Annotation: Day Three

“But,“ they entreat, “I’m a visual learner. I can’t be expected to do well with text on a page.  It doesn’t ‘speak’ to me.”  “It was cool that you rearranged the room and I could sit with my friends and I kind of even understood the annotating thing, but now we’re back to the harsh reality of being seated in rows.”

Okay.  Fine.  [Also enough with the imagined student dialogue.  Blurgh.]

Most classrooms today are tasked with creating well-rounded, “global” citizens.  If there is anything about being a teenager that screams this is a natural progression, I have yet to find it.  To be honest, how many of us were global citizens at 17?

Images and image analysis help to fill this void.  Whether you use cartoons, photographs or paintings, all of the same annotation skills still apply.  The tricky part is getting students to take image annotation seriously.  While they have been exposed to more images than any other generation it doesn’t mean they actually have any better understanding of the meaning of those images.  In order to bridge that gap here are some good image annotation resources.

The National Archives has an incredibly useful checklist and variety of information for teachers to use when working with images in the classroom.

If the National Archives checklist doesn’t work for you, start from the ground up.  Consider the following ideas:

  • Have students divide the photo into quadrants with a pen/marker.  For each quadrant have them identify an area of importance.
  • Look at color.  What is most vivid?  For what purpose?
  • Examine facial expressions, organization, size, etc.
  • What is the photo/photographer arguing?
  • What elements of the photo prove this argument?

Practice is key here.  It takes students just as much time to get comfortable with marking an image as it does with marking a text.  Keep in mind that ultimately you also want students to turn these annotations into something more. So after we practice these images annotating skills several times we add a simple paragraph response.  The key however is no personal reflection.  Here is the basic format:

Sentence #1: Identify the photograph and the argument it presents.

Sentence #2: Identify one characteristic from the image that supports this argument.

Sentence #3-4: Discuss the importance of this characteristic within the image.  Discuss how it contributes to the argument. 

Sentence #5: Discuss a second element from the image that supports the same argument.

Sentence #6-8: Discuss the importance of this characteristic within the image.  Assess the overall argument of the image.


Matthew Brady’s photo of civil war dead at Antietam argues that death during war can leave the victims without any real identity.  As you look at the photograph there are too many bodies to count.  None of their faces are clearly seen and no one can identify who they are.  Since they can’t be identified it seems as if their sacrifice is less about them as individuals and more about them as tools of battle.  The number of weapons that are present in the picture supports this argument.  Instead of focusing on the soldiers’ faces or wounds more emphasis is put on the tools of war.  Brady certainly wanted to suggest that war is not about the individual. The image itself suggest an enormous loss of life but no recognition of the importance of the individual.

Now, this is not a perfect example but it is a hopeful one.  They need a model to work with that doesn’t seem too much of their reach.  They also need to think about image intent.

Ultimately in any kind of literature or history class regardless of level, it is important to examine images that compliment the time periods.  That means Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men lend themselves to examining Dorthea Lange’s dustbowl photography.  The Red Badge of Courage and The Things they Carried  necessitate images from war. President Bush’s speech at Ground Zero and Extremely Loud and Incredibly require current images from today.  It can take hours to hunt down these images but here are some of our favorite resources.

The Library of Congress

Their catalogue of digital images is extensive and allows you multiple search specifications.  They have cartoons, photographs, drawings, even baseball cards.  You do need to limit your search parameters so that you don’t get distracted by the their vast collection.   You also need to be patient.  You will need to sort through multiple pages to find something useful.

Favorite collections include:

The National Archives

They have a useful educators’ page and extensive information on how to teach with documents.   Much of this is geared towards a history classroom and towards middle school early high school levels so some tweaking of the forms might be necessary for you.

Favorite collections include:

  • The online exhibits are a great place to start looking for images to be used in the classroom.   There are several favorites here especially the political cartoon collection.
  • The digital vault is amazing.  We’ll discuss the usefulness of that over the course of a weekend but it’s definitely worth your time to check it out.  You can create posters, movies, and pathways with documents—all rich sources for annotation.
  • Today’s document is also an amazing resource.  Launched this summer, the National Archives now post to several tumbleblogs daily.  Today’s document is the most enjoyable.

The Big Picture

This blog is run by three photo editors at The Boston Globe.  Their images are culled from a variety of sources but they are by far some of the most stunning available on the web.  It’s a great source for high interest, full color, stunning photography.  You will have to pick and choose which of the images you’ll want to use in class but  when teaching 9/11 images on this blog are very useful.

NPR’s The Picture Show

This blog focuses on giving images in “miniseries.”  For example, this month they included commentary on several different 9/11 photo series.  Everything from a view of 9/11 from different news sources to photos of artifacts that survived the wreckage of Ground Zero and the Pentagon.  The images posted on the site range from current events to historical moments to studies in race and gender.  The commentary is very useful too in terms of getting students started on discussing big picture issues.





  1. Susan Richardson says:

    Well, I promise this was already in my plans for my sixth graders! I’m using your ideas with nonfiction news stories. This year I wanted to offer my students the weekly opportunity to respond to a news article. These students haven’t reached the point in their education to know how to objectively read and respond to this genre. So we have spent these first weeks of school understanding this type of text. Now, you have posted such great ideas to expand their understanding! Today we all read the same text and used text codes to make annotations and a two column notes graphic organizer. Tomorrow I am going to use your idea of groups that can only make 3 annotations! I’m so anxious to see how the 3rd group will do because I think this will be difficult for them. They absolutely love the opportunity to “talk” about their thoughts!

    • Erin says:

      I don’t suppose there’s a way you’d be willing to share your nonfiction ideas with me? I teach 6th grade reading and am moving into a nonfiction unit soon. I’m trying to match stuff to meet the common core and need all the ideas I can get. Unless Aubry and Emily have some ideas!!

  2. Susan Richardson says:

    Well I tried it! It wasn’t pretty but I think the kids had some good discussions about what they were reading. I think they needed more practice as a group with me modeling the activity! I would do it again.

    Anxious to read about Day Four!

    • Aubrey & Emily says:

      Glad you are having some success. Let us know if you have any suggestions that you think might work better for a younger class. I’m sure your kids appreciated the opportunity to talk about the texts in a new way!

  3. [...] cover of The New Yorker is also a great resource for both teaching satire and image analysis.  See their recent cover on the [...]

  4. [...] posted on image analysis during the month of September.  Treat political cartoons similarly.  The National Archives has a ready to use cartoon analysis [...]

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  6. [...] the “Fanwich” contest from this year as well. Consider even having them do a much paired down image analysis specifically highlighting color and structure/organization.  Remember these are sandwiches so not all the same rules will [...]

  7. [...] below are some collections/tours that can be easily implemented in your classroom.  Have students annotate the images and use them to create arguments about literature’s place within the society it represents as [...]

  8. [...] Resources “Annotation, Day Three,” from Where the Classroom [...]

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