Using Historical Images to Teach 21st Century Critical Thinking

The longer I teach, the more and more I keep changing how I teach history. Since I graduated college in 1986, a lot of changes have taken place in how history is taught and how history is learned. I have gone from crank copy machines to overheads to the Internet and much, much more. 

Here’s the thing, though. The changes are accelerating for both the students and myself. The basic outline of a lesson has not changed in the past 30 years. It always begins with an anticipatory set or hook, followed by 2-4 activities that are connected with beginning activity. What has changed is what those activities are.

I’ve gone from newspaper activities to guided reading to primary document analysis to research using encyclopedias and Yearbooks to Googling information. Educational films have gone from filmstrips and reel-to-reel to VHS and DVDs and now digital .mp4 files and YouTube. It’s been a staggering development when I look back at how I used to teach.

However, the biggest change in teaching that I am seeing in my current students is how much they are dependent on the visual image for learning. Part of it is basic neurology as their brains make multiple connections between the oral, auditory, and visual parts of the mind and in the lesson.

When the Internet took off in the mid 1990s, it changed how I taught history, found resources, and collected from the past. These include images, political cartoons, maps, and other historical documents. Over the past 24 years, the photograph or visual image has become my most effective strategy for teaching. Whether it is for review, putting pictures in a test, or for analysis, it is how the modern student learns. It is images that jump start their brains into thinking about an event and sometimes lead to empathy. They can connect dozens of facts to a single photograph if the context of the image is taught correctly.

I have written before about using images for analysis of D-Day. I have also done it with a lesson the Cuban Missile Crisis. My favorite, still, is using images of the Vietnam War. That could be changing soon as I figure out more and more ways for students to access and assess still and moving images.

Today, I wanted to share a few other examples of using images as a critical thinking tool.

The Birmingham Bus Boycott
I love teaching about the Civil Rights Movement! The images from this time in history are just so powerful. Most kids love examining them! For this lesson, I begin with a picture of MLK on a bus that is revisited several times throughout the lesson. Each time, I ask what they are talking about. The responses from the students change from brief summations of the previous day’s lesson into a full blown descriptions of the bus boycott. Rosa Parks and Emmett Till come in at some points along with a couple of cartoons as student piece together the events, basically creating their own timeline. When the lesson is over, I hand them this document. The students then use the pictures to create their own animated timeline of what happened. It provides for an interesting thought process as they try to supplant the timeline they just created with real images from the event.

After learning about the March at Selma, students look through this folder and pick ten pictures and/or cartoons. Then they rank them from 1-10 as the most important pictures of the events. It can be a very interesting discourse as they attach certain emotions to certain images. Most students tend to focus on the events on the bridge while others focus in on certain individuals like Diane Nash, MLK, or John Lewis. It can be fascinating to see not only what they learn, but who or what they attach themselves to in the process.

1970s Culture
This is probably the most fun lesson for me. After learning about 70s mainstream culture, I break things down from a national level to a personal one. Students get access to this folder to try and piece together what this person’s culture and childhood was like just based on these pictures. They use 8-10 pics to basically make a biography of that person. It almost becomes like a photo album as they have to explain what the image is and what it might represent to the owner.  When they have that done, then they compare and contrast to their own childhood/teenage years.

When it comes to these 70s pictures, it is probably the hardest one for the students to wrap their brains around until they make that personal connection.

The issue is context. Students may know mainstream culture from the readings they covered the day before, but there is no real emotion attached to anything so personal. Trying to attach meaning to something without meaning is eye opening at times. Somehow, a connection has to be made for them between their own lives and the images. A lot of lightbulb moments take place in this lesson. Teachers can adjust it for their own lives, depending on your own childhood. There are over 90 pics in this folder, plenty to get several different variations in a biography.

There is no cartoonist more associated with the McCarthy era than Herb Block of the Washington Post. Better known as Herblock, the cartoonist stood up against Senator Joseph McCarthy and his tactics in a way that many Americans easily understood. By using this Google search, students analyze the ills of that era through political cartoons. The first day of the lesson actual looks at how Edward R. Murrow and President Truman stood up to McCarthy. This webquest continues the lesson by examining the objects, words, actions and point of each cartoon as the students relate these images to what they learned the day before.

