top of page

Primary Sources in the Parks

by Jen Reiter

Several summers ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Teaching with Primary Sources Summer Institute at the Library of Congress. We were tasked with creating an original lesson plan using three items from the Library of Congress’ collection. I struggled to choose a subject for my final project for quite a while. Luckily, I stumbled across the classic image of Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on their camping trip to Yosemite in its stereoscope format and knew it was the perfect hook to get my students launched into our national park unit.

I used this lesson to jumpstart several recurring themes in my third-grade classroom: the national parks, thinking like a historian, using primary sources, and collective brainstorming.

The students start the lesson in expert groups investigating either the photo or a related political cartoon that depicted Roosevelt, Muir, and some mountain goats inspecting each other across a mountain. They use the See, Think, Wonder thinking routine and record their ideas on half of their recording sheet (Recording Sheet Side One - Recording Sheet Side Two - copy double-sided). In the “See” phase, they record what they actually view in the image without interpretation or judgment. During the “Think” phase, they make assumptions or predictions about what they think is happening. During the “Wonder” phase, they ask questions about the source. They work independently and then meet with their expert group to share ideas and ensure everyone thoroughly investigated the source.

They then find someone with the opposite source and “teach” each other about their source, ultimately coming up with “One Big Wonder” about the two sources. At this point, typically, students are starting to make some interesting observations. Usually, at least one student has identified Theodore Roosevelt, thanks to their first-grade presidents unit! They often misidentify Yosemite as the Grand Canyon - they usually think any hole in the ground is the Grand Canyon! They quickly settle on the idea that the people are the same in the two sources but frequently have no idea who John Muir is or what his significance might be, setting up fertile ground for further inquiry and critical thinking

We come together as a group, share our wonders, and then discuss what steps historians would take if they were in our position. What questions would they like answered? What other sources would be helpful? I then dramatically unveil my third primary source: the letter from Roosevelt asking Muir to accompany him to Yosemite. The students are off to their table groups to analyze this newest source and draft their hypothesis statements about what they think is happening in the picture!

We use a secondary source: The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks by Barbara Rosenstock, to check our hypotheses. This picture book is a delightful telling of the camping trip often credited with starting the national park system. The students are always thrilled to see the drawing of the photo featured in the book! They feel like they have discovered something unique!

I then pose the following question to the students: “It seems like the author feels that Teddy Roosevelt REALLY enjoyed his camping trip with John Muir. Should we just accept that theory?” They are always quick to say, “No! We need proof!” We discuss what would be a good piece of evidence to support the author’s hypothesis. We then analyze the thank you letter Roosevelt sent to Muir. They do a close read of the letter and highlight words or phrases that show how he felt. Overwhelmingly, the words chosen are positive, so we feel good about Rosentock’s storytelling!

One of my favorite extensions to this lesson is to bring in a stereoscope (thanks, eBay!) and investigate what it is and how it works. It leads to great conversations about technological changes and how people learn about faraway places.

Thanks to this lesson, the students start to know how much went into creating the National Park Service and feel like real historians doing it! They learn strategies for investigating primary sources and the importance of double checking sources. The stage is set for further developing of questions and research about the national parks!

Get the complete lesson plan with primary sources here!


Jen Reiter, a twenty-five year veteran teacher, currently teaches third grade at an independent all boys school in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a National Geographic and Iditarod Certified Educator. In 2014 she served as the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail. Her favorite national park is a tie between Denali and Grand Teton!


bottom of page