Using Primary Source Photos in the Secondary History Classroom - History Gal

Using Primary Source Photos in the Secondary History Classroom

Ever feel like you're putting on a circus act to grab your students' attention? I'm right there with you, especially in history class. It can be difficult to bring history to life in a way that makes it seem real and not just a "story" in a textbook. A total game-changer in my classroom has been using primary source photos. These photos are my secret to transporting my students back in time and making history memorable! They help to ignite curiosity and bring those history lessons to life, creating buy-in from my students. Today, I'm thrilled to share with you what primary source photos are, why they're beneficial, and where you can find some for your next class. 

Learn how to utilize primary source photos to make the most of your middle school history class.

What Are Primary Source Photos?

So, you may be wondering what the scoop is on primary sources. These sources are the real deal, or in the words of my middle schoolers, the OGs (originals) of historical evidence. They can be anything from diaries to letters or, what we are focusing on today, photographs. They're artifacts that give us a front-row seat to history's greatest and not-so-great hits. 
Primary source photos are actual photographs which show historical evidence of things that have happened in the past.

Unlike textbooks that sometimes make history sound like a snooze-fest, primary source photos are authentic artifacts from the time period being studied. They freeze moments in time, allowing us to peek into the lives of folks and events that came before us. 

But we don't just stop with looking at the photos.  Nope!  We become history detectives as I teach my students how to analyze this valuable primary source. We've even been known to pull out the magnifying glasses as we take a trip back in time. 

These photos give us firsthand glimpses of historical moments. They help us make human connections to people from hundreds of years ago. In a way, they are our own version of time travel. These photos act as portals to the past, but more importantly, they offer a unique perspective that words alone can't share. 

Primary source photos give our young historians an up-close and personal look at the real story. Secondhand accounts and artifacts are beneficial in their own way, but primary sources truly make learning history an authentic experience. The more authentic the experience, the easier it is to create buy-in for our students!

Benefits of Using Primary Source Photos

Now that we are familiar with primary source photos, let's explore the benefits of using them in our classes! 

1. Bringing History to Life

Ever had that moment when history seemed like a far-off place that was completely out of grasp? This is often how students view it. If your students are anything like mine, they're likely trudging into class with a mindset that class will be boring or wondering what's the point of having to know this stuff. This can be tough to grapple with as a teacher!

Primary source photos bring history to life for your students.
But don't worry, there's still hope! I saw a complete shift in the way my students would come to class once they realized how history plays a role in our lives today. The drama-filled moments in history also help a lending hand. Primary source photos help me to make history vivid, tangible, and relatable for our middle and high schoolers, making the subject more approachable and enjoyable. 

My students' eyes always light up when we have gallery walks where we walk around the classroom looking at primary source photos. I post pictures around my classroom, and they walk around to each one. They enjoy seeing how life has changed from that time in the photo to the present. The differences and sometimes similarities they take note of are amazing! They identify seeing the hustle and bustle but may note that it isn't as fast-paced as ours is today. They may relate to the expressions some of the people are showing in the photos and the reasons behind those emotions. Suddenly, history becomes something they can relate to and explain instead of being some unattainable topic. 

2. Embracing Authenticity 

Textbooks are like reading a script, but a photo is like a step back in time. Primary source photos provide impactful visuals related to the time being studied. This does wonders for our visual learners but also for the skeptics who question why we need to learn history. The photos may not have one of the many filters we have today, but this makes them more powerfully authentic. Instead of reading text, our kiddos are given exposure to the events they are reading about. They are standing on the front lines, witnessing the drama in history unfold. 

3. Fostering Critical Thinking and Analysis Skills

Primary source photos like these help foster critical thinking and analysis skills in your students which become life-long skills they can use forever.
Forget the days of passive learning. Primary source photos are the catalysts of active engagement and critical thinking. When it's time to pull out photos, I encourage my students to put on their detective hats and look closely at the details. What's in the background? What emotions do their faces show us? What clues can they gather about the time and place? 

Analyzing these photos gives my students a crash course in critical thinking and observation skills. As they dissect the images, they do more than just memorize facts. They're piecing together the puzzle of the past. They help to transform our classrooms into hubs of curiosity and discovery! 

