Lesson 1: Primarily Yours

Lesson 1: Primarily Yours

This lesson introduces students to Ryan White’s story and helps them consider why he is remembered today. Students examine how we know what we know about Ryan by reading samples of first-person letters written to Ryan by young people at the time. They compare these accounts with other information, and begin to make the distinction between primary and secondary sources. They compare different types of primary and secondary source materials, including photos, newspaper and magazine articles, and TV or audio accounts.

Students will...

  • Read brief letters to Ryan from young people their own age at the time
  • Discuss who wrote the letters and why they were written
  • Speculate about the impact the letters made and identify questions that they raise
  • Search for information about Ryan from a variety of sources
  • Create a graph recording what they have learned and the type of sources they used
  • Compare different types of information and distinguish between primary and secondary sources
  • Examine media accounts of the time to gain insight into public perceptions about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s


  • bullying
  • discrimination
  • document
  • HIVHuman immunodeficiency virus (HIV). By damaging your immune system, HIV interferes with your body's ability to fight the organisms that cause disease.
  • AIDSAcquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). By damaging your immune system, HIV interferes with your body's ability to fight the organisms that cause disease.
  • media
  • primary source
  • secondary source
  • redaction
  • testimony
  • transcript

You Will Need

  • Experience 1 – 1-2 class periods,
    including time for time for student research
  • Experience 2 – 1 class period
  • Experience 3 – 1-2 class periods


  • Internet connection
  • Access to the Ryan White letters online
  • Student Handout
  • Materials or electronic programs for creating graphic organizers
Focus Questions
  • Who was Ryan White? Why do we remember him?
  • What was known about HIV/AIDS in Ryan’s time? What do we know now?
  • Why did people write to Ryan? Did their letters make a difference?
  • How is a letter different from other forms of writing?
  • What can letters tell us about the past?
  • What are some other ways we can learn about the past?
  • What is a primary source?
  • How are primary sources different from secondary sources?

Experience 1 – Who was Ryan White?

In this experience, students read a letter written to Ryan White. They generate questions about Ryan and, working in teams, seek information about him from a variety of sources. They create a graphic representation of what they have learned, and describe the sources they used as they explore the question: How do we know what we know about the past?

Academic Standards:

Indiana State Standards - English Language Arts
Reading Non Fiction: 3.RN.2.1, 4.RN.1, 5. RN.1, 5.RN.2.1, 6.RN.1, 7.Rn.1, 8.RN.1, 9-10.RN.1, 11.12.RN.1
Social Studies
Chronological Thinking: 3.1.7, 4.1.17, 5.1.20, 6.1.21, 7.1.17, 8.1.29


Redacted Letters

In some cases, letters in this collection have been redacted. This means that names and some additional information about the writer has been removed or marked out. The letters to Ryan White were written in the 1980s. This means that the most of the authors are probably still alive. Unless it was possible to contact them and obtain their permission, personal information was removed before placing the letters on the website. This was done in order to protect the privacy of the authors. Discuss with students the idea that people have the right to privacy and help them consider other ways that we protect people’s privacy.
  • Ask students if they have ever heard of a boy named Ryan White, who lived in Indiana in the 1980s. Discuss the sources of any information students may have.
  • Discuss with students how we know about people and events of the past. Help students understand that one of the ways we find information about the past is through letters and other written records that were created by people who experienced the events of that time. First-hand information like this is called a primary source.
  • Encourage students to think like “history detectives” and look for clues about the past in a primary source. Choose an original hand-written letter written to Ryan which is appropriate for the age-group you teach.
  • Ask students to imagine they have discovered this letter, written a number of years ago. Introduce the letter to your students without providing much information. “Walk” younger students through the letter and help them read it if they have difficulty. More advanced students should be able to read the letter for themselves.
  • Ask students: When was this letter written? How long ago was that? Can you tell who wrote the letter? Why was it written? What other information can you find?
  • Have students identify the main ideas or concerns expressed in the letter. Ask: Why do you think the author wrote to Ryan? What was the purpose of the letter? What kinds of ideas and feelings were expressed?
  • Encourage students to think about their own reactions to the letter. Ask: Did you read anything in the letter that surprised you? How does the letter make you feel?
  • Ask: What questions does the letter raises in your mind? Who was Ryan White? How could you find out more about him?
  • Guide students to selected sources on Ryan White’s life, including books and online articles.The Children’s Museum unit of study, Ryan White: Facing Discrimination, Finding Determination, includes a seven-page, two- part biography of Ryan (pages 21-21 and pages 39-41) suitable for older students.
  • Provide students in grades 3-5 with a graphic organizer, such as the Student Worksheet, or another type of tool for summarizing the information they discover.
  • Students in middle school and high school should be able to create their own graphic organizer to present what they have learned about Ryan White.
  • All students should describe the sources they used and include the date and author, if possible.

Experience 2 – Views of the Past – Primary and Secondary Sources

Students share the information they have gained from their research and identify the kinds of information media they used. Younger students begin to make the distinction between different types of primary and secondary sources, while students in middle school and high school demonstrate strategies for evaluating the validity of both primary and secondary sources.

Academic Standards

Indiana State Standards
English Language Arts
Reading Non Fiction: 3.RN.2.1, 4.RN.1, 5. RN.1, 5.RN.2.1, 6.RN.1, 7.Rn.1, 8.RN.1, 9-10.RN.1, 11.12.RN.1
Social Studies
Chronological Thinking: 3.1.7, 4.1.17, 5.1.20, 6.1.21, 7.1.17, 8.1.29


Primary and Secondary Sources

The Library of Congress refers to primary sources as “the raw materials” of history. They include original objects and documents created at the time being studied. Primary source artifacts can include toys, tools, clothing, and artworks. A wide range of documents and accounts, such as film and audio recordings, photographs, illustrations, sheet music, letters, diaries and journals, interviews, oral histories, government records, posters, advertisements, and maps are also important primary sources.

