Source: Using Visual Materials as Historical Sources: A model for Studying State and Local History, Randall G. Felton, Rodney F. Allen, The Social Studies, March/April 1990, pp. 84-87. Reprinted with permission of The Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-1802. Copyright 1990. Subscriptions: 1-800-365-9753.

Using Visual Materials as Historical Sources:

A model for Studying State and Local History

Randall G. Felton*

Rodney F. Allen**

The Social Studies, March/April 1990, pp 84-87


A Questioning Model for Using Historical Photographs

Sample Lesson #1: Sugar Cane Syrup Making in Florida

Sample Lesson #2: Migrant Workers in Florida during the Depression

Further Reading

"A picture is worth a thousand words." The sentence seems trite and is too often readily dismissed. But consider that the picture is an oft-overlooked source for the study of state and local history. When the teacher carefully selects the right painting, engraving, or photograph that is rich in information, that historical resource is of high interest to students. With visual historical source materials, poor readers are not quickly eliminated from the learning experience. Good reading skills are not necessary for successful learning from visual historical sources. The use of historical visual materials opens an avenue for students to develop a new range of skills—the skills of visual literacy—"reading" pictures to find data, make inferences, and locate meaning.

Too often, the use of pictures in social studies is confined to illustrating textbooks. Their use is usually cosmetic. Each picture is carefully captioned, so that any time a student is perplexed by a visual display the eyes immediately drop to find the "right answer" in the caption. When the text is perplexing, the eyes seek out the picture. Thus the visual display is handmaiden to the explication of the text, rather than a creative, intellectual opportunity to develop and use skills appropriate to the historian and the well-educated citizen.

The way to overcome these deficiencies of the textbooks' captioned photography is to select rich, high-interest pictures and use them as raw historical source materials. Historical paintings, engravings, or photographs can be offered to social studies students just as the historians most often find them—unlabeled, uncaptioned, and without text or manual.

Once the teacher has selected a picture appropriate to the historical topic or era under study, he or she introduces the picture and displays it for student reflection. A slide or color transparency projecting the picture on a large screen at the front of the room is the best medium. The students may get out of their seats and move closer to the screen to exanine details and to talk quietly. Once the students have looked carefully at the picture, the teacher can use the following eight-phase model to pose questions, aiding students as they develop their historical investigation skills (see Figure 1).

A Questioning Model for Using Historical Photographs

The best kinds of questions for analyzing a historical engraving, painting, or photograph are narrowly focused questions. A focused question to begin the lesson offers students a target so that they can offer and capitalize on their original hunches as tentative answers. As the teacher and class work through the lesson, narrowly focused questions get students to build specific skills and a process of thinking. The process of asking these questions follows a series of steps.

FIGURE 1 — Questioning Model

Step 1: Introduction of the Photograph

Tell students the context of the photograph in the state or local history course.

Step 2: Pose the Key Question

Write students' hunches (hypotheses) on the chalkboard for later reference.

Step 3: Ask Students to Identify the Persons and Objects

Students should make observations and label those things that they see.

Step 4: Ask Students to Describe What They See in the Photograph

Students are asked to describe what they observe, comparing and contrasting.

Step 5: Ask Students Questions That Will Lead Them to Draw Inferences

Students should use their observations as clues to go beyond the data and to put what they see together and make educated guesses.

Step 6: Ask Students If They Need to Change, Abandon, or Confirm Their Original Statements

Students use their observations to make educated guesses (inferences), which support or change earlier hunches.

Step 7: Use the Textbook and Other Study materials to Confirm the Hunches of Phase 6

Students gather more information to support or modify their conclusions.

Step 8: Thinking Review

The teacher leads students in a review of the process, and they focus upon questions and thinking skills.

Step one involves orienting students to the context in which the photograph was taken and its use at the specific period of time that they are studying in the state or local history course.

At step two, the teacher poses key questions. Who are these people and what are they doing? Where do you think this photograph was taken? What does this photograph tell you about life at this time? Students respond with their hunches (or hypotheses), which the teacher writes on the chalkboard.

In step three, the teacher asks students to identify or label each person, group, or object in the photograph.

During step four, the students describe the relationships between people and objects, comparing and contrasting what they see. The teacher prods with questions such as: How are these folks dressed? How is their dress different from ours? What tools do you see? Do we use these tools today?

In step five, the teacher asks students to draw inferences from their observations. What clues tell you about the place where the men are working? What clues suggest what kind of work these women are doing? What kind of building is this? What can you tell about the temperature and about the place where this house is being built?

In step six, the teacher guides students in using their observations and their inferences to revise, abandon, or confirm their original hunches (hypotheses) on the chalkboard. From what we have seen and said about these people, do you want to change any of these hunches on the chalkboard? Why?

With step seven, students do further study in their textbook or in the school media center to gain more information to support or change their hunches. At some point, the students' hunches become conclusions that are supported by the evidence they can find. To include writing in this lesson, the teacher might supply a relevant address to which the students might write to raise unanswered questions or to discern the contemporary significance of the historical event or topic.

In step eight, the teacher leads a careful review of what the students said and did to interpret the historical picture. What did they miss, at first glance? What lead them to unfruitful hunches or inferences? What reasoning led to the best data gathering? This review of the thinking process is most important for effective skill development.