Integrating Primary Source Photos in the History Classroom

It's time for us to roll up our sleeves and get down to business by integrating primary source photos into our history classes!

1. Photo Analysis

With photo analysis, I am very intentional about the photos I choose for my students to analyze. I want the photos to be relevant to what we are talking about in class or what we will be studying. At the beginning of the year, I make sure to do these as warm-ups or bellringers so that my middle schoolers can see how I think through them, what I look for in photos, and how I communicate my findings. I also introduce them to the Primary Source Photographs Student Analysis Doodle Page.  We use this page to guide our analysis of the historical photos.  I have found it very helpful in helping them learn how to analyze the photo as a primary source.

Primary source photos like these can help students empathize with the people in the photographs leading to more critical thinking opportunities.
I first lay out an image and challenge them to be as observant as possible. No detail is too small or insignificant when analyzing a photo. I encourage them to jot down details they notice. These can be details about the clothing, expressions, the background, the actions, or even the words they see within the photo. 

For example, when we are studying the Civil Rights Movement, a photo I would share would be of people marching. They may be marching along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, or they may be marching because the were inspired by the movement. Either way, we have a snapshot into these important historical events that take us beyond our own thoughts and knowledge.

We look at the emotions on each of their faces and think through what they may be thinking and feeling. We'll zero in on the posters they are holding up high and the symbolism behind the images and phrases. As much as I wish, we could talk directly to the people in any of the photos chosen to analyze, the next best thing is being observant enough to infer and make those connections. 

2. Group Discussions

Primary source photos can help foster group discussions which leads to collaboration.
Once my kiddos feel comfortable with analyzing primary source photos, I amp up the energy by switching to group discussions. I divide my students into teams and hand each group a different primary source photo. 

As a group, they are encouraged to share their interpretations, debate the historical context, and connect the dots between what they are seeing and what they have read. 

An example of one group's photo may be a wartime photo. This particular photo could show soldiers standing and sitting in the trenches. 

I may prompt them to think and discuss the challenges these soldiers might have faced based on what they see in the photos. The goal or purpose of this exercise is to fuel their critical thinking and collaborative exploration! 

3. Research Projects with Primary Source Photos

We have looked at primary source photos as a whole class and in small groups. Now, it's time to take it up a notch with research projects that put your students in the driver's seat of historical inquiry. 

Primary source photos can be a starting point for research projects.
I assign each student or partnership a primary source photo that is linked to a specific era or event. Their tasks include diving into the background, learning the historical context of the photo, discovering any related documents to the event or time period, and presenting their observations to the class. 

One project could center around a photo capturing the space race. With this photo, my students could explore what was going on politically at the time, the types of technology being developed, and what life was like overall. All of this information weaves together to create the larger picture of our history! 

Overcoming Challenges with Primary Source Photos

I do warn my students that there might be some hurdles they'll have to overcome when searching for and through primary source photos. Below are some to share with your own students!

1. Lack of Context

A lack of context with primary source photos isn't necessarily a bad thing because it can lead to deeper questioning and critical thinking.
There have been times when I felt like I found the perfect photo to use, but when I placed it in front of my students, the blank stares told me otherwise. Especially in the beginning, they won't know what to do and they'll wonder why I am showing them a random photo of strangers. 

My tip is to always introduce the photo by giving a brief historical rundown of its relevance. If you want them to discover those details on their own, give them hints of what they should be looking for. Having the background information or the hints can help set the scene and make the photo more approachable. 

2. Difficulty Interpreting Historical Clues

You've been proactive and set the stage around the photo for your students. Remember those blank stares? Yup, they are still there! Sometimes, the clues or the parts to observe don't pop out of the photo like in others. They aren't as obvious and may take some more inferring. 

Even though it can be difficult to interpret the historical clues in primary source photos you can encourage collaboration by giving students the opportunity to discuss the photographs and really think deeply about what they are observing.When this happens, I always recommend to encourage collaboration among your students. Have them turn and talk to their neighbors or make groups ahead of time. They can share their observations, interpretations, and questions with one another. 

Everyone thinks differently, which makes things jump out more to some than others. In this collaborative setting, your students will be able to see the photo from different perspectives, allowing them to learn from each other. 