Secondary sources are accounts or interpretations of events by someone who does not have first-had experience. They are the result of investigation using primary sources. The authors of secondary sources research carefully and examine many types of primary sources to find information about events or circumstances. Secondary sources often contain primary source materials in the form of quotes from interviews and reproductions of documents and images, such as photographs, created at the time being studied. Responsible authors cite their sources so readers can determine the origin of the information being presented.

It is important for students to understand that primary and secondary sources provide different types of information and that all sources should be examined critically.

  • Provide time for students to present the information they have collected on Ryan White using the graphic organizers they developed in Experience 1.
  • After the presentations, discuss the types of sources students used to find information. Have students list the books and website they used.
  • Ask students: Are any of these primary sources? Were they created by people who lived during Ryan’s time and knew him or experienced the events they describe?
  • Students will probably discover that most of their information is from secondary sources. These are accounts of events written by people who don’t have first-hand experience of a circumstance or event, although they may have used primary source materials to provide information about their subject.
  • Point out to students that many of the things they see and read about the past are secondary sources. That is why the opportunity to experience primary sources, like the letters to Ryan, is important. They allow us to discover the experiences and perspectives of people who lived through events, situations, and circumstances in the past.

Identifying and examining primary sources

Use The Children’s Museum Ryan White unit of study to help students examine primary sources, make the distinction between primary and secondary sources, and begin to evaluate primary sources.

Grades 3-5

  • Cover the caption and have students examine the photograph of Ryan and his mother on page 33 of the Ryan White unit of study. Have students continue to think like history detectives, observe carefully, and discuss what they see.
  • Ask: Do Ryan and his mother seem be aware that the photo is being taken? What objects do you see? Who might have taken the photo? Why was it taken? What was the purpose?
  • Explain that the photo was taken on the first day of school in 1985. Because Ryan had AIDS, school officials wouldn’t allow him to attend classes. He had to use a speaker phone to try to keep up with his school work. Ask students if they think this was fair to Ryan.
  • Discuss more about why this photo might have been taken. Although we don’t have information about who took it or why, the photo does convey the idea that Ryan was being denied access to school.
  • Ask students if they think the photo is a primary source. After discussion, students will probably come to the conclusion that it is a primary source because it was taken at the time of a specific event in Ryan’s life.
  • Have students consider this photo along with the letter to Ryan that they read earlier.
  • Discuss connections between the letter and the photo. Does the photo help to answer some of the questions they had about the letter? What new questions do students have? Ask students to record questions in their journals to keep in mind as they learn more about Ryan.

Grades 6-12

  • Cover the caption of the photo on page 33. Guide students in discussing their observations, and speculate about when where and why the photo might have been taken.
  • After discussion, ask students if they think this photo is a primary source about Ryan’s life. Students will probably agree that it is a primary source since it was taken at some point during Ryan’s life.
  • Ask them to consider their own research about Ryan to see if they can come close to identifying the specific time and events documented in the photo. What would history detectives do to learn more?
  • Explain that one of the ways to investigate a primary source is to examine other sources.
  • Have students read the transcript of Ryan’s testimony before The President’s Commission on AIDS in 1988.
  • After reading the transcript once for meaning, have students read closely to see if they find any clues about the photo they were examining. They will discover that Ryan mentions that, after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, the school board voted to keep him out of school. While his family fought this decision in court, he attended classes “. . . by telephone.”
  • Based on this clue, students can probably determine that the photo was taken sometime during the school year of 1984 or 1985. Ask them to examine the photo further and keep Ryan’s testimony in mind as they explore possible reasons why the photo was taken.
  • Students might speculate that the photo was taken to document this time in Ryan’s life when he was being denied access to school.
  • Reveal the caption to the photograph and ask: Should the caption be considered a primary or secondary source? What purpose does it have? Does it express the opinions of the author? Do you think the information in the caption is based on research? What further information would you like to have?
  • Congratulate students on their detective work and explain that the evidence they have so far isn’t conclusive. Further research using additional sources is needed. For example, it would be helpful to know who took the photo. This information might provide clues about why it was taken.

Teacher Tip
For many students, using primary sources will be a new experience. They may be uncomfortable with the idea that it is important to use a variety of additional sources to evaluate the accuracy and validity of information in both visual and written forms. Help them to understand that primary source materials reflect the diverse beliefs, concerns, and perspectives of people in the past. This is one of the reasons they are valuable to us, but we must examine them with this in mind. All sources should be analyzed for details that might help determine the purpose, intended audience, and possible personal or cultural bias. This process includes looking for more information in the source itself and in other sources and comparing results. See the Resources section for books and websites that provide strategies for using primary and secondary sources to help students develop critical thinking skills.

Extending Experience
Who creates primary sources? We all do!
Introduce students to the idea that everyone creates primary sources of some kind, including grocery lists, notes, games, toys, birthday cards, cell phone photos, and many other everyday things. Most of the time, these objects and records are created to meet a certain need or purpose at the time. People usually don’t plan for these items to serve as clues for historians of the future and don’t plan to preserve them. As a class project, students might want to create a small “time capsule” with objects and documents, including some of their own writing about issues that are important to them in the present. This could be a short-term project, with plans to open the capsule at the end of the school year. At that time, discussion of capsule contents could center on the changes students have experienced since they created the materials. Ask students: Would people in the future be interested these primary sources?