A Veteran Teacher's Lessons: The Power of Photographs

By David Forrest posted 12-18-2018 06:36:48 PM


“A picture is worth a thousand words,” as the saying goes. It is so true, especially for social studies teachers. A single image can be a powerful way to introduce a lesson, serving as a doorway into a historical event. Photo analysis can aid in student writing. And through studying photographs students can to learn empathy for others, even take steps toward civic engagement.

During my unit on the Civil War I use the famous photograph of an escaped slave, “Private Gordon", to begin the discussion of the role of African American soldiers in the Union Army. My Private Gordon Lesson starts with students making inferences and discussing the photo. Then students read an online article, "Photography Changes the Way We Record and Respond to Social Issues, by Frank H. Goodyear, adding historical background to the photo. Think about the next unit you are teaching, is there a single photo that might be a doorway into your lesson? 

"Private Gordon"

Source: Goodyear, Frank. “Photography Changes the Way We Record and Respond to Social Issues.”, Smithsonian Photography Intiative, 1 May 2013,
Once you’ve modeled photo analysis with your whole class, work on helping students make photo inferences and predictions on their own. You might want to use Lewis Hine’s photographs, poignant images of child labor at the turn of the 20th century. The National Archives’ Educational Resources page has good tips for analyzing photographs, beginning with close observations of photo details. Students use my Lewis Hine Child Labor Lesson handout and read and answer questions from the National Archives webpage, Lewis Hine: Documentation of Child Labor.
"Girl at Weaving Machines" by Lewis Hine

Source: “Teaching with Documents: Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of Child Labor.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, 14 Feb. 2017,
Like any new skill, photo analysis requires students to practice before gaining mastery. During your unit on the Progressive Era try the Jacob Riis’ photograph, "Five Cents a Spot".  In my Five Cents a Spot Lesson students dissect a photo which revealed New York City’s crowded tenements and poor living conditions. In addition, they read more about Riis in Bonnie Yochelson's article, "Photography Changes Our Awareness of Poverty”. 

"Five Cents a Spot" by Jacob Riis

Source: Riis, Jacob. “Five Cents A Spot.” Library of Congress,
Photographers, like Hine and Riis, have been catalysts for change. Perhaps no 20th century photographer defined a historical era like Dorothea Lange with her iconic photos of the Great Depression. I introduce The Great Depression by showing students some of Lange's most powerful photos in a slideshow. Students also learn more about Lange’s work from a short PBS video segment, "The Great Depression: Creating A Narrative Through Photography". In addition, the Oakland Museum of California has an extensive collection of Lange photographs and an excellent Teacher Resources Guide for their Lange photography exhibition, The Politics of Seeing. 

"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange

Source: Thirty-Two. Nipomo, California.” The Library of Congress, 1 Jan. 1970,
I have found that photos can encourage strong student writing. While studying Japanese American Internment during World War II I ask my students to write a letter back home, describing their experiences. They begin by gathering details from a series of photos of the Manzanar internment camp. My Letter from Manzanar Lesson not only asks students to detail life in the camps, but also to imagine the feelings of a Japanese American teenager during his or her incarceration. 

Manzanar Internment Camp photo by Toyo Miyatake

Source: Miller, Bettye. “Memories of Manzanar.” UCR Today,
Photo assignments, like the letter home from Manzanar, provide opportunities for students "to walk a mile in someone's shoes.” They can also show our students the power of protest and youth civic engagement. The photo and letter writing lesson, Write Your Letter from the Birmingham Jail focuses on the 1963 Children’s Crusade. Students analyze five photos taken by photographer Charles Moore. In addition to gathering details from these photos, students also watch the award-winning student documentary, No More: The Children of Birmingham 1963 and the Turning Point of the Civil Rights Movement. Once students have gathered details, it is time to write. My assignment, Write Your Letter from the Birmingham Jail, asks students to imagine that they were a teenager in the Children’s Crusade.

Children's Crusade photo by Charles Moore

Source: O'Neill, Claire. “Charles Moore, Photographer of The Civil Rights Movement, Dies At 79.” NPR, NPR, 16 Mar. 2010,

 As you plan your US History units, be sure to harness the power of photographs to tell part of the story.




05-08-2019 03:36:00 PM

As a visual learner the idea of leading a lesson with a photograph struck home with me. The parts of history that stick out to me are always photographs or paintings I can visualize. Thank you for the Photography article, I plan on using that in my classroom when I go over the Civil War.

04-29-2019 11:48:51 AM

Hi Nathan. Thank you for your comment. You made such a good point about the powerful photos from the Vietnam War. They are very disturbing, but they are also an important way for students to understand the War. Here's a slideshow I designed, including the photo you mentioned, The Vietnam War: Famous Photos That Changed Public Opinion.   Thanks, Dave Forrest

04-19-2019 05:16:05 PM

I could not begin to argue with you on that.

They truly are worth a thousand words. Some pictures or images should not even get the opportunity to have words describing the situation. Every time when a topic like this comes up, the one thing that comes to my mind is the Burning Monk of '63. Yes it is very disturbing, but it truly shows what was really going on in a torn country and the extreme protests that one would do to further better their people.