Drawing from the Well

Chapter One - Digging the Well
Lesson 6 - Old Photos

Setting the Stage:

How can we understand another time period in history? What would it feel like to actually be alive in the 1930s or 1940s? The following exercise is an exploration into these questions and an opportunity to try on what we might observe, feel and perceive from a variety of perspectives. Photographs can be windows to the past. This exercise is both a way to stimulate interest in history and a means to ignite the imagination.

For three years Drawing from the Well has utilized Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs to help bring students into the time period of the Great Depression. Incidentally, the Great Depression is a meaningful time period to explore in New Mexico because there are still people in our communities who can recall those moments in history.

To build empathy, compassion and explore different perspectives is the goal of this exercise. As students step out of their given circumstance, they can open up to a variety of perceptions. This exercise requires students to access their imaginations and to draw on what they may already know about a different time period.


  • The student will identify a point of view from a period photograph.
  • The student will engage in the pre-writing process to develop a narrative.
  • The student will create a narrative from a chosen point of view for a specified audience using detail, appropriate senses and vivid description.

NM State Standards: Language Arts I-A (7-1, 2 & 8-1, 2) I-B (7-1 & 8-1, 2) II-A (7-5) II-C (7-1, 4 & 8-2)

Materials and Resources Needed:
Working portfolio and writing materials
Old photographs (students need to be asked to bring photos to class in advance) Tape recorders, microphones, cables, batteries, tape (if including the technology extension exercises in this lesson)
Narrative Rubric (See Appendix/Methods of Evaluation) Handout #3 Interviewing Exercise in Appendix/Samples and Activities

Day 1. Students complete pre-write exercises.
Day 2. Students write their story with a chosen point of view and hand in their first draft. Homework Assignment: Students incorporate the feedback they receive from both students and teacher and rewrite their story.
Day 3. Technology Exercises

Day 1. Activities: You may duplicate or download images from the FSA collection (See Appendix/Resources, Library of Congress website) or any other source of historical images, pertinent to your locale. You may ask your students to bring in some old family photos and have duplicated images for classroom use. Prior to each student developing his/her own story, initiate a classroom demonstration with one of the images included in this curriculum.

Asking Questions:
Modeling the Exercise and Pre-Writing Activities:
Pass around the image of the man in the US Mail wagon and/or tack it to the wall so all the students can refer to it. (See Appendix/Samples and Activities) Explain that we are going to go through this exercise together to show how each student will do his/her own writing from the chosen photograph. Write the student responses on the board so everyone can see the variety of ideas that come up when asking the following questions:

  1. What do you see - what is happening?
  2. What does this photo tell you about this time period and the way of life?
  3. What can you imagine about the people of this time period? If you were to put people into the photograph, what would they say to one another? Imagine and include a dialogue or consider being in the photo yourself; what inner dialogue might you have?
  4. What can you imagine about the place?
  5. How does this photo speak to you or impact your life today?

Remind students that there are no right answers. Encourage students to take risks and to imagine something very different from their own way of life. When appropriate, point out why someone may have a particular response because of his or her own background.

Point of View:
Once ideas are written upon the board, consider different ways to tell a story, prompted by the photograph. Again, refer to the image when explaining the following point of view options:

  1. Students may choose to be an inanimate object in the photograph, witnessing what goes on.
  2. They may be the photographer who has a different life from the one he/she is photographing.
  3. They may be a narrator to a story, which unfolds with characters and dialogue.
  4. They may tell the story in first person, as if they walked into a time machine and came into the reality of this picture.
  5. They may construct another point of view.

After completing the process of looking at the photograph, asking probing questions and discussing point of view options, the students are ready to choose a photograph and begin developing ideas for their own story. If you have downloaded images or pulled from books and magazines, give students time to look over the images and choose one photo they are most interested in exploring. Have each student go through the questions to draw from their own insights and have them choose one point of view from which to tell their story.

As students respond to the questions reiterate the importance of incorporating original detail, accessing the senses and adding visual descriptions into their writings.

Working in Pairs:
Prior to students beginning this writing exercise have them pair up and take turns telling their partner their observations and point of view choice(s). Have students who listen jot down what ideas they like or appreciate and what suggestions they can make in order for the story to have more details, a greater sense of place, more developed characters and/or a more defined historical and social context.

By the end of class each student will have:

  1. a photo selected to initiate a creative writing
  2. responses to the questions 1 - 5 (See Appendix/Samples and Activities)
  3. a decision about the point of view of their story (Handout #3)
  4. suggestions and appreciations from their partner

Day 1. Assessment: At this stage the intent is to encourage original ideas and potential. Find promising words, phrases, ideas, and unique perspectives and circle or star them. Give praise and encouragement with comments, questions, and/or suggestions. For example, "Your use of the hole in the shoe is a strong image! Have you thought of the perspective of the shoe? Could the shoe tell a vivid story of its own?"

Day 2. Activities:
Taking into account the work from the previous class, students will write their Old Photo stories and read aloud with partners or within a group for rubric-driven feedback.

Day 2. Assessment: Students can pair-up, read their stories and have their partners give feedback according to the Narrative Rubric. Assign for homework a final narrative of the story.

Final Assessment of Narrative:
Have students write their final narrative and assess themselves using the Narrative Rubric. Teachers can add their own assessment to the same rubric. Serious differences of opinion should be addressed in a conversation, writing or a one-on-one conference.

Day 3. Activities:
Technology Skills and Extension exercises:
As with all of the writing exercises, you may use students' oral presentations of their work as a recording exercise. Here are more ways to use technology and interviewing skills:

  1. Students may work in pairs or in groups to share their writings. Designate one person as the technician, one as the interviewer, one as the director and one as the interviewee. (See Chapter One, Lesson 5) After listening to a student read the old photo story have the other students develop questions to learn more from the teller.
  2. For a bilingual class you may want to ask students to translate one story and ask questions of the author in Spanish or another language.
  3. As a research project you may ask the student and/or group to find out what was going on in different places in the state or in the country while the chosen picture represents life here. This becomes an exercise in comparison and contrasting.
All of these exercises can be worked into a rotational pattern, so everyone gets the opportunity to fulfill all of the technical jobs.