Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, and a Wind Gauge

While browsing a journal in the Alexander Graham Bell Papers, this item caught my eye for the familiar name “Helen Keller” handwritten across the image, so I paused for another look. Your students might enjoy closely examining this photo, too. Here are some of my thoughts and ideas for prompting your students to look closely, think about what they see and what they know, and maybe even ask questions that lead to further research and investigation.

Detail, Image 33, Journal by Alexander Graham Bell, from September 2, 1901 to October 29, 1901

Ask students what first catches their attention and invite them to reflect on why their eyes fell there before allowing time for further observation and exploration. I first noticed a familiar name, and on closer examination, I saw other names: “Miss Safford” and “AGB.” I wasn’t sure who Miss Safford was, but knowing that the item is from the Bell papers, it was easy to determine that AGB probably refers to Alexander Graham Bell. I also noticed two female figures, a pole with some sort of apparatus on top, and the sign board with a date: 1901 Aug 29. I wasn’t sure what the other markings on the sign board meant – more on that in a moment! The notation “AGB” drew my attention to a person mostly hidden by the woman dressed in white. I also noticed the caption, and with a bit of squinting, determined that it says, “Helen Keller examining the operation of the wind guage [sic]. AGB” Such a short piece of text might present your students a manageable opportunity to practice reading cursive.

Gleaning information from primary sources frequently requires working with multiple sources, both primary and secondary, and piecing together information to complete the story. One advantage to working with an item from an album, such as the photo that caught my eye, is that the album offers some context. Leafing to the previous page yields more images of Keller, Safford, and Bell, along with others, and of Keller exploring a kite. Turning to the page after the wind gauge yields additional images, including one labeled “white three-celled kite in the air,” with a sign board dated August 29, 1901. Invite students to speculate on the relationship between the images and construct a possible narrative.

Students might wonder who “Miss Safford” was and why Keller and Bell were together for this photo; research into primary and secondary sources will indicate that Bell was very involved in the education of deaf people and first met Helen Keller when she was six years old. A search of the Bell family papers offers some clues about Miss Safford, too. In addition to the Bell family papers, students might explore these resources:

What did your students discover? Let us know in the comments!

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