Need to get your students' attention when engaging them in historical or contemporary inquiry? You might want to try using slides made from appropriate photographs. Just two or three can provide a wealth of information from which students can generate data. Children sharpen their investigative skills by discovering and analyzing specific details that only photographs can supply.
Using color or black-and-white slides of photographs has recently become one of my preferred teaching tools. Because slides project a much larger version of a photograph, they often have a powerful impact on students. This magnification allows students to investigate minute details in the photograph that would have been too small to observe if a smaller version had been viewed. I find that whole class discussions will naturally evolve as all students view the picture at the same time. Because of these advantages, pictures taken specifically for classroom use should originally be taken on slide film.
Finding Photographs for Slides
There are two main sources for acquiring old photos. The first is from an individual who has a collection of family photographs. My source was my 96- year- old grandmother, who was fortunate enough to have inherited the family "black and whites." I decided to interview my grandmother while we were perusing family photographs. While we flipped through Granny's photo albums together, a tape recorder hummed busily, saving her memories for future generations.
This oral history has become a treasured teaching resource, as it provides details that are easily missed in a simple interview. Pertinent historical information regarding her photographs was obtained in this manner. Voice intonations and inflections, enthusiastic rapidness of speech or slower thoughtfulness, and her sighs and chuckles add many hidden details that would be quickly forgotten if they were not recorded on tape. A wonderful resource on oral histories geared toward the elementary level student is a text by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., et al., entitled Pursuing the Past.
Another source of old photos that can be reproduced as slides is a local community or history museum, or possibly the school district office. For example, in the area where I live, the Wharton County Historical Museum has trays of categorized photos that are available for individual viewing. I selected several photographs with a historical theme that I wanted to share with my students.
A local amateur photographer was able to take "pictures of old pictures" for me using slide film. The results were fantastic. (For the do-it-yourselfers: slide film only comes in color, but the results are still basically black and white.) The Texas Institute of Cultures in San Antonio does museum quality reproductive work of slides and photographs. Upon request and for a fee, they made copies of the prints I had chosen from the local museum.
Engaging Your Students
At the beginning of the school year, I teach my students about the history of photography from a broad perspective. The theme of change and continuity is relevant when we discuss how photography has evolved. Specific photographic techniques are also explored in science classes. Since the students handle old photographs and slides, they need to know the basics about their care and handling.
Someone involved in photographic restoration and care makes an interesting guest speaker.1 I always invite a retired local professional photographer who "tinkers with old photos" and is also a history buff to speak to my class. He has a wealth of personal history to share, and my students never want him to leave. Activities such as these can extend the theme of photography across the curricular disciplines.
The point of view of the photographer is another concept that is addressed. Photographers make conscious decisions about what they choose to take pictures of and how they choose to shoot them. "It is important to make clear to students that any photograph represents a selection process...and ask questions such as, Why did the photographer choose this particular angle, perspective, setting, background, activity, etc.? and If the photographer had taken the picture up close instead of from a distance would the effect have been the same?... These reasons need to be addressed ...when interpreting a photograph as an historical document".2
Students are always eager to bring photographs to school for exploration and investigation. Requesting specific types of pictures works best for me-for example, pictures of parents when they were in elementary school, a picture of grandparents, or a picture of a pet. Photocopying the prints so they can be used for group work is a terrific idea that saves wear and tear on the original prints.
My children learn a systematic method of observation that helps them notice more detail in a photo. In the "clock routine," students envision the face of a clock over the picture. They begin their observation at the "12 o'clock" position and follow the numbers in a clockwise pattern. Specific details in each ten or fifteen minute section of the photo are noted in an orderly fashion. Studying smaller sections at one time allows for more concentrated observation. Student's observation skills improve rapidly with this technique.
Sample Compare/Contrast Lessons
There are endless possibilities for using old photos when presenting lessons. One of my favorite applications provides students with an opportunity to compare and contrast modern farm machinery with that used in the past. Most lessons require only two or three slides. This particular presentation is comprised of three distinctly different pieces of farm equipment used to harvest grain: a circa 1910 horse drawn piece of equipment (in use), a 1960's combine with a four row header, and a 1994 version of a combine with a huge eight row header. In brainstorming fashion, children list as much data from each photographic representation as they can. Students make observations and determine what is the same and what is different in these photographs. Next, students hypothesize about how and why changes have occurred. Finally, students are asked to estimate in what quarter of this century the photos were taken, giving reasons for their choices.
The lesson culminates in a writing activity about what students have discovered. Their higher level thinking skills are stimulated by such questions as: "How and why did these changes occur?" "Are they for the best?" "Which time period would you prefer to live in?" "Why?"
When using this inquiry method of instruction, the teacher becomes "more of a resource than THE source" for students. This lesson is especially adaptable; the basic format can be used on any topic of your choice- houses, barns, automobiles, schools, clothing, etc.
In a sample lesson with a different twist, a formal family portrait from the 1920's can be compared to a present day family portrait. The students make use of their newly found detective skills, and compare and contrast family size, clothing, hairstyles, etc. As a writing assignment, students may choose one of the families and compose a story about its members. The students place the family in an appropriate setting and time and describe it with as much detail as possible. They must also provide reasonable hypothesized information about the family: names, ages, occupations, and such.
This lesson provides students with an opportunity to conduct meaningful research. Examining the 1920s photo requires students to ask questions such as: "What type of transportation could have been owned by the family?" "Could someone have been a computer programmer back then?" "Plastic bags had not yet been invented, so what did children wrap their lunches in? What did they eat?"
Current photos can also provide an opportunity for inquiry and discussion in order to personalize major life events. A slide showing a young boy in front of his school, another depicting the child playing with a friend, and a third slide of the child waving good-bye from inside a moving vehicle, help students to understand the meaning of moving to a new town. The class discusses each frame thoroughly before the next shot is projected. Under the teacher's direction, a scenario is generated. After the slides are shown and the child's situation is evident, students are asked to write about the child in the photographs and how they would feel if they were in this position.3
Slides used in this way prompt not only a reading-writing connection, but a photograph-writing connection. The amount of interest generated by examination of historical photographs, and the quality of students' writing about them, are generally outstanding. In this way, "writing is a kind of photography with words".4
The need for higher level thinking skills in today's classroom has teachers searching for commonplace items that can bring uncommon insights into the minds of their students. Photographs and slides can be just such a learning tool-they spark interest, place the reader in the appropriate place and time, and provide a multitude of possibilities to acquire, analyze, and interpret data. Students learn to organize and record their analysis of a photograph in a systematic way. Often an under-used teaching tool, photographs should "slide" into their rightful place in the classroom.
1.E. F. Provenzo, Jr., A. B. Provenzo, and P. A. Zorn, Jr., Pursuing the Past, Teacher's Guide (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1984).
3.D. Prince, Lecture (Victoria, Texas: Spring 1994).
4.D. H. Graves, "Balance the Basics: Let Them Write" in Ford Foundation Report (1978).
About the Author
Linda Miculka is a teacher in El Campo, Texas. She has recently added a variety of slide presentations to her curriculum and works with her students toward developing appropriate historical concepts.