Lesson 3: Making History

Lesson 3 – Making History

In this lesson, students explore their own roles in making and recording history. They consider how electronic media has changed the way people communicate and how this may change the nature of primary and secondary sources in the future. As a culminating experience, they use what they have learned to examine historical or contemporary inquiry questions.

Academic Standards:

Media Literacy: 3.ML.2.1; 4.ML.2.1; 5.ML.2.2; 6.ML.2.1, 6.ML.2.2; 7.ML.2.1, 7.ML.2.2; 8.ML.2.1, 8.ML.2.2; 9-10.ML.2.1, 9-10.ML.2.2; 11-12.ML.2.1. 11-12.ML.2.2


  • Revisit some of the letters to Ryan that students read at the beginning of the unit and discuss the idea that these are primary sources, created in the past by people who experienced the events they describe. This is the kind of evidence historians use to learn how people felt and reacted to situations in the past. The letters to Ryan are part of history.
  • Ask students: Are the “Speaking Up” letters, images, audio or video recordings and other communications you created primary sources? Could they become part of history? Would historians or other people in the future be interested in them? Why? What could they learn from your projects?
  • Discuss the ways primary documents are saved and preserved. Explain that often it is simply the circumstances that determine what documents or objects survive. For example, the letters written to Ryan have been preserved because Jeanne White, Ryan’s mother, felt they were important and wanted to preserve them. Today, we can read them electronically because of a special project to digitize them and place them in a database. This is something people have only been able to do recently.
  • Ask students if they think the documents they have created could be preserved so that they become part of the historical record. Why or why not?
  • Ask students, suppose the technology changes over the years? Is it possible that the technology we use today will become obsolete? If so, will we still be able to read and view the documents they have created?
  • To discover how experts are considering some of these questions, invite the school media specialist to visit the class or set up an on-line interview with a library scientist, public historian, or museum curator to discuss students’ questions, including:
    • What kinds of objects and documents are being saved at the present?
    • Why are they being saved?
    • How are they preserved?
    • How might this change in the future?
    • How do ordinary people “make history?”

Culminating Experience – Historical Inquiry

In this experience, students begin to develop the skills and strategies for carrying out historical inquiry. They use what they have learned to analyze a contemporary or historical question regarding a local, state, or national public health issue in the past or present. Students learn how to develop questions that can be answered using historical evidence and examine primary sources of various types. Work in small groups to organize information and present the outcomes of their research.

Grades 3- 5
Teacher Preparation: As student research begins, collect useful documents, have preliminary conversations with potential speakers, gather contact information, make plans for a related field trip to gather first-person information, such as trip to a local or regional hospital or a public health facility. The timing of a field trip might be scheduled early in the research process to help students generate significant questions they want to research.

  • Discuss what students have learned from the study of primary sources about Ryan White’s struggles for acceptance and the reasons he encountered prejudice, including fears that people had due to lack of information. Ask if they think something like this could happen again in another community.
  • Share with students the parts of Ryan’s testimony before the President’s Commission on AIDS in 1988 where he describes his experience when he moved to a new community and a new school. Ryan states that the students prepared in advance to educate themselves, parents, and community members about HIV/AIDS. As a result, Ryan was accepted and happy.
  • Discuss how having reliable information about a problem can make a positive difference and help students frame a question they can research, such as “How does our community or school deal with health concerns?” or “What would happen in case of a serious disease or a natural disaster?”
  • Help students develop supporting questions for small group research, such as: “Where do we get information in our community” “How is information shared?” “Who is responsible?” “What steps would be taken in case of a serious health issue or emergency in the community?”
  • Encourage students to use a variety of inquiry skills and resources for their research, such as interviewing skills, in person or by phone, the Internet, local libraries, published documents, and maps.
  • Help students as they work in small groups as they examine one of the questions, determine how to document their findings, and decide how to share the information they have discovered.
  • Guide students as they work toward conclusions and make sure they follow up with community members they have interviewed with thank you notes and invitations to attend student presentations of their findings.

Grades 6-8
Teacher Preparation: In this experience, students consider Ryan White’s story in terms of its impact on public health policies at the time and discuss the importance of reliable information in shaping public option on health issues. They examine historical inquiry questions related to the concerns about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and use their inquiry skills to examine other questions dealing with health issues in the past. In preparation, develop several questions that can be explored using historical evidence related to the topic and historical period and locate potential sources for student research. The Library of Congress database, as well as medical museums and associations, state and local libraries, and the Internet may be good sources.


  • Return to Ryan White’s testimony before The President’s Commission on AIDS in 1988 and ask students to consider Ryan’s comments about why he was accepted in his new school and community.
  • Discuss why having reliable information can make a positive difference, particularly regarding public health issues.
  • Present students with several inquiry questions that relate to local, state, or national events and that can be examined using historical evidence. They should be questions that students can research using resources that are available on the Internet, in documents, through first-person interviews, and other sources. Examples might include: “How did our community respond to concerns about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s?”
  • This type of research guided by researchable questions can also be used to examine other historical periods. For example: “Did the Progressive Movement change health practices in the United States?” or “Did the influenza epidemic of 1917-1918 change the way health information was provided to the public?
  • Many types of questions lend themselves to small group work as students break an inquiry question down into component parts, explore different information sources, and select different approaches to presenting their information.
  • In all cases, require students to check their sources and make a case for their reliability.


Library of Congress. www.loc.gov

The LOC website provides a searchable database which a rich collection of primary sources. The Teacher section of the site presents information on how to use primary sources in the classroom along with teacher guides and analysis tools.

Mac Austin, Hilary, and Kathleen Thompson. Examining the Evidence: Seven Strategies for Teaching with Primary Sources.
This useful guide to primary sources for teachers in grade K-8, focuses on strategies for examining and questioning the information found in visual sources, such as photographs, and written materials, including captions. Critical thinking strategies are presented in ways that are appropriate for students at various stages of development.

Ryan White: Facing Discrimination, Finding Determination. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Indianapolis, Indiana 2007, 2012.

This unit of study for grades 6-8 introduces students to Ryan White and provides learning experiences, linked to state and national academic standards, as well as many primary documents including photographs, a transcript of Ryan’s testimony, and images of artifacts. Available on the Museum’s website

Wineburg, Sam, Daisy Martin and Chauncey Monte-Sano. Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle & High School History Classrooms. Teachers College Press, New York, NY: 2013.

The authors point out how historical inquiry differs from inquiry in other disciplines and focus on the examination and questioning of primary sources, including analysis of the origin of the source and the context, including when and where the source was created and the perspectives of the author or authors. Useful teacher resources include primary documents, images, political cartoons, charts, and graphic organizers.