Kathy Hays, BHP Teacher
Arizona, USA

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. This was especially true when I shared the La Carretera Photo Essay from Unit 9 of the BHP course with my students and engaged them with the Highways and Change activity. The activity asks kids to interpret the extent to which the Interoceanic Highway, which connects the east and west coasts of South America, was a positive or negative development. While intrigued by the idea of having students interpret the incredible images in the photo gallery, some complex themes are surfaced and I was a little nervous about their social maturity. I invited students to come in for two lunch periods as an experiment, and I was pleasantly surprised.

The only instructions I gave students was for them to write down their first impression and a Big History connection that each photo brought to mind. The photo captions were not shown, and I deliberately avoided sharing where the photos had been taken. After going through the entire photo gallery, students shared

Coast to Coast: Monte Reel’s trip from São Paulo, Brazil, to Lima, Peru, a journey of over 3,000 miles across plains, through the Amazon basin and over the Andes. Map courtesy NYTimes.

I shared the story behind La Carretera, and then projected a map of the highway route. Students were asked to identify positive and negative impacts the highway might bring to the region. Then, we went back through the photos, this time with the captions and a Big History lens, focused on the positive and negative impacts of the Modern Revolution. The students’ reactions ranged from shock at the haunting images of child labor, devastation of the environment, and use of mercury, to wonder at the cultural traditions and economic development along the highway. They began to ask questions about the long-term impact the highway might have on the environment and economy, and how cultures might change, for better and worse, as a consequence of the construction.

We completed our second look at the photos and I asked students to think about what a photo essay of their community would look like. We’ve been on a little “Hamilton” buzz at school, so we started talking about the significance of the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Many wanted to incorporate families, food, and traditional celebrations. Some thought it would be interesting to show the similarities and differences between neighboring communities. Others wanted to select one area or street and show how it has changed over time. The possibilities seemed endless, as was the enthusiasm for taking the photo essay to a smaller, local scale. Some students decided to tell the story of their community through their photos, illustrating in a few images what it takes many words to describe.

I posted a few of their examples in the BHP Online Teacher Community, and invite your feedback and conversation!

About the author: Kathy Hays has been teaching for 30 years, and teaching Big History since 2015. She teaches five BHP classes a year, and so reaches about 130 ninth-grade students. Her school is on a semester schedule with daily 52-minute periods. Kathy’s favorite thing about teaching Big History is the opportunity to learn with her students!

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