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Helping Students Explore Their Community’s Past through Photography

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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.


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