Using Visual Media to Learn about Genocide--OR--Goodbye "boring" History classes

Posted by Jack Lipinsky on April 7, 2013

In my last post I noted how saturated our students are by visual media. What a sharp contrast their lives are with mine at their age. In my high school history classes, the walls were adorned with old men, mostly with mutton chop whiskers and beards, staring down at me. Each of them had their name, dates of birth and death, and a sour stare that intimidated me when I glanced at them. My teachers reverently cited these old mens' careers and quoted them to the point of endless boredom.

Where were the 'common people' you might ask? Absent. Where were the women? Missing from history for the most part, though presumably they had a role in creating the men in those portraits! Seriously speaking, the "old style" of history (also called the Whig Version for those who love obscure phrases!), only relied on the available evidence: generally speaking, until very recently times, records come from the rich and/or the politically and socially powerful. This is a fact that our students need because it is not in their direct experience in an age of flashmobs, Instagram, and 1000 images of a two day trip--all accessible on the net and Facebook for all who wish to see.

I like to take the media literacy that our students have indirectly accumulated through their experiences and use them with images that are relevant to genocide. Since twentieth century genocides took place at the time cameras were available, there is visual evidence of these horrible events. A word of caution: I minimize my use of "shocking images" of the Shoah for two reasons. First, students have become inured to horrific images through many sources; I don't want my students to dismiss a pile of bodies bloated by disease and starvation as "just another image like the one on the nightly news." Second, some students actually over focus on the horrific and don't pay sufficient attention to the key issues of how genocides are caused and the choices people make in these situations.

Just because our students have media savvy derived through exposure doesn't mean that we have nothing to teach them. Often their approach to media is naive. Students need to learn that the camera is a propaganda tool, and that it is a very important witness to genocide. They also need to be reminded that cameras often covertly recorded genocides, and these pictures are far different from what they usually experience. It is also vital to remind students that in the past cameras were much more expensive and during a war not everyone had access to photography. They need to think about why a Nazi soldier, or a Nazi death camp doctor, or a partisan might take a particular picture. How might the varying experiences of these different groups produce very different pictures? How does the very presence of photographs change our perception of history? How does it corroborate or conflict with the written records available? All these are topics well worth considering as critical questions and/or lines of inquiry. I also remind my students of the Facing History approach to visual media: first look at the image and write what factually about what they see without any attempt at interpretation. Then look again and attempt to explain some of what they have recorded. Then they share this with one or two others, then have a class discussion in which students can come up to the image displayed on the SmartBoard or printed and attached to the blackboard to share their interpretations. This usually leads to incredible insights and discoveries.


Go to my next post and let's see how all this theory is put into practice.


Topics: History, Middle School, Strategies, Genocide and Crimes Against Humanities Course, Lesson Ideas


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