Using Images and Film

I’d like to frame this blog post based on the questions I answered for my entry titled “Teaching History Today.” In answering these questions again, I will apply the use of images/film to lead students to deeper historical inquiry and discovery.

1. How do I make history relevant to students?

I believe that images and films are vital components of teaching history. Never should they drive the content; however, they can be used to spark intellectual inquiry and to analyze and provide sub-text, text, and context. Images and film can also be used to make history relevant to students in ways that lectures and readings cannot. Aside from the fact that many students are visual learners, images and film can also complement content and inspire critical thinking when compared, contrasted, and discussed. It is for these reasons that I use many images in my courses — and see media as valuable on multiple fronts as primary sources, as case studies, and as part of a more comprehensive presentation of content.

2. How do I make teaching history interdisciplinary?

While I cannot assess my effectiveness as a history teacher who approaches teaching from an interdisciplinary perspective, I can confirm that I strive to teach history this way. At some point in each U.S. history unit the class has a lesson on the era or period’s art, music, science/technology, and primary video clips (when applicable). For example, when I begin teaching Manifest Destiny our first lesson involves analyzing paintings related to the theme including Gast’s American Progress among six others. I use the lesson as a jumping off point for the unit. In terms of film, when studying the Cold War I use video clips of “Duck and Cover,” “Red Menace,” and 1964 campaign ads as part of our content. For our unit on the Civil War I do a lesson called “God is on our side,” and the classes analyzes and listens to several Civil War era songs. We begin with the lyrics and then move to performances of the songs by various artists and groups. Songs include “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and “Lincoln and Liberty” among others. One final example of interdisciplinary teaching is during our study of the Gilded/Progressive Era where students, in groups, each choose a discipline-based theme and create a historic newspaper with articles written by the students that reflect issues relevant to that time period. So in many ways, the use of images and film in my class are what makes my teaching history more interdisciplinary.

3. Why do I teach history, and should the method matter?

I will repeat the first part of my answer from the original post and then apply the use of images/film to the second part of the question.

“The first part is easy. I love it. The most consistent feedback I get on evaluations, going back 15 years, is that I am passionate about what I teach.”

Absolutely the method matters. Perhaps more important — effective and varied methods matter.  It doesn’t matter if you use primary sources if you don’t use them in a way that influences and increases student learning. Dr. Caldor, in his theory of “uncoverage” mentions that in trying to redesign his course he taught one semester with primary sources, hoping that this approach would transform his classes and lead to greater historical thinking. He admits it was a failure, painful, and was in some ways more dry than just lecturing. Varying pedagogical methods and using them effectively lead to student engagement and it is only when students are engaged that deep and critical learning can take place. Films and videos are keys to creating a pedagogical “tool bag” that can enhance such student engagement.


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