There are dozens of other ways that images can be used to instigate critical thinking. The key is for the student to somehow make connections between the image and the events of the lesson. One image can truly be worth a thousand words if the image has context and some emotional connection. Most of these lessons aren’t one-off lessons, either. They take place over multiple days as part of a bigger unit. Just like the D-Day and Cuban Missile Crisis lessons, they are a lot of fun for both learning and teaching.



The Moline Decision – John Deere’s Big Gambit

John Deere is one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world. Centered in Moline, Illinois, the company is known all over the world for its quality machines and products. However, one fateful decision made by John Deere in 1847 changed the company’s fortunes. That decision, simply put, was to move the company from Grand Detour, Illinois, its original location along the Rock River, to Moline, Illinois, along the Mississippi River. That one choice changed Deere, Inc. from a local blacksmith into a nationally known company and, eventually, a world renowned corporation.

The late 1830s and early 1840s saw rapid change in Illinois. The railroad made its way into the northern part of the state, the Illinois and Michigan Canal began construction, and Chicago was established as a city. However, the biggest change was the continued movement of the United States west. At the end of the 1830s, Illinois was still on the western edge of the formal United States. Settlers kept moving farther and farther west. By the end of the 1840s, the Mississippi River was no longer the western edge of the US, it was the jumping off point to new lands like Kansas, Nebraska, and the rest of the plains who would become states in the 1850s. If John Deere was to continue to grow as a company, it had to take advantage of that westward movement. Staying in Grand Detour would ensure that Deere would remain a local company that serviced just local farmers. Moving west, well, that was the thing to do. And, it was also a huge risk.

John Deere had a way with steel. In 1837, Deere invented a steel plow that could clean itself. This self scouring plow could rip through the thick black soil of northern Illinois prairies and not stick to the plow. The effect of that one invention changed farming in the 1830s and 1840s. Word of Deere’s magical “plough” soon spread across the northern part of the state, into central Illinois, and later Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa.

What began with one plow in 1837 soon grew to over 100 plows a year by 1843.

Deere did not have to do much advertising initially as his best source of spreading information about the qualities of his product was the word of farmers who transformed their land with his invention.

Named after a big bend in the Rock River, Grand Detour, Illinois was a nice place for John Deere to start his business. Local farmers could easily access the town and his shop was only a short walk from the river. If one were to start an implement company, there were not many better places to begin during an era dominated by river travel.

However, the 1840s saw America and transportation changing. Trains soon could move Deere’s “ploughs” faster than any river boat could. By the middle of the decade, Deere could send a plow anywhere there were tracks. However, when it came to the future of the US and farming, it was moving westward.

If John Deere was going to grow as a company, how long could Grand Detour continue to be his base?

Deere knew that he could make more money with his plows if he had access to more water, was closer to his resources, and he was more centrally located to ship his product to farmers in more states rather than Ogle, Lee, La Salle, Winnebago, and DeKalb counties.

After having moved from Vermont and rid himself of debt in less than 10 years, John Deere the man, was ready for the next challenge. But where would it be?

John Deere could have taken his plow works anywhere.

Chicago would have been a good choice with its access to railroads, the Great Lakes, and the eastern part of the country. However, Chicago lacked immediate access to the interior states in the 1840s, even with the I & M Canal in operation.

Another excellent choice, St. Louis was the gateway to the western part of the country. The city where Lewis and Clark began a journey some 40 years before had access to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. However, Missouri did not have the need for the plow as its soil was not as thick.

