Debbie Abilock & Cynthia Hirsch Kosut

"You think that just because it's already happened, the past is finished and unchangeable? Oh no, the past is cloaked in multi-colored taffeta and every time we look at it we can see a different hue."
--Milan Kundera


The first series of exercises, using primary source photographs of young children of diverse backgrounds, are designed to teach and practice the skills of observation and deduction to build student understanding of 1900-1923, the "first generation" of the 20th century.  From the initial stimulus, a digitized photograph taken during the period, students develop a richly realized "persona" from the same geographic region and ethnic background as the child pictured.  Much as an historian fits a particular artifact into an assemblage of evidence for the purpose of constructing a model of the past, students identify, place, and interpret these images as part of their scrapbooks of an imagined child born in 1900. 

In a parallel series of exercises students examine personal photographs, in order to reinforce visual literacy skills, experience the process of historical inquiry, and recognize that their own lives are part of the historical record.  The goal is a full understanding of how knowledge of the past is constructed from evidence interpreted by historians.


To put students in the role of historians and develop strategies for applying methods in historical inquiry:

Time Required

Approximately 4 1/2 - 5 hours, plus homework:

Recommended Grade Level

Middle School

Curriculum Fit

Interdisciplinary (Art, Technology, History and Geography, Language Arts, Library Research)

Resources Used

Digital Libraries and teaching resources.

Student Resources for creating a turn-of-the-century child:

Materials and Preparation

Fourteen photographs are used in the lesson. They cover United States' regions and ethnicities about which students will locate information from the turn-of-the-century resource guides. The photographs are:

  1. Breaker boys, Woodward Coal Mines, Kingston, Pa.
  2. Bibb Mill No. 1, Macon, Ga. Many youngsters here. Some boys and girls were so small they had to climb up on to the spinning frame to mend broken threads and to put back the empty bobbins.
  3. Indian School, Cherokee, N.C.
  4. [Houdini with child on pony].
  5. Photographs of Agricultural Laborers in California, ca. 1906-1911, Japanese, San Jose, container 1, number 02640
  6. Neighborhood gathering at Andrew Gustafson farm, Osnabrock, North Dakota
  7. "Nigger in the wood pile"
  8. Rosy, an 8 year old oyster shucker works steady all day from about 3 A.M. to 5 P.M. The baby will shuck as soon as she can handle the knife. Dunbar, La.
  9. Truants, "Red St. Clair," and chum shooting craps in front of Murphy's Branch at 11:00 A.M. a school day. Red is boss of the gang here. The girls hang around and watch the boys, skip rope with them, etc. St. Louis, Mo.
  10. Unidentified women, seated with child on lap, African Americans from the 19th Century.
  11. San Francisco Chinese Community and Earthquake Damage, ca. 1906, Chinese children, container 18, number 178
  12. (No image used for this letter.)
  13. Search NARA/ARC (National Archives and Records Administration's Archival Research Catalog) for "Newsboys and newsgirl. Getting afternoon papers. New York City" as a phrase.
  14. The Zepeda Sisters shortly after they left Altar.
  15. Three children

There are three photo analysis activities with each of the photographs, with a corresponding data sheet to record student responses. Make enough copies of the data sheets for each student to have one for each activity.


Focus Activity

To model objective photo analysis, use the photograph cataloged as "Joseph Burkholder family moving to their new house : leaving the sod house," from The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920: Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collections, part of American Memory.  Limit your description of this digital artifact to what can be learned from the image itself, observing what is in the photograph without interpretation (feelings, beliefs, predictions, prior knowledge).

Activity One - Elements of a Photograph

  1. Using the opening web page "Examine their Faces," tell students that they are to become historians and objectively examine a digitized artifact.   Have them click the stars to examine the unlabeled images.
  2. Based on class size, divide students into pairs or triads.  We do not recommend that students work alone, since they will benefit from group brainstorming and discussion.  Each pair or triad examines a digital photograph. Invite students to use the map to select a region or an ethnicity about which they have some interest.  Or, students can select a photograph solely on its visual appeal. 

    Continue with "Examine the Historical Record" by using the photographs and directions for activity one:

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  3. Students discuss their responses to the questions on their photograph's web page.  They should help each other avoid injecting feelings or personal interpretations during the discussion. 
  4. Students record their individual observations on  Data Sheet 1 - Elements of a photograph.   From the data sheet notes, each student writes an objective observation describing what he or she sees in the artifact.  The description should help someone who has not seen the image to visualize it.
  5. Students from different groups exchange and read each others' written descriptions.  Then students compare the image mentally created from the writing with the digital image, and suggest additions or deletions to clarify the description. 
  6. Next, students transfer their learning to a personally relevant artifact.  Give the following instructions for a homework assignment called Objective Observation of a Personal Photograph:

    Locate the oldest photograph owned by your family or by another important person in your life.  Using the techniques of objective observation that you practiced in class, write an objective description of your personal photograph.  Use clarity, specificity, and vivid vocabulary to help your reader visualize the image.  Be prepared to share your writing and photograph with a class member.

