I was dead certain that my 8th graders would not be able to solve this “What’s Going On With This Picture” mystery from The New York Times Learning Network. This picture was potentially so misleading from their perspective - I was sure they would jump to the obvious conclusion about epidemics given the current COVID pandemic scenario.
I shared the picture on the screen and instructed the students to spend 5 minutes quietly observing and noting down their thoughts. The driving question was “What do you think is going on in this picture? Justify your answer.”
Fathima thought that this picture had something to do with COVID. But the other students disagreed. They commented that it was an old picture - the photograph was in black and white and the cars looked old. The checked shirt was a giveaway. So were the “preppy” clothes worn by the little girls and the dress worn by the lady. I pointed to the bell bottoms the man was wearing and told the kids these were in fashion in the 70s. They guessed that the location was London or Western city. Obviously, something was wrong, because people were staring at this man! The children’s responses indicated that, they not only noticed details, but were able to extend and correlate their thinking with other learning.
The students noticed how the central figure was togged up. I explained it was a Hazmat suit, worn to protect the wearer from dangerous substances. They commented how he also had on a gas mask and his feet were completely covered. Hana wondered why anyone would walk down a street dressed like that.
Abdul Aziz thought the photograph may have been taken during the Spanish Flu era. Others countered that only the central figure was in a hazmat suit, the other people in the picture were not even wearing masks. He responded “Maybe it was the beginning of the epidemic so people were not aware.” Another student rebutted saying that the cars were clearly not from the 20’s, I told them about the Ford’s Model T which was a popular car during the Spanish Flu times, and that these cars were more modern. Izzy noticed that the quality of the picture was too good for it to have been from the 20’s. Abdul Aziz retorted that the picture might have been clicked towards the end of the Spanish Flu epidemic - and there was still some cleaning to do. The interaction showed the nascent ability to engage productively in a group discussion by challenging another’s opinion respectfully and rebutting using evidence.
But they still couldn't resolve why this one particular man was dressed in protective clothing while others were walking around normally.
Then, Izzy noticed that he was carrying something in his right hand. Sana said maybe he was looking for something. Fathima thought it was a sanitizing device and he was trying to clean something toxic. But what could be sanitised on the streets with this tiny device? Yara noticed the device was connected to the box this man was carrying. They wondered if he was searching for a bomb or something hazardous. But I queried “Wouldn’t the entire street have been cordoned off, if there was a bomb around?” They agreed. Yara hypothesized that maybe the stick was some kind of a detector. But again, what could it be detecting on a busy street that required the use of a hazmat suit? Fathima guessed “Radioactivity?”
Khalifa who had been silent so far, suddenly interjected and spoke his mind “He’s just showing a new device and getting attention!” I guess he was fed up with this mysterious fellow in the picture. I applauded his totally “out of the box” guesswork. Ziya had typed in the same guess in the chat box. Hana took up on the clue and posited “Maybe an ad!” Abdul Aziz followed up with “Maybe he’s raising awareness on government orders.” Impressive how the children started zooming in on the solution. Kids always demonstrate how they can guess and think in unstructured ways.
I asked them to think in what circumstances such suits are worn? Khalifa jumped in “Nuclear sites!” “Maybe the government wants to start a nuclear site and he is protesting” hazarded Majid. Bang on!! (Excuse the pun!)
I revealed the solution - this man was raising awareness about an upcoming anti-nuclear rally which was held in 1979, a few months after the Three Mile Island meltdown in New York. I congratulated the children on their teamwork - where they developed on each other’s ideas and smart guesswork based on solid observation skills. I was impressed that the children solved a “mystery” about an event they had never even heard about. On their part, the children said they enjoyed the session because they are forced to brainstorm, solve a puzzle, set forth their opinions and argue. A win all around!
Note : Student chosen aliases have been used instead of real names. Due to copyright restrictions, the actual picture cannot be reproduced. Instead a student drawn illustration has been used and a link to the actual picture has been provided in the article as well as below: