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Visual Literacy: Letting Our Students See the Past for Themselves: The Power of the Image in High School Textbooks

Wendy Eagan
Walt Whitman High School

    In September, when high school students first gaze upon the covers of two new textbook editions they immediately get a visual sense of some of the cultural aspects of a world they are about to study. The vivid yellow and red cover of Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler's World History displays an Ife terracotta head so beautifully crafted that many students will mistake the image of an African male for that of a female.1 This is only the first of many teachable moments possible with this book. Meanwhile, the breathtaking white marble of the Taj Mahal is mirrored in a reflecting pool and set against a serene blue background on the cover of World History: Patterns of Interaction.2 The photograph of the tomb, dedicated to the memory of Mumtaz Mahal, is topped by a variety of visages including Nelson Mandela, Caesar Augustus, and the sublime Nefertiti, introducing students to some of the powerful individuals who have preceded them over the recorded past. This edition also ensures endless visual possibilities. Once learners actually open these books, many opportunities await the instructor wishing to let students see the past for themselves.
    Authors Ellis and Esler incorporate images of all varieties throughout World History. There are many special features which are of high interest for all levels of learners. Once students turn to the Table of Contents, they are visually introduced to comparisons of a statue of a Spartan women athlete and a photograph of Mother Theresa, the physical environments of Machu Picchu and Mongolia, as well as skilled needlework which depicts Norman longships crossing the English Channel on the Bayeux Tapestry or the delicate ornamentation on Catherine the Great's dress. In the Skills Handbook Section, six steps are outlined for the analysis of the many images which follow on each page of the text. These useful prompts regarding content, purpose, context, etc., lead to critical thinking skills which are very similar to standard procedures for the analysis of textual documents. In the same section, detailed images provide a geographic tutorial the majority of students need in order to analyze the maps vital to a keen understanding of global events. Diagrams explain the concepts of latitude and longitude, the revolution of the earth, and commonly used map projections. This is an excellent feature for those students who do not have recent formal geographic instruction, or for the new teacher who needs a quick lesson plan.
     At the beginning of Unit I: Early Civilizations or Unit 7: The World since 1945 two-page full color maps depict, respectively, the physical borders of the earliest and most recent societies students will encounter each semester. Maps such as these are wonderful for either preview or review. Every page of each chapter has a plethora of portraits of significant individuals, charts and graphic organizers, political cartoons, cultural artifacts, illustrations, posters, and paintings. Even reluctant learners will be interested in the Humanities sections where they can see Greek actors in character masks, Japanese male onnagata impersonating female characters in the Kabuki, English actors in the round and open stage of the Globe, and the "Three Tenors" heroically singing opera. Infographics take all students on immediate fieldtrips to see Roman mosaics, Sepoy rebels, the revolutionary priest, Father Hidalgo, intricate samurai body armor, and an ancient unwrapped Egypt mummy - always a curiosity for learners. This visually stunning edition has 1169 pages of beautiful, informative and enticing visual opportunities for teacher and learner alike and which warrant much further study and discussion.
    Users of World History: Patterns of Interaction likewise have many special features to choose from when wishing to visually stimulate and instruct students. Students will see multiple images which preview each chapter in the Table of Contents and then immediately turn to a Rand McNally World Atlas section which provides current physical and political data for any nation under study, followed by a series of historical maps. Some of these maps are excellent for comparative purposes, such as "Africa about A. D. 1400" and "European Partition of Africa: 19th Century." These two side-by-side maps allow students to determine aspects of 500 years of change and continuity quickly. The Interact with History section begins each chapter with visual clues to intriguing questions concerning the ways the Iceman would have used the tools found with his frozen body, whether silk or gunpowder would be more helpful to Chinese society, the pros and cons of Louis XIV's absolute power, or the dilemma of appropriate African responses to European imperialism. This is an excellent combination of textual questions and visual clues to introduce each chapter that can be used as a warm-up activity, allowing students to immediately discuss possible answers. History Through Art sections effectively introduce images showing the combination of bronze and brass technological skills of the people of Benin, the famous Italian couple of Mona Lisa and David, the syncretism and cultural blending of Mughal art, and dazzling cave paintings in Argentina and Algeria along with those found in the more famous setting of Lascaux, France. 4
    Another feature entitled Global Impact appeals to high school students by using skull and crossbones icons in a chart reflecting the numbers of deaths due to the Bubonic Plague, clearly illustrating the state of the art technology of John Kay's flying shuttle, photographs of mask-wearing Chicago municipal officials during the influenza epidemic of 1918, and Elvis and Bono making musical history. Social History features pages filled with images ranging from gymnastic bull leapers on Crete to a Tang or Song Chinese typesetter making choices between two tables holding up to 60,000 characters, or to an elite British family dinner table set with pewter tableware and the pomanders filled with spices they held to their sensitive noses to avoid the aroma of garbage littering the streets of London during the Renaissance. Students will surely laugh at "old- fashioned" electric washing machines from the 1930's, pre-Starbucks early 20th century glass coffee pots, and a 1929 Frigidaire wrapped with a bow for a lucky mother on Christmas morning. 5
    An excellent visual comparative feature called Comparing and Contrasting is located at the end of each unit for helpful review. Classical societies like the Olmecs in the Americas, the Han in East Asia, and the Guptas of South Asia are summarized here with maps, timelines, and images of rulers. In addition, the major trade routes such the Indian Ocean, the Silk Roads and Trans-Saharan routes are located on a single map and are followed by several pages of images of the dhow, compass, and astrolabe which facilitated the trading of silk, ivory, and porcelain. Analyzing Key Concepts assists student comprehension of such terms like mercantilism, culture and globalization through a combination of illustrations, diagrams, tables, and graphic organizers. These 1105 pages of full color visual source material are a vast improvement over textbook choices just ten years ago.
    All in all, these two texts provide the type of visual historical clarity many current teachers wish they had seen in their own books while they were sitting in high school classrooms years ago. Individual instructors may have a preference for one of the textual approaches of these editions over the other, but everyone should be satisfied with the visual opportunities provided by both for a variety of high school students and their learning styles.
Biographical Note: Wendy Eagan teaches world history at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.  


1 Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler, World History (Boston: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.)

2 Roger Beck et al., World History: Patterns of Interaction (Evanston: McDougall Littell, 2005)


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