Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Why Photographs?

“Young Learners are visually oriented, so it’s clear that photographs offer teachers a real opportunity. Beyond giving detail, depth, and context to each course of study where they are deployed, these images draw students in, excite them, and carry a lot of the pedagogic load.”

Essential Lens Advisor, Gary Nash, Ph.D. UCLA, Emeritus
Past Director, National Center for History in the Schools (1996–2012)

Since its invention in the early 1800s, photography has fascinated us (see History of Photography). Photographs have changed the way we see ourselves — and the world. Whether a creative expression, a captured moment, or a deliberate document of a time, place, or event, images give us a way to see things we may otherwise not see — especially if we take the time to look closely. Take historical or microscopic photographs, underwater photos, or pictures from space. In all cases, they allow for individual interpretation and discovery. Photographs also contribute to our memory of the past, because we often remember them visually. By taking time to look more closely at a photograph and analyze all of its features and attributes, the opportunity for deeper engagement and understanding exists. Photographer Louie Palu notes in the video Witness: “A lot of people say a photograph is worth a thousand words. I like to think of a photograph as being worth a thousand questions. And what those questions spur is a thousand conversations.“ Photographs continue to fascinate us, whether it is a historical photo, a new discovery, or the one we took today.

Why Essential Lens?

Frances Benjamin Johnston with group of children looking at her camera. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-120447)

A multidisciplinary resource for middle and high school teachers, Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum seeks to inspire teachers to use photographs and photographic ephemera with their teaching, and provides practical methods to facilitate the use of these materials in classroom settings across disciplines. Teachers acknowledge the value of photographs and other media resources for providing students with multiple access points to understanding course content.

We live in a world where photographic images of all kinds are available at our fingertips. Essential Lens, however, seeks to provide collections of authentic images that are copyright cleared, along with analytical tools for teachers. This will help students gain an awareness of the multiple contexts, interpretations, and implications of photographic production, dissemination, and display.

Offering users one platform through which to access all resources and tools (videos, curriculum, photo archive, and additional features), Essential Lens relieves teacher time by addressing concerns about copyright and usage issues, while building professional knowledge and awareness of image resources, and how those images can be used and analyzed to encourage deeper learning.

The primary goals of Essential Lens are to:

  • Inspire teachers and students to value photographs, photographic ephemera, and digital images to enhance student experience and learning.
  • Build teachers’ and students’ confidence in analyzing and contextualizing photographs.
  • Empower teachers to guide students’ use of photographs as evidence.
  • Enable teachers to research and identify photographic resources for further use.

Essential Lens introduces teachers to the richness of photographs as curricular tools. Concise background information and detailed thematic classroom activity plans support a variety of student interactions with photographs and photographic ephemera. A guide to researching photographs and a glossary provide further support for curricular planning.

Because of the increasing role of photographic images in our everyday lives, as well as the ever- growing number of images available online, more teachers are seeking ways to integrate images into their curricula; however, they often face challenges in identifying, selecting, and integrating them into lessons and activities. This resource helps teachers overcome barriers to using photographs, including:

  • Lack of time to create new teaching materials that use new technology
  • Lack of knowledge and awareness of existing digital image collections, and how the collection or its individual images can be used
  • Complexities with navigating and identifying authentic and quality source materials
  • Lack of clear copyright and usage notices

Developed in response to such barriers, Essential Lens has gathered experts in the fields of science, history, literature, and photography, and created this multimedia resource that includes:

Collections with Classroom Activities

Each collection is a self-contained series of lesson activities that guides students’ thinking and, at the core, promotes critical thinking. The collections may be used in their entirety or tailored to fit with teachers’ existing lessons.

Each activity includes:

  • Background on the topic for teachers
  • Essential questions and key learning targets
  • Photographs that have been vetted and are ready to use in the classroom
  • Extension activities for students
  • Questions to consider and other student prompts to promote classroom discussion, and tips for teaching with and analyzing photographs
  • Additional resources for clarification and further study

The collections were not developed to be comprehensive. Rather, they are a model for how to best incorporate photographs into teaching strategies. They are focused and thematic explorations of photography’s contributions to a particular historical, social, and scientific area. The collections illustrate photography’s instrumental use as evidence, and suggest how photography has the unique capacity to expand our knowledge. Background information for the collections informs teachers about the content, and allows students to be ready to examine the photographs and understand what they are observing.


The Butterfly Nebula (NASA/ESA/Hubble)

Five videos introduce users to the ways photographic images impact our lives and what we know about the world and its history.

A Closer Look follows Dr. Makeda Best as she works with teachers, modeling the step-by-step Focus In method for analyzing photographs. Dr. Best helps teachers think about students’ interactions with photographs, and demonstrates prompts for engaging students and integrating photographs into the classroom. A Closer Look is a helpful video to view first, as it provides the basis for further study.

Witness, Lives, Evidence, and Story offer rare glimpses into the inspirations, processes, careers, and perspectives of individuals from a range of fields that extensively use photography in their professional work. Compelling onsite interviews illustrate the impact of photography on individuals, societies, knowledge, and the course of history and science.

Focus In Feature

The Focus In feature outlines a step-by-step process to analyzing photographic images by using select photographs from the collections. Complementing the A Closer Look video, Focus In explains analytical concepts, and demonstrates key vocabulary through detailed discussion of specific aspects of selected photographs. It provides a strategy for examining a photograph by looking closely at particular areas of the image. Students learn to observe, follow up, make inferences, and ask questions by using a photograph from each of the 12 collections. The skill and thinking needed for this type of analysis is transferable when focusing in on other images and sources.


All of the images from the collection activities, and select images from the videos, are available in a searchable archive. All images are copyright cleared and ready to use in the classroom. The archive can be searched by collection, video, key terms, or specific archive item numbers.


Essential Lens includes a glossary of key photographic terms. Teachers can refer to the glossary as they use the Essential Lens resources. In the classroom, teachers can introduce these terms to build student vocabulary and descriptive skills.

Guide to Researching Photos

The guide includes researching tips for making the best use of online collections from a variety of sources, and also a primer for clearing rights and using photographs in the classroom.

Additional Photograph Resources

Essential Lens has gathered a comprehensive list of online sources with vetted and ready-to-use photographs for educational use. These sites help educators who seek quality, copyright-friendly materials, as well as additional educational materials. Most of the resources listed provide copyright-free or public domain materials.

How Was Essential Lens Developed?

Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center. (Dorothea Lange/U.S. National Archives)

The advisory board comprises a professional photographer, a photo editor, a museum curator, middle and high school teachers, and professors who represent the fields of English, history/social studies, biology, earth science/geology, life science, and art history. All have worked to guide the creation of the collection topics and activities, the videos, and all other relevant content. Collections are linked respectively to Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, the Next Generation Science Standards, and the standards from the National Center for History in the Schools and themes from the National Council for the Social Studies.

The 12 collections represent a broad range of multidisciplinary content. Advisors identified subject-curricular themes that could be enriched by the introduction of photographic-based lesson activities, which connect to commonly taught curriculum in middle and high school. Advisors sought to expand teachers’ opportunities to explain, contextualize, and bring alive a particular era, theme, literary text, or scientific concept for their students. Classroom activities provide clear concepts for teachers to engage students with the images and to think critically about them and the topic they are studying. In using photographs and photographic ephemera as forms of primary source materials, and by examining images closely and discussing them using the activities presented on the Essential Lens website (and as PDF downloads), teachers and students will be able to articulate how and why the photographs have deepened their understanding of course content.

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