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Learning History Through Art

Unless you’re a history buff, you may remember countless days in history class just trying to stay awake. What if learning history through art had been an option though?

Learning history is important. After all, learning it is the best way not to repeat it. Or so they say. 

Yet, a history curriculum that has students memorizing dates and events without any context is not of much value. So arts academy middle schools and high schools have instituted a more creative way to teach about the past.

Learning History Through Art

Educators who use art to teach history recognize its power to bring the subject to life. By having students assess the artwork to learn about an event, an individual, or a country, they automatically take on a more hands-on approach.

Five of the most popular ways that educators use art to teach history are as follows:

1. Paintings 

The key in choosing paintings for students to study is to first find those that represent major historical events or movements. The obvious one for students studying American History, for example, is Washington Crossing the Delaware.  

It may not be everyone’s favorite painting, but for history teachers trying to emphasize the harshness of battle, this is a perfect example. In the midst of ice and brutally cold weather, Washington is surrounded by his soldiers and the American flag. Students learn from the symbolism here.

Washington’s stance demonstrates his willingness to stand up for the freedom he believes every American should have. The choice of color, as well as the strategic use of light and dark also offer information about the time. By analyzing all of these, students are far more likely to maintain interest in the event and ask questions. 

Another famous example is Picasso’s Guernica. The painting exudes Picasso’s trademark quirky style. But upon deeper assessment, students begin to understand that the painting represents the chaos and tragedy of war. Painted in response to the devastating bombing of Guernica, Spain during World War II, the work qualifies as a protest piece – among other things. 

By presenting the artist’s view of war, educators can ask students what they feel the artist was trying to convey and what they themselves see in the picture.

2. Political/Satirical Cartoons

Cartoons are far more than child’s play. And both middle school and high school students respond well to learning history through political cartoons and satire from specific periods of time.

Because history can seem so dry, infusing humor and satire into it is appealing to students who are otherwise disinterested. Not only do these cartoons from past eras evoke a fascination with the artistic style they represent, but they convey a visceral sensibility from the era. 

As with paintings, educators can encourage students to speak about what they think the comic is trying to say or express regarding the specific time period or movement. They can ask students to look for other underlying messages as well. And finally, students in an arts-integrated learning environment might even create their own political cartoons and have other students discuss the intention behind them.

3. Advertising/Political Propaganda 

It’s hard to find anything that demonstrates the darkness of certain time periods than the advertising and political propaganda from that era. This is, for instance, an essential teaching tool when covering units on Nazi Germany and the Anti-Semitism movement. The ads and propaganda from this era show the hatred and horrifying ways the Nazis set out to dehumanize the Jews. 

There is similar propaganda from the Jim Crow days in the South, as well as those pushing back against Civil Rights in the 1960s. 

Meanwhile, advertising from the (not-so-distant) past displays a world dominated by white men and comes across as distinctly racist and sexist by contemporary standards. These are great topics for conversation on the ways throughout history certain folks have continuously received advantages over others. 

4. Historical “Fashion”

Many teenagers are interested in fashion. So drawing them into history lessons with discussions on the clothing from specific time periods can be an effective way to spark their interest. 

Educators may encourage students to find information about how and, more importantly, why certain clothes were donned at the times they were. Such studies can bring up important questions about the historical events and cultures from that era.

5. Flags

Flags may not be as exciting as cartoons, paintings, and fashion. But they do serve as an artistic representation of a country or region. The American flag, for instance, has evolved from several different versions into the one we see today. And there is historical significance to each evolution.

Other countries also have stories around their flags. Learning these stories helps students have a better understanding of the events that led up to the design of the current flag and whether the country is a sovereign nation or is under the rule of another. It’s yet another visual aid to understanding the complex history of each nation.

Interested in How Other Subjects Are Taught Through Art?

Learning history through art is hugely beneficial for students who are otherwise bored with the subject. It brings significance and dimensionality to history.

Arts-academy middle schools and high schools have found innovative ways to teach all academic subjects through art. This keeps creatively-minded students engaged and interested in learning. 

If your child is one such type of student, contact us today to take a tour of our school. You’ll be amazed at the difference you see in your child’s academic achievement. 


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