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A Multimedia Approach to Get Students Interested in History

Updated on May 26, 2019
gmarquardt profile image

gmarquardt has an M.A. in history and German from SWTSU and has over 25 years teaching experience at public high schools.

Multi-media brings history to life

Far too many students could care less about history. Add to that the apathetic nature of many young people, and a high school history class has little chance of making a big impact. Students must have a personal connection to history and as a teacher, it is my job to help them make that connection. Although it is quite difficult to make a deep personal connection with every student concerning every topic in history, I still know that if history is personal, students will learn. To make history personal, I show students how artists interpret historical events and how those events have impacted their art. To do that, I use a variety of audio and visual arts. As a result, students see that everyone is affected in some way or another to historical events.

I’m not suggesting showing a full length movie or display a painting that illustrates a historical event. Rather, I use artistic pieces combined with an analysis to see how artistic interpretation of historical events helps us all learn history. During the course of the lesson, I get their attention with some visual or audio "candy." Afterward, it becomes much easier to teach them basic facts about the event due to their piqued interest. They want to know more about the topic. Adding documents, poems, maps, quotations, lithographs and drawings simply expands their abilities to "get it." Add some discussions and lectures combined with a little research and writing, and presto, classrooms are filled with young historians eager for more.

How does it work?

I try not to constrain myself with time limits, but generally a large portion of American history such as this receives about three weeks total attention. Obviously I have the same restrictions on time as any other public educator. To begin the lesson, there would be some basic reading and lectures to get down some basic points. Throughout the weeks lessons are interspersed with group work, quizzes, map work, daily work and homework. Every day some form of art is introduced in which students must analyze its historical importance or explain the interpretation of the artist. Students recall information through presentations, such as mind-maps. A mind-map allows students to present in a logical format information they know while discovering the connections that history weaves together.

Westward the Course of Empire, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze
Westward the Course of Empire, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

An example

Our topic is the generic idea of "westward expansion." The concept itself is very broad and most textbooks handle the topic in one solitary chapter. Westward expansion includes such topics as, Indian warfare, immigration, the Homestead Act, settlers, the cattle industry and cowboys, the railroad and the telegraph, mining and the many gold rushes, as well as farming, sod homes and the frontier. Tied into all of that is the history of the industrial revolution, which is in itself so broad it includes many more ideas and examples as well.

Rating opinions

Start with a philosophical discussion about the west. In addition, add a small discussion concerning some of the important political and philosophical ideas of the time period. For example, concerning our example of westward expansion, ask students to rate certain statements from a scale of 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree) and then ask them to justify their rankings. The statements chosen are generally from important people from the time period, in this case Frederick Jackson Turner and William Sumner. Examples follow:

"Every particle of capital which is wasted on the vicious, the idle and the shiftless is so much taken from the capital available to reward the independent and productive laborer."

"Best of all, the West gave ... a vision of hope, and assurance that the world held a place where were to be found high faith in man and the will and power to furnish him the opportunity to grow to the full measure of his own capacity."

"In a word, then, free lands meant free opportunities."

After students have read the examples and ranked them, discuss their importance and meaning. This allows students to give their own personal views and opinions on history, which is very important for them to gain a deeper understanding. Not only does it make it personal, but it adds value and importance to history.


Poetry offers almost unlimited sources for analysis. For westward expansion, the Walt Whitman poem, Pioneers! O Pioneers! is introduced. After reading the poem, students underline those themes they know about, circle those they think they know and highlight anything they want to know more about. That leads to a quick discussion about what additional information is needed. This also eliminates any issues with repetition or re-teaching of material already learned.


Paintings are always a great source for fomenting discussions about historical events. A quick look at the John Gast painting American Progress, reveals that a group of travelers are heading toward the left of the canvas; traditionally the "west" for most Americans. (North tends to point toward the top of American maps)! However, a deeper observation reveals telegraph wires, a train, miners, farmers plowing the fertile prairie, a stagecoach and settlers all heading west while forcing native Americans out of the picture altogether. Other events, such as the 1849 gold rush, immigration, the transcontinental railroad and many others can be tied in. Art allows a broad stroke of history to be applied to paintings such as this.

