Gathering Primary Sources—Oral Testimonies
Students will gather stories from family members and others at home about their memories of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, and then compare and contrast their stories, studying different points of view and what people know at different points in time. Ask: Do we know more now, six years after the event? Are there additional parts of the story and perspectives that came to light after the event that help us to understand more about what happened at that time?
To help students understand that personal testimonies tell the story of an event from many different perspectives, and that the role of historians is to create an accurate public record of history.
What students should know:
- The events of September 11 were witnessed by a global audience in real time. As a result, there is an abundance of primary source material—first-person testimonies, objects, and digital materials—for scholars and future generations interested in learning about this event.
- Different people may describe or remember the events of September 11, 2001, in different ways.
- Artifacts—from building remnants to personal belongings—provide concrete evidence of past events.
- It is important for artifacts to be preserved by archivists and museum curators so that historians and future generations may study and learn about the past.
What students should be able to do:
- Identify the kinds of primary sources that have been preserved so that future generations can learn about the events of September 11, 2001.
- Record a story of September 11 and its impact as told through the eyes of someone who remembers it.
- Compare and contrast the different points of view reflected in various accounts, and recognize that individual and personal memories reflect different perspectives on an event.
- Recognize the range of artifacts being collected by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center.
- Teacher Introduction/Background (PDF)
- Take-Home Pages (PDF)
- Paper/notebooks for recording interviews (recorders optional)
- Additional first-person accounts (including podcasts) from www.national911memorial.org, StoryCorps (www.storycorps.net), and other sites.
- Pose this question: Why is the history of events such as September 11, 2001, important to record? (Students should understand that for people now and in the future to know what happened, history must be recorded.)
- Pose this question: How do historians write history? Discuss the difference between secondary sources (e.g., books written by historians) and primary sources (e.g., firsthand accounts, diaries, letters, recordings, print interviews, photos, and other artifacts).
- Review with students this definition of “primary source”: a firsthand document, oral testimony, or object that dates from the time of an event in history. Ask: How does a primary source differ from a secondary source?
- Guide students to develop criteria for analyzing primary sources. (For example: Who spoke the words? What is that person’s relationship to the event? When was the document written, or when was the story recorded? Is there evidence of bias? To whom did the object belong? How does the object relate to the event?)
- Point out that historians evaluate many, often conflicting primary sources, in order to draw historical conclusions about an event such as September 11.
- Provide examples from September 11 (refer to examples in the Take-Home Pages and websites), such as a fire officer’s helmet damaged by debris when the South Tower collapsed; an interview with a person who survived the events at the World Trade Center; a twisted piece of steel from the North Tower; interviews with two survivors giving conflicting accounts of the same events; a videotape of firefighters entering the South Tower. Ask: Why should these objects and texts be preserved? (Students should understand that these primary sources, even conflicting ones, help historians and future generations learn about the events.)
- Remind students that primary sources provide firsthand, real perspectives related to events in history.
- Explain that they are going to become “primary researchers” on the events of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath. Their research will involve interviewing at least one person who remembers the event. The person could be a family member, friend, or neighbor.
- Have students record the following in their notebooks:
Step 1: Record the name of the person being interviewed and how you know him/her.
Step 2: Ask the interviewee these questions and any additional ones you think of:
—Where were you when the events of September 11, 2001, happened?
— How did you learn about the events?
— What do you recall about the events and other events related to it?
— Why is it important for people in the future to know about these events?
— How is your life different as a result of September 11?
- Review the definition of “primary source” and the criteria used for evaluation. Then review the questions that students will be asking during their interviews.
1. Compare and Contrast:
- After collecting and reviewing student interviews, read aloud four excerpts that show different perspectives on the events of September 11, 2001.
- Have students create a simple chart to compare and contrast the four examples. Headings could include “Major Similarities” and “Major Differences” and may be further refined based on the contents of the interviews.
- Now have students respond to these questions orally or in writing: What can someone learn about the events of September 11, 2001, from the research you conducted? What other information would a historian need to write the history of these events? What questions would he or she ask about your primary research?
- Have students write thank-you letters to the people they interviewed. In their letters, encourage them to note the importance of primary sources, such as the interviewee’s story, to the historical record of events like September 11.
Take-Home Pages (PDF)