Use Pretty Pictures!


There’s Johnny again, browsing through Chapter 14 during your class discussion of Chapter 9. He is not reading the words; he is looking at the pictures. No Johnny anywhere has ever idly flipped through his textbook reading paragraphs here and there, ignoring the illustrations until an arresting passage directs his notice to the nearby images. Pictures capture attention as words seldom do.

My last blog post, How the Textbook Knows, introduced primary sources, which are the writings, artifacts, and other sources of information about the past that come directly from the past. Although these are powerful learning tools, they are often dusty, arcane texts that must be carefully introduced to be accessible to students. But photographs, paintings, drawings, sculptures, posters, maps, tools, buildings, music, and other artworks and objects can also be primary sources, and these tend to grab students’ attention immediately.

My favorite trick for finding images of these primary sources is to go to the Wikipedia article on the subject at hand. Skip the text of the article and look at the pictures, not unlike Johnny. As with anything from Wikipedia, pay attention to the sources of the information you find, follow links to sources whenever possible, and evaluate the information for accuracy. When you choose something to share with your students, be prepared to provide context and invite observation.

Here are two images that I found in the Wikipedia article on China’s Qing dynasty. Below is a French political cartoon from 1898. From what point of view was this cartoon made? Who do the figures represent? What are they doing, and to what historical events do these actions correspond?  I’ve used this one in class many times in lessons on the relationship between Western powers and China around 1900, and it never fails to provoke discussion.

The same set of questions could be asked about the next cartoon, the work of Chinese revolutionary Tse Tsan-tai.

Whenever I teach about medieval Europe I look forward to talking about Gothic architecture and its reflection of the medieval worldview. Here is a photo of Amiens Cathedral, found on the Wikipedia page on Gothic architecture.

Attrubution: Tango7174, Picardie Amiens2 tango7174, CC BY-SA 4.0

I ask students to imagine walking into this cathedral. Where would their eyes instinctively travel upon entering the building? How would it make them feel? What would it make them think about?

You don’t need to mine every image for deep insights. Toss a few onto PowerPoint just for illustration and fun, which these images from the Wikipedia article “History of the United States” will surely provide. Sometimes the insights will flow, too.

An 18th-century map showing the territory of the Iroquois

An early 19th-century camp meeting

The transcontinental railroad is completed, 1869

A New York City street, circa 1900

Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators face military police, 1967

President Ronald Reagan speaks at the Berlin Wall, 1987

A final note: Be sure to observe copyrights and use attributions properly. Nearly all of the materials found on Wikipedia are free for us to use in our classrooms. All of the examples in this blog post are in the public domain in the United States except for the photo of Amiens Cathedral, which, like many such files, is under copyright but may be freely used under a Creative Commons license. Such images must, however, be properly attributed to give credit to their creators and fulfill the terms of the license.

This is a daunting, thorny subject, but in the process of writing this blog post, I found this handy attribution generator that makes it easy to ensure that you’re properly using and attributing images. For more information on these issues, see this page at the Wikimedia Commons as well as this helpful chart.

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