As for Moline, on the surface it did not immediately stand out. But once Deere started digging deeper it soon became evident that Moline was the perfect place for his burgeoning business.
1. It had a huge water supply in the Mississippi River. This water supply would give Deere the energy he needed to run his new plant and production facilities.
2. The Mississippi River also provided access to the entirety of country from north to south.
3. Demographics played a role in the decision as well. The plow itself was designed to cut through thick black soil. That type of the soil could only be found in the prairie states. Within 20 years, Deere, Inc. would make a variety of plows to cut through many types of soil, the initial plows were all about prairie soil found in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Indiana. Moline is centrally located to all of those states.
4. Last, and maybe most importantly, it would make it easier for Deere to get his own supplies. There’s just no easy way to get to Grand Detour in 1847. Locally, yes, one could get there fine. But if steel is being shipped in, it takes a while to get to Grand Detour thus driving up the price. Being on the Mississippi in Moline is much quicker, easier, and cheaper.

So, in essence, it was a major financial decisions with several factors.​

Hindsight is always 20/20. In 1847, not many understood Deere’s decision at first. It took a while to sink in.

When John Deere began the move, Moline was actually smaller than Grand Detour. The town began in 1843 and had a whopping 13 buildings when John Deere made the move. However, it had what John Deere wanted most, the MIssissippi River.

In 1848, Deere and his 16 employees made over 2,000 plows. In 1852, Deere bought out all his investors to take sole ownership of the company.

As John Deere grew, so did Moline. The town and the company soon became synonymous and even now, it is hard to separate the two. One cannot think of Moline without John Deere and John Deere without Moline. Deere’s son Charles would take over the company and expand it across the country and use advertising and branch dealerships to sell their products to the farmers all over the country.

Like John, Charles adapted to the changing times of the nation and business to keep the company moving forward.

Primary Documents
Historical Site Artifacts and Advertisements
John Deere Historical Site. Grand Detour, Illinois
John Deere Pavilion.
John Deere World Headquarters.

Secondary Sources
Journal Articles
Sutton, Robert M. “Illinois’ Year of Decision, 1837.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 1965), pp. 34-53

Bogue, Allan G. (1994). From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the nineteenth century. Iowa State University Press.

Earnest E. (1937, reprint, 1989). They Broke the Prairie: Being some account of the settlement of the upper Mississippi valley by religious and education pioneers, told in terms of Galesburg. University of Illinois Press.

Dahlstrom, Neil and Jeremy Dahlstrom. (2005) The John Deere Story: A Biography Of Plowmakers John & Charles Deere. Northern Illinois University Press; illustrated edition.

Wayne G. Broehl Jr (1984). John Deere’s Company: A History of Deere and Company and Its Times. Doubleday.

Nikolai, Geri. “Rock River Valley Insider: John Deere forged a new career in Illinois“ Rockford Register Star. July 21, 2013. Accessed online at:

“Digging John Deere.” (Spring 2009). The Plowshare News for John Deere Collectors.. Issue 15, P. 1-2.
“175 Years of John Deere.” (Spring 2012). The Plowshare News for John Deere Collectors. Issue 26, P. 1-7.

Edwin C. Rae – Monument Man: Saving Art One Piece at a Time

What defines us as human beings has always been the arts. The arts are filled with our deepest wishes, dreams, desires, and our heartbreaks. They reflect the world around us and within us. All the things that make up who were are as people can be seen in the arts.

In World War II, the Nazi Party leadership tried to monopolize art through the abduction and destruction of some of the great artworks of Western Civilization in territories they conquered. At the end of the war, it was up to men like Edwin C. Rae to go find the art, where possible, and restore it to its original condition and owner. These “Monuments Men” helped to recapture the great works of Western Civilization for future generations to understand who the peoples of Western Europe are and were.

Before the war began, Edwin C. Rae was a professor of Art History at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana from 1939 to 1942. He specialized in Irish sculpture and architecture.

Dr. Rae received his dissertation at Harvard University on the architecture of Medieval Ireland. For his dissertation, Dr. Rae traveled extensively throughout Ireland taking photographs of Irish buildings. Later, after World War II, Rae’s work on his dissertation would prove invaluable in helping to restore the great Gothic works of Bavaria.

23536_53180c556825e-imagefThe War Begins
World War II broke out on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Within a year, Germany had conquered most of Europe except for Great Britain, Spain, and Switzerland. In doing so, Germany pillaged the countries it conquered of gold and art. Near the end of the war, General Eisenhower, head of the Allied Forces, made finding this art one of the great objectives of the war.

