With my 4th graders, I teach the novel Number the Stars.  Let me tell you, trying to set 10-year-old students up with enough background knowledge about World War 2 and the Holocaust is a daunting task.  So when I first started planning this, I borrowed a technique I used to use with my 8th graders.

This past week I used the technique again, and was reminded of why I LOVE this teaching strategy…

  1. My students were COMPLETELY engaged
  2. My students brought up details during our discussion that I had never thought of
  3. My students walked out of the classroom having conversations about our discussion!

So what is this magical strategy?  Well, think of it as Close-Reading, but instead of using a text we use photos.  Students take around 10 minutes a day each day for one week doing different activities with the same photos.  By the end of the week, they learn how the photos all come together.

Prep work:

Choose 3-5 photos that represent the topic you are introducing. 

Since I was using this to introduce young students to the concept of the Holocaust, I really scoured the internet for appropriate pictures.  I decided to choose some that would focus on children – young Hitler Youth standing next to tanks, Jewish children peering through barbed wire.  I tried to refrain from anything too graphic.

Don’t be afraid to try this with something NOT based in history.  Introducing a science unit on volcanoes?  Have a few different pictures of volcanoes, and perhaps the aftermath left over, or a close-up photo of lava flowing.

Assemble these photos in a slideshow, with one photo filling each slide.

Because I like to have some anticipation before each photo, I include a blank slide between each picture.

Make sure YOU know what each photo is showing.  

This is vital. The whole strategy is to lead students through their own inquiry, but you have to know the real stories behind the photos to fill in gaps for students at the end.

Using the Strategy

Explain to students:

For the rest of the week, we will be starting each class with a look at the same 5 photos.  By Friday, you will become very familiar with these photos.  However, each day I’m going to ask you to do something different with the photos and to think of them differently.  You should record your thoughts in your journal.  A few notes – these are all actual photos, and you WILL learn their true stories by the end of the week.  Also, while I show you each photo you CANNOT talk.  The purpose it to have each student thinking about the photos on their own, and I don’t want anyone to interfere with someone else’s interpretation.

Next, explain the day’s activity.  Below are  the activities that I used when doing this strategy this past week.  You can always pick and choose depending on your topic, your students and your time.

  • Day One:  Write your emotional reaction to seeing each photo
    • This could be one word: “confused” or more of a thought: “OMG!”
  • Day Two:  Try to order the photos in chronological order
  • Day Three:  Look closely at each photo and try to find a small detail that you don’t think anyone else noticed
  • Day Four:  What do you think is happening in each photo?
  • Day Five:  I tell students the true story and chronology of each photo
  • More Activities: What is one question you would ask the photographer?,  Write a short narrative based on the photo, Try to list the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of the photo

Process each activity that day.  The first year I did this, I had students save all of their journals until the end and we shared all them at that time.  It was not very effective, because some students forgot why they wrote certain things.  Now, after having students write their journals, we take 5 minutes to share each day.

photo strategy
Here are some of my 4th graders getting an up-close look at a photo during our Day Three activity.

Bonus Activity!

This year, instead of simply telling my students the stories behind each photo, I found short articles explaining the images.  I had each student read one article, try to guess which photo it went with, and then summarize the article for their classmates.  The articles were of varying reading level, so I could easily differentiate.  It was a great way to give students some ownership and to limit the amount of me talking at them!

What do you think – could you use this activity with your class?