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Practicing Close Observation: Spying on the Past

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This post comes to us courtesy of Cheryl Lederle of the Library of Congress.

A Washington, D.C., classroom, possibly in 1899.

Primary sources from the online collections of the Library of Congress can be powerful instructional tools. Analyzing these photos, films, maps, and audio recordings can help students engage with content, build their critical thinking skills, and construct knowledge.

Observation skills are crucial to primary source analysis. The ability to examine a primary source closely is a gateway to building critical thinking skills and constructing knowledge.

One way to help students develop their observation skills is to ask them to use a historical photograph to “spy” on a classroom from another era. Introduce this activity by asking students to pretend that they’re undercover spies going into a classroom. Remind them that they will have only a short time to gather information, and they must look carefully to memorize as many details as they can. They should not talk to each other, write, or draw while they observe the photograph.

A Washington, D.C., teacher with students, possibly around 1899.

To get started quickly, choose one of the photos from the Library’s online collections that are included with this blog post. Display or distribute it for 30 seconds and then remove it from view. Ask students to write or draw as many details as they remember and then compare notes with another “spy.” Have each pair share one observation with the whole class, and then discuss what they see in the picture that is like their own classroom, and what they see that is different.

You may introduce students to the Primary Source Analysis Tool provided by the Library of Congress to structure their responses and add reflections and questions to their observations. To continue the spy exercise, you might suggest that these ideas and questions will help them write a more meaningful report. Extend students’ thinking about the picture by selecting questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints.

Additional Library of Congress Resources

For more strategies and detailed directions on how to use activities like this in your classroom, check out the Teaching with Primary Sources Quarterly issue on elementary learners. For more ideas on ways to build observation skills, read the blog post Look again: Challenging Students to Develop Close Observation Skills.  Find more images in the primary source set Children’s Lives at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

Let us know in the comments section what your students discover—and what new questions they ask—as they explore classrooms a hundred or more years ago.

Comments (2)

  1. Cheryl, this is a great post. Teaching kids about the importance of primary sources is essential, most especially in a world where things seem ever more immediate via digital technology.

    An interesting twist is to have students capture their own primary sources, such as web pages. Our K-12 Web Archiving Program has worked with schools around the country in this area. A good overview of the process is provided in a short NDIIPP video America’s Young Archivists: The K-12 Web Archiving Program, on YouTube at

  2. Cheryl,

    I really enjoyed the post. I like the idea of getting the students in the frame of mind that history is visual not just written. This exercise asks them to take ownership not just regurgitate something they have been taught.

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