  7. In class, students exchange their written description of a personal photograph with a classmate.  Allow students to choose their own partners because of the personal nature of this exercise.  Each student is to comb a peer's writing in order to eliminate words which make inferences, rather than describe, their artifact.  Then the student compares the writing to the actual photograph and makes a list of elements which need inclusion or elaboration.
  8. For homework, or in class if there is time, students revise their writing to incorporate the peer editor's suggestions.  The revised writing is an assessment of each student's ability to apply the visual literacy skill of objective description without distortion of interpretation (feelings, beliefs, predictions, prior knowledge) to a personally relevant artifact.  The revision also demonstrates what each student understands about clarity and specificity in language.

Activity Two

  1. Using the original demonstration photograph, the teacher now demonstrates deductive observation.  Deductive observations draw logical inferences based on prior knowledge of the people and what they are doing, the time, and the place. 

    While listening to the teacher, students should be encouraged to raise their hands if they hear any inferences which do not appear to be logically deduced from the digital artifact.  The resulting discussion will help clarify the distinction between observations and inferences.   Additionally, the teacher should invite speculation as to why the photograph was taken.  On a large pad of paper or on the board, the class should create and record a list of questions which are still unanswered.

  2. Students return to their original pair or triad and reexamine their digital artifacts, paying close attention to the areas for examination suggested below the image.  Further, they should brainstorm logical inferences based on their growing knowledge and research about the period. 

    Continue with "Examine the Historical Record using the photographs and directions for activity two:

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  3. Working in their groups, they reexamine the digital photograph and their revised objective descriptions.
    1. They identify, compile, and record these clues in the first column of Data Sheet 2 - Making deductions.
    2. Then they discuss deductions (inferences) from these clues and record them in the second column of their sheets.
    3. From these deductions, they brainstorm questions that need further investigation and record them in the third column of their data sheets.
    4. Finally, they speculate as to why the picture might have been taken.
  4. At this point, students reconsider their personal artifact. Give the following instructions for a homework assignment called Deductive Observation of a Personal Photograph

    Revise the description of your family photograph to include logical inferences about your artifact. Use any family history you can uncover through oral accounts, memoirs, and diaries, or other photographs and artifacts.  Be prepared to share this written description and photograph with a class member.

  5. In class, students return to their personal partner and exchange written descriptions.  Encourage these personal partners to respond with genuine interest to these stories from their friends' lives.  Then they analyze each others' writing, following the reasoning used to develop inferences about the image.  As peer editors, they are to identify areas for revision in which the logic or writing is unclear. 
  6. For homework, or in class if there is time, students revise their writing incorporating their peer's suggestions.  The revised deductive observation is an assessment of each student's ability to use the visual literacy skill of observation in combination with prior knowledge of family history to create logical and plausable inferences about a personal artifact. 

Activity Three

  1. This is a good time to explicitly create the analogy between sources of historical information within the students' families and in other primary source collections.   Introduce students to interviews and diaries in the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 - 1940 Students can read through "Voices from the Thirties: An Introduction to the WPA Life Histories Collection" for an overview of the collection. Like family albums or archaeological digs, objects in a collection gain meaning from their proximity to each other.
  2. This creates a logical bridge to a final examination of the artifacts in which students trace the artifact to its digital library collection. Students work in their original pairs or triads to investigate the collection and answer the questions below the digital image and on Data Sheet 3 -Using the cataloging record.  The goal is an understanding of the information that can be gained from the cataloging record, from related artifacts and from the scope of the collection itself. Terms such as cataloging record, subject headings, scope, and collection are formally defined on the data sheet. 

    Continue with "Examine the Historical Record" using the photographs and directions for activity three:

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  3. A class discussion on the similarities and differences among the collections will naturally include comparisons of the purposes and depth of the collections, as well as the reasons for the creation of individual artifacts, and how this affects the online presentation (organization, search interface, visual elements, word choice).

    See Digital Libraries under Resources for more information.


Evaluation will be based upon:


"Through photography each family constructs a portrait of itself, a kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness."
-- Susan Sontag. On Photography.

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