American History teachers discuss graphic content in the course

by Sammy Bonasso, ’20

At the beginning of every second semester, American History teacher Nate Palmer teaches his students about the Pacific Theater of WWII. Topics range from the mistreatment of American POWs to the horrific effects of the atomic bomb, with some lessons including graphic descriptions and pictures.

For example, Palmer said his classes see “a photograph of a burn victim who had some of his skin melted off … some photographs of people with keloid scars from the radiation and heat … and some children [who] were shaking because they were pretty scared after the explosion.”

Although state curriculum requires all American History teachers to address violent and otherwise tragic subjects, each teacher decides how they present such information. A more graphic approach can offend students but humanizes the content, while a more censored approach is more accessible but not as impactful.

Palmer has discussed disturbing topics such as the Mỹ Lai Massacre and Pacific War since he started at UAHS 15 years ago. He shows no explicit visuals of Mỹ Lai but instead videos explaining how American soldiers cut out Vietnamese villagers’ tongues and otherwise tortured and killed them.

For the Pacific War, he shows videos of the Japanese committing suicide at Saipan because of a rumored American invasion, as well as photos of keloid scars the Japanese suffered from the atomic bomb. He said that U.S. history teacher David Griffin shows similar content for the Pacific War.

Furthermore, Palmer said he does not show this material for violence’s sake.

“When you see keloid scars on the back of an elderly person, it’s different. To me, it makes it more human, and hopefully it drives home the weight of a decision like dropping an atomic bomb,” Palmer said. “Or we talk about the Mỹ Lai Massacre, to hear eyewitness accounts of people who lived through that … that makes you think about the nature of war and the challenges of it differently than if you didn’t wrestle with some of those things that happened.”

Palmer said most of his students view the material without visible apprehension, although some turn away. Regardless, Palmer still surveys his students to ensure they handle all material well. He also warns them of any graphic content in his lessons and accommodates sensitive students.

“This year I had a student who couldn’t even look at the poster I had in class on The Jungle … I had to move her seat,” Palmer said.

History teacher Scott Shinaberry presents content similar to Palmer’s. He discusses Mỹ Lai and shows nearly-identical Pacific War material, as well.

“It’s related to the atomic bomb, because a lot of people point to [the Japanese committing suicide] as showing the conviction that the Japanese had and kind of [use] it to justify the use of the atomic bombs,” he said.

Shinaberry noted that graphic photos and videos do not accompany older tragedies in American history, such as early lynchings and the hunger strikes for female suffrage. However, he said descriptions of these events could disturb students even though words often lack the impact of visuals.

Like Palmer, Shinaberry also warns his students of upcoming graphic material, and he allows them to exit the classroom or see a counselor.

“Students have an emotional reaction to it, and [the material] can be hard to see, but I think it’s important for them to know what happened, and I think most of them want to know the truth … so they can know how to think about it,” he said.

American History teacher Adele Vergis often hesitates to show graphic content.

“I typically try to show images that I’m comfortable showing, and I think every teacher is different, but I guess when I was pulling images for WWI there were a few that had obviously-dead bodies in them that I didn’t include, but [I] told students, ‘Here are some resources that have a lot of very graphic images about World War I,’” Vergis said.

Vergis also said the primary sources she chooses depend on each class and the rapport she builds with students. For example, when she taught AP U.S. History, a more mature class, she used more graphic images.

 

Ultimately, although these American History teachers include varying degrees of graphic content in their lessons, none choose anything gratuitous. Indeed, Palmer hopes his lessons admonish students but also enable them to appreciate history.

“How can you study D-Day without being inspired by the sheer courage that these men [had], hitting that beach knowing full well that it might be the last breaths they take?” Palmer said. “There’s some really great things that you can learn from the past—a lot of acts of courage and resolve, forgiveness. And hopefully we gain that wisdom and apply it to our own lives.”

 

WARNING: The following graphic images depict keloid scars resulting from the atomic bomb. They are shown in certain American History classes.