Secret History
Unearth your own history in a photograph!


Would how you think about a photograph change if you knew you were related to people in the photograph? Students will explore family photographs that previously may have been unknown to them and learn new stories about their family. By using old family photographs in this activity, students will learn the history of their own families. In addition, they will experience the process historians undergo when researching and interpreting photographs.

Length of Activity
Time at home: 1 to 2 hours
Time in class: 1 hour


- pencil or pen and paper
- old family photograph
- photocopy or scan of photograph to share with class


Begin by explaining to your students they will be finding an old photograph at home, interviewing a family member about it, and then reporting back to the class what they learn about the photograph.
Assign work for students to do at home.

Student assignment:

- Look through old family photo albums and find a family photo that has people in it who you do not know, or ask your parents to get out the oldest photograph they have of your earliest ancestors. Make sure that your parents don't tell you anything about the photo at first. You will interview your parents later.
- Look carefully at the picture, and see what new things you can discover just by looking at it. On a sheet of paper take notes about what you find out.
- What is happening in this photograph?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- How long ago do you think this photograph was taken?
- What items in the photograph make you say that?
- Who do you think the people are?
- How old are they, and how do you think are they related to each other?
- Is there anything written on the back of the photograph that might give you clues about who is in the picture and when it was taken?
- After you have answered the questions above, ask a member of your family to tell you what they know about the picture.
- Who are the people in the picture, and how are they related to you?
- How long ago and where was this picture taken? What language did the people speak?
- What did the people in the picture like to do for fun? What did they do for work?
- What other interesting or funny stories can your family member tell you about the people in the picture?

Next step:

After you have interviewed your family, ask a family member to make a photocopy or scan of the photograph for you to bring to school.

- Students bring in notes from their interviews and copies or scans of family photographs to share with the class. - - Ask your students to report their findings with the rest of the class. Direct the discussion with the following questions:
- What did you learn on your own about the photograph?
- How hard or easy was it to learn about the photograph by looking at it?
- How much or little did the person you interviewed know about the photograph?

- Did you learn new stories about the people in the photograph whom you are related to?
- What is the most memorable thing that you learned?
- Do you think knowing about your family's history and past can influence your future?
- Why or why not?

Conclude the lesson by asking students what they liked best about learning more about their families. Tell your students that they experienced a process similar to what historians undergo when they research and interpret photographs.

More Ideas

Set up a gallery wall in the classroom and display copies of the students' family photos along with their writing.

Encourage students to take portrait photographs of their families now and bring them in to the class to share.

Credit: This activity concept originally appeared in curriculum materials in conjunction with To The Rescue: Eight Artists in an Archive (March 26 - June 28, 2000) published by the Jewish Museum of San Francisco.

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