing student tasks that are truly grounded in texts. Having access to an open, high-quality site for primary sources, along with a professional learning resources for implementing them in the classroom, makes a difference in addressing the standards to the teachers we have interviewed. How this project will impact students will take longer to assess, but as for teachers, we hope to see the results starting to emerge at the end of 2014.

July 07, 2014