Academic journal article Social Education

World War I Posters: Thinking Critically about History and the Media

Academic journal article Social Education

World War I Posters: Thinking Critically about History and the Media

Article excerpt

When I first used a work of art as an item for study by middle school students, I assumed that everyone could observe a picture and start "reading" its message. But I have learned that I have to consider each student's skill level before asking him or her to answer questions about a picture. My students' abilities to analyze pictures vary just as their reading skills do.

Art and Levels of Inquiry

I begin with factual questions that do not require too much interpretation. For example: What is the woman in the picture wearing? What does she seem to be doing? What are the main colors used in the picture? I will pose such opening questions to a student who may not normally participate in open discussion, giving him the opportunity to succeed. As other students build on his answer, he may feel that he is an important part of the class and develop the confidence to answer a more complicated question later.

When textbook material and art are directly related, then students get more out of both. A student who studies a painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill may note the entrenched position of the Colonial forces and their control of the high ground, and then conclude that they are at an advantage. She can then read an account of the battle to determine if her interpretation is correct. If there are discrepancies between what students have read and what is shown in a picture, that is an interesting point for discussion.

Once students have examined the connection between the parts of a painting and historical facts, I can guide them in thinking about larger historical and social questions that might be raised by the image. Who was the audience for this work of art at the time it was created, and what were they experiencing when it was first displayed? (For example, was it an era of political stability or unrest?) Was the artist trying to convince the viewer to think or behave in a certain way? If so, how did the artist persuade viewers with colors, words, shapes, and symbols? These "big questions" do not often have simple answers, but the discussion forces students to apply what they have learned about an event, the era in which it occurred, and the social forces that were at play when the art was created.

The Students and Curriculum

I taught a unit of study about World War I using posters produced mainly by the U.S. government. I kept a record of how students responded to the lessons, which I taught at a middle school in Floral Park, New York, two years ago. (1) This school has an ethnically diverse student body. I taught the unit to five eighth grade social studies classes: two were SP honors classes and three were considered regular classes) I relied on the textbook along with several primary and secondary sources to discuss the events leading up the war and how the United States became involved. Then I spent several days focusing on the government's use of propaganda to encourage support at home for the war. Each lesson centered on a poster that dealt with a topic that the students were already somewhat familiar with from their earlier reading. Four of these posters are reproduced on the pages following this article, each with a lengthy caption that includes

* Observations about the Image

* Facts about Historical Events and Conditions

* Interpretations and Analysis

* Questions for Further Inquiry

These items suggest how a teacher could guide classroom discussion while the poster is displayed or held up.

I. Calling for War: The Lusitania

The first lesson focused on the reactions of England and the United States to the sinking of the Lusitania. I began by projecting the poster (see p. 12) on the overhead. I gave students about five minutes to study the picture and jot down their reaction to it. Jim, who is hesitant to ask or answer questions in class, volunteered the first comment: "The woman is pointing a sword at herself. …

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