Look Versus Read a Photograph

I returned to the full time teaching world this week after weeks away from my social science students. While I enjoyed having a student teacher, it was nice to get back to what I know, teaching. It was the perfect time to switch, right after Thanksgiving, a new unit of study, and I had become more bored than you can imagine making projects up for myself.

Like every geography unit, I start off having my students use the regional atlas to get a tiny amount of background knowledge about the region we are about to study. Our textbook doesn’t have a lot of useful information, but the regional atlas is great. A small amount of text, some maps, graphs, data-bits, and lots of pictures.

The assignment was to read the text and jot down some important facts, look at the maps, graphs, charts, pictures, etc. and make some inferences from them. Pretty simple (especially since they’ve done this before). But as I walked around the class, I saw the same thing over and over again. Students read the text and jotted down notes, but flipped right past the pictures to instead look at graphs and draw inferences from them. I was shocked – not a single students spent more than 3 seconds looking at a picture.

When I asked about it, I discovered my error. I apparently said, “Don’t forget to look at the pictures.” I didn’t use a better verb like study, analyze, or read, and since I didn’t, they didn’t do what I imagined.

Luckily, last week someone shared a resource from the Smithsonian, Engaging Students with Primary Sources. This is a great resource with lots of questions to ask while looking at a primary source. I took those questions and projected them for my students and told them that we will no longer look at picture, but we will read pictures.

We did picture reads yesterday and today, and the results were amazing. I gave a few focus questions:

  • What are your first impressions?
  • What is going on in the picture?
  • What would we see if the picture was taken 5 minutes later?
  • What unusual items do you see?

In two minutes of looking and thinking, students arrived at conclusions I had never made. They saw things I didn’t, they picked up on clues I thought they’d never find, and made connections to their own lives. It was a great way to start my class.

But the best thing was something I never would have guessed. Students who I have never heard share before spoke up – A LOT! A student who has struggled on every assignment or assessment this year was on fire. She just kept raising her hand with idea, after idea; connection after connection. Her classmates were impressed, I was amazed, and she was ecstatic.

The old saying is true, a picture is worth a thousand words. We just need to teach students to ask the questions that help them start the dialogue.


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