Tag Archives: Smithsonian Magazine

Lessons for History Teachers: How To Tell a Story Through Photos

How To Tell a Story Through Photos.

The how-to link above sparked a reflection on my part about how I can make better use of imagery in class–a challenge that has remained illusive since I started teaching.

While I use a large number of visuals in my classes, there are two things I do not necessarily do as well as I could: 1) use the images to help specifically break something down into an enlightening learning point; 2) create a narrative arc with available imagery to aid in student learning.

It is not my contention that every use of imagery in a history class should automatically accomplish those things, but I think there is real value in making use of such methods at least occasionally.  These are my reasons:

  1. It mixes things up a bit and gives the students something fresh, now and again.
  2. I sat as a TA in a history class, in which the instructor guaranteed that the PowerPoints would be available every morning before class and still watched students copy the slides by hand while the instructor covered important and interesting material to which they were not fully attentive.
  3. Engage the familiar and the unfamiliar in foreign cultures (foreign because of distance, be it chronological, geographical or both).  This can be as simple as a strange object that serves a familiar purpose or as complex as a story with symbolism that meant one thing historically and means something completely different now (i.e. the ostrich).
  4. Dale’s Cone of Experience.  Make imagery contribute to useful and usable retention!

There are other reasons but I find these most compelling.  When we get too ridgedly into a routine we can lose touch with our students, who simply glaze over or find other distractions.  But, if we occasionally take advantage of a narrative set of paintings to tell a story we can create a remarkably personal or residual experience that sticks out for the students down the road.

A guide for how people remember and how they can apply that memory.

If a concept is discussed in class, augmented by imagery and concluded with reflective class and online discussions (the latter which have the benefit of being written).  A student is far more likely to retain it and be able to use that information later–essential for successful scaffolding!

One of the ways in which images could be used better toward this end is in this post supplied above.  While it is written for photo-journalistic purposes and media, it has some useful points that history teachers can steal for their classrooms.  Some thoughts leapt to mind immediately for classroom application, covering different periods:

  • James Meredith.  I first heard James Meredith’s story when I read about it in the Smithsonian Magazine’s “Indelible Images” column, in the 2005 February issue.  He had been a serviceman, graduated from the University of Mississippi, despite gubernatorial opposition, and now he was walking through Mississippi for Civil Rights.  The featured images taken by rookie AP photographer Jack Thornell took a series of photos of Meredith walking, jerking violently from gun fire and falling to the ground.  The opportunities for a photographic narrative that I just described are fantastic for learning.  1) Service photo; 2) university photo; 3,4,5) walking and being shot in Mississippi.  The students connect to his professional military service, his hard and successful completion at a university with plenty of hostility, and finally we connect the students to his brave crusade and his wounded humanity.   A sixth photo from his hospital and Civil Rights leaders is also possible.  He would survive.  He would finish the “Meredith March” through Mississippi.  A student will not forget that moment in time even though he was not alive when it originally happened.

One sweltering morning in June 1966, James Meredith set out from Memphis with an African walking stick in one hand, a Bible in the other and a singular mission in mind. The 32-year-old Air Force veteran and Columbia University law student planned to march 220 miles to the Mississippi state capital of Jackson, to prove that a black man could walk free in the South. The Voting Rights Act had been passed only the year before, and his goal was to inspire African-Americans to register and go to the polls. “I was at war against fear,” he recalls. “I was fighting for full citizenship for me and my kind.”

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Down_In_Mississippi.html#ixzz1Dm7CmP3D

In the modern era where photography has captured so many moments, and caught them in rapid fire motion, it should not be difficult to collect images for a photo narrative–one that may even be enhanced by audio, such as speeches or radio reports.  But, going further back in time it may not be as obvious how one should proceed.  I suggest a few possibilities for story telling without photography.

