If I Taught: Social Studies

I’d have my students reverse engineer banknotes and license plates:

I’d rip ’em from Banknotes or Plateshack or wherever. And then I’d get comfortable with Photoshop’s clone stamp, removing identifying details by any means necessary.

And then I’d serve them up plain …

… and ask the students to:

  1. determine the elements that comprised the banknote or license plate (and, in the case, of banknotes, there are usually a lot of elements — historical figures, state birds, even the color scheme matters)
  2. speculate on what country/state the banknote/plate belongs to.
  3. explain each element in the context of its country/state.

I’m just armchair quarterbacking here, though.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school teacher, former graduate student, and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.


  1. Funny. I was just thinking something similar about license plates last night on the way home as I sat behind a motorcycle. They have different plates. That never occurred to me. What other vehicles have different plates? With identifying characteristics removed and only close up photos of the plates themselves, nothing to give a sense of scale or else the bike plate is easily ID’d, would students be able to say what state they are from, what vehicle they are on, or even how recent they are? This is an exercise on inference, a skill often put to use interpreting any text.

  2. This is interesting. Now if you want a challenge, what can you do with the time leading up to WWII (Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, Japanese expansionism into China, and the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact)? Because this is out of your subject area, feel free to use Wikipedia.

    I really enjoy your blog and your thoughts about teaching, and have wondered what you would do with a class like world history.

  3. @Tom, you know better than most how I’m exorcising these demons.

    @Dale, that’s a vehicle plate?

    @Paul, hey, man, handle your own core curriculum. I just take aim at the easy stuff.

  4. This made me think of:

    ‘But if I ran the zoo, ‘ said young Gerald McGrew, ‘I’d make a few changes. That’s just what I’d do…’

    and my favorite part:

    Mean shooter, keen shooter beans.

  5. What a great way to get students to think about and analyze all the cultural symbols embedded in everday objects…my wheels are already turning!

  6. You got it! Not ‘where’ it’s from but ‘when’ it’s from.

    If you can find pictures of old money, this lesson could be used for history classes too.

    Or, have the kids create their own money (or plates) for the future- maybe for a sociology class?

    I don’t know, this is out of my area. Space-time discussions in physics are a little different than they are in social studies.

  7. You might be interested in a project I’ve done over the last couple years with my Social Studies students. The students “reverse engineer” historical Cigar Boxes incorporating primary source images. To start the project off we bring in a local graphic design instructor to teach 4 basic design prinicple, which are used throughout the year. Similar concept to what you’re suggesting here.

  8. Dan, you’re right about Rhett–he’s a physics professor WITH KIDS. Other option–first grade teacher. Not.

    Neil, love the cigar boxes, any photos?

  9. @ Dan, Fair enough. (Smiles) Just mentioned that fun stuff because we have been talking about it in class. Again, love the blog and keep up the great work. Inspiring.

  10. Nice! I’ve been using ‘de-contextualised’ photos of historical events for years. Never thought of using PhotoShop to do this, but your technique could be used for anything, not just objects like money or licence plates. Take a photo that provides plenty of information about an event and simply remove stuff to get the pupils to focus on one or two elements. You could have a series of slides that add stuff back, one element at a time, allowing more analysis than if they saw the whole thing at once.

    So now I have to learn more PhotoShop…

  11. Simon, I’ve always loved using primary sources and spent 7 years as an NECC presenter touting the uses of primary sources in the classroom. Years ago I found this activity at The Lirary of Congress. (at the time it was cutting edge, now it looks rinky dink) Students look at a portion of the picture and bring their thoughts to the group. http://memory.loc.gov/learn/lessons/97/civilwar/civilwar.html

    Now it would be so easy to ‘cut apart’ scenes for analysis.