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Caption This! Using photos and text to analyze primary sources

One of the most powerful professional learning strategies is also one of the easiest.

You ready for this? You might want to sit down. Ready?

One of the most powerful professional learning strategies is . . . making intentional time for teachers to talk with other teachers. Yup. Teachers yakking with each other. Consultant presentations? Absolutely. Book studies? Yes, please. After school webinars? Sure. But the best PD is often just the two of us sharing ideas over some nachos and a cold beverage. (Hmmm . . . Nacho PD? On a Friday? At 4:00? Today?)

It’s taken me longer than it should have to realize the simple fact that teachers talking with other teachers makes everyone smarter.

You already know this. When two or three social studies teachers get together pretty much anywhere besides the hallway outside their classroom, you’re almost 100% guaranteed to get a great conversation about best practice and great strategies.

I’m lucky. I get the chance to have conversations with so many really great social studies practitioners. Heck . . . just a few days ago, high school history rock star Derek Schutte shared his awesome idea of asking kids to do voice-overs of historical events as if they’re sports casters. I love that idea! Research. Context. Primary sources. Emotional engagement. Student choice and voice. (You know want to know more about that. Make that connection and see an example via Twitter.)

It was last fall during one of those random but powerful teacher conversations that got me hooked on the idea of Caption This. I did some online internetting and found several different variations floating around so I wasn’t exactly sure where the idea for the activity might have started. But I loved the concept and especially appreciated how it asks kids to contextualize and solve problems using visual clues.

So I shared the basic idea with the ESSDACK Social Studies PLC. A recent Tweet from one of my PLC buddies (and former Kansas History Teacher of the Year), Jill Weber, reminded me of our conversation:

(And I love that Jill is always willing to share her stuff with others. Be sure to grab her example!)

The process is a great way to introduce a topic to your kids as a hook activity. I can also see it working as a super simple way to do some formative or summative assessment during your instructional unit. And it’s fairly simple to pull off.

What you need:

  • Guiding question for the activity
  • Collection of visuals (might be photos, maps, political cartoons, artwork, advertisements, you get the idea) that can be printed and taped to walls
  • Collection of captions or statements that match your visuals for each student or group

Basic process:

  • Share the activity’s guiding question
  • Provide a bit of historical context
  • Ask students to match a series of captions to corresponding visuals to practice historical thinking skills
  • Debrief

To give you a sense of how this works, the following hook activity introducing the Civil War is what I shared with our PLC:

Guiding question:
What was the Civil War really like?

I split my activity into two parts. The first is designed to help kids gain a little context and the second asks them to practice their evidence analyzing skills. Before starting the activity, post the images you want kids to caption around your room, allowing for enough space between them for groups to move about.

Create context:

Arrange students into groups of two however that works best for you. Using Spotify or Youtube, play the song titled Ashokan Farewell / Sullivan Ballou Letter from the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. In this Civil War activity example, there would have been previous student learning about the build up to the war. Use the Ken Burns performance as a way to transition into some quick direct instruction about the start of the war itself, introducing Union Major Sullivan Ballou from Rhode Island as an example of those who flocked to volunteer at the beginning of the war.

Give each group a transcript of the letter, provide a National Archives primary source analysis worksheet, and ask them to work together to answer this question:

  • How reliable is the letter?

After several minutes of conversation, ask each kid to select a number that represents their belief in how reliable the Ballou document is – with the number one representing “not reliable at all” and 10 representing “very reliable.” Then ask each student to stand on an imaginary line representing 1-10. (Feel free to spend time here, asking students to gather together, developing quick arguments for their position, and allowing both sides the chance to convince others to switch sides.)

Using articles such as this one from HistoryNet, provide a bit more context around Ballou and the 1861 Battle of Bull Run. Give students a chance to decide on their final reliability number and ask them to partner up with one other person with the same number.

Practice analysis skills:

Give each group a copy of your list of Captions, a photo analysis worksheet, and the following instructions:

  • Use your Caption List and photo analysis sheet to match the correct caption with the 10 images posted around room.
  • When your group has finished matching all 10 captions, brainstorm, create, and write down a caption that addresses the guiding question.

(Grab my Civil War example Caption List and Photos if you’re interested.)

  • Pair up with another group of two
  • Share your Caption sheet to compare and contrast answers

At this point, spend a few minutes providing an overview and details of the posted images, highlighting the “correct” answers and allowing students to argue for alternate options. Ask the groups of four to share their captions addressing the guiding question.

End the activity by having each group create a short list of questions that they have about the posted images. You might even have groups post these questions on sticky notes next to each image. Collect the questions into a master list on a shared Google Doc or an analog Word Wall. Use these to help guide your instruction moving forward through the unit.

I think this works best in a face-to-face setting in small groups. But it’s also possible to do this digitally or remotely if needed. We all know how much I love Jamboard. So . . . yes, you can quickly create a sample Jamboard that does basically the same thing.

I’m curious? How could you change this activity to make it better and to extend the learning? What images might you use? What strategies have you used to help kids make sense of evidence that could be added and adapted here?

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