Historian's Task: Mary Comes to the College Primary Source Workshop

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Historian’s Task: Women Arrive at William and Mary:Using Primary Sources

Grade and Level: United States and Virginia History Grade 8 – 11

Instructional Time: 1 90 minute block, or divided over a series of days. Extension activities included below.

Essential Learning:

Skill: Students will practice analyzing primary sources, generalizing main points and organizing information, to create a presentation for their classmates.

Content: Students will learn about young women arriving at the College of William and Mary, the effect of World War I on the college and town, and gain a better understanding of people in the past and the process of research.

Essential Question: How can you create a larger understanding from a diverse group of primary sources to understand a historical moment?


Classroom Organization: Students in group of 4 - 5 students.

Materials and Resources: - Printed Copies of Each Groups’ Primary Sources – Placed in a folder (Teacher Tip: Place primary sources in plastic sheet protectors – then you can reuse much longer!) - Click here for each Group's primary sources - Historian's Task Primary Sources - Adequate number of copies of “Research Sheet” and copy for each student of “Conclusions Catalogue” - Depending upon your choice of presentation mode: Newsprint and Markers


Website for Assignment: Mary Comes to the College with William blog; Description: Mary Comes to the College with William follows the first year women were admitted to the College of William and Mary 90 years later beginning with the endorsement of the proposed legislation by the College's Board of Visitors on February 12, 1918, through the end of the spring term in 1919.

Please Note: This guide was created in February 2009 as entries were still being added to the blog. Later entries may become more interesting or salient to your class, so please explore the blog to find other primary sources and information for your classes!

Alternative: Students could complete this activity using the computer.

Standards, Benchmarks and Indicators Objectives

Virginia Standards, Benchmarks and Indicators Era 5, Topic 3: The student will demonstrate knowledge of the emerging role of the United States in world affairs and key domestic events after 1890 by 9.3 Performance Indicators D. Analyze how the emergence of the “New Woman” challenged Victorian values.


1. Begin this assignment with a brief review/ presentation on primary and secondary sources. Suggestion: Free Write - List Primary Sources that a future historian might find from the student's life, or create two lists of examples of primary and secondary sources.

Remember: To explain the difference between primary and secondary sources, ask students when historians might use each type of source. Introduce the idea of bias in sources, ask students how the speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject, or tone might change the meaning of the document.

2. Give students an overview of today's assignment. As historians use primary sources, today each group has a different set of documents relating to the admission of the first women into the College of William and Mary. From these documents, you will create a presentation for your class to teach them about different aspects of American life at the end of World War I.

3. Students in groups receive their folder (containing the documents from Historian's Task: Primary Sources), and begin to look at each of the documents and its description. Circulate around the room asking questions: what do students notice? What types of documents are included? Is there anything surprising or shocking about the documents? Encourage all students in the group to think about what the documents might have in common. What category might this be? After an initial few minutes of examining the documents, hand out copies of the Research Sheet to each group.

4. For each document, students in the group complete a Research Sheet. Depending upon the nature of the group, you could choose to assign the task broadly or assign each student a primary source to analyze. After completing the Research Sheets for each document, the group should discuss the subjects and types of documents before them. Encourage them to do this by asking for possible titles for their category or asking them to describe to you what the documents say. Ask how to documents might show different bais - from the speaker to the type of document, what other types of bais can they find in the documents? What do these documents tell them about young men and women at the time of World War I?

5. Once they have paired and shared within the group, have each student individually complete the Conclusions Sheet using the documents and various Research Sheets for information.

6. When everyone in the group has finished, instruct each group to create a memorable and informative 5 – 10 minute presentation for the class. Depending upon the groups and the classes you could assign each group to:

  • A. present an oral report, including a Title, a main point, relevant information, and present 2 of the most interesting documents.
  • B. create a broadside of the campus newspaper the “Flat Hat” which covers their topic and contains 1 news story, 1 opinions piece, 1 cartoon, and 1 advice letter.
  • C. create a poster, with a clear title, main point, relevant information, and image to summarize

7. Have students deliver their presentations, then ask the students to reflect on common themes throughout the presentations. For homework or a follow up written assignment, have students think about how these primary sources answer the following questions or others that you think of:

  • What was life like for young people in 1918 and 1919? Do you think this was typical of America? Why or why not?
  • What was the roll of women in America at this time? How can you tell from these documents? Do you think this was typical? Why or why not?
  • How were the events at one college influenced by national and international events?

8. Review the process of gathering information from primary sources, synthesizing that information into a main point and supporting facts, and drawing larger conclusions. In conducting their own research or following up on this project, where might students go to find more information?

Assessment Criteria: Students will be assessed through collecting the conclusion sheets and grading their oral presentations, in addition to class discussion following the primary source activity. The assignment should be graded on quality, but teachers should not presume a single correct answer for the open ended questions.

Differentiation/Enrichment: In heterogeneous classes, assign visual primary sources to students with low reading levels, and challenge higher level students to create a thesis from the information in front of them. An interesting follow up might be to have students research co-education in the United States, was the experience at William and Mary typical or atypical, why or why not? What are some of the arguments for and against coeducation? This could also be a launching point to encourage students to research colleges, both coeducational and single sex.

Connections to Today: Have students research newspaper articles on coeducation and single sex school today, potential debate topic about the relative merits of coeducation (The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and CNN all have relevant articles). You might extend this into a comparison of women's rights today and in the past, does this change the importance or role of coeducation?