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Character Education

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Digital Learning

Bringing the Past to Life

I am so excited to bring this bright idea to you today! I was at my monthly book club meeting last night, and my head was spinning with all the possibilities for bringing the past to life for kids with a few simple tweaks to some historical photos.

Our book choice this month was Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. The cover photo is an iconic photo from the era of the Depression in American history, instantly recognizable to so many of us. The book tells the fictionalized story of a mother of seven, married far too young, widowed, and trying to scrape by on the intermittent and meager earnings of a migrant farm worker. You can catch a glimpse of her worry and sense of hopelessness in this colorized photo. Depressed yet? I was.

I was depressed about Mary's situation, yet intrigued by the interwoven story of the photographer who took this picture for government record-keeping.  The book tells us as much about the photographer's life, also living through the depression as a young wife and mother, as about the subject of her photograph. Click on the book cover for a more in-depth article about this book after you read my post! Please stay with me a little longer first!

Before your next history lesson or historical fiction or narrative nonfiction lesson, xerox some historical photos connected to what you are studying.  Make enough copies for your students, using the same photograph or different ones. Change up the usual "Write the story of the person (or people) in the photograph" by adding in the photographer. Assign your students to write the story from two perspectives: that of the subject, but also from the perspective of the photographer. The subject has a story to tell, but the photographer frames that story and tells a unique version of it by capturing a moment and choosing the expression to click on.

Using similar historic black and white photos to the ones in "Bright Idea #1", ask kids to take out their color pencils or water color markers to colorize the photos. Then discuss. Notice how adding color makes the event shown in the photo much more real to your students!
This idea would also lend itself well to the discussion of primary and secondary sources. The original photo of course is a primary source, but when you colorize it, you are adding your own take on it, making it a secondary source.

Look at the amazing photo transformation below. You can read all about it later (I'm not done with you yet!). This photo is the work of artist/photographer Jane Long. She goes beyond colorizing to add touches of fantasy and whimsy to her work. Challenge your students to have some fun adding modern elements or even futuristic or fantasy elements in brighter markers, such as paint markers, permanent ones, or even, yes, glitter markers!

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you will check out some of my other posts and let me know you were here by leaving a comment. You can also find me:
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That's it for now. I hope you'll enjoy adding some color and creativity to the study of history with some of these ideas! I also know you'll find many other great and fun ideas by following the Bright Ideas Blog Hop! Thanks for stopping by Rainbow City Learning!


  1. Great minds think alike! I LOVE using historical photos for teaching Social Studies lessons! And it's even a bonus that analyzing primary sources is a key social studies skill that helps them with everything else we tackle. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Michele! I was thinking the same thing when I saw your post! Great minds...

  2. Fabulous idea, and an excellent way to help engage our students creativity while connecting to the past. Thank you!
    Jen from Hello Mrs Sykes

  3. As a lover of historical fiction myself, I can't wait to do this myself! Really helps the kiddos put themselves in the place of that time period!

    Sally from Elementary Matters