What’s In a Name? Learning from the Titles of Library of Congress Primary Sources – Part 1

This is a guest post from Cindy Rich, of the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program at Eastern Illinois University.

In a recent Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) workshop, gathered to learn about the power of teaching with primary sources, a teacher was concerned that she needed to “change everything” to address anchor standards for reading. As we discussed ideas for using primary sources in the classroom (already a good sign, right?), we realized that some small activities, such as close attention to reading a title, can be very powerful.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the title is worth… well, you get it. The simple, yet deliberate, task of learning from the title of a primary source can provide ongoing practice of literary skills. Students learning new material may require support, including guiding questions, to help with vocabulary or syntax to gain information from captions within and across disciplines. Once mastered, learning from titles becomes a natural, almost effortless, part of learning from primary sources, and a skill that students will use in many academic disciplines and throughout life.

How do word choices influence how we interpret a photograph? Here are three simple strategies for guiding students to look more carefully at a title.

 

Write your own title. Allow time for pairs or small groups of students to analyze the photograph, and then write a title for it. Display the title from the item record, and ask students to take another look at the image. Discuss:

  1. What do they notice now that they didn’t earlier?
  2. How does the title influence how they see the picture?
  3. How does the title compare to what the students wrote?
Image: Poor children playing on sidewalk, Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

Poor children playing on sidewalk, Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a00149

Focus on specific words. Allow time for pairs or small groups of students to study and analyze the photograph. Then direct them to examine the title: What is the significance of the word last in the title?

 

President Lincoln and his son Thaddeus. The last photograph the president sat for

President Lincoln and his son Thaddeus. The last photograph the president sat for
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a01619

Develop questions for further investigation. This title includes multiple ideas. What questions come to mind? How and where might students find answers?

 

The four freedoms. It's serious business, this milk drinking. Maybe this youngster is thinking of the millions of youngsters in other lands who can never take their milk for granted

The four freedoms. It’s serious business, this milk drinking. Maybe this youngster is thinking of the millions of youngsters in other lands who can never take their milk for granted
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b00804

You may apply similar processes to studying primary sources in other formats. Let us know in the comments what other examples of interesting titles you or your students discover.

6 Comments

  1. Michael Brna
    May 1, 2014 at 11:11 am

    A wonderfully simple, yet effective, strategy that all teachers can use. We sometimes forget that simplicity in teaching engages students and elicits their thoughts in ways that highly structured teaching methods may not. Wonderful posting!

  2. Mary Clark
    May 1, 2014 at 11:48 am

    I love this idea! I’m working with 7th graders this week on environmental issues. They’re developing social media campaigns on specific issues, targeted to other middle schoolers. I’m going to challenge them this afternoon to come up with several captions for each photo they use to see if a caption can influence the viewer’s reaction.

    Please keep the great ideas coming!

  3. faye aurand
    May 1, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    What an awesome idea! I think students would not only use their imaginations for this activity, but would think seriously about the time period, people and events in the photos, bringing history to life.

  4. Sherry L.
    May 1, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    A great idea that we will use in our workshops!

  5. Mary Johnson
    May 1, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    This reminds me of how changing even a single word of a Question Focus (reference the work of the Right Question Institute) can elicit a change in student questions around a primary source. I like the way this idea helps students recognize the power of words. Great post, Cindy!

  6. Sheila
    May 2, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    In another life we had business relationships with the Chinese and one day I made the comment in our meeting a picture is worth a thousand words and was corrected – “no a picture is worth ten thousand words if there is harmony between the picture and the words”!
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful learning activity for the adult and the student.

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