Skip to Main Content

Jen Hoyer
November 15, 2018

Brooklyn Connections is the education outreach program in the Brooklyn Collection. It focuses on cultivating 21st Century learning skills in students and supporting teachers on the incorporation of archives materials into curricula. This blog post is part of a series from the Brooklyn Connections team, sharing skills and ideas for using archives primary source material in the classroom. Using primary sources in the classroom shows us that we can access history through many different formats as long as we are grounded in historical thinking.

When we’re using primary sources in the classroom, we can connect that to important conversations with students in any discipline about plagiarism. Plagiarism is the act of passing someone else’s work off as your own, and it is not allowed in academic work.

We’ve already discussed one key aspect for avoiding plagiarism: citing our work. You can check out our ideas for teaching good citation habits in our blog post on that topic.

The second key part of avoiding plagiarism is using your own words, and that’s what we’ll focus on today.

Getting Ready

Students may have trouble putting things into their own words because they don’t think they have the vocabulary to paraphrase something they’ve read. Students often do have the words that they need to do this, and we find it easiest to show them this by using sources that they can’t borrow words from: images! Primary sources are such a great connection for this activity because so many of the primary sources we have in the Brooklyn Collection are visual, including the thousands of digitized Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs accessible through our new Digital Collections portal:

Choose a few visual sources to use with students; two or three is fine. You might want to pick sources that relate to a topic your students are learning about, but that’s not crucial. One photo that we love using for a variety of activities is this one:

Photograph: "Operation Felines"
Lambert, Al. "Operation Felines." 1950. Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.


Getting Started

The important question here is: what is plagiarism, and how do we avoid it? Ask students for their thoughts, and discuss the suggestions they give. Make sure to emphasize, in your discussion, that we avoid plagiarism by citing our sources and putting things in our own words.

How can we put things in our own words? Explain that we’ll start without using words, and share a graphic organizer with the following prompts:

  • Write four words to describe the PEOPLE in the image
  • Write four words to describe OBJECTS in the image
  • Write four words to describe ACTIONS or ACTIVITIES in the image
  • What questions do you have about this image?

You may wish to do this as a group, and then allow students to work independently or with a partner for subsequent images. Discuss responses to these questions so that you can collectively come up with a great bank of words describing your image before moving to the final prompt:

  • Write a summary, using the words you’ve brainstormed, of what this photograph is about.

We put all of this into a graphic organizer like this:

Graphic organizer example, depicting prompts mentioned in blog post.

Once students have completed this, they’ve successfully used their own words to describe a primary source.

It works well to practice this a few times before moving on to the next step.

After achieving some level of comfort with this process, present students with a text-based source. I prefer to project this on the board and not give copies to students; as the teacher, you could read the text aloud twice to students, or invite a volunteer to read it. I like to use a primary source document like a newspaper clipping; you can find great historic newspapers at or

Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper clipping
"Extra: Stock Exchange to Close Friday and Saturday," Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 30 October 1929.


After reading the text twice to students, remove the text from view and have students write down their responses to the same prompts we used earlier:

  • Write four words to describe the PEOPLE in the image 
  • Write four words to describe OBJECTS in the image
  • Write four words to describe ACTIONS or ACTIVITIES in the image
  • What questions do you have about this image?

After completing this and sharing responses, invite students to write a summary of what this article was about. They’ll be amazed at how much easier it is now to write it in their own words!


Students can be evaluated on their ability to brainstorm words, and to then use these words to construct a summary. If students have difficulty brainstorming their own words from the initial prompts, they should be allowed to write down words that other students have suggested when sharing out with the class; these students can still be assessed on their ability to construct a summary with those words.


Lower level students could be prompted to write only two or three words for each category (people, objects, and actions).

In the second part of this activity, when students are presented with a text-based source, higher level students could be presented with a longer or more complex source, while lower level learners should be presented with a shorter text at their reading level.

This activity will be more challenging for English Language Learners, and in these situations it may be more successful as a group activity. It could even become a fun vocabulary-building exercise at the same time.

This post is the tenth in an ongoing series. Read the other posts in the series: What's a Primary Source?, Observations and InferencesMaps and AtlasesCiting Sources, Asking Questions for Research, Notetaking Skills, How can we do research with political cartoons?, Claims and Counterclaims in History, and Using the Internet to Find Primary Sources.

Post a Comment

While BPL encourages an open forum, posts and comments are moderated by library staff. BPL reserves the right, within its sole discretion, not to post and to remove submissions or comments that are unlawful or violate this policy. While comments will not be edited by BPL personnel, a comment may be deleted if it violates our comment policy.

close navigation 
BPL is still here, no matter what. And that's thanks to YOU. Your support matters.
Make a gift