HM - Sept. 2013 - Brugar

Classroom Applications

Teaching Interwar Intersections Through Analysis of Visual Material
Kristy A. Brugar, Ph.D
Wayne State University

In the Fall of 2012, I served as the Education Specialist for an NCHE colloquium at the Carter Center in Atlanta with Chris Brick and a fantastic group of history teachers from DeKalb County, GA.  The focus of this colloquium was the interwar period.  In thinking about this time period of United States history, teachers compartmentalize information into large categories – economics, politics, or society, to name a few.  However, in an effort to move past the methodological separatism Brick describes, there are ways in which teachers can have students examine the intersections of these larger categories.  One way to do this is through investigation and analysis of the Works Projects Administration (WPA).

There is a rich collection of primary source materials, textbooks, trade books, websites, and other audio-visual materials that are accessible to students and teachers to explore the interwar period and WPA materials. Many of these resources include visuals, which can play a valuable role in engaging students. Visual images present opportunities for students to demonstrate skills and to acquire content knowledge in a different way from written texts.  Because visual materials play a central role in the classroom it is important that we prepare our students to engage critically with these resources. Through careful, well thought out use of visual material, teachers can provide students an inroad into historical study and practice in critically reading a type of primary source, thus preparing them to meet the rigorous demands of historical study and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
The Library of Congress has a large collection of Works Projects Administration (WPA) posters.  The materials in this collection were created from 1936 to 1943 and represent activities/programs around the country.  The online repository of this collection is divided into several sections including, but not limited to, community activities, cultural programs, education, and health and safety.  I will describe classroom activities, which can be done with representative posters from these sections.  These activities can be done as singular lessons, or as a collection of lessons.

Community Activities and Cultural Programs
Under the heading of “community activities” and “cultural programs” the Library of Congress includes posters about pursuits and projects ranging from public concerts to reading initiatives.  Thus, there are many posters that may be relatable to middle and high school students.  One approach history teachers can use to integrate these posters, and visual arts in general, is described in “VisualThinking Strategies: Understanding the Basics.” (Housen and Yenawine) Visualthinking strategies (VTS) involve a teacher-led discussion with students about visual materials. Students are asked three basic questions:
  1. What's going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?
In responding to these questions, students must make observations, provide explanations, and give interpretations. Using these skills, students develop and acknowledge various points of views.
First, select and display a poster (example Figure 1).  Next ask students to make observations of the poster by asking, “What do you see?” Students may respond with things like, “snow,” “January,” “books,” or “a little house.”  Then ask students, “How do you know?”   This question prompts students to provide evidence associated with their observation. Students may respond with such comments as “We live in Michigan and it is usually snowy in January.”  Finally ask the students, “What story or information do you think the artist is trying to tell?”  Students will provide their interpretations of the poster based on the observations and evidence, such as “Since it is cold in January, it might be a good idea to stay inside and read a book.”    

HM 9-13

Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Education and Health and Safety
The education and health and safety-themed posters have relevance to the daily lives of middle and high school students.  These posters address issues from nutrition (“Eat Fruit, Be Healthy” and “Milk for Health”) to creating community study groups.  Because many of the poster topics are relevant today, these posters can be used as an opportunity to compare past and present.  Have students select a WPA poster and ask them to find a poster, advertisement, etc. about that topic today. Then students complete a simple t-chart (Table 1) comparing past and present.

Based on the poster and our study of this topic, what do you know about this topic?  List responses below.
What do you know about this topic in the United States today?
List responses below.
How are these perspectives similar?
How are these perspectives different?
To begin, display a collection of the “travel and tourism” posters around the classroom.  Then, have students participate in a “gallery walk” during which time they are asked to note or map the locations of the various sites depicted in posters.  Finally, ask students to discuss the following question:  What locations are depicted?  Why do you think these locations were selected?  Based on what you know about this time period, what evidence do you have to support these beliefs?
Across Topics
For this activity, students will work in small groups around a collection of posters to conduct historical inquiry (see Handout, Appendix A).  Levstik and Barton (2010) suggest teaching students to engage in “doing history” or historical inquiry. Historical inquiry involves (1) asking historically based questions, (2) collecting and analyzing a variety of evidence, (3) identifying significance of evidence based upon inquiry questions, and (4) putting forth historical interpretations. 
To begin, ask students to make a hypothesis about this guiding question: “What was life like in the late 1930s in the United States?”  Next, present small groups of students with a collection of three to five WPA posters.  Ask students to observe (using VTS) and take notes on each poster in light of their guiding question.  Then acting independently, students should address the guiding question using the posters as evidence in their response – first in an outline, followed by a draft.

The use of visual material offers an opportunity to engage students in meaningful investigations and explorations of the interwar period through social and cultural lenses.
Appendix A
Historical Inquiry
WPA Posters

Prior to the Investigation:
What was life like in the late 1930s in the United States?  Write a short hypothesis.

Posters Task Notes
What do you see?  What do you think the artist is trying to tell you?
Does this support my hypothesis?   Explain.
 Poster #
Poster #
Poster #
Poster #
Poster #