Teaching the First Amendment with Primary Sources

Primary sources are not just historical documents. First-hand accounts can be paintings, photographs, testimonials, and more. By engaging with primary sources, students will come to understand how historic events have affected the freedoms we have today. My elementary students used primary sources to understand the First Amendment. Keep reading to find out how they did it. Learn how your students can use social studies inquiry to study our civil liberties. CLICK HERE to download this unit and all of its resources!

CLICK HERE to download the printables!

The images are in the unit bundle!
I began the unit by engaging students in high-level thinking by asking them to analyze three unique images. Students chose three words that they believed all the pictures have in common. There is no right or wrong answer. This activity is about engaging students in thinking and triggering their knowledge of vocabulary. After students shared their responses, I told them that the word I thought of for the pictures was “freedom”. I explained to students that freedom is the focus of this unit.

I explained to students that U.S. citizens have five freedoms protected by the First Amendment: speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition. Each student group was assigned to create a word poster for one of these freedoms. My students planned their word posters and used PBS LearningMedia to create an online storyboard for their word. PBS LearningMedia is a free, online media-on-demand service developed for PreK-12 educators featuring interactives, images, video, audio files and more with lesson plans, background essays, and discussion questions.

Student word poster using PBS LearningMedia Storyboard
On students’ PBS LearningMedia Storyboards, they defined their First Amendment freedom and selected a visual representation for it. Students can also create word posters on blank white paper. Students should write the term on their paper in a way that represents its meaning. For example, the word “speech” might be created in the shape of a mouth. Each group is to share their word poster with the class so everyone understands the First Amendment freedoms.

Next, I had my students learn about the historical events that inspired the creation of the First Amendment. I did this through what I call a primary source jig-saw activity. I provided student groups with four “puzzle pieces” of a primary source that influenced one of the freedoms under the First Amendment. Each student in the group analyzed their puzzle piece using a graphic organizer I created. Students then put their pieces of the image together to form the complete picture. By this point, students were highly motivated to learn more about the event depicted in their painting or drawing. At the end of this activity, I explained to students how each event influenced the establishment of America’s First Amendment.

CLICK HERE to get this activity from my Teachers Pay Teachers Store!
I assessed students’ understanding of the First Amendment in an engaging way. I challenged my students to match primary sources to the First Amendment rights: speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition. I cut out titles for the five freedoms as well as two images for each. I retrieved these images from DocsTeach, a collection of primary source documents from the National Archives Foundation.

This matching activity is included in the unit! DOWNLOAD IT HERE!
I was able to do a quick formative assessment by seeing if students placed the images in the correct category. Right or wrong, I asked students to explain their reasoning. I found that students were developing an understanding of the First Amendment based on their ability to defend their choices.

Students use this handout to analyze a news article!
In the next activity, students explore how young people today have used their First Amendment rights. I found several kid-friendly current events articles from the Internet for my students to read. This activity shows students how the First Amendment is still relevant today. Here are some of my favorite online news sources for students: NewsELA, Time for Kids, and Scholastic News Kids Press Corps.

The final lesson in this unit gets students thinking about issues in their school that they care about. I had my students contemplate topics from the Freedom of Speech Topics sheet. Students circled their opinions for each topic. After they considered every issue, students chose one for the creation of their final products. Using my S’more Opinion Planner, students identified their opinion and reasons why for the topic they selected. Students picked the activities that they would like to complete from the Freedom of Speech Choice Board.

All of these resources are included in the unit! CLICK HERE for the bundle!
It is always exciting for me as a teacher when I find ways for my students to apply what they learn. My students put into practice their First Amendment freedom of speech by expressing their opinions. Your students can do the same! This unit embraces students’ curiosities and fuels their passions while teaching them about civil liberties. To get all of the primary sources, graphic organizers, writing templates, as well as day-by-day lesson plans for this unit, visit my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

CLICK HERE to download the unit!
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