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Visual Literacy: Letting Our Students See the Past for Themselves

Ideas for Using Images in the Classroom

Wendy Eagan

     The Benedict Visual Literacy Collection ( defines visual literacy as "the ability to understandŠevaluate, and create visual messages." Both we and our students have grown up in a media-saturated environment, and are able to read images which would have baffled earlier generations. Our shared visual language is deeply rooted in contemporary film and television, video games and, lately, streaming video. Constant movement, rapid intercutting, and an emotionally resonant sound track characterizes much of this material. 1
     None of this, however, directly prepares students to encounter visual sources in history. The historical context and language of 19th century European daguerrotypes, 11th century Song ceramics, and 16th century Inca khipus are, for most students, utterly unfamiliar. How can we make such sources as compelling and historically resonant as, say, the iconic images of the collapsing World Trade towers? Over the past twenty years, high school and college classrooms have generated imaginative and effective approaches to deepening historical literacy. This column explores those strategies. 2
     One obvious place to start would be one of the wonderful collections of readings we can all remember from our own college or university history classes. The Human Record : Sources of Global History by Andrea and Overfield (4e) has a wonderful introductory lesson which pairs a letter from Christopher Columbus with a 16th century English woodcut depicting the peoples from the newly encountered lands to the west. Even though this is a college textbook, any secondary school teacher can adapt the concept of pairing written text with an image for student consideration. Students can use newspapers, magazines or web images to create a pairing of their own after being given a textual source from the teacher. 3
     Every textbook has selected images included in each chapter. Why not use those images as a visual introduction to each period under consideration? This way, we could encourage students to actually read and think about the captions of these images. We could even award one or two exam bonus points for responses that correctly analyze the information included in the images. We know students have different learning styles, and this approach may be an incentive for the visual learner to realize that history is not just in the words. 4
     Another way to use images for teaching cultural characteristics is through comparative architecture. Most students have a family collection of photographs or postcards. These can be collected and used in the classroom to identify the differences between private or secular buildings and official or spiritual sites. Through evaluating the nature of these structures, students learn to see certain buildings as expressions of powerful political importance (Versailles) or as spiritual icons (stupa at Sanchi). One assignment I gave to juniors in a regular world history class was to design a commemorative stamp for a nation that featured a famous building as a symbol of national pride. In one case, students designed a stamp for India using the Taj Mahal as a visual description of eternal love and gender relations. 5
     After many fond trips to exhibits at various art museums, I decided to cut up, laminate, and assemble a large collection of art posters on a bulletin board in my classroom. These images function as a wall of faces from the past. Even if students drift off from the lesson at hand they must gaze upon the visages of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, a bejeweled Charlemagne, an aging Leonardo, the stunning Nefertiti, a marble Alexander, a Japanese geisha, the formal Catherine the Great, the graceful ballerinas of Degas, or the gallant Bonaparte astride his white steed. While this may seem to be a subliminal form of teaching, most students have told me they have never forgotten Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring who greeted them as they walked in the door each day. Perhaps, one day, this image will prompt them to take their children to a museum to see the original, or to buy a novel about 17th century Europe. Such images can also be used for semester exam review or even for earning extra points at the end of the grading period. I use this board as my lesson plan for the first day of class to pique student interest for the rest of the year. After the long summer of image overload of another sort, they like the fact that they are sitting in a room with a "class picture" of the last 5000 years. 6
     I often prepare handouts for students with images from the internet or from old discarded books and ask them to compare these images. For example, students can discuss technology when comparing an interior image of Hagia Sophia with that of Chartres, or they can discuss gender roles by comparing images of the Virgin Mary with Kwan Yin. From there, I ask students to add a third image based on their own research. For example, if in class they had compared the IBM "man in the gray flannel suit" of the 1950s with the successful merchants of 15th century Florence, students must then choose a third image to complement that duo, such as the Sony salaryman of Japan. The point here is to explore what these images tell us about the societies under question, to compare the meaning of different images across time and cultures, and to discover which written sources might further develop these comparisons. 7
     If you are lucky enough to have some money to spend on instructional materials, consider "World History Unfolding" by MindSparks (for a catalog call 1-800-558-2110). These series of lessons are arranged by topic and help prepare students for essay writing. Each topical lesson has fully colored overheads, discussion questions, and follow-up activities for a variety of age levels. One lesson entitled "Nomads of the Steppes" (Volume 1: Ancient Times - 1500) includes visuals of an elaborate golden comb perhaps worn by a Scythian warrior, a lone mounted horseman against a stark Gobi Desert, an Uzbeck woman standing beside her yurt on a beautful woven carpet, and a domed Muslim mosque in Samarkand. What a wonderful opportunity to use images to compare the sedentary lifestyle of contemporary students with nomads of Eurasia. 8
     Another way of using images as a way of discovering the global past is through the exceptional work of Gerald A. Danzer in Discovering World History Through Maps and Views. This collection combines map transparency overheads with commentary that encourages teachers and students alike to rethink our views of the planet. We often teach point of view with regard to written texts, but how often do we ask our students to think of China as seen from a Japanese point of view (as they can do using map R28)? We can also use this source to have students literally cut up a world map and reassemble it along longitudinal lines to see how our point of view changes if, for example, central Asia is at the center of a flat map rather than Europe and West Africa. Equally exciting is the way our point of view changes when we see the Pacific Ocean at the center of the map (which is an excellent way to show all fifty US states at once). 9
     Finally, a favorite method of exploring the global past through images is the gallery walk method. One excellent model for this is available on the web, using Japanese woodblock prints by the masterful Hiroshige, available at The virtual visitor is shown a series of images from Japan and is then asked to answer questions about that society based on keen observation of various images that focus on human environmental adaptation. This exercise can be completed in a class period and may serve as model for future visual literacy projects for students to complete on their own. Once students have visited this site, it seems certain that they will no longer view artistic masterpieces as simple museum artifacts for adults to look at in their spare time. 10


Biographical note: Wendy Eagan teaches world history at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.


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