Ever since I first encountered the work of Sam Wineburg, I’ve tried to incorporate “think alouds” into my teaching as a way of getting my students to see how it is that we construct historical understanding. At first, I tried using texts, but I found this too cumbersome, so I switched to images. I almost always do this on the first day of class to let my students know that all semester long we’ll be visiting and revisiting their thinking processes–and it’s a low stress and generally fun exercise to do on day one.
The image I use is this picture of eight guys from Trenton (click to enlarge):
I ask my students to first tell me everything they know for sure about the photograph and then to tell me what they suspect about it. And as they do this, I ask them to think out loud, exposing their thought processes to the entire class. The first two of these tasks are easy, but the thinking aloud part is difficult. Only when I get to the second or third student in the room does it really begin to work–either because they now know what do to or because any anxiety that might have existed has worn off, or both.
The students who really try hard on this notice a number of interesting details, most notably the seal in the bottom right corner, which tells them that the image was made at the Roma Photo Studio in Trenton, NJ:
Only about half of the students actually ever turn it over to see what’s on the back:
The label there tells them that it was framed at Kalen’s Frame Shop:
A quick search in Google tells us that, alas, Kalen’s is no more, because the address on the label turns out to be a parking lot these days (when I drove past it years ago, it was a dilapidated building with no evidence of having been a photo studio):
My students have all sorts of theories about the men depicted here. They are bankers. They are in the mob. They are members of a club. They know each other. They don’t know each other. They are wealthy. They are middle-class. They like each other. They don’t like each other. They are all white. One of them (front row left) is less white (Italian, Hispanic, etc.). That less white person just got back from the beach and is just tanned. The photo is from the 1920s. No, it’s from the 1930s. No, the 1940s. No, the 1950s. They are old (“like, in their forties,” one of my freshmen said last month.) No extra credit for him.
Along the way we learn something about how people make assumptions about sources that they don’t know a lot about and how those assumptions can be tested against other evidence. And we have some fun laughing about things that come up in the discussion.
At the end of the exercise, my students always ask me what the “real story” behind the photograph is. I have to admit then that I have no earthly idea. I bought this frame/photo combination at a junk shop in Washington, D.C. about 20 years ago for 50 cents because I wanted the frame. I was about to tear out the photograph when I decided that I kind of liked those eight guys from Trenton. So, instead, I put a label on the frame that said “Our First Board of Directors” and hung it on the wall in the office of the consulting firm where I worked at the time. People who visited me there would see the picture and comment that they hadn’t realized that my company had been in business so long. Of course, I didn’t disabuse them of this notion.
If you want to read a more formal discussion of integrating think alouds into a course, read Lendol Calder’s recent essay in the Journal of American History.