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 These include images, political cartoons, maps, and other historical documents.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.