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The Mirror with a Memory

We believe that images can be used to stir the imagination of our students.  As mentioned in class, this also presents challenges.  After reading the selection, discuss what you feel your role is in selecting images for use in the classroom, how you might go about encouraging your students to look more deeply at evidence before drawing conclusions, and when images do or do not represent primary source material.

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  • I consider a photograph a primary source whether taken "as is" or arranged for a certain point of view or to evoke a response from the viewer. This is because the photo is not only a documentation of the scene through the viewfinder, it is also a reflection of the photographer. The article stated this in the final paragraph, "catching the reflections of the user as well as its subjects."

    In introducing work to my students, I would introduce the images first, without giving anything away, so I could get genuine responses and comments. If needed, I could lead the discussion by asking questions about what is in the artwork, asking for descriptions, possible emotions, and what is actually there in the frame. This could be considered manipulation on my part, but the outcome is to get students to think and become involved in the unit of study I am presenting.

    This past year I have found how much students like using primary sources, it energized their involvement in the curriculum, and engaged their brains in our topic. I am going to change my tactics in teaching history to include as many primary sources as possible when we begin school next year. 

  • Fifth grade students need access to art and photographs from the times they are studying. I believe that the images presented to my students in their textbooks are underutilized elements of the lessons presented; these miniaturized pictures are presented with a brief caption and the text keeps right on moving. The truth behind each image is not explored and, what's worse, students can be left with more assumptions than substantive knowledge. Art and photography have the potential to lean a lesson forward and bring curiosity into the minds of my students so that they have the desire to learn more deeply.

  • First and foremost, when choosing images for my own classroom, I need to use the same type of integrity that I would expect my own students to possess when presenting materials. Information should be sourced properly and presented to students in the context in which it was intended.  It is important to choose images not in a rhetorical attempt to shove students’ opinions in a particular direction, but rather, to present to them a series of wide-ranging images that may help them to mould their own thought process on a particular period in history. I think that Riis did his best to provide those wide ranging photographs, but his commentary upon them were intended to persuade readers in a certain direction. 


    In providing those various images of a time period, how I might encourage students to investigate would depend on the purpose of presenting the images. In the realm of English, we more often use historical and artistic background to help elucidate a particular literary period that is tied to history; whereas a history class would likely attempt to determine why a particular event occurred or what the possible results were. For instance, the amateur photographs taken by Riis of the New York slums would provide an English student with the visual background to help understand the frustration and disillusionment of the time period in writing. Rags to riches stories, like those of Horatio Alger might be juxtaposed against the images of Riis in order to understand how the literary period American Realism came to be.

  • As a fifth grade teacher I try to encourage children to look carefully, noting details in the background and foreground. I encourage them to place the image in time and place. I want them to begin discussing not just what they see but what the artist wanted them to see. My goal is to lead them to an understanding of the artists view as they presented the image in relationship to what was happening historically. The article brought out excellent points,some of which require the teacher, me, to research the artist themselves so as to better understand their agenda in presenting their images. I too must look at my own reasons for choosing images to present to children. What is it I am trying to accomplish? Am I hampered, like Riis, by my own prejudices and upbringing, which may be very different than those of the children I work with? When looking at images I will try to bring these ideas into our classroom discussions.

  • In the essay, “The Mirror with a Memory”, the author writes about Jacob Riis, a Scandinavian immigrant, who was a pioneer in revealing the truth about slum life of New York’s Lower East Side during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when  there were about 2 million immigrants who arrived in New York City. This immigration wave caused numerous poverty problems which negatively affected the quality of life in New York City.

    When Jacob Riis realized that the articles that he was writing for the newspapers did not produce the desired effect, he decided to write a book “How the Other Half Lives” that would contain photo images. He believed that this documentary proof would not be dismissed as it is “a powerful weapon to arouse popular indignation”. Through his pictures the world could see the real conditions of urban poverty.

    Numerous examples in this essay show that photography is a really powerful tool that can make a very significant impact on a viewer. The images that this essay contains add to the meaning of the story. They often seem to have a more profound effect on the reader.

    However, it is important to remember that though images convey the reality of the situation, sometimes they represent the photographer’s personal perspective. That’s why we need to be careful while selecting images for certain purposes, and it’s important to teach students to recognize this and analyze a picture before drawing certain conclusions.

  • This text nicely highlighted how important it is to take into account the "author's (or photographer's) bias" when looking at images as well as writing.  It is undoubtedly important to present as many sides of the story as possible to try and more fully understand its historical context.  Obviously, this should be kept in mind as I select images for use in my classroom, but I think it also shows how important it is to devote time to discussing images.  I must be mindful that the conclusions I have drawn from, and the reasons I have selected an image are just one possible dimension of the story.  By encouraging discussion, I no doubt will hear alternative theories that will enrich my own thoughts as well as those of my students.  I have also found it useful to slow my students down when they look at images.  It is all too easy to gloss over details when you glance at a picture.  Within that quick time frame, I think it is easy to see what you want to see; this further reinforces the prejudices you bring to your observations, the very problem this article is hoping to highlight.  I think another interesting way to get the students to think deeply is to not set them up with any context for a picture.  Simply show them the image and allow them to make connections through their careful observations.  These observations should be shared and discussed by the class.   Hearing many points of view and then comparing these narratives with the real story will not only force students to make connections, it could also serve as a telling lesson for their own inherent perspectives and biases.

    I am of the mind that photographs will almost always be primary sources, though that does not mean they will be unbiased.  Many paintings will classify as primary sources as well, but not all.  Paintings created after the fact from sketches of journal details will be secondary sources.  For all sources, the primary or secondary classification often depends on the context, angle, or question being posed as well as whether the creator was an actual witness to the event.

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