Using Student-Selected Images to Enliven Class Discussion

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Engaging students in meaningful participation during the first class meetings can be very challenging. At this early stage in the semester as I’m trying to remember students’ names, I am simultaneously working to convince a roomful of strangers to raise their hands and be active members of an academic community. These goals do not always act in sync. This week I will share an assignment that has worked well with my students early on in the semester. What I will describe in this week’s blog is an assignment that I use in a Black History class but which could be adapted for use in virtually any history classroom.

Week one of my Black History course focuses on the Atlantic slave trade, including a brief study of slavery in western African nations and an in depth look at the Middle Passage. At this point in the semester students are becoming familiar with the textbook, Freedom on My Mind,  and our course learning management system. During this week they are assigned the first two chapters of reading in the textbook. Having been introduced to the Atlantic slave trade in their readings, students are instructed to visit the resourceful website developed by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia. The students are then assigned the following tasks:

  1. Open the link for “Explore the Collection”
  2. Select one of the following categories:
    1. “Capture of Slaves & Coffles in Africa”
    2. “European Forts & Trading Posts in Africa”
    3. “Slave Ships & the Atlantic Crossing (the Middle Passage)”
    4. “Slave Sales & Auctions: African Coast & the Americas”
  3. Find one image that you would like to share with the class. The image should speak to some aspect of the slave trade that you found particularly interesting or insightful.
  4. Copy and paste the image to our course Discussion Board. Your thread should be your first name and last initial. Your chosen image must be posted before our next class meeting.
  5. Come to class prepared to explain the image and what specifically about it spoke to you as significant.
  6. Here’s the catch: NO REPEATS. Look carefully at images your classmates have posted and do not post any duplicates.

Prior to the class meeting I keep a running list of the images that students are posting. Since they cannot post a repeat image many students complete the assignment well in advance of the class meeting, which allows me to make notes about whose images will be discussed at which point in the lecture. I am not always able to get through every posted image, but I do get through enough that we are able to have a variety of visual interpretations to discuss. Often times students will offer additional comments when they see an image they had wanted to post but could not because a classmate already had. These are often the most lively parts of the discussion.

There are many, many websites with fabulous visual images that can be incorporated into a similar type of class participation activity. Here are a few of the other sites that I have used with my students: for United States History I try The Met Museum’s Art and Identity in the British North American Colonies, 1700–1776.  For United States History II visit the Brandeis University collection World War I and II Propaganda Posters. Finally, almost any US history discussion can be enhanced by the images available at the Library of Congress site, including photographs from the Civil War and wide-ranging collections that include historic buildings, baseball cards, cartoons, and Depression era photos from the WPA and FSA.  

All things considered, the stakes are low with this assignment. Students receive points for completing the assignment and those points go towards participation, which in my class is only ten-percent of their final grade.  They receive full credit as long as they complete the assignment. From my perspective, however, equally important to the students completion of the assignment is the effort I make to help them feel as comfortable as possible when they are called upon to speak. It is my hope that this assignment will help foster an environment in which students are willing to be active participants in our classroom community for the remainder of the semester.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.