By delving deeper into the meaning of the painting, more astute students might comment on broader themes, such as technological metaphors, the use of color and its importance, and/or the impact of religion on history. Students can see that the basic thread (westward expansion) wove itself through time into the complex quilt that is American history. They understand that the individual threads, (railroad, mining, industrial revolution, farming, technology, immigration, the Homestead Act, etc.), are not simply individual moments in time. Rather, all of these events are the total experiences that make each time period so unique. And every time period studied has these same threads that must be woven together to form a cohesive understanding of history. The biggest thing here is that students love it when they see it all come together, and they finally "get it!"

American Progress, John Gast
American Progress, John Gast

Movie clips

When emphasizing the Homestead Act, I show a few minutes of the movie, Far and Away. The clip attached below shows the moment when people were allowed to rush out and stake their claim. Each section was marked off and the prize sections, (those with natural running water, for instance) were highly prized. Many people cheated the system, spending the previous night on a prized section and waiting for the rush, pretending they had arrived slightly earlier. They arrived "sooner" than the others, and that is how the Oklahoma Sooners came to be called. As silly as that trivial fact is, it resonates with students because most of them know who the Sooners are, but they have no idea that is how they got their name. Once you show them the clip and make that connection, it makes history personal and it brings history to life!

Of course, there is plenty of accuracy that is lost in movies and songs. But this is, by no means, a complete historical evaluation of the past. I use these clips to get their attention, to force them to ask questions, and to spark wonder. I teach high school; I’m not handing out doctorate degrees in history at Harvard University!

Far and Away

Music and lyrics

To finish the lesson, play the song The Last Resort, by The Eagles while the students fill out a paper answering certain questions about the meaning of certain phrases in the lyrics. Every song I play has a copy of the lyrics for the students to analyze. After listening to the song, discuss its meaning and importance. If the song had been played at the beginning of the lesson, it would have been very difficult for students to understand the complex metaphors and meaning, but after a couple days of instruction, they completely get it. And not only that, they might teach you a thing or two as well. (Full disclosure: A student taught me about Lahaina and the sign "Jesus is coming." I personally thought that it was just a generic metaphor, but there is an actual sign put up by missionaries in Lahaina, Hawaii). Throughout the song there are many references which lead to a deeper understanding of history which, in turn, leads to a desire to learn. Students will "get" Manifest Destiny, white man’s burden, the Homestead Act, etc., because this song puts it into modern meaning. There is plenty here that leads to discussion and a desire for further learning.

There are endless other materials awaiting analysis, and students eat it up! They don’t want the who, what, why and when, they want to think! And the little secret is, of course, that when you make them present what they have learned, they know the who, what, why and when! At the end of the day, many of my students will ask, "Hey, have you ever heard this song? It has lyrics about what you were talking about. Cool, huh?" They will bring up the latest movies or television shows that have historic examples or metaphors in them. Once they recognize that history is a quilting of narratives and meanings into a cohesive story, they start to look for those threads in their own lives. And that is the best moment of all, when they catch those historical meanings. That’s when you know they truly, "get it!"

Hmm, too bad I don’t teach history any more!


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    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      5 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Great hub, for sure! What ever media and/or content that will work to bring history to life for the readers and viewers is what should be used, if possible, while maintaining appropriate authenticity for that audience. Thanks for sharing! ;-)

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 

      7 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Great hub! History is thought of by some as being boring, but it can be fascinating if it's taught the right way, which it sounds like you did. Voted up and interesting.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Enjoyed reading this! It reminds me of what education is all about--personal enrichment, without dollar signs. Lucky students who have this kind of approach.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Bravo! I used to do the "westward expansion" in a two week unit so that I could do exactly what you are outlining. It was a huge success every year but only because I took the time to make it interesting and use every available teaching tool. I love your approach!


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