Film & Digital Story Telling: Teaching & Learning History

Films are great entry points for students of history to exercise basic historical thinking skills. The combination of audio, video, and narrative opens up opportunities to individuals whose learning styles fall outside the traditional “lecture-read-write” model of history education. One example that comes to mind are the films Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), two films that examine the American and Japanese perspectives in the Battle of Iwo Jima. These two films (a result of one project) would be a great way to broach the subject of multiple perspectives and interpretations in historical thinking.

Educators could also use this two-film technique to teach concepts about historical context. What are the differences between A Woman Called Moses (a TV mini-series released in 1978) and Harriet (2019) in how they portray Harriet Tubman and the world in which she lived? What do these films tell us more about: Tubman’s world or the era in which these projects were produced?

I really enjoyed this week’s readings on scholarly digital storytelling, and while there are still some aspects of the concept that I don’t fully understand, I am eager to learn more. I was fascinated by the 5-photo activity. The desire to create or find narratives in loosely or unrelated data sets is embedded into our DNA. As historians, it’s something we must constantly be aware of and keep a firm grasp on. When used correctly, the narrative instinct can allow historians to craft stories that are broadly accessible and engaging. When used incorrectly, the narrative instinct can cause students of history to jump to conclusions.

The concept of DST actually reminded me of a viral internet moment from a few years ago. In 2017, the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme rose to popularity. The stock photo image displayed a man walking down a street with his significant other, while checking out a different woman. The popularity of the initial image was soon followed up with other stock photos with what appeared to be the three same individuals, but in different scenarios: the man proposing to his significant other, the two women meeting each other, etc. Soon online posters were assembling these photos to tell the “Full Story of the Distracted Boyfriend Meme”. Of course, these stories that were being compiled were just that — stories. This occurrence would be a wonderful event for history students to consider, both the photos themselves, and the fact that so many people were crafting these intricate narratives based only on images.

With this activity, students could be encouraged to discuss the following questions:

  • How do we “know” the man and the woman are in a relationship?
  • How do we “know” the man is checking out another woman?
  • How do we “know” the girlfriend is feeling upset?
  • Do we actually know these things?

Then, the educator could challenge the students to rearrange (and potentially omit) the photos in the photoset to create a narrative different from the established story. In this way, students would learn skills that are essential to doing history — understanding how an argument is crafted, breaking it down into its most basic elements, and using these elements to craft a new argument.

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