Integrating Art & Media in History Instruction

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore some of the important things to remember when deciding to incorporate art or other media into your classroom instruction in a history course.

Art and Media in History Instruction

Everyone has had a history period or two in high school or college where the teacher came in, rubbing sleep out of their eyes, and popped in a movie on Abraham Lincoln or the Revolutionary War. Some of your classmates likely took the opportunity to have a snooze. Perhaps the teacher provided a worksheet or an assignment based on the film afterward.

This all too familiar episode does not have to be how media is incorporated in your history class. In fact, the incorporation of art and media can enrich your students' learning experience and aid them in understanding the complex social and cultural facets of different historical periods. In this lesson, we will explore the best ways for including art and media in history instruction.

Choosing Pieces

Which artistic pieces and which videos you choose to use in your classroom are incredibly important. Be sure to choose art, sculptures, or buildings that illustrate an important concept from the particular period you are studying.

For example, the heinous images of Jews depicted in Nazi propaganda can be instructive of the virulent hatred and anti-Semitism that was rampant in pre-WWII Germany, while ancient Greek sculptures of heroes and gods can exemplify the heights of ancient Greek culture and their idealization of the human form.

Choosing movies can be a little trickier. If choosing films to present as a product of their period (such as To Kill a Mockingbird to depict racism in the 20th-century South), then you can follow similar guidelines as those for art above. However, if choosing an informative movie intended as a companion to, or replacement of, a lecture or lesson, you must be very careful. For example, its best to avoid Hollywood films altogether because they often bend or break the historical truth in order to add drama to a particular story.

Instead, focus on either documentaries or series that are made for television and feature the work of actual historians. Sample the films created by PBS and other educational organizations. They often produce documentary films that are either written by, or in concert with, professional historians - they may be a bit less exciting than the Hollywood product, but your students will get more accurate information.

Using Art/Media in Instruction

There are several avenues available that can adequately incorporate art and/or media into your classroom instruction. Let's take a look at a few of them.

Hold a Class Discussion

One of the best - one which will encourage critical thinking, debate, and social skills among your students - is classroom discussion. A classroom discussion revolving around a piece of art (or movie being used as a period piece) can aid your students in discovering the links between art, culture, society and historical events.

Some great discussion questions that can jump start or help create an engaging conversation are:

  • Why do you think the piece was created?
  • What does the piece tell us about the society in which it was created?
  • What was the artist trying to accomplish?
  • For what audience do you think the piece was intended?
  • Was the artist saying anything in particular about the culture or society in which he/she lived?
  • Is the piece a product of the culture and society in which it was created or a critique of that culture/society?

The answers to these questions - and more importantly, the other questions that arise during the course of your discussion - will help your students make connections between art, society, culture, and the dates that they read in their history textbooks. It can help add color and substance to the nameless dates and facts they read about.

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