  • Saints’ Lives (also known as Vitae from the Latin word for “lives”), an essential part of Christian literature, are often recorded in visual form for illiterate Christians to learn, if for no other reason–and other reasons do exist for the genre–about the examples they set.  These are not required to be historically accurate to be of value–especially when captured in pictorial form!  A good medieval art book would be a huge help, as would museums, particularly if you can visit a local museum’s library and consult with their experts.
  • The same goes for Biblical stories.  One approach would be to  analyze the artist’s contemporary culture through the presentation of such stories.
  • I already use the Bayeux Tapestry to tell the story of the Norman Invasion of 1066 in addition to various written accounts.  Part of the task is to highlight the different interpretations of the invasion and what elements are actually included in the tapestry itself.
  • Of course, there is also the use of photography/pictures from reenactments/reconstructed images, maps, portraits and images of the landscape–archaeological source may assist in this–but, it is perhaps less compelling than some of the other examples I mentioned.

View the article and see if the means and methods may in some way be applicable to teaching history!


Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

History vs. Journalism, a problem with sources

Where have all the reliable sources gone?

I love reading a well-written piece in magazines such as the Smithsonian.  These cultural catch-alls are entertaining and usually skillfully crafted prose, often adorned with fantastic photography or artwork.  Still they are not written from an academic perspective, nor typically for an academic audience.  The sources are frequently limiting in their perspective and infrequently fully disclosed.  As a historian I read many pieces with a certain sense of frustration, usually related to the author’s method.  (As a high school student, I recall being particularly fired up after reading a National Geographic article on Ibn Battuta, the African Muslim traveler who covered way more turf and sand than Marco Polo, but NO sources were provided.)  I am not entirely sure how this is played out for other academic fields, but in the field of history there are demands for disclosure of one’s sources that are not required of journalists–in fact, journalistic codes often require just the opposite: protection of one’s sources.

An "Indelible Image" in Smithsonian Magazine, a regular edition that typically interviews the individuals in the photo and the photographer about the picture.

A few years ago, I sat in the Dirkson cafeteria on capitol hill with a fellow colleague of the Close Up Foundation.  He was also working part time at one of the big box book stores and taking advantage of a book loan program they had for their employees.  Sadly, I cannot recall the title or author of the particular book he was reading, but I do recall that it was about the Bush administration’s decision to go to war.  When I asked him about it, he said it was rather odd: it was written by a journalist and had sections of dialogue in it.  Actually, it was like a running transcript of a discussion supposedly held in the Oval Office by Bush with Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.  According to my friend, there was no citation or explanation about where the script came from.  WHAT??!?  Don’t you have to at least tell me that you got it from a source you can’t tell me about?

Admittedly, journalism has changed–look at what I’m doing; journalists do it, too–but, the whole approach was always different from history.  If journalism requires investigations into current politicians, corporate heads and international politics, than sources need to be protected so that they may speak freely.  That is the theory, anyway.  I respect that, although, when the news contradicts itself as much as it does, today, it is really hard to know what is actually happening.  Historians do not need to worry so much about their sources feeling reprisal since all parties are often dead.  In fact, it is quite the opposite approach.  Everyone should have access to the source!  As I read a historian’s work I am not only at liberty to check his interpretation against the sources he used, but am encouraged to follow his sources to develop my own theories and ideas and build on our current understanding.  This is an essential feature of  the field.  It is frequently not possible with journalistic writing.  When I would desire to check a random assertion, I am left without a footnote and my only recourse is to see what others have published.  It is often difficult to get to the primary sources, because no one wants to divulge them.  All I can do is trust the journalist’s integrity and judgement!

Journalists forgetting their press badges are not "backstage passes."

It is thus difficult to do one’s due diligence.  We have an undesirable situation compounded with the withering of the newsprint industry.  Instead of reading a lengthy story with explanations and a trail building to a conclusion, most people have chosen short blurbs on TV media or snappy online sources.  I tend to ignore tweeted news without an article attached to it.

Twitter killed the newspaper star?

That explains my frustration with current news media, but it also explains one’s irritation when reading journalist-written histories.  The training creates significantly different products from a journalist than it would from a historian, but it often gets read more, promoted more and discussed more outside of academic circles.  To add insult to injury, journalists with insufficient knowledge or training often review academic history works in popular publications.  What a mess!  I don’t really have it in for journalists, but I do get frustrated with them–they aren’t historians, but they sometimes play historians in the media!


Filed under Historian's Journal