Here’s an exercise I give students to build their skill in working with primary sources and also to let them explore for themselves the question we’re tackling.
I try to assign at least one primary source lab per unit in my World History course. I call them “labs” because I find that 9th graders are much more familiar with the idea of hypotheses, evidence, and proof in the context of science than in the humanities; by using the same word they are familiar with from their biology classes, I can draw their attention to the similar thought processes these disciplines share.
The Sargon lab is usually the first of the year for me. I assign the text in it, the Legend of Sargon, as homework the night before to speed things up. Students work in groups of two or three, and I usually stop everybody to discuss one question from each set. The goal of this is to point out that things are not quite as simple as they may appear. For example, the answer to “Who wrote the Legend of Sargon?” cannot simply be “Sargon” without further explanation, because the text we have dates from almost 1,000 years later. There are often heated arguments between the “oral history” and “later invention” camps, and students have taken the first step toward seeing texts as artifacts of their time rather than sources of absolute truth.