It was refreshing to read an excellent feature story written by Newsleader freelance writer Cori Hilsgen the other day – a story about how sixth-grade students were learning the importance of primary sources.
Hats off to teacher Susan Huls of All Saints Academy, St. Joseph, for encouraging her students to learn critical-thinking skills. Huls said she wanted to show the students how primary sources can help them tell interesting, factual stories about Stearns County’s past. And so she took them to the Stearns History Museum in St. Cloud where they had an exciting time poring through many old sources, such as old newspapers, documents and artifacts.
One student’s project was a paper about the worldwide 1918 flu epidemic that killed millions of people, including many right here in Stearns County. The student located an entire folder filled with news clippings from that time about how families reacted when the flu struck. Other students found primary sources about topics that intrigued them: the Pan car, Sauk Centre novelist Sinclair Lewis, the history of the St. Cloud Hospital, Minnesotans who had fought in wars.
The museum’s expert staff gave tips to the students as to how to use the museum as a research center. They brought forth artifacts at which the children marveled, bringing them into up-close contact with the past, teaching them how primary sources can enliven the accuracy in telling a story and learning the differences between opinions and news.
One of the staff is Julianne O’Connell, program curator who lives in St. Joseph. This is what O’Connell told reporter Hilsgen:
“In the age of instant information, students need to know the difference between a primary source and a secondary source to sift out misinformation. Finding out the primary source and wanting to find that source of information is a solid skill that leads students to hone their critical-thinking skills.”
Thank you, Julianne O’Connell, for expressing that truth so well. You could well have said, “In an age of instant misinformation . . . “
She went on to say students should always ask the following questions: How do you know that? Where does your information come from? What proof do you have?
Those are truly vital questions for this day and age – a time when Russian saboteurs try to undermine an election by planting vicious untrue “news” stories on Facebook, a time when too many people tend to believe anything they see or hear on social media, a time when a president who is himself at times a purveyor of fake news blasts the mainstream media constantly for churning out fake news.
O’Connell’s comment should be inscribed everywhere to remind us all how diligent we should be in pursuit of accuracy, of truth. It should be inscribed on plaques in news rooms, in the lobbies of legislatures and on the walls of the West Wing in the White House.
We should all heed the advice. Here it is, again:
“In the age of instant information, students (and everyone else, we hasten to add) need to know the difference between a primary source and a secondary source to sift out misinformation.”
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.