Edwin C. Rae joined the US Army in 1942. He did not see any action, but rather he initially took out the trash. Later, he worked in the background as he helped target areas to bomb in Italy, France, and Germany to avoid civilian casualties and destroying priceless buildings of antiquity. In 1945, he was assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Branch. In his diary, Dr. Rae states his objective when he was assigned to the branch.

“August 11 – 22, 1945,
ECR instated as Chief, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Branch, Detachment E1F3 APO 658, which became on 15 Aug 45 Detachment E-201, Co. F. 3d Military Government Regiment APO 403. […] Chief concern is to regularize field reports, provide better protection and surveillance of monuments, and to reestablish the German agencies on a decent, efficient basis.”

Eisenhower and the Arts
ikes-ordersAs early as 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated the importance of securing the artwork of Italy when Allied forces invaded. To help find these works of art, Eisenhower established what would be called the Monument’s Men Division which consisted of 350 men and women working almost individually to save the art of Europe.

In early 1944, the United States felt that German spotters and snipers were using the famed Abbey at Monte Cassino to target Allied position below. The Abbey, just outside of Rome, held a special place in Italy’s heart. In order to save American lives on lower ground, the US bombed the Abbey, nearly leveling it to the ground.

Eisenhower received a lot of flak in the Italian press for its destruction but Eisenhower felt it saved lives. Still, no excuse would do for the Italian people.

For Eisenhower, it was a lesson that even though he felt he was protecting his men, his job in liberating the nations of Europe was to free the people and what the people of those nations felt what was important to their heritage. In this case, the Abbey at Monte Cassino.

Those thoughts and high ideals did not last long.

Edwin C. Rae was brought in as a spotter at this point in the war. His job was to help the military avoid targets of cultural importance. His daughter Sarah said this of that period:

At the beginning of the war, they tried to pin-point the bombs. But at the end, they just didn’t care. They did saturation bombing, which was really horrible. It destroyed a lot of originals — buildings with artistic significance just decimated.”

Eisenhower’s chief objectives had to be freeing Europe and saving soldier’s lives. The pinpoint bombing was not effective.

If Rae was to help save art, he would have to do so as an attachment that went in on the ground after Allied forces had secured an area. It would be a tough task. Once an area was secure, Rae and other Monument Men in other divisions would try to find and preserve the art and buildings as well as find hidden or stolen art.

Here are two pictures of the Abbey before the bombing and after the bombing.


Between Monte Cassino and D-Day, Eisenhower had to rethink the plan. The war came first, art came second. However, in a letter sent 13 days to commanders before D-Day, you could tell that saving the art of Europe was of extreme importance to the war effort.


Later in the War
As the war was coming to a close, Eisenhower and the US forces raced to find the art in hidden spaces, mines, trains, homes of Nazi officials and other odd places. In many instances, the Nazis tried to hide the art or were in the midst of planning to destroy it.

In the picture below, Eisenhower inspects one such place, a mine.


As the war raced to an end, the Nazis weren’t the only ones with whom the Monument Men were worried about. US forces also began to steal and damage the artwork. So enraged were several Monuments Men, that they sent off a letter to Eisenhower complaining how US forces were hampering their work to find and preserve these works of art.

This letter became known as the Wiesbaden Manifest and Edwin C. Rae is one of the many Monuments Men who attached their signatures.

Rae and the Arts
Iphoto6n addition to a diary, Rae also took photographs of the Art he found in Bavaria near the end of the war. Part historian, part artist, part photographer, Rae’s images capture just exactly what the Nazis stole throughout Europe, but also stole from their own people in Bavaria.

Wherever the Monuments Men found art, they had to place posters and guards to protect the site from looters and destruction. The poster shows the importance of protecting the art for Allied forces and the local communities.

When the war ended in Europe in May of 1945, Edwin C. Rae’s job was just beginning. He had already spent three years in the US Army and the past two searching for and finding valuable works of art. Along the way, he documented what he found in his diary and through photographs. Now his hardest task lay before him.

In Bavaria, Rae’s task after the war was to restore works of art in this area of southern Germany.

