I recently visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art located in Washington D.C. to see the exhibit “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” on view until September 29th. The exhibit is on tour, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Its overview description states:
“Images recorded by more than 280 photographers, from 28 nations, span 6 continents and more than 165 years, from the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s to present-day conflicts. Iconic photographs as well as previously unknown images are featured, taken by military photographers, commercial photographers (portrait and photojournalist), amateurs, and artists. The exhibition examines the relationship between war and photography, exploring the types of photographs created during wartime, as well as by whom and for whom. Images are arranged to show the progression of war: from the acts that instigate armed conflict to “the fight,” to victory and defeat, and photos that memorialize a war, its combatants, and its victims. Portraits of servicemen, military and political leaders, and civilians are a consistent presence.”
The exhibit was fantastic. It stimulated a mix of emotional and intellectual responses: beautiful, sad, horrifying, motivating, agitating, challenging, clarifying… The combination was something I wasn’t expecting. One section of the tour was overwhelming and I had to leave it for a moment to recenter. The exhibit. I thought, was leaving its mark upon me.
Numerous images continue to reverberate in my mind and remain vivid memories. This was my favorite picture - A wristwatch frozen in time, 11:02 a.m. marking the explosion of the Nagasaki Bomb on August 9, 1945. It was found under a mile from the explosion’s epicenter. Chilling.
So how does this relate to teaching and education. This exhibit, and others like it, represents the heart of social studies/history education - it helps form an individual’s world view. I firmly believe that a major purpose of learning about the past (history), the humanities, and social sciences to be an existential enterprise. The existential practices students engage with include:
- conceptual learning
- researching their interests
- reflecting and investigating personal and social beliefs and conclusions
- developing new information and processes
- seeking new experiences
The ultimate goal of this model of teaching and learning is the construction of a personal worldview (which will change overtime).
That is a powerful educational outcome! (And a definite characteristic of 21st century learning). What other fields claim this as an objective?
Let’s explore a little further using contemporary education parlance,.”WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” provides the opportunity for students to engage with content and demonstrate critical/creative thinking by combining media literacy and document based questions. (whew!) Let’s explore these two ideas:
1) Medial Literacy:The ability to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, and COMMUNICATE information in a variety of forms-is interdisciplinary by nature. Media literacy represents a necessary, inevitable, and realistic response to the complex, ever-changing electronic environment and communication cornucopia that surround us.
To become a successful student, responsible citizen, productive worker, or competent and conscientious consumer, individuals need to develop expertise with the increasingly sophisticated information and entertainment media that address us on a multi-sensory level, affecting the way we think, feel, and behave.
The Center for Media Literacy has numerous resources and opportunities. I think this image does a great job explaining the concept too.
2) Document Based Questions (DBQ): Are typically an essay or series of short-answer questions that is constructed by students using one’s own knowledge combined with support from several provided sources.
AP courses use them stating, “the DBQ typically requires students to relate the documents to a historical period or theme and thus to focus on major periods and issues. For this reason, outside knowledge — information gained from materials other than the documents — is very important and must be incorporated into your essay if the highest scores are to be earned.” Similarly, IB history courses also use DBQs. The suggested strategy for students analyzing DBQs is the OPVL approach (Origin -Purpose – Value – Limitations).
However, DBQs are not just for students in advanced courses. Notably, the Regents Exam uses them. Their approach, less analytical than the IB, focuses on preparation and structure stressing “Before actually writing the DBQ essay, one should analyze the task and organize the information that they wish to include in the essay response…carefully read the historical context and the task. Look for clues that will help identify which historical era(s) the DBQ is focusing on, and the information required to thoroughly address the task.”
The DBQ Project co founders Chip Brady and Phil Roden (now in their 13th year) state “we believe that all students can develop high-level critical thinking skills if they have consistent instruction and a chance to practice. Our engaging questions and use of primary and secondary sources give students the opportunity to investigate history from a variety of perspectives. Our flexible pedagogy supports discussion and debate as students clarify their own ideas and write evidence-based arguments.”
The DBQ Project provides outstanding resources and professional development. In my experience they have been a model of effective history education.
The DBQ resources and approaches have become common curriculum features. Organizations have regularly include them in their curriculum materials. But is is also a good strategy for students and teachers to create their own.
One observation I have about DBQs is that they rarely, at least in my experience, utilize contemporary photography. I imagine this is partly due to perceived content restrictions. However, consider the larger claims voiced by whatever content standards you use. Using photographs like the ones in “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” have students explore their understanding of big ideas and concepts. These skills, in turn, help students construct their world view. In other words, the DBQ approach can be used as a meta-cognitive task. Teachers may already do this. If you do please let me know….
In the end I believe this existential objective should be an explicit and intentional part of the DBQ process used in social studies and history classes. Set the bar high for your students and make your DBQs relevant with contemporary images. Considering the current realities of war and conflict, media literacy is a skill which needs attention. The photos at the Corcoran exhibit will leave a profound impact on students and expose them to realities of war hidden from them in mainstream media. I hope you try this exercise at least once this school year.
Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons
Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some grave sites, out by the highway
A place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I’m getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, I lived in the ghetto
I’ve lived all over this town
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco
This ain’t no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey
I ain’t got time for that now
The song’s full lyrics are here