Chinese American Voices: Teaching with Primary Sources
Comprehensive Unit

Grade Level

Secondary - Community College

Published

2012 (60 pages)

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PrimarySources cover

Chinese-American history is often narrowly portrayed as a brief episode during which Chinese laborers helped build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. Yet the story of Chinese Americans is so much more than that. It may have begun with railroad and agricultural laborers, but it certainly did not end there. Many established family roots in the United States by building communities, businesses, and even new identities in the United States. Over the course of 150 years, they have evolved into a vibrant and dynamic segment of today’s U.S. population.

This unit offers a teacher’s guide to Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present, a collection of primary source documents left by Chinese Americans themselves. The scholars who collaborated on the book spent 10 years searching through materials written by Chinese Americans, selecting over 60 primary sources that they hope represent a diverse cross-section of Chinese Americans from 1852 to the present. Activities encourage students to not simply read about history, but to think like historians themselves. By critically analyzing the primary sources in Chinese American Voices, students gain a window into the rich and diverse textures, characters, and personalities that constitute the Chinese-American experience. 

Lesson One serves as an introduction to primary source analysis and the concepts of bias, time, and place. Students analyze several primary source documents from Chinese American Voices and consider what contributions the documents can make to our understanding of history. 

Lesson Two explores how a single primary source can present multiple issues. Exercises help students learn to select the best sources for their research and give students the opportunity to discuss a variety of important topics related to the Chinese-American experience.

In Lesson Three, students deepen their knowledge of a historical event by thoroughly evaluating various perspectives presented in primary source documents from Chinese American Voices relevant to a particular turning point in Chinese-American history.

Lesson Four includes three document-based questions (DBQs), each consisting of a question or prompt about Chinese-American history and excerpts from seven of eight primary source documents from Chinese American Voices. Building on skills learned in lessons one, two, and three, students are challenged to integrate their interpretation of primary source documents and their knowledge of history to answer enduring questions about the Chinese-American experience.  

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