The next two years of his life were spent overseeing the restoration and reconstruction of areas that had been destroyed or damaged by American and British bombing raids. Rae received several letters of commendations from the leaders of the communities he helped to restore their heritage through the restoration of art.

Why Edwin C. Rae and the Monuments Men Matter

0006840-209x300Even though Rae died in 2003, his past and his efforts were still unclear. In 2007, the Central Intelligence Agency released some information about Nazi War criminals and the hunt for them after the war. Who should be right in the middle of the hunt for them but none other than Edwin C. Rae.

Even though Edwin C. Rae left Bavaria in 1947, there was still art missing. Rae’s diary contained entries as late as 1958 that detailed his quest for art from 1947 to 1958. As late as the 1980s, stolen artwork was still being discovered. In fact, the hunt has never ended.

In some places in Europe, there are museum walls that still have artwork missing. In Krakow in Poland, an empty frame hangs missing Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man.”

For Rae, he made the hunt for the art and the restoration of the buildings a ten-year commitment. It would be hard to imagine the loss. and the scale of that loss, as an American. Our country was only 170 years old at the end of the war. Many of the European communities Rae helped had been around for 1400 years.

Many people in America tend to forget how young we are. As a result, our institutions, our buildings, and our art are not as ingrained in our society as they are in many parts of Europe. One lesson of his time in the service is just how much art can mean to a community. Fortunately, Edwin C. Rae helped bring some of it back to life.

39414After his time in Bavaria ended, Edwin C. Rae returned home to Illinois and continued to teach at the University of Illinois for another 30 years. He enthralled students with his knowledge of the great works of Europe that he saw firsthand during his time as a Monument Man. He established the Art History Department and was one of the founding members of a national organization called the Society of Architectural Historians.

As an art historian, Rae collected images and thoughts of his travel that were donated to the University of Illinois upon his death. His dissertation work was given to Trinity College in Ireland and is now online in a display of Irish Gothic Architecture.

His work as a Monument Man, and as an art history professor, are important because of the subject matter that he helped to save and preserve. The shame of the Nazi art thefts was that it was just one person’s view of what was important in art. The fact remains that if left alone, the Nazi view of art could have wiped out several thousand pieces of art whose importance lay to only one community or a group of people.

Edwin C. Rae’s Diary
For Rae’s children, they did not know of their father’s collections until his death.

His son Thomas spoke eloquently of the importance of the work his father, Edwin C. Rae, did during World War II as a Monument Man.

“I think it takes a few decades of distance to see the magnitude of what this meant,. No, they weren’t the ones who went into concentration camps and pulled the people out to save them. They were doing something else — they were helping to restore European culture and history.”


National History Day 2017 – Taking a Stand in History

I have put off getting my students started on their projects this year. I did this for two reasons. One, I did not want to burn them out. Two, I did not want to burn myself out, either. Together, starting October 3, it begins. This year’s theme, “Taking a Stand in History,” is my favorite of all the rotating themes put on by National History Day. Whether it is Civil Rights, Communist Witch Hunts, or an airing of grievances, I enjoy reading about those topics and helping my students find and analyze the information.

Here are some topics found on this site that could possibly interest you, especially when it relates to Illinois history.

Diane Nash – She helped organize the Civil Rights Movement

The Corn Belt Liberty League – Farmers rebel against the New Deal

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Movement – Trying to stop segregated housing in Chicago

detailComic Books in World War II – They were ahead of their time when speaking out against Hiter

Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers – A war’s truth is exposed

The Blackhawk War – Sometimes taking a stand doesn’t always work out.

Curt Flood and Free Agency – Although he lost his case, future generations did not.

The Mormons in Illinois – This is another that did not pay off here, but it did in Utah.

The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County – Interesting tales of religion and politics.

The Haymarket Affair – One of my students wrote this one.

Jennie Hodgers – A local cult hero who gained the respect of her fellow soldiers

Herb Block – The master cartoonist was one of the first to speak out against McCarthyism

I am sure you can find more topics that you can make apply to the theme this year. But for me, I like these.

