HM - June 2016 - Odonnell

Classroom Applications


How to Use Images to Teach History

Edward T. O'Donnell
College of the Holy Cross
Worcester, MA

We all know that today’s students are visual learners. When effectively used, images can become foundational tools for the teaching of history. Images, after all, are primary sources. They can bring to life a historical topic’s essential content and draw out the critical questions, concepts, and ideas of a given historical era. Students who develop enhanced visual literacy skills come to see that properly analyzed, a picture is worth far more than the proverbial “thousand words.”

But how do we translate this concept of visual learning into a concrete pedagogical strategy in the classroom?  About a decade ago, I endeavored to answer this question by developing a technique for effectively using images to teach history. It’s called and it’s designed to be both simple and adaptable. I’ve introduced it to thousands of teachers in hundreds of professional development workshops and have heard countless stories of how they have implemented it with students as young as first graders and as old as college seniors. Others have reported success with ELL students and students with various challenges related to reading, attention, and engagement.

So how does work?  Let’s begin with some broad guidelines. 

Presenting an image to your students– When first presenting an image to your students, it is best (in most cases) to remove any key information such as a title, caption, date, and name of the creator. Doing so encourages your students to focus on the image and its details to discover its meaning and significance. After the students have had sufficient time to discuss their interpretations of the image, provide them with the withheld information. You might consider doing this in stages, beginning with the date. Each time you provide a new piece of information, ask your students how it changes their conclusions about the image.

Step-by-step analysis– Distribute an image to your students, or project it onto a screen, and ask them to do the following (individually or in small groups) using the method:
S scan for important details – students often direct their attention to the most dramatic or seemingly central aspect of an image. For example, when shown a lynching photo, students inevitably focus on the mutilated body. We need to help them see more—to note the smiling faces in the crowd, the public square setting, and the presence of children and prominent citizens. To accomplish this goal, provide students with ample time and urge them to compile a list of significant clues, details, symbols, colors, characters, and layout choices. Ask them also to identify things they don’t understand.

I identify the conflict or tension – what problematic idea or controversial issue is being addressed in the image? Sometimes the conflict or tension is obvious, as in the case of a 1912 political cartoon that opposes women’s suffrage. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like a Lewis Hine photograph of a young child laborer standing amidst a vast complex of industrial machinery. In other instances, the conflict emanates from beyond the image and its creator, as in the case of the criticism by many African Americans over the depiction of a kneeling slave in the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument (1876).

G guess the creator’s intent or message – what is his or her opinion? What is her or his goal in creating this image? For example, if they are examining an 1850s drawing of a slave auction, they should speculate on the artist’s position on the slavery question. Is the artist an abolitionist? A defender of slavery? Neutral??

H hear the voices – many images present scenes where dialogue is taking place. Ask your students to consider the ideas, issues, problems, controversies they are discussing. Have them speculate on the attitudes and opinions being voiced. When using an image where no dialogue takes place, ask your students to consider what some of the characters in the scene are thinking.  Or ask them to consider the voice of the creator. Ask them to write captions that express these unspoken voices.
T talk about your observations – students should discuss their findings among themselves and then report back to the whole class. The teacher should facilitate this discussion, compiling ideas on a board, while gradually leading the students to the answers. The teacher might do this by gradually providing key details of the image like the date, title, and caption.
A variation to consider: instead of focusing on a single image, distribute to groups of students 4-5 images related to a specific topic but representing different perspectives. For example, for a unit on the Cold War, you might use a poster for the film, “I Married A Communist” (1949), a political cartoon critical of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a civil defense pamphlet on how to prepare for a Soviet nuclear strike, and a photograph of a 1950s Flag Day ceremony.  These varied images will introduce the students to some of the many conflicting perspectives on the Cold War. This version of S.I.G.H.T.tmalso opens up the opportunity for students to teach each other and to work on developing their oral presentation skills. The teacher can ask each group to stand before the class to report their findings regarding their image, including their deliberations on certain details and proposed interpretations. To encourage maximum participation, you might consider establishing a rule that each member of the group is required to say something in this report.

Research – using the information about the image you have provided (the date of the image, the name of the person who created it, the context in which it was created, etc.), your students can conduct further research into its origins and historical significance. For example, after studying a few of Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Japanese internment camps during World War II, students conducting additional research would discover that her opposition to the internment program shaped her choice of subjects and symbols in her photographs. This follow-up research has the additional benefit of showing your students how to find and use other visual primary sources on their own.

Create links between images and written primary sources – pairing images with written primary sources can be a very effective way to draw out the key ideas in the latter. For example, presenting Paul Revere’s drawing depicting the Boston Massacre in conjunction with written primary source documents about the event will help students understand more fully how and why some interpreted the incident as an example of rising British disregard for the rights of American colonists.

Other image-related activities
1. Simulations and dramas – ask your students to develop a simulation based on an image or set of images. For example, using photographs of lunch counter sit-ins from the Civil Rights movement, students could take on the roles of the various figures involved to explore the different sides of the controversy. Teachers might want to provide some related written primary sources to inform the students’ knowledge of their characters.

"The Friendship Nine"
January 31, 1961
Getty Images

2. Short writing assignments – ask your students to respond in writing to a historic image. Such an assignment might be as small as asking students to write a caption for an image, or it could require more detailed and extensive analysis. Consider how this form of low stakes writing might engage reluctant students or students with learning challenges.

3. Image essay projects – ask your students to create an image essay on a given topic such as slavery or immigration. Require them to find a set number of images to explore the key dimensions of a historical issue. Teachers can determine the appropriate amount of writing to accompany this assignment that could range from providing basic captions to an overview essay and extended captions.

Note: In all of these exercises, it is essential that students distinguish between images that are primary sources – that is, images produced in the period being studied – and images that represent imagined recreations of historical events. There are many paintings, for example, of the Trail of Tears, but all of them date to the 20th century. The latter are not necessarily illegitimate, but they should be used with care.