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Using Visual Primary Sources

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Published on Tue, 10/01/2019

Highschoolers working together on a project

Visual Literacy: Making Lessons Accessible and Inclusive

Guest Blog Post by Wendy Harris, High School Social Studies & Teacher of the Blind at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minnesota.  

You want to get your students to work with primary sources, but you have students who struggle with reading English text. Maybe they have a learning disability, English is not their most comfortable language, or any number of other reasons. Sound familiar?

A great way to use primary sources to introduce historical content, analysis skills, and making an argument with justification is by using images. I teach high school social studies at a Deaf school where all my students are learning English as an additional language and some also have learning challenges. While I know visual primary sources are not always accessible for my DeafBlind students, it is a great way to start working with primary sources for many students.

To work on distinguishing between observation and inference, while also building my students’ inquiry skills, I often use an adaptation of the Library of Congress Guide for Analyzing Photographs and Prints (I ask students what they See, Think, and Wonder). The National Archives has a series of guides that are available for novice analysts (great for students who need extra language support or to have the task broken down) and more experienced students. 

I also use strategies to help students focus on the image in parts. For example, I use the Zoom In strategy I first found through Densho to guide observation and inference while seeing progressively more of the image. A similar technique is the quartering strategy which focuses on one fourth of the image in turn. There is a description of close analysis of each quarter of an image on the EmergingAmerica.org Accessing Inquiry website.  

Here are a few resources to start you on your own journey of exploration of visual primary sources:

Frameworks for Analyzing Visual Primary Sources

Question prompts for teachers to use, customized to various types of primary sources including political cartoons, maps, motion pictures, handwritten manuscripts, and more. Library of Congress guides

Document analysis worksheets and instructions. National Archives worksheets

Curriculum and instructions for teachers, including Zoom In analysis instructions and examples, and Capturing Curiosity video showing a teacher and students using the method. Densho Resource Page

Three questions to guide student discussion. Visual Thinking Strategies: 3 Simple Questions

Sources of Visual Primary Sources

Smithsonian Learning Lab (“everything under the sun”-connects to many archives of all kinds)

Visualizing Cultures project (Japan and China)

Library of Congress (select “Photos, Prints and Drawings” from the search bar dropdown menu)

DocsTeach online tool from the National Archives

Teaching Tolerance has a visual text filter option for their library of lexile-leveled student texts

Gilder-Lehrman Institute US history collection (70,000 items spanning 500 years)

Densho Digital Repository (Japanese American WWII incarceration digital sources from multiple partner archives and museums)

National World War II Museum

High School Yearbooks from World War II

Alison Noyes

Assistant Director, Emerging America
Alison Noyes is the Assistant Director of the Emerging America program at the Collaborative for Educational Services. She has worked in the field of education for over 20 years, entering as a teacher of English Language learners and high school history, and working for many years with international students and college study abroad as a program director and assistant dean before returning to focus on engaging K-12 students.