Brooklyn Connections is the education outreach program in the Brooklyn Collection. It focuses on cultivating 21st Century learning skills in students and supporting teachers on the incorporation of archives materials into curricula. This blog post is part of a series from the Brooklyn Connections team, sharing skills and ideas for using archives primary source material in the classroom.
Archives are rich in primary sources that can be used for teaching valuable skills to our students. They key starting point to using primary sources in the classroom is teaching foundational skills of how to interact with them: making observations and inferences. An observation and inference activity is easy to plan and can act as a jumping-off point for a wide variety of other inquiry-based lessons.
To start with, you’ll need to find a primary source. We love browsing the Brooklyn Collection’s digitized photographs online; you can do this with the “Search Historic Photos” box on our website (https://www.bklynlibrary.org/brooklyncollection).
One of our favorite images for this activity is “Bubble, bubble”, from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1949. You don’t need to use a photograph; other documents can work just as well. Look for a primary source with great visual stimuli and many details that students with different interests may be attracted to. These could be the people and places depicted, or fonts, graphic design, and physical material used for creating the item.
Begin this activity by asking students what it means to make observations and what it means to make inferences. Discuss how observations are the things that we see, and inferences are the ideas we have based on what we see.
Share copies of your selected primary source with students and invite them to first make observations. Quite often, students will show a tendency to stray towards inferences: “I see a police officer”; ask them what they have observed that leads them to conclude someone is a police officer: “I see someone in uniform, and so I would infer that he is a police officer”. It can be helpful to write observations on the board, or to invite students to list them in a notebook or on a graphic organizer.
After collecting observations, discuss what inferences we can make using our observations as evidence: What do we think this photograph (or any document) is about? Why was it created? Who was it created for? Connect these inferences with prior knowledge that students may not be aware they are bringing to the conversation.
If students show an overwhelming tendency to voice inferences instead of observations at the start of the lesson, don’t interrupt the flow of their thought but instead make a list of the inferences they’re sharing. Reverse the activity by then asking students to search for observations that can back up the inferences they’ve started with.
You can conclude this lesson by sharing bibliographic information about the source – any title, creator, date, and other information you have (for the “Bubble, bubble” photograph we find this on the catalog record for the item). Discuss with students if this information proves any of your inferences correct or incorrect, and if it leaves you with any new questions.
Outcomes and Assessment
Making observations and inferences invites students to look closely and ask questions. It teaches students that any inferences are allows, as long as they are grounded in observation. And, this activity creates space for asking questions that our primary source might not answer…but that we can dive into with more research, and more primary sources, in a follow up lesson.
We love doing this activity with students (or teachers!) when we first meet them, because it serves as a terrific indicator of the language level our students are working at, and it also reveals specific interests that our students have, as they tend to make observations about features of a primary source that are appealing to them.