Two sample Florida history lessons using historical photographs are reprinted here. The photographs, from the collections of the Florida State Photographic Archives, Tallahassee, are appropriate for either state or local history in Florida. Similar high-interest photographs are available to all teachers from historical societies, museums, antiquarians, art galleries, and parents in any North American community. When all else fails, teachers can clip pictures, without captions, from newspapers and magazines or outdated textbooks that are on the school's discard list.

Sample Lesson #I: Sugar Cane Syrup Making in Florida

Objective(s): To analyze a historical photograph, making observations and inferences to draw conclusions; and to enrich students' knowledge of the historical development of Florida's important sugar cane industry.

Teacher's Introduction: Today we are going to look carefully at an old picture that was taken years ago in Florida. The picture is about one hundred years old! Study it carefully and then answer the key question.

Key Question(s): What are the people doing in this picture? (Write students' hunches on the chalkboard.)

Identification: The teacher suggests that students list everything they can see in this picture. Students name all people and objects in the picture.

Description: The teacher should phrase questions in such a way that they will elicit descriptions that tell about relationships among persons, animals, and objects. How are the people dressed? What do you see them doing? What is the horse or mule doing? Can you describe the equipment about the horse or mule. Will you now describe the equipment in front of the men?

Inferences: The teacher's next question should guide the students to making inferences. What clues do you have to suggest what the equipment is and what is happening? What is the chimney for? Why are the tools hanging on the tree? The horse seems harnessed to go around in circles. Why? To make accurate inferences, students need to distinguish smoke from steam to infer a boiling-down process of cane juice to cane syrup.

Conclusion(s): At this point, the group should return to the students' hunches on the chalkboard. Are the students willing to discard any of those original hunches? Are they willing to change others? The teacher should ask several students to share their conclusions, with evidence or reasons, with the class.

Further Study: Students can learn more about sugar production, then and now, in their Florida history textbook or in the school media center. They might write to the United States Sugar Corporation, P.O. Drawer 1207, Clewiston, Florida 33440, for information on sugar cane growing in Florida today. The Southern Sugar Company (later U.S. Sugar Corporation) introduced successful large-scale sugar farming in Florida in the 1920s.

Thinking Review: The teacher should review the lesson with students, focusing upon their thought processes. What questions did they ask? Which hunches were best in directing data gathering? What should they look for in any photograph so that they arrive at accurate conclusions?

Sample Lesson #2: Migrant Workers in Florida during the Depression

Objectives: To analyze a historical photograph for clues about the identity of a group of people, to make observations and inferences leading to conclusions, and to enrich students' knowledge of the impact of the Great Depression upon people in Florida.

Teacher's Introduction: Today we are going to begin our study of Florida in the 1930s. We will look first at a photograph that was taken during those years. (The teacher should give students time to reflect on the picture.)

Key Questions: Who are these people, and what were they doing here in Florida in the 1930s? (Students' replies should be written on the chalkboard.)

Identification: As the class looks at the photo, the teacher asks these questions: How many people do you see? What ages are they? What other items do you see in the picture?

Description: What are the people doing? How are they dressed? What is the setting for this picture? How are the people and objects arranged in this picture?

Inferences: What clues in the picture tell you whether these people are tourists or workers? What kind of work do they do? What are the people doing? What clues suggest that they are either rich or poor or middle income?

Conclusions: The class should now return to the students' hunches on the chalkboard. Do they have enough evidence to eliminate any hunches or to change any? Call upon several students to state their conclusions and give supporting evidence.

Information about Photo: The picture shows poor white migrant workers or farm workers during the depression in Florida. Students should remember that the Florida land boom ended in 1926 and that in 1929 the Mediterranean fruit fly came. Consequently, citrus could not be shipped from 1,002 Florida groves. The depression hit Florida when things were already bad on farms. In 1931, seventeen of Florida's sixty-seven counties had public relief programs but little money. In 1932, federal relief money came to Florida, but little went to help rural farm workers. At that time, Florida, not unlike California, was trying to keep such people out of the state. Twenty-six percent of Florida's population was on public relief, one-third of them in rural areas.

Further Study: Students might turn to their Florida history textbook or to the school media center to learn more about Florida during the Depression. To learn more about migrant and farm workers today, students might write to the Florida Farm Bureau, 5700 S.W. 34th Street, Gainesville, Florida 32601, or to the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, The Capitol, Tallahassee, Florida 32301.

Thinking Review: The teacher should lead a discussion focused upon the students' thinking processes. They should determine which questions and hunches aided the data gathering. How did the hunches guide data collection? Why were hunches and a series of questions more useful than random guesses? Now that we know what the historical photograph shows, what evidence is obvious? Why was it not obvious earlier?


Allen, R. F., and R. G. Felton. 1985. Pioneer Florida photo study prints. Tampa: Second-Florida United, Ltd.

Halverson, L. 1929. Pictures in the teaching of geography. Journal of Geography, 28:357-58.

Hawkins, M. 1971. A model for effective use of picture in teaching social studies, Audio Visual Instruction, 16:46-48.

Woodward, A. 1989. Learning by pictures: Comments on learning, literacy, and culture, Social Education, 53:101.

*RANDALL G. FELTON is curriculum coordinator for the Leon County (Florida) Public Schools, Tallahassee, where he works with teachers on curriculum design and instructional development.

**RODNEY F. ALLEN is professor of social science education at Florida State University, Tallahassee, where he participates in teacher education and the design of instructional materials.

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