Going forward it should be interesting to see which topics my students pick this year. I have limited the topics to less than 20 in hopes that they pick a topic they can be successful in showing how an event changed history.


The Living Life of a Farm Museum – Now to Organize and Pass It On

Sometimes history is just weird. I spent the better part of the last two months cataloging over 1900 items of a farm museum. At times it was tedious, at times it was interesting, at times it was comical, and it times it was quizzical. When I handed the owner of the museum a flash drive yesterday, I wasn’t quite sure how we would take it. But he was pretty proud that his entire museum was on a stick about 2 inches long that he could stick in his computer.

There were many moments this summer where I really enjoyed cataloging the museum. Those were moments filled with wonder and awe at how people did things in the 1800s by hand. There were many times when I realized just how easy life is today.

Most of the museum is filled with artifacts from the 1920s to the 1940s. During this timeframe, American industrialization and American agriculture went through a major transformative change in how food was produced in this country. The museum I cataloged also contains items from before that era. The bulk of the artifacts contained reflect the change from a simpler time into a world of machinery.

I find it amazing that it used to take over 10 devices to produce seed corn and now it’s down to just a couple. Yesterday, I sat in a small rural town café/diner with the farmer for breakfast. I talked with the farmer about his museum. It is a great collection of artifacts from a bygone era. But it can be more than that.

And as I sat talking with him I wondered if I should say aloud what I was thinking. The museum is organized to some extent, but it could be organized even more. And as I thought that, I wondered if I was going to bite off more than I can chew. And what I meant was should I spend next summer organizing and making exhibits or murals like a real history Museum.

In one moment, I was both an enthusiastic and dreadful. Enthusiastic to make a mural about seed corn and the changes in production. Dreadful, in the fact that I was once again tying up my summer before it even began.
However, what I envision myself doing will allow the farmer to pass on his love of seedcorn history and agricultural history to a younger generation, and allow me to do when I love to do and that is to educate.

At first, I saw myself going to Lowe’s next summer, finding some treated treated plywood (6 foot long by 4 foot wide), and making a timeline mural. I thought four of them ought to do the trick and I could just line up the plywood and create a series of stations where the kids learn about how Ag history is evolved.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realize that the best museum exhibits are the ones that are three-dimensional, interactive, and can stimulate the brain.

It should be interesting to see what I can plan out over the next six months. I didn’t see myself getting into this as much as I did. When I told the farmer about what I got out of it, I was gently surprised at how much passion I had for his museum and the artifacts contained within.  And this is where I come in. My job is going to be to help him share his own passion and pass it along to a younger generation.

National History Day 2016: Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange – Personal Topics

Yesterday, I checked out National History Day’s website.  I got to see the logo for this coming year’s theme. And, I like it.


The 2016 theme is “Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange in History.” I like the theme because, in my opinion, it focuses on how two things interact and react to form something new or change. Sometimes, that can be a good thing; other times, not so much.

Normally, just based on a  literal interpretation of the theme, most topics would be about the 1600s-1800s exploration of Illinois. However, I think wherever you find change, you can find a topic. Wherever you find something new, you can find a topic. Exploration does not have to be a literal geographic term used to explore the earth’s surface. Exploration can take place in the mind, in the heart, and in the soul. The change resulting from that encounter can change history and how things are done. The theme can be just as personal as it is geographic.

On this site, here are some topics written about that could qualify as good topics for a project for National History Day.

1. Ernie Banks

2. Diane Nash

3. Steppenwolf Theatre

4. Edwin C. Rae – Monuments Man

5. Miles Davis and Bitches Brew

6. Civil War Medicine

7. Lincoln and the Telegraph

8. Dungeons and Dragons

9. Philip K. Dick

10. The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County

11. The Prairie Bandits

12. The Mormons in Illinois

13. The ABA-NBA Merger

14. Howlin’ Wolf 

15. Marquette and Jolliet

16. Ray Bradbury

17. Baseball and the Civil War

18. Charles Turzak

I think you can take almost any topic, research it on a personal level, and you would be able to show change between your topic and what it encounters.

It should be fun to see how this works this year.