African American Union Soliders

Primary Source Performance: Acting Out Scenes Using Primary Sources

The picture above is from the Library of Congress Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs. It shows two African American Union soldiers, likely from the Civil War. The bibliographic page states, “Photograph shows two unidentified African American union soldiers, full-length portrait, wearing uniforms, seated with arms around each other’s shoulders, facing front.”



Choose a primary source, like the one above, that shows any number of people doing something – anything at all. The people don’t have to be well known, but should be clearly shown as being from whatever time period you are currently teaching.

Split your students into groups of three or more. Have them analyze the primary source and research the timeframe/event if needed.

Next, encourage them to collaborate on an outline of their scene. For organizational purposes, it can be a good idea to assign everyone in the group a specific task – writing out the scene, directing, acting, narrating, etc.


Classroom Activity

This activity is best done in small or large groups depending on the amount of people in the picture you choose to give your students. The idea is to have students act out a scene from before or after the picture – no longer than a few of minutes.

What they choose to act out doesn’t necessarily have to be completely true, however, it should have some basis in historical context so that the students are learning what is happening in the picture, what led up to the picture being taken, and what happened after.

Encourage students to dive into the themes of the primary source. Sure the picture is from the Civil War, but do these two men want to go to war? Were they forced? Do their faces suggest they have already been to war? Do they have families that they miss from back at home? What type of dialect would they speak in? Are they friends, brothers, complete strangers? These types of questions will help them create a rough outline or screenplay of their scene and may lead them into unexplored territory.

If the students decide to act out what happened before the picture, have them end their scene with the exact setting of the picture, and signal the audience that the scene is over by exclaiming, “Click!” If the students decide to act out what happened after the picture was taken, have them start their scene with the setting.

Even if the exact details of the picture aren’t explicitly clear, you can allow the students to make some educated guesses and have artistic freedom with what is happening in the picture. This is especially helpful when the focus of the picture is a well known person in history. For example, if you used this picture of Woodrow Wilson, you could make some assumptions about what he is doing – maybe he is reading the paper after the announcement of his presidential election for his first-term, perhaps he is analyzing a map, or filling out the crossword puzzle before meeting with world leaders at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919.

Remember – Creativity is key!


Key Questions

  • Does the primary source suggest anything to the student?
  • Why was this picture taken? Who was taking the picture?
  • Don’t just ask questions about the people in the picture. Are their families standing outside of the frame? Is their children (im)patiently waiting outside playing in the lawn? What led them to take this picture in the first place?



  • Keep in mind that even though there might be only one person in the picture, students in the group can still act out historically relevant people, objects, etc. that might have been there at the time of the picture. For example, family members, allies and enemies, etc.
  • This can also be done with a primary source text. If done with a text, students can act out the scene using actual quotes from the text given as well as adding in their own depictions of the scene that they gather from primary source.


Grade Level Recommendation

  • High School, Middle School, Elementary


Skills Used

  • Creativity and Imagination
  • Adaptation of Historical Context
  • Research and Analysis


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