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Picturing US History: Building visual literacy

Using photos, videos, and other types of images is one of the most effective ways to hook kids into your content. Images can create emotion, explain events, generate questions, and help solve problems.

But sometimes it can be difficult integrating visuals into your instruction. What images to use? What activities work best? How can you align these activities with national and state standards?

Picturing United States History: An Interactive Resource for Teaching with Visual Evidence can help. Created by the folks at the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the City University of New York Graduate Center with funding support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the site is a digital project based on the belief that visual materials are vital to understanding the American past.

The site has a variety of tools that you can use including:

  • online “Lessons in Looking”
  • a guide to Web resources
  • forums
  • essays
  • reviews
  • classroom activities

The Web Resources page is perhaps the most useful section of the site – you’ll find tons of links that provide access to images.  The Picturing U.S. History site also serves as a clearing house for teachers interested in incorporating visual documents into their U.S. history, American studies, American literature, or other humanities courses.

The creators clearly believe that visual evidence is critical to studying past events.

Throughout American history, a vast range of visual media—from paintings and sculpture to cheap prints and cartoons—expressed ideas and opinions, defined identities, documented events and conditions, and were critical components in campaigns, debates, struggles, and movements. Like textual evidence, these historical images provide documentation about the experiences, beliefs, lives, and circumstances that compose history. And, like text, they need to be interrogated and “tested” as evidence.

I like that – “interrogated and tested as evidence.”

Get started by reviewing a series of guiding questions that help students make sense of visual evidence. There may not always be a clear answer, but the questions are meant to encourage students to closely observe, evaluate, and search out information necessary to understand the significance and meaning of an image, or set of images, in historical context. The questions aren’t that much different from those suggested by the Library of Congress or the National Archives but they provide a bit of a different perspective.

  • Look at the image – describe what you see.
  • What is most important in the image? How did the creator or creators construct the image to emphasize the aspect that you think is most important?
  • Who created the image? What medium was used (painting, sculpture, drawing, print, photograph, etc.)?
  • For whom and for what purpose was it created?
  • How did people originally see the image? For example, was it displayed in an exhibition, published in a periodical, etc.?
  • And also consider:
    – If there are other contemporary images that seem similar or refer to the same subject.
    – If the image changed over time and use. Was it later altered, edited, or cropped? Was it later used for purposes different from its original uses?


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