The Real Power of Primary Sources (or in Math Terms: Primary ≠ Best)

I’ve been thinking for quite a while about writing a post regarding primary sources. They are something we teach our students about every year because they are incredibly important. But sometimes our students think that they are almost omniscient, and really, in a sense, they’re the opposite. They’re a snapshot of limited, contemporary knowledge. They often need to be combined with a more distant vantage point to get a complete picture.

So, since this post is in the moment, prepare it to take quite the turn. First, though, here’s a conversation with students leading into primary sources.

LAST SEPTEMBER, During an 8th grade research lesson about primary sources and the perspectives they provide

Me: What was school like last spring?
Student A: We were sent home.
Me: When did you think you’d be back?
Student A: August.
Me: Didn’t you think you’d be back after spring break?
Student A: No. Me: Before the end of the year?
Student A: No, we knew it was all year.
Me (feeling analogy falling apart): Anyone else have a different experience?
WHOLE CLASS: No, we knew it in March.
Me (facepalm): Well, I’m glad to see you this year. About primary sources…

And pivot.

First the abridged version: A tree fell on my old house and while stressful, it was covered by insurance and ultimately fixed.

Our neighbors are my favorite! But still imagine getting these texts 1000 miles away.

Or the TLDR variety: During a lightning storm this summer a tree fell on my house, a 97 year old bungalow. We were traveling, and our neighbors noticed the next morning. There were three large puncture wounds and some structural damage, but repairs were covered by insurance. We were able to get someone to remove the limbs the next day. Unfortunately, a miscommunication with the roofing company meant that they didn’t come to tarp the roof for five days. In the Florida summer storm season. We had major water damage to our living room ceiling, though magically the water poured and pooled neatly into the two couches we were replacing upon returning to Florida. During reroofing, however, there was a wire splice and we learned our electricity wasn’t up to code. How convenient to be lacking a ceiling for easy access to the wiring! We still need to replace the broken patio tiles, crushed fence, and flattened plants, but we’re fine. The cats are fine. The house is mainly fine. This is just to say there’s been a lot on my mind since returning to school last month.

As a distraction, I walked into a craft store with my mom the night this happened and found this gem of a magnet that has made its way into my life and onto my fridge.

Which is why I’ve been thinking about an essay our AP Lang students are writing based on their summer reading of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. There’s more to the assignment, but the gist is this. Take a walk and “Like Bryson, you will write an essay that both tells the story of a true experience you’ve had, describes the setting of that experience in detail, and incorporates outside research that helps to communicate your purpose to the reader. In order to do this, you must HAVE an experience—or take a walk.” The immediate response by one student was whether they could use a walk they took in the summer. It was in the Grand Canyon. It was apparently spectacular. Eye-opening.

And I’m sitting there, probably distracted by knowing that I wake each morning to a snowy dusting of insulation on the hardwood, feeling like this student doesn’t get this assignment. It’s about experience, about presence, about the uncertainty of the moments beyond now.

Or to put it in literary terms, it’s fundamentally different to describe a book you’ve finished to one where you’re still immersed in the plot! Yes, I’ve tread in this territory before, but that’s the unique power of primary sources.

I keep saying it’s all where I focus my attention…

And here’s the addendum for eagle-eyed readers – this roof stuff was happening while I was staying unexpectedly in my childhood bedroom because of previously referenced “camper maintenance issues.” This spring we fueled up with watered-down diesel, and the fuel system replacement we got was incomplete. So en route to long-planned camping adventures, we instead got a second fuel system replacement, this one complete with fuel tank. (Note to all, especially me from 6 months ago: watered-down diesel is a really really REALLY big deal.) But wait, you say, didn’t you take that trip to Ithaca’s waterfalls?

Yes, two weeks later, writing on this blog about the experience as a planner of travelling with less than a plan. Because primary sources are immediate. They are personal. And of course they are biased. At that point, it was too close, too open. At the time, it felt too sad. (But it was just stuff, people!)  Now it’s a crazy story after a crazy year, and I have a whole new vocabulary for home and vehicle repairs. And, fingers crossed Friday, a drywall-dust-free beautiful new living room with my new favorite couches anchoring the house.

Please tell me I’m not alone in setting up fake boxes to see if my cats take the bait?

Still with me this Labor Day Monday? This is important because all you superstitious folks, I hear to expect things in threes. Camper, House, ???

Last Friday, just before lunch, I was grabbing a binder from the library’s Reading Room and heard a suspicious “plink, plink, plink.” Right in the spot where the AC had overflowed this summer and dripped straight onto two half shelves of books. Being the beginning of the year, the aptly descriptive “decide moldy books” went on my to-do list, as I was determining which of the approximately 30 books were salvageable, which were weedable, and which I wanted to repurchase.

Look at that mighty trash can! And pay no attention to the books from the previous leak on the left…

My library monitor set up a trash can; I called Facilities and headed to my lunch meeting. At the final bell of the school day, thinking of this very 3 day weekend, I walked down to facilities and asked if I should get trash bags to cover books on nearby shelves in case the entire tile collapsed. Slow dripping is one issue, tile-size splatter discovered three days later quite another.

Foreshadowing: “Dry Thinking Ahead Me” writing this post at 3:20pm Friday would have quite a different account to the “Damp What Next Me” writing at 3:30pm.

Somehow, after removing the ceiling tile to get at the splash pan, the bottom gave way. (Those of my generation—remember when people were slimed on Nickelodeon?) In planning to dryvac out the source of my worry, spray hit books from Isaac Asimov to Stephen King. I’ve never been so grateful for laminated book covers. Many were totally dry, a few were soaked through, and the rest had a few droplets along the heads or spines. We briefly discussed using the lunchroom freezers to store books, but instead went with the home remedy method of flipping them upside down on the floor, fanning the pages, and setting up large fans nearby. (The University of Michigan backs me up starting at step 6.)

Cue spotlight on the primary source through line of this post.

Well, right now I know I’m walking into this…

We are all doing our best!

And who knows what the day will bring next. I want to tell my students there’s no #adulting class that really prepares you. Know that uncertainties aside, I wish you all working transportation, solid roofs, and dry books going into this new school year!

2 thoughts on “The Real Power of Primary Sources (or in Math Terms: Primary ≠ Best)

  1. Christina,
    You are keeping your sense of humor amidst a horrific event – we are all thinking of you, your family and your cats!

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