During this time, I am walking around, guiding conversations as needed, and listening to the "Oh, I didn't even think about that!"

3. Embracing Ambiguity

Not every historical photo has a clear-cut solution. This can lead to beneficial classroom discussions and debates that allow curiosity to run free. 

Embrace ambiguity with primary source photos by giving your students the opportunity to discover the historical meaning of the photographs with critical thinking.
One thing I always tell my students is that it's okay not to have all the answers. When there are no more questions, the learning is finished, but that won't ever happen because we are meant to constantly explore and be curious. 

If history was simple, everyone would pay more attention to it. It's complex, which is what draws me to the subject. Some of my favorite memories of teaching histories are the ones where students asked questions, and we went down those pathways away from the planned-out lessons I had. 

Where to Find Primary Source Photos

Now that we know the ins and outs of primary source photos, we need to know where to find valuable ones to use! Let's take a look at some of my go-to sites!

1. Library of Congress - Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

The Library of Congress boasts a large collection. Lucky for us educators, it's accessible online. As you explore their Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue, you will discover how their primary source photos span various historical periods. 

2. National Archives - Digital Vaults

The National Archives houses a digital wonderland called the Digital Vaults. Here, you'll discover primary source documents, images, and more—each fully authentic and ready to bring history to life in your classroom! 
Use helpful websites like this to find primary source photos to use in your classroom this year.

3. Smithsonian Institution - Collections Search Center

The Smithsonian's Collections Search Center opens the doors to a vast array of primary source materials, including photographs. Whether it's American history, world cultures, or scientific advancements, you'll find the visuals you need to enhance your classes! 

4. New York Public Library - Digital Collections

The New York Public Library's Digital Collections offers access to a diverse range of primary source photos. From iconic cityscapes to historical events, there's something there for each of your lessons. 

5. Getty Images - Open Content Program

The Getty Images Open Content Program offers high-quality visuals, including photographs, that are free to use and share. It's a fantastic resource for adding clear and authentic photos to your history lessons, regardless of the unit. 

6. Local Historical Societies and Museums

Don't forget to look in your own backyard! Local historical societies and museums often digitize their collections. This allows them to offer access to a unique perspective on your region's history. If you're able to, I also recommend going to these societies and museums in person. They are full of knowledge, artifacts, photographs, and passionate people willing to help! 

Primary Source Photographs Student Analysis Doodle Page

We chatted about how we use primary source photographs as a whole class and in small groups. Suggestions were given about what to look for to observe and infer. A lot of what my kiddos do involves having those verbal conversations. 

Use this engaging primary source photo student analysis doodle page to help students uncover the context clues hidden in the photos they are observing.However, over the years, I have seen how some of my students benefit from the use of a graphic organizer. The provided prompts on the graphic organizers help to guide students who may feel lost or not want to do the activity. 

My Primary Source Photographs Student Analysis Doodle Page prompts my students to reflect on and observe different angles of the photographs. It gives them an organized space to record their thoughts accurately. My students enjoy having space where they can describe what they see, how it makes them feel, who took the photo, the purpose of the photo, and any questions they may have. 

This doodle page fits with any photograph and unit you are focusing on, making it a flexible tool for your classroom. This resource transcends U.S. History, World History, Ancient History, and more.

Enhance Your History Classes with Primary Source Photographs

Integrating primary source photos into your middle school history classes invites your students on a historical journey. They bring history to life through authentic, firsthand images. Even though they may be tricky to interpret at first, using resources such as my doodle note page helps them see what was happening years and years ago. Together, we can turn history class into an experience that sparks curiosity, leads to understanding, and leaves a memorable learning moment in the minds of our middle schoolers. Time to unlock the wonders of our past, one photograph at a time! 

Save for Later

Remember to save this post to your favorite history Pinterest board so you can use more primary source photographs in your History lessons! 

Looking for ways to enhance your middle school history lessons? Use primary source photos to help students develop critical thinking skills, collaboration skills, communication skills, and more! Be sure to grab the graphic organizers to make using primary source photos in your classroom a breeze this year. #thehistorygal #primarysourcephotos #howtouseprimarysourcephotosintheclassroom #middleschoolhistory

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