After reading a suggestion on the Library of Congress’ blog for teachers, I decided to use primary sources connected with myself to start my 8th grade US history course. The blog had suggested including a picture of yourself as a child. Thanks to the work of my daughter in scanning hundreds of family photographs, I had lots of images from which to chose. I started with a school picture of myself as a 4th grade student that seemed like it might be a fun one with which to start.
It occurred to me that it might be even more fun to use a larger collection of images of my family that I had gathered for the Playing with History corner of my room. All of the other images, of my great-grandparents, grandparents, mother and father, as well as pictures of my children and grandchildren would make the investigation that much richer and allow for lots more opportunities for asking questions and gathering information.
On the first day of classes, as a way of engaging the students from the first moment, I put a number, an index card and a picture on each desk. On the board, I wrote: “Arrange yourselves in alphabetical order by first name. Then the first girl in the line sits in the desk with the #1 on it. Follow the numbers around the room. Using the primary source on the desk, what can you learn about the study of American history this year?” I use the initial activity to begin to see how the students work together. Were there natural leaders? Who hung back and let others take the initiative? It also has them moving around the room to start, rather than simply moving from sitting in one class to sitting in another.
Once the students were seated, I reviewed with them what a primary source was. A number of them remembered from last year, so we talked a bit about primary sources that they had used in the past and what they had learned from them. I told them that they were going to have 15 seconds with each primary source in the room, getting up and moving to the next desk at the end of the time. I told them to record anything that they noticed in the photograph that might help them understand either the photograph or the collection of images. When they looked confused, clearly a bit confused by an investigation with no Right Answer, I encouraged them to make their best guesses and to engage in the work of being an historian. I told them that this was not a “graded” activity; it was simply an initial investigation to discover something about their study of American history this year. More than a few of them shrugged their shoulders; “There goes crazy Mrs.Ferguson again” seemed to be the general consensus. That was fine with me. I just wanted them willing to go outside what they are used to and try on what it meant to be a student in my class.
We began the rotations. I asked them to be silent during this part of the activity, hoping to encourage each one to think for herself. Sometimes a girl began frantically start writing down details; other times, she held the photograph up to the light to see it more clearly. They often pointed between one and another, recognizing similarities. With each time they moved from one desk to the next, they all looked back at the photographs they had already seen and ahead to where they were going. They were clearly building a sense of the overall collection.
When they had moved around and seen every image, I asked them what they had learned about their upcoming study of American history. The answers and their curiosity were wonderful. They had no idea that it was my family, but many of them had begun to think that it might in fact be one family. They recognized that clothing was an important clue to the changing time periods, especially glasses. The ones worn by my grandfather were nothing like mine in the 70′s or today. One student suggested making an exhibit of glasses around the tops of the whiteboards in my classroom, as a sign of the study of history through primary sources. Bobby socks worn by multiple generations caught their eye.
Another noticed that the background for the pictures was important. They made their best guesses as to what the function of the buildings were, making connection to the clothing and expressions of the people.
The best moment, however, and the one that gave me away, was when one student mentioned, holding up the original picture of me in 4th grade, that it looked like a school picture. She went on to say that it probably was back around the time when girls were first allowed to go to school, as it was clearly so old. I burst out laughing, but then I caught myself and realized that I didn’t want her thinking that I was laughing at her. I said I was laughing at myself. At that point, she held up the photograph and with a puzzled look, asked if it was me.
I allowed as how the solution to the investigation into what they could learn about American history from the photographs was that we would be using lots of primary sources and that it would be taught by me. It was a great hook! Thanks, Library of Congress for the idea!