How to Use Controversial Images to Engage Students in History

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In the essay below, David Kilpatrick-White, a teacher at Bothell High School and Canyon Park Junior High in Bothell, Washington, describes the challenges teachers face in incorporating the tens of thousands of historical images now available for instruction thanks to the Internet.  Many of those images are shocking and disturbing.  He explores how teachers may use them without exploiting the event while respecting the sensibilities of those who will see them.

We have all used photos, drawings, art, ads, or other images to communicate the stories of our past. In a history class these images have a unique instructional quality whether they are used in a gallery walk, jigsaw expert group, or to supplement a text. And, while a picture is truly worth a thousand words, teaching with purpose and meaning demand that we (history teachers) do our best to promote words that center around student learning. I have recently been reflecting on the question: are the images I am using provocative or sensational? Put another way, do the images I use hook my students into the material or distract them from it? This question was rattling around in my head after I showed some images of slavery to my class and there was nervous laughter (hopefully covering up discomfort?) and some catcalls; that happened to varying degrees before. I was concerned that the images I was using were starting conversations about weird or fantastical moments or people from history were, or worse still that these images caused students to believe that some of these human horrors and struggles are in some way….not real, something from Hollywood. I want them to see these images and consider how tough life may have been for the characters studied, or feel the same urgency to banish such ills from our society. I am confident that for some students these experiences have been beneficial, with comments after class like,  “Seeing that picture of the whip marks, was gross, but it also showed me how terrible the treatment was.” I knew my students could learn from images if I they were used properly and set up in a way that promoted curiosity in history.

Sometime later I fell into to conversation with a colleague and thinking aloud focused my attention on what it takes to make these activities productive: establish tone, have protocols or rules but not to the degree they stifle expression, have tasks, but again, not too much minutia, and not to the degree it stifles an emotional response.   Remembering like all things in teaching, it is truly a challenge, to get the balance right.  Below are some steps I use for promoting learning from images:


  • Give students a heads up about the nature of images
  • Give students a protocol for reacting spontaneously to images
  • Provide students with a timed task that leaves time to think creatively
  • Ask students to make connections to their own feelings or prior knowledge
  • Wrap-up the activity with students that allows them to share and examine the big picture


  • Projected images
    • Turn and talk
    • Pass that thought (each student starts with scratch paper writes response for an image then passes to next student)
    • One-liners (write a one sentence response to prompt in warm-up section of notebook)
  • Gallery-Walk
    • Sticky-note, see what we said (sticky note responses to prompts next to images then walk through and see what others wrote)
    • Put in chronological order
    • Rank by most thought provoking
    • Essay prompt based on 3-5 of the images


  • Describe what you see.
  • What about this image stands out to you?
  • Why do you think I chose this image?
  • What do you think is happening in the image?
  • What event or topic do you think these images are related to?
  • What is the first thought that comes to mind when you see this?
  • What does this image remind you of?
  • How do you think the people in image feel?
  • What do you think a snapshot of what happened immediately after this would look like?
  • Do you detect any bias in the image?

The lists are not exhaustive, but I hope that these will help you and your students.

Birmingham, 1963Very recently I used images three times in my unit on World War One. The first instance was a gallery-walk with images of battles that I used as an introductory hook right after Holiday Break. The students had strips of paper with battle names, they then tried to associate an image with a battle. Eventually, they tried to create the chronology, as they constructed the historiography of the war. I know this is a great way to use images of rallies and other moments from the Civil Rights movement. The second opportunity that my students had to engage with images was “Sticky-note pass” of images of trench warfare. My students saw images of trench construction, trenchfoot, gangrene, no man’s land, and video of “going over the top. They responded to each with a written comment of what it made them think or feel about if they had to fight in these battles or the nature of war at that time, then pass it to next student who read it. I have used that activity to portray slavery, Jim Crow laws, and poverty.

Near the end of the unit I used political cartoons as a collective document for a “Document-Based-Question” on the Treaty of Versailles. Using the gradual release of responsibility model, we found significant symbols and their meaning in each carton while analyzing whether or not the cartoon supported the contents of the treaty. They recorded thoughts in their journals and did a think-pair-share on what they wrote. I borrowed that lesson from a colleague at another school who utilized the lesson to illustrate the differences in public perception for leaders of the African-American community (Malcolm X, MLK, Ali, Jesse Jackson etc.).

Other Examples of Controversial Images

The Scarred Back of a Fugitive Slave Named Gordon,1863
Negro Rule Cartoon, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1900

Segregation Sign, Houston, Texas, 1900
Poster: The Birth of a Nation, 1915
Ad for The Jazz Singer, 1927
Lynching, Marion, Indiana, 1930
Anti-Communist Poster, Birmingham, Alabama, 1934
Coon Chicken Inn, Seattle, Washington, 1939
We Wash For White People Only, 1945
Elizabeth Eckford at Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957
Memphis, Tennessee Zoo Segregation Sign, 1959
Montgomery, Alabama Anti-School Integration Protest, 1961
Lunch Counter Sit-In, Jackson, Mississippi, 1963
Rochester, New York Race Riot, 1964
Yellow Peril Supports Black Power, Oakland, California, 1969
Anti-Busing Protest, Boston City Hall, 1976
South Central Los Angeles Gang Graffitti, 1990 


David Kilpatrick-White

Bothell High School and Canyon Park Junior High School, Bothell, Washington