School Begins

Mystery Photo: A Student’s Window Into History

The Mystery Photo is one of the common classroom activities we like to share with our TPS workshop attendees. It is very easy to implement in any classroom and gives students the opportunity to engage with history outside of their textbook.

Plus, it can truly be adapted for any subject, whether it be history, social studies, science, or anything else. The key is to find the right primary source!



Find a primary source that goes along with a lesson plan you are just beginning to teach. Take out all indications of what the picture literally represents, but leave in the subtle hints that point to historical context. This is good for assessing student’s prior knowledge as well as providing a perfect teaching moment.

The image above is entitled “School Begins” and is great for broad lessons plans about the late 1800s and early 1900s because it attempts to handle a number of issues that were important at the time, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, bringing in new US Territories, race discrimination, the after effects of the American Civil War, and Native American assimilation through education.


Classroom Activity

Give your students the source and have them go through the Observe, Reflect, Question Primary Source Analysis Tool. Don’t let students skip ahead. Make them separate their thoughts into each of these sections and then at the end you can bring it all together. The magic of this activity happens when students are able to connect their observations with content knowledge.

To get the students out of their seats and engaging with one another, break them off into groups and give each group three different colors of sticky notes. Have students write down their Observations, Reflections, and Questions individually on the sticky notes, and then get them to put the sticky notes up on a section of the blackboard/whiteboard labeled accordingly.

This activity can also work well after you have taught a section but haven’t introduced them to the primary source. Doing it this way is a great for testing content knowledge outside of the textbook. If done with a source that has a wide array of topics, like School Begins, you can assess how well students were able to digest and understand an entire semester’s worth of content.

We also created a Prezi for the School Begins image you can use as well.


Key Questions

  • What makes this source important? Why this and not something else?
  • What are the major themes of the source? Do they have any relevance today?
  • Who is the main figures in the source and why are they important?



  • If they get stuck and after having analyzed the source on their own, give them the bibliographic page as a hint into the source.
  • If you want to integrate a research aspect to this activity, don’t research the primary source before giving it to your students. Get just a broad context for the source, and that’s it. It can be very engaging for students to find out why the source is particularly important if you do this step together. And you can teach them research skills as well!
  • Focus particularly on the contextual aspect of the image and push students to question things they don’t understand.


Grade Level Recommendation

  • Any (Depending on the source)


Skills Used

  • Critical thinking
  • Visual analysis
  • Spatial reasoning
  • Collaboration


Helpful Links

6 thoughts on “Mystery Photo: A Student’s Window Into History

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.