Barbara Walters and Geoffrey Canada

Lesson Plan – Sources of History

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Grades: 8-10

TIME ALLOTMENT: Two 45-minute class periods


The 2012 series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explores the complex tapestry of American history through the stories of celebrity guests. In Episode 3, Gates explores the family histories of media legend Barbara Walters and education reformer Geoffrey Canada, and uses various resources and primary source materials to help them uncover new details about their families’ last names.

This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson explores how primary source material can reveal information about the past, and looks specifically at the type of information that different types of primary source documents provide. In the Introductory Activity, students learn about and discuss how researchers used information from a tombstone and a birth certificate to uncover information about Barbara Walters’ ancestors.  In the Learning Activity, students learn about how additional primary source materials, including birth and death certificates, a social security application, census data and a will helped researchers uncover details about Geoffrey Canada’s past and more details about Barbara Walters’ family. In the Culminating Activity, students conduct research on different types of primary source documents featured in the lesson and find out more about the type of information each provides.


Social Studies; American History; Library Sciences


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

– Define how primary sources can be used in conducting historical research. Explain the difference between primary and secondary sources.

– Name at least 5 different types of primary source materials and describe the type of information that each can provide.

– Explain how information about someone’s family can be gathered from looking at a tombstone.

– Describe different techniques historians use to find ancestors when they are not successful at locating them using a specific name.

– Explain in detail how one particular type of document (birth certificate, census data, social security application, tombstone, etc.) can be used to provide information about the past, describe the type of information the document contains, and the types of research questions it can answer.


Common Core/English Language Arts Standards for History/Social Studies:

– Key Ideas and Details:

– Grades 6-8: RH.6-8.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.  Grades 9-10: RH.9-10.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

– Craft and Structure:

– Grades 6-8: RH.6-8.5. Describe how a text presents information (e.g., sequentially, comparatively, causally). Grades 9-10: RH.9-10.5. Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.

– Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

– Grades 6-8: RH.6-8.9. Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.  Grades 9-10: RH.9-10.9. Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

National Historical Thinking Standards for Grades 5-12

– Standard 2: Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources. Therefore, the student is able to:

– Identify the author or source of the historical document or narrative.
– Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage by identifying who was involved, what happened, where it happened, what events led to these developments, and what consequences or outcomes followed.
– Identify the central question(s) the historical narrative addresses and the purpose, perspective, or point of view from which it has been constructed.
– Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations but acknowledge that the two are related; that the facts the historian reports are selected and reflect therefore the historian’s judgement of what is most significant about the past.
– Appreciate historical perspectives–the ability (a) describing the past on its own terms, through the eyes and experiences of those who were there, as revealed through their literature, diaries, letters, debates, arts, artifacts, and the like; (b) considering the historical context in which the event unfolded–the values, outlook, options, and contingencies of that time and place; and (c) avoiding “present-mindedness,” judging the past solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
– Utilize visual and mathematical data presented in graphs, including charts, tables, pie and bar graphs, flow charts, Venn diagrams, and other graphic organizers to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate upon information presented in the historical narrative

– Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation. Therefore, the student is able to:

– Distinguish between unsupported expressions of opinion and informed hypotheses grounded in historical evidence.

– Compare competing historical narratives.

– Hold interpretations of history as tentative, subject to changes as new information is uncovered, new voices heard, and new interpretations broached.

– Standard 4: Historical Research: The student conducts historical research. Therefore, the student is able to:

– Formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.

– Obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators.

– Interrogate historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created; testing the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness; and detecting and evaluating bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.

– Identify the gaps in the available records and marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time and place in order to elaborate imaginatively upon the evidence, fill in the gaps deductively, and construct a sound historical interpretation.

– Support interpretations with historical evidence in order to construct closely reasoned arguments rather than facile opinions.

American Association of School Librarians Standards for the 21st-Century Learner

Learners use skills, resources & tools to:

1. Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge.

1.1          Skills

1.1.4      Find, evaluate, and select appropriate sources to answer questions.

1.1.5      Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, appropriateness for needs, importance, and social and cultural context.

1.1.6      Read, view, and listen for information presented in any format (e.g., textual, visual, media, digital) in order to make inferences and gather meaning.

1.1.9    Collaborate with others to broaden and deepen understanding.



Finding Your Roots, Episode 3, selected segments.

Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.

Clip 1: “Searching for Barbara Walters’ Family’s Name: Part 1”

A look at how researchers uncovered Barbara Walters’ ancestors’ last name by examining a tombstone and historical documents.

Clip 2: “Searching for Barbara Walters’ Family’s Name: Part 2”

A look at how researchers used historical documents to trace Barbara Walters’ ancestors’ journey to America and uncover new information about their last name.

Clip 3: “Before Canada: In Search of a Name”

An overview of how researchers tracked down Geoffrey Canada’s ancestors’ last names before it became “Canada.”


For the Culminating Activity:

– US Census Forms

Census Forms, 1790- 1940

Census Forms, 1790- 2010

The above links provide the original forms of the US Censuses, beginning in 1790. For students to get a good sense of how the forms have changed over time, we recommend they look at the census forms from the following years: 1790, 1850, 1880, 1950, 1970, and 2010. The forms can be printed out for students.

Optional Resources to help students gain experience exploring primary sources:

African American Lives and African American Lives 2: Analyzing the Evidence

These interactives include a variety of questions and features designed to help students explore photographs, diaries and legal documents instrumental in helping researchers uncover details about the ancestry of the featured guests in the PBS series African American Lives and African American Lives 2, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Looking for Lincoln: Analyzing the Evidence

This interactive on the website for the PBS series Looking for Lincoln, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., features a variety of questions and features designed to help students explore photographs, paintings and letters which provide additional insight into the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.


For the class:

– Computer, projection screen, and speakers (for class viewing of video clips)

“Sources of History” Answer Key

For each student:

“Sources of History” Student Organizer


Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments used in the lesson. Prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

Bookmark all websites which you plan to use in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Print out one copy of the “Sources of History” Student Organizer for each student. Print out one copy of the “Sources of History” Answer Key. (See the “materials” section above.)

Proceed to Lesson Activities.