Pictures are somewhat incomplete without having a caption that goes along with it. Captions offer details of the picture by offering a unique perspective without giving away the full story. Writing captions is like writing headlines or titles for newspapers, magazines, and websites, which can be a valuable skill for students who want to pursue careers in writing, content development, and journalism. Aside from that, this activity helps students gain valuable literacy skills applicable to any major or career.
The Caption Writer Classroom Activity is engaging for all ages and skill levels, and can help improve student’s ability to understand, remember, and think critically about historical events.
The above cartoon was done in 1912, and shows Theodore Roosevelt “Harping on one string” as the title suggests. It is taken from the Cartoon Drawings: Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon at the Library of Congress. Cartoons and comics are great to use for this activity because they give just a little bit of historical context without giving the full story.
Find a primary source that is able to be interpreted in multiple ways, and not of something so obvious that all of your students will produce the same answer. The creative part of this activity comes when students have some background on the subject material and can show contextual knowledge in a very concise way.
Another good way to do this activity is to use Chronicling America. Choose a news story with or without a picture, and take out or cover up the existing headline or caption. This can be a great way to incorporate reading and writing skills into the activity. Then, after you have students create their own captions, show them the original and see how close they come.
During the United States presidential election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was nominated as the Bull Moose (Progressive Party) candidate for president after the Republican Party was dissatisfied with the possible re-election of William Howard Taft. Woodrow Wilson ended up winning the election becoming the only Democratic Party president from 1892 – 1932.
See how much background information you can find out about with just one small cartoon that hardly has any text? This is the type of knowledge-building activity that can be connected with other events happening in the same time period. For example, how did this election affect US involvement in World War I?
Give students the primary source without giving them any contextual information whatsoever, including taking out the original headline. Have students create a headline or caption for the picture you give them. Limit the number of words or characters they can use so that they are forced to be concise.
If students get stuck, give them a clue to help guide the creation of their caption. There is no wrong answer here, however, assessment can be done subjectively based off of a thoughtful response. You can also do this activity after you teach a lesson plan and assess what they learned.
Keep in mind that this activity doesn’t have to take up a lot of time, so it can be great if you are looking for a quick activity to introduce a topic or sum-up an entire lesson.
- What is the time period of the photo? Would caption writing be different throughout history? Why?
- What sorts of biases were in place during the time period that the picture was taken? What does this say about society during that time period?
- Encourage students to treat this activity seriously. They can create humorous captions if the photo allows, but make sure that they understand the value creating the caption for the time period of the photo.
- Some students will want to overwrite, so a good strategy is giving them a character length for them to abide by. Over 65 – 80 characters is typically enough, beyond that the response becomes an explanatory sentence rather than a catchy, yet tactful, caption.
- Want to extend this activity into a fuller project? Combine Caption Writer with Story Writer and have students research the primary source on the internet or in the library.
Grade Level Recommendation
- Any grade level depending on the primary source used
- Critical Thinking
- Visual Analysis
- Research [Optional]