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Exploring the Past
Lesson Overview

(Click here for a printer-friendly version of this lesson.)

Grades 2-4

Two 45-minute class periods

In the 2010 series FACES OF AMERICA, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. provides celebrity guests with information about their ancestry, based on documents, photographs and other materials from the past.

This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson will challenge students to gather clues about the past through photographs, drawings and other primary source materials. In the Introductory Activity, students will work together to gather information from photographs. In the Learning Activities, students will explore video segments from FACES OF AMERICA and discuss how celebrity guests gained new insights into their family history through the help of primary sources. In an optional activity, students can learn about the Chinese tradition of preserving family histories and can also create a project to record important events in their own lives. Students will also examine American Indian Winter Counts and compare how individuals used images to record important events. For the Culminating Activity, students will chronicle important events in their week through the use of drawings.

Social Studies; American History

Students will be able to:

• Explain what type of information we can learn from photographs;
• Draw conclusions about people and places from the past, through exploration of photos;
• Explain how people can learn more about their family history through the use of historical records;
• Describe how American Indians used drawings to describe important events;
• Explain the meaning of at least three Lakota Winter Count drawings;
• Describe what a Winter Count is and explain how American Indians used images to describe and record important events;
• Chronicle important events in their week through drawings;
• Create a journal, scrapbook, photo album, website or other project to preserve important events in their own lives. (Optional)

History Standards for Grades K-4

Historical Thinking
Standard 1/ Chronological Thinking:
The student thinks chronologically; therefore, the student is able to interpret data presented in timelines.

Standard 2/ Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources; therefore, the student is able to draw upon the visual data presented in photographs, paintings, cartoons, and architectural drawings in order to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate upon information presented in the historical narrative.

Standard 4/ Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research; therefore, the student is able to obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films; and so on.

Content Standards
Topic One: Living and Working Together in Families and Communities, Now and Long Ago/ Standard 1B: The student understands the different ways people of diverse racial, religious, and ethnic groups, and of various national origins have transmitted their beliefs and values; therefore the student is able to explain the ways that families long ago expressed and transmitted their beliefs and values through oral traditions, literature, songs, art, religion, community celebrations, mementos, food, and language. [Obtain historical data]

Topic Three: The History of the United States: Democratic Principles and Values and the People from Many Cultures Who Contributed to Its Cultural, Economic, and Political Heritage /Standard 5A: Demonstrate understanding of the movements of large groups of people into his or her own and other states in the United States now and long ago. Therefore, the student is able to draw upon data from charts, historical maps, nonfiction and fiction accounts, and interviews in order to describe “through their eyes” the experience of immigrant groups. Include information such as where they came from and why they left, travel experiences, ports of entry and immigration screening, and the opportunities and obstacles they encountered when they arrived in America. [Appreciate historical perspectives]

FACES OF AMERICA, selected segments

Clip 1: Yamaguchi Photos
Kristi learns about her father’s parents through photos.

Clip 2: Journey from Jamaica
Poet Elizabeth Alexander learns how her grandfather came to the US from Jamaica.

Clip 3: Ma Family History
This segment explores Yo-Yo Ma’s family history and how it was preserved.

Access the streaming and downloadable video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.

For Learning Activity 1:
Lakota Winter Counts: An Online Exhibit
This online interactive exhibit, on the National Museum of Natural History’s website, enables users to explore traditional Lakota Winter Counts.

For the class:

• Computers with internet access for the Winter Count Activity in Learning Activity 2 (Note: This activity can either be conducted with one computer or by dividing students into small groups and using multiple computers.)
• Computer, Projection screen, and speakers (for class viewing of online/downloaded video clips)
• “The Past through Pictures” Game (download here) (See “Prep for Teachers” section for details.)

For each student:

• “My Week in Drawings” Organizer (download here)


Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments used in the lesson. Download the video clips used in the lesson to your classroom computer, or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

Explore the Lakota Winter Counts: An Online Exhibit website to familiarize yourself with its functionality and content. Bookmark the website on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location. (Note: You may conduct the Winter Count activity on one central computer in your classroom or on multiple computers, where students can work together in small groups. Bookmark the website on each computer you plan to use for this activity.)

Print out “The Past in Pictures” Game, making enough copies so that each pair of students has one of the cards. Note: There are 12 cards per game. Therefore, if you have 24 students or less, you will need one set of game cards. If you have more than 24 students, you will need enough cards so that each group gets one. Feel free to omit some of the cards, as desired. However, if you use one photo in a category (such as “weddings”) make sure to distribute the other photo in that category so that students may compare and contrast the two photos.

Next: Proceed to Learning Activities

Lesson plans for FACES OF AMERICA were created by the LAB@Thirteen, Thirteen’s Community and Educational Outreach Department.

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    Thank you for the great lesson plans. I love that you have the links to the videos included. The game with the photo’s will be great for comparing the past with the present.

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