Helping Students Explore Their Community’s Past through Photography

Vintage crank telephone at the Buffalo Gap Historic Village

In the March/April 2017 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features photographs from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive at the Library of Congress. Driven by a sense of urgency in documenting aspects of American life that are disappearing, such as barns, lighthouses, motor courts, and eclectic roadside art, photographer Carol Highsmith has donated her work to the Library of Congress since 1992. The images, recording current scenes and historical remnants of rural, urban, and small town life, are worthy of study. The project might also inspire students to document and preserve that which makes their own communities unique.

The article features a photograph of a Vintage Crank Telephone at the Buffalo Gap Historic Village, near Abilene, Texas. It invites students to engage in close observation for details and then compare the telephone in the photograph to telephones more familiar to students. To extend learning, the article suggests various research paths ranging from learning more about the history of the telephone to learning more about other objects common at the time the telephone was in use to build context. Students might begin with other objects that Highsmith photographed at the Buffalo Gap Historic Village.

Other featured images, each offering rich opportunities for observation, learning, and research, suggest the topical and geographic scope of the collection. These invite students to analyze other photos from the collection, ask questions about the kinds of technology represented, think about how that technology would have affected everyday life, consider what remains recognizable today, and then conduct additional research to place the images in context.

Colorful Ferris wheel at the Wyoming State Fair in Douglas

Crude kitchen at Kirkwood Ranch on the Snake River, Hells Canyon, Idaho

Vintage car and telephone pods in Havana, Cuba

Finally, the article invites students to look closely at their local school, neighborhood, or town, and document those surroundings. The sidebar to the article includes tips to teachers from Highsmith to support students photographing their local communities. Among other things, she suggests looking around and identifying things that might change or disappear. She talks about striving to capture a story in a single frame. She advises photographing “everything!” to share within and beyond the classroom.

You can access the complete article here.

If your students try any of the activities suggested in the article, please let us know in the comments what they discover.


Watch: “Loving Vs. Virginia” Virtual Program, Wednesday, May 3, 10:30 AM EDT

The Library of Congress invites you and your students to join a virtual program on a famous legal case that cleared the way for interracial marriage in the United States.

At this year’s Jonah S. Eskin Memorial Program, Patricia Hruby Powell will speak about her new young people’s book, “Loving vs. Virginia.” Hruby Powell’s book features illustrations by Shadra Strickland.

Information Literacy: How Does the News Change Over Time? The Sinking of the Titanic

Why is it important to evaluate and corroborate sources of information? These are not new questions, as a study of historical newspapers will confirm. Sometimes reports reflect an editorial bias, and sometimes they simply reflect what the reporter knows at the time, with updates being added as new information from more sources surfaces.

Explore Library of Congress Professional Development Videos

Now we have a way for teachers to bring Library of Congress professional development programming into their homes and classrooms whenever they want it. The Library’s education staff has been building a collection of short videos to help teachers enhance their professional learning. The 40 videos focus on building awareness of the Library’s various collections as well as on the effective use of these primary source materials.

World War I Recruiting Songs: Building the Military with Music

Music is one way to get a message out or to encourage support for a cause, especially during wartime. In the first years of World War I, when the United States was neutral, songs supported the country staying out of the war. After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, songs encouraged or discouraged citizens to enlist and join the battle. Others encouraged those on the home front to support those who were on the battlefield.