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Seeing History: On Using Images in the History Classroom

As teachers, we want our students to know the truth, to the fullest and deepest extent they can, and this is just as true within the study of history as it is in math, science, philosophy, or theology. But while some other subjects can be experienced in real time, history is gone, often long gone, and students can have a very limited context or framework within which to place particular historical events or figures. Put another way, they have a hard time seeing the reality of the history they are studying: it is either imagined falsely within the context of their own present-day understanding of reality, or history just remains abstract—stories about people who have been dead for centuries and have nothing to do with life today. So, what can we do to both show students the reality of history and to engage their interest in the subject matter?

Primary sources are key in that they bring an actual piece of the time period to the student. Primary written documents are helpful, but even more effective are images and artifacts because they engage multiple senses and further help a student to see the reality of history. By having our students frequently and meaningfully encounter images of the people and events we are studying, we allow them to enter into that time period, to connect with it, to think about it as it actually was, and to understand it more deeply.

Using images, we are also better able to tap into our students’ imagination. In the first place, it is easier for a student to use his imagination and to think about a topic when he has seen the subjects for himself, and thus, he is more likely to exercise that imagination. Secondly, because he has seen true historical images, his imagination of the people, places, and events will be more faithful to the reality of the time in question. If we are able to engage a student’s imagination in this way, and if we can do so with accurate representations of the history we are studying, we will not only be providing our students with greater access to the reality of history, but we will also make it more interesting and memorable for them.

How Do I Use Visuals?

Different types of visuals will be available, or unavailable, depending on the particular time period and subject of study. For instance, video footage of anything before the 1900s will not be a primary source, but could still provide a thoroughly-researched, historically accurate picture of events – it’s just even more important to vet such resources carefully. But class images don’t need to be audio-visual, or even time-period photography. Photographs of artifacts, sculptures, paintings, buildings, or any other image connected to the subject can be just as useful.

For my own class, a seventh-grade study of the American Civil War, World War I, and World War 2, I am fortunate to have access to a wealth of photographic, and, for the World Wars, video primary sources. And while WW2 still looks fairly modern to students in the 21st century, trying to teach a true understanding of any of these periods would be futile (and a lot less fun) without recourse to images. Before showing students what life and war actually looked like in the 1860s and 1910s or even 1940s, they have almost no basis for understanding either time period – and why should they when these conflicts occurred decades and even centuries ago?!

Here are a few of my favorite ways to use images in my history class:

The American Civil War

William T. Sherman

Some of the most intriguing topics of the Civil War, for me, revolve around the question of leadership. Why did the Union go through so many generals while the Confederacy’s leadership remained fairly constant? What were the relationships like among the generals and between generals and political leaders? Even the immediate cause of the War can be traced back to a question of leadership with the election of President Lincoln in 1860. Given the importance of these figures, I spend a lot of time with the boys examining the personalities and histories of men like Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant in uniform
Major General Ulysses S. Grant

One of my favorite lessons involves setting portraits of Generals George B. McClellan, U.S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman in a row and asking the boys to describe the persons and personalities they see. Seeing the proud, manicured, Napoleonic McClellan, the melancholic, humble Grant, and the anxious, intense Sherman, all side by side, is a great primer for studying the differences in leadership between these three and to set up a study of their actions in the war. I return to these portraits throughout the unit, hanging them on walls and cork board displays in my classroom, to help tell the stories of these men, their armies, and their roles in the War.

George McClellan
George B. McClellan

Being fought over 160 years ago, the Civil War may seem practically ancient to modern students. After all, most soldiers were still using muzzle-loading muskets! Showing the physical realities of life as a Civil War soldier allows us to better understand and imagine the time period, and we can do this by bringing real or replica uniforms, firearms, ammunition, and other pieces of a soldier’s kit into the classroom. At The Heights we are fortunate to have an alumnus who participates in Civil War reenactment, and who has visited the school to present his gear and explain the history of his unit to the boys. Having the students see his uniform and flags, to hold his musket and other pieces of his kit, and to watch and listen to him load and fire, gives them a great sense of the sights, sounds, and even smells of the Civil War. When we couple that classroom experience with our annual field trip to Gettysburg, and have the boys gaze across the mile-wide field of “Pickett’s Charge” and show them the canister shot that faced the men who made that harrowing advance, when we have the boys stand on Little Round Top and survey the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge as General Warren did in July of 1863, the Civil War becomes both more accessible and more memorable for even the least “buff” history student.

A Civil War Re-enactor Visits the Middle School

“The Great War”

My personal favorite conflict to teach and study each year is the First World War, and this preference was galvanized several years ago with the release of Peter Jackson’s documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old. Never before had students of WWI been able to see and hear the training, the combat, and the aftermath of this tremendous conflict, until Jackson created this hugely important piece of historical research. With the exception of a few minutes of content that is explicit for its mentions of brothels, or simply for showing the brutality of war in detail too intense for young viewers, I play this film from start to finish in my class. Nothing is better for both teaching the truth of soldiers’ lives during WWI and for grabbing the attention of a young male audience.

