Investigative Question

How is our life different from those who lived in the past, and how is it the same?

Students learn about times past, especially continuity and change. The focus is to compare different times and different places and how certain aspects of life change over time, while some things stay the same. Schools, communities, and transportation of the past provide areas of study that students are familiar with in the present. Teachers may also examine such areas as work, clothing, games, and holidays to compare with the students’ lives today, using the frame How is our life different from those who lived in the past, and how is it the same? Informational books and stories such as My Great Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston can help students develop historical empathy and understand life in the past. Primary sources can be introduced by using photographs (and videos or artifacts) of schools, transportation, and clothing. Students begin the study of continuity and change by exploring what past school environments were like. Teachers guide students’ investigations of their current classroom surroundings and school culture with questions about familiar features they still share with past classrooms and how these themes continue to make up aspects of a traditional classroom while considering what aspects have changed or become obsolete.

This inquiry set explores the historical concept of continuity and change with first graders using the topic of schools. First graders have direct experiential knowledge of schools today, which can be leveraged as they learn about the differences and similarities of schools in the past. The teacher is encouraged to start with the present and ask students to observe, draw, and discuss the classroom and school they attend and capture the information in a graphic organizer that will help them compare and contrast their own school experience with schools in the past. This lesson also builds disciplinary knowledge of primary sources and how to analyze a primary source.

Some of the short informational books about schools published for young students present a simplified version of schools long ago, making statements about students walking miles to school, schools only having one room, and children of different ages in one classroom. While this information is technically true for some schools in the past, these statements are not anchored in time and geographic location. The collection of photographs in this lesson are all of schools in California and range in dates from the late 1890s to 1914, with the exception of Source 6, which shows the original Katella School in Anaheim being replaced with a larger, more modern elementary school in the same location. The photographs help students see that schools in the past are not all the same, and these differences can often be explained by their time or location. For example, some of the schools have just a few students, while others have large classes. Some of the schools have children who all look the same age (classes divided by grade), while others have all different students in the same classroom.

Teachers can begin the lesson by asking students to observe, draw, and discuss their classroom and school and then fill out the graphic organizer. As part of this activity, teachers can discuss and write down the investigation and investigative questions. The investigation of the schools in the past can begin with Sources 1 and 2. Alternatively, teachers may begin by reading My Great Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston. Although the picture book is historical fiction, the story provides excellent background information about one-room schoolhouses and what attending this type of school was like for children and teachers. Sources 1 and 2 are photographs that are similar to the school in the book, with students of different ages in one classroom, but it also shows the variation in one-room schoolhouses. Source 1 shows a segregated Chinese school with younger students in the front and the older students in the back. The school in Source 2 looks much smaller and more remote (the inside is not shown). Draw students’ attention to the different ages, sizes, and ethnicities of the students. Ask them why they think these schools might be so different.

Sources 3 and 4 were chosen as a contrast to the schools in the book and in the first two photographs. In these photos, the students all look about the same size and age. You might ask why students in these images seem to be separated by their grade level. Teachers may need to explain that this happened when towns and cities began to grow and there were enough kids to have a classroom and teacher for different grades. Towns also needed to have money to build bigger schools and enough money to pay for more teachers. Ask students to examine the furniture, materials, and the inside of the classroom. Some things are the same (teacher’s desk, student desks, and flag) and some things are a bit different (blackboard vs. a white board, little desks vs. tables, etc.). You might also ask students to look around their classroom. You can discuss this question with students: What do we have in our classroom that you don’t see in the photos?

Sources 5 and 6 may be used to emphasize change over time. The photos were taken on the exact same corner in Anaheim. Help students think about why the second school might have been built (growth in the city of Anaheim, need for more space, etc.). You may also project an image of this corner today on a Google map or Google Earth. The student will notice that this corner is right on the edge of Disneyland and that a school no longer exists in this location. Students might hypothesize or discuss why a school wasn’t rebuilt on this corner.

Using the chart included with this set, teachers and students may discuss what they learned about schools in the past and how schools are different today than in the past. Teachers may want to utilize sentence starters to scaffold the conversation, such as, “One thing I learned about schools in the past is . . . ,” or “Schools long ago were . . . ,” “One thing that is the same is . . . ,” or “One thing that is different is . . .” Students will respond to the inquiry question in writing; teachers may want to use sentence starters as well as the graphic organizer as support (scaffolding) for students.

Teacher Instructions for My Great Aunt Arizona (historical fiction) by Gloria Houston

First do a picture walk, asking students to make observations and predictions. Students should be told that this book is historical fiction, a story set in the past. The teacher will read aloud, stopping to predict, clarify, and have students pair-share about the details. Teachers and students will return to the text, looking for details about what school was like in the past, and add these details to a chart. The teacher will mark P for picture when the detail comes from the illustration.

Teacher Instructions for Analyzing a Photograph and Sentence Frames

Return to the inquiry question and discuss the fact that they have read a piece of historical fiction but that students should also look at primary sources to understand what schools were like in the past. (If teachers would like a more complete lesson that introduces primary and secondary sources, see inquiry set 2.1). Start with Source 1. Begin with open-ended questions that allow students to share what they see and to develop their questions before moving to the graphic organizer. Below are frames to discuss classrooms, the people in them, and the buildings.

Suggested Closing Activity:

If teachers wish to close this activity with a culminating writing activity, they can ask students to use details from these charts to write about schools today and in the past. Students can pull details from this chart to write four sentences: one that introduces the similarities and differences, one detail about differences, one detail about similarities, and one claim about whether they think more similarities or more differences exist between schools. Students might want to draw accompanying pictures, which could be combined with the writing and made into a class book, or their work could be displayed around the classroom.


1.4 Schools Over Time Student Handout

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.
Teachers should be mindful that students and their families come from a variety of socioeconomic, cultural, religious, ability, nationality, gender, and racial/ethnic backgrounds. Their neighborhoods and hometowns might share common cultural, religious, social, or architectural aspects with the past communities shown in this exercise. This standard will help to provide a more inclusive interpretation of what other communities might look or function like, while also helping students analyze how and why schools have changed over time.