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I get a huge kick out of using primary source material to make history catapult to life. Why? For one thing, I get to morph into a detective who can legally lift the roofs off of peoples’ houses and peruse their most secret (or even not-so-secret) private letters, journals, and diaries. And better yet, the vigor and immediacy of the comments people make during an historic event cannot be beat. They are so unexpected or funny or poignant or on-target that they will blow you away.

So how could I explain primary source material to Amy Musone’s third grade class in York Pennsylvania’s Roundtown Elementary School? To show young kids how cool primary sources can be, we explored the story and illustrations from my book . Via real quotes from the travelers' own journals, we relived their hair-raising escapes from bears—and mosquitoes—traded highly unusual goods with lots of Indian chiefs, met Lewis's brave dog Seaman, traveled with the legendary Shoshone teenager Sacagawea, and finally heard the roaring waves of the great Pacific Ocean a continent away from home. And in the bargain, we also figured out what other primary source material I found to make my illustrations as accurate (and as much fun) as possible.

After that, we explored several cool ways kids can write their own nonfiction stories by using primary source material. One of my suggestions was for each student to interview older an family member about his or her own adventures a long time ago. We talked about methods news reporters use to ask hard questions, not just easy ones. (I said that their families would love to be interviewed this way.) And I introduced them to my infamous “meat and salt” method of writing non-fiction, in which the meat = the facts (names, dates, places, etc.) and the salt = all the unusual or surprising or funny big and little things that bring a story to life and make you want to read more.

The stories these 8 year olds uncovered were so incredibly good that I wrote a blog to tell what happened next and to showcase their true tales. You can find them right here: http://inkrethink.blogspot.com/2013/06/what-kids-can-do.html ..... I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

Here are some quotes from the third grade students regarding their videoconference with Roz:

  • It was awesome and I learned a lot. Kaitlyn
  • I think it was neat because we got to Skype with real authors. Katie
  • I thought it was a learning experience because she taught us how she gets and uses primary sources. Most classes don't get to Skype with an actual author. Abbey
  • It teaches that you can't believe everything that's said. You need to make sure it's true. Sarah
  • She took her time and she was really focused on the topic. She used her resources in the book. Alec
  • Amazing Skyping with a real author. I like writing stories and if I write a non-fiction book, I can use primary sources. Toni

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Rosalyn Schanzer’s website: www.rosalynschanzer.com