Saturday, November 14, 2015

Examining Historical Photographs with Your Head and Your Heart

          Reading Dorothea’s Eyes, a picture book biography by Barb Rosenstock, reminded me of how emotional response seems to have dropped out of the conversation about reading. In our urgency to promote reading comprehension and vocabulary development, we seem to have lost sight of why we read in the first place: to learn information and to respond emotionally. Dorothea’s Eyes can help us begin to restore emotional response—our feelings—back into the conversation.  This book offers many openings for discussion:

·      It’s a picture book that introduces children to the work of the outstanding photographer Dorothea Lange, who took to the streets to photograph good people facing hard times. Her photographs of people during the Great Depression of the 1930s and her photographs of Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II are iconic—they evoke the tensions of the times. They are memorable. What do your students learn from these photographs? How do the photographs make them feel?
·      The book maintains a clear, consistent focus, namely that Dorothea Lange saw the world with her mind and her heart. Her photographs detail a real historical context with caring and compassion. The author of Dorothea’s Eyes states, “Her heart knows all about people the world ignores.” Six of Lange’s well-known photographs are included in the book. These include “Migrant Mother” and “White Angel Bread Line.” It’s not too early to share these compelling photographs with children and discuss when and where they were taken. Discuss feelings these photos evoke.
·      This book can jumpstart conversations about “facts” and “feelings” about the past—something I have long considered essential in learning history.  It’s not enough to know about the past. We also need to care about it.
            If you want to build on this idea of examining historical photographs with children, follow up with Gordon Parks: How the photographer Captured Black and White America by Carol Boston Weatherford.  As the author tells us, his photograph called “American Gothic,” helped viewers see “the contradiction between segregation and freedom.” This happens only when we see with our minds and our hearts.