As mentioned, I teach high school social studies. And while I believe that the arts belong in every classroom, a social studies classroom is the ideal place to mix the contents. After teaching history for twelve years, I have found that one of the greatest challenges is forging a personal connection between the content and the student. We are asking students to connect with people and events that took place 5, 10, 100 years ago, and that is a tall task for any person. This, I believe, is often what perpetuates the thought of history class as "boring." We must endeavor to present history in such a way that it appeals to as many of the students' senses as possible. When thinking of the way that art can help achieve this, I am often reminded of this quote from the artist Mathiole:
History shouldn't be studied by merely looking at or reading words; it should be experienced, through the photographs, the paintings, the music, etc. of those who lived it. By using those mediums to study, one can begin to "touch" history, and perhaps even understand it, if not empathize.
I have to admit- photography is one of my passions. Ever since I was exposed to the great Robert Frank collection, "The Americans", I have been convinced of the power of the photograph. And as a social studies educator, I have come to believe that this medium is among the foremost of ways to not only present content, but to present the message of an event, the emotion of someone directly involved. For example, when discussing the Great Depression recently, I could have had students simply read about a young woman named Florence Owens Thompson, and some undoubtedly might have learned something about the reality of life during this dark period of American history. But instead, I posted the more famous picture of Florence on the projection screen as students entered the room, and asked them to infer what they saw and to describe the emotion seen in the photograph.
When one combines the story with the photograph, something changes...something becomes more real. And that is the power of art. As the quote says, art can convey something words cannot. Words can state that the Great Depression was difficult; this photograph proves it.
A favorite way for us to combine the arts and our content is through what I call a "photo essay". It plays on the traditional essay, a written work in which a message is relayed or an argument made, and one in which evidence must be given to support said point while considering the importance of flow in writing. When discussing events like the Progressive Era and the era of Vietnam, when a history teacher is trying to convey to students the difficulties of industrial life, the sad realities of child labor, the experience of the American soldier, or the passion of protest here at home, reading or lecturing about it will not do alone. Students need to see the evidence. The challenge is quite simple- choose a focus, select appropriate pictures, make sure to cite the source, and arrange the photographs in such a way that a point can be made, a message conveyed. When looking at photographs from the Vietnam Era, students can choose the perspective of the American soldier, the Vietnamese soldier, the photojournalist, the protester, among others. When done well, the student work is powerful, and the experience is that much more real.
Last year I made the decision to finish up the year by encouraging the students to take this experience to the next level. Up to this point students had been using someone else's photographs; I wanted them to tell a story using photographs that they had taken. For our focus I blended this push with our efforts at including state history into the curriculum, and thus challenged the students to answer the questions "What is Indiana?", "What is a Hoosier?" through photograph. I gave the students categories to include, and made sure to include student choice in the assignment. And the results were amazing. With a topic like Indiana, to be sure, there were a lot of corn fields, barns, and basketball goals. But there were also fantastic photos taken of favorite places for the students when they camp or kayak with their families. There were photos of basketball goals that had been installed by their great-grandfather on an old barn. There were photos of old trucks that had been used on their family's farm, but were now collecting dust in the barn. In short, it was the most fun I had ever had grading. And the stories the students' told...what a joy it was to see these kids grow in their appreciation of their state and community, to have spent time with their family and friends. To view a a short video, linked to QR code in my classroom, that highlights a few exemplary photos which are hanging in the room, follow this link.
In short, there is nothing that we teach that is not made better, richer, more real through art. At a time when the arts are seemingly being pushed away, it is up to teachers to keep their vital influence in our classrooms. Our kids deserve it!