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Creating the “Presence of the Past”: Using Visual Sources in the Classroom

Posted by Katherine Joyce
3 December 2014 - 4:06pm

I have just finished up my first practicum as part of my teacher education program. One of the courses I had the opportunity to teach was Ontario’s Grade 11 "Open World History Since 1900: Global and Regional Perspectives." The teacher with whom I was working asked me to teach a unit on the Spanish Civil War. And so I began to think about how on earth I would be able to create meaningful connections between this conflict and the students in the class.

The teacher made two suggestions that proved to be instrumental in making the unit work. The first was to frame the unit with the question “Why Fight?. The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, was a war of ideologies: fascism (Nationalists) vs. democratic socialism (Republicans) at its most basic, but there were many intra-group conflicts as well. These ideologies brought volunteers from around the world, including Canada, to join, for the most part, the anti-fascist forces. The International Brigades were organized by the Comintern, and, in Canada, the recruiting for volunteers was conducted by the Communist Party of Canada. It was a real risk for Canadians to join the International Brigades, not only in terms of the dangers of war, but also because the Canadian government had made it illegal for Canadians to enlist in international conflicts under the Foreign Enlistment Act. And so, as a class we considered reasons why Canadians, as well as other international volunteers and Spaniards on both sides of the conflict would choose to fight.

We did this in many ways, but the overarching method was by using propaganda posters to understand the forces at play. This was the teacher’s second recommendation. Spanish Civil War posters are freely available on the internet, on websites including:

With the wide array of posters available, I adapted the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives Spanish Civil War posters lesson plan for my students. Each day, we began the class by working through an interpretation of one of the posters, using this process:

  1. Observe:
    • Study image for several minutes;
    • List all images, text, languages, dates, references to locations, etc.;
  2. Analyze:
    • Using existing background knowledge, discuss what might have been the goal of the image;
    • Develop and evaluate several alternative ideas;
  3. Interpret:
    • Combine observations and analysis and any other additional information about the period to make a succinct interpretation of the images;
    • Consider the intended audience and what impact the image may have had upon people who saw it.

Not only did this allow us to get a sense of the forces at play in the Spanish Civil War, but also gave the students a sense of the look of the war, to create the presence of the war in our classroom. While doing these two things, we were also able to develop skills in using visual primary sources in making arguments about history.

Halfway through the unit, I had the students complete a poster interpretation worksheet, which I’ve attached to this post, as an assessment of the poster interpretation process, as well as the content we had covered so far in the unit. Throughout all of this, the class was working towards the unit’s culminating assignment: the creation of propaganda posters to recruit international volunteers to join either side of the Spanish Civil War. Students were asked to complete a poster interpretation worksheet (also attached) of their own poster, so that I could see how they were thinking through the process of creating the posters. Once they were complete, the posters were displayed in the classroom, bringing the past into the present.

How do you create the presence of the past in your classroom?


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.