Two Soldier in the Trenches of World War I
Two Soldier in the Trenches of World War I

As is true with all of the conflicts we study, war paraphernalia is a great resource, and it’s worth the effort to get your hands (and the students’) on time-period weapons or equipment. But one thing that I think the First World War is unique in, at least compared to the Civil War, is the advent of mass-produced war propaganda. The lesson that gets the highest rate of student participation in my WWI unit is our analysis of propaganda posters from the various belligerent nations. Through these posters, my students learn not only the details of particular events, like the sinking of the Lusitania, or the Treaty of Versailles, but also about lesser discussed topics like life on the home front and military recruiting. Ultimately, after they learn more about the subjects of these posters in context, I can also help my students step back and think critically about the motive of the artist, his intended audience, the symbols used, and the overall meaning of the poster.

World War 2

If World War I is unique for its propaganda posters, the Second World War must be noteworthy for its combat photography. What was likewise used as propaganda by Hitler, Churchill, and Roosevelt, provides us with priceless looks into the horror and heroism of the most destructive war in history. With the sheer volume of photographs available, it is easy to construct a World War II lesson based on a series of images from the subject event.

I use the powerful images of the Second World War especially when it comes to teaching D-Day, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. With regards to D-Day and the invasion of France, one of the things that many veterans of that epic campaign recall is the sheer magnitude of the operation, one which boasted the largest armada ever assembled, and which was the largest amphibious invasion ever attempted. Without any sense of scale, these are just words for an adolescent student. But seeing photographs of the Allied fleet, the landing craft full of soldiers, and the airborne troops preparing to board their planes and gliders, students can begin to understand the enormity of D-Day, both in size and in significance.

An iconic D-Day Shot

I use the same technique for one of my lessons on the Holocaust, but with a slight variation. While with D-Day I use photographs to help narrate the invasion from the planning stages all the way up to the landings and beyond, I use photographs from the Holocaust and the concentration camps to narrate the experience of the victims, from their initial arrest, through their transportation to labor and extermination camps, and their life, and death, in the camps. Seeing images of German officers at the gates of Auschwitz sorting prisoners into groups of those fit to work, and those sent to die, images of the countless personal items like eyeglasses and suitcases taken from prisoners, and images of emaciated survivors liberated by the Allies, brings home to students a powerful truth and a reality that not even the most detailed and realistic of historical narratives can. And this power, accessed through photographs and used well by the teacher, can instill in students important truths about the dignity of human life and the danger of demonizing those who think or believe differently than we.

There are a number of maps and diagrams I use to teach the dropping of the atomic bombs and the subsequent end of WW2, including maps of the island-hopping campaign that got the U.S. within range of the Japanese home islands, a map of the flight paths of the Enola Gay and Bockscar, and diagrams of the mechanisms of the bombs themselves. These provide background and detail that are essential for the students’ understanding of the events of August 1945. But once again, nothing brings to light the destruction wrought by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki like photographs of the explosions and their aftermath. I particularly like showing such photos while telling the story of Dr. Takashi Nagai, a pioneering radiologist and convert to Catholicism who survived the bombing of Nagasaki, and who went on to help Japan rebuild and heal through his medical expertise and writings. Dr. Nagai’s whole story is told in the awesome book A Song for Nagasaki, by Paul Glynn, SM. Through the combination of biography and photography, my students get a clear picture of the human toll of the atomic bombings, both for the individual people of Japan, and the country as a whole.

The Walls Can Teach

Along with the images that we use to structure and enhance our lessons, we can use the physical space of our classrooms to instruct and to form our students. The Heights has a long tradition of using classroom decor as a tool to serve our mission: the formation of young men fully alive. This has famously been done using harpoons in the Upper School classroom where Moby Dick is taught, but also throughout the Valley classrooms, and in the sixth grade homerooms, where boys are brought into the life of American frontiersmen of the 18th and 19th centuries within classrooms full of animal pelts, mounted deer skulls, traps, and other tools (some home-made by past generations of students).

My own classroom is decorated using several different images and items relating to military history. The corkboard display has a prominent American flag and a rotating collection of portraits and posters. During our Civil War unit I hang the aforementioned portrait of Grant, along with President Lincoln, and Generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. While studying World War 1, the board is covered with American recruiting and fundraising posters from the 1910s. And when we move on to the Second World War, the posters make way for some of those powerful photographs of the monumental events from the European, Pacific, and North African theaters in the 1940s. Throughout the year the back wall is adorned with a line of barbed wire, hearkening to “No-Man’s Land” of WW1 and the POW and Concentration Camps of WW2. Again, all of these images and items serve as tools during specific lessons, but also as aids to help the boys consistently enter into the time periods and conflicts we study.

Equally as important as immersing them in the subject in pursuit of truth, both the images from our lessons and those hung on our classroom walls should serve another role of our work as teachers; to inspire our students to live well. By teaching the boys about these great struggles and by introducing them to some of the many heroes and heroics of these wars, I hope that I can inspire them to strive toward the same valor, the same determination, the same self-giving love that drove men from the 1860s, the 1910s, and the 1940s to lay down their comfort, and their safety, and often their lives, in service of their fellow man and their country. 

And so, I try not to just tell the boys these stories once, maybe review them for the test, and then leave them; I try rather to surround them with the stories through the art and artifacts in the classroom. Hopefully, with both the one-off lessons and the constant images, the boys will learn both the truth of the history of the Civil War and the World Wars, and the truth that they are called to live heroically themselves.

Helpful Resources

The American Civil War

American Battlefield Trust –

The World Wars

Imperial War Museums –

National WWII Museum –

Further Reading

A Song for Nagasaki – by Paul Glynn and Shusaku Endo

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon – Heights Books Review (recommended 13+)

About the Author

Kyle Blackmer

Seventh Grade Core, History
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