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Compare and Contrast Student School Experiences with Library of Congress Primary Sources

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This post is by Jessica Ellison, a Teacher Educator at the Minnesota Historical Society. The Minnesota Historical Society is a member of the Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Consortium.

Compare and contrast is a stalwart social studies skill for students of all ages. When paired with content applicable to kids, this skill can be a powerful way to boost history’s relevance. Using photographs from the Library of Congress online collections, teachers can encourage students to recognize similarities and differences between their lived experiences and those of children in the past.

School in Session. Lewis Hine, 1921

Selecting primary sources that reflect students’ experiences can help them make connections to their own lives while learning about the past. Since students have a common experience of being in school, photographs such as these can help them feel comfortable in making comparisons to their own schools. Lewis Hine took this photograph in West Virginia in 1921 as part of his efforts to document children’s lives and fight against child labor. Using a simple Venn diagram, ask students to note unique details about the photograph, unique details about their own school, and common elements in the intersecting part of the diagram.

To distinguish between past and present school experiences, direct students’ attention to the feet of the students in the front row – they might notice that two students in the front row are barefoot. Ask questions to help students make comparisons between those children and themselves, without passing judgment. Be explicit and direct about the difference between “same and different” rather than “better and worse.” For example:

  • Why might the students be barefoot? (enjoy being barefoot, it’s summertime, don’t own shoes, etc.)
  • When and where do you go without shoes? Is school one of those places? Why or why not?
  • What can we learn about these students’ lives just by observing they aren’t wearing shoes? What do you wonder about these students’ lives?

    The Back Yard Workshop, while School was closed for Influenza. Mountain Division, Denver, Colorado, 1919

    Female Students Playing Basketball. Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899

Students could also study this 1919 image of two students learning in a backyard while schools were closed due to influenza. The image of the two boys from 1919 could spark conversations about how students’  distance learning experiences due to Covid-19.

To encourage further conversation, bring in another photograph or several other photographs to compare and contrast students’ experiences. This image of girls playing basketball in 1899 can also spark conversation about clothing; their uniforms are different than modern ones. Additionally, this photograph provides an opportunity to talk about girls’ sports in the past and the present, a jumping-off point to discuss equality in education.

The Library has hundreds of images of children in school to help your students analyze similarities and differences through the lens of their own experiences. The Inquiry in the Upper Midwest program, a TPS-funded project, created a set of such photographs to give teachers a starting point. This set can foster compare and contrast conversations about topics such as classroom settings, common spaces such as the lunchroom and the bus, play, and equity across time.

How might you use photographs of kids in school to help your students sharpen their compare and contrast skills? How can you weave your students’ own school experiences into these activities?

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