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Symbols, symbolism, and a sweet T-Chart

Just a quick post today about a very powerful strategy that’s pretty easy to integrate into your instruction. I had the privilege of sitting in on Scott’s 7th grade classroom last week when he used this activity with his kids.

Scott and his kids had just started a unit on territorial Kansas and he wanted students to get a sense of the tension that was building at the time around the issue of slavery.

His school is in the Topeka area and all of students have been to the state capital. And all of them, whether they remembered or not, have seen the massive John Steuart Curry mural of John Brown. At 11.5 feet tall and 31 feet wide, there’s a lot of stuff going on in the painting and Scott really wanted his kids to spend some quality time analyzing the content in the mural.

john brown mural

Some of the conversations Scott and I have had centered on ways to analyze images and other types of primary sources. You know – Library of Congress and National Archives analysis worksheets, POSERS, etc. But we hadn’t spent a lot of time talking about other ways for kids to connect with content. And Scott wanted to try using symbolism as a tool to help kids make sense of not just the Curry painting but the stressful atmosphere that developed in the state prior to the Civil War.

So he got his students arranged in small groups of three or four around tables and showed them the entire image. Most recognized the image immediately and others came around as Scott provided a bit of background. He them told them:

This is just too much information for our brains to mess with at one time so we’re going to spend a while just looking at small bits of it.

He then showed them a simple T-Chart labeled “symbols” on the left and “symbolism” on the right. He then modeled how they should write something they see on the left (such as a cow or soldier) and then on the right put down why they think the artist might have included that object in the painting.

And here’s the cool part.

He had his kids write on their tables. With dry erase markers. I’m loving this! So every kid had a huge t-chart ready to go. No hand outs. No wasting paper. No struggling to find something to write with since the markers were ready to go. Sweet.

Scott then revealed the first part of the image and asked each kid to work on their own chart, listing at least three things they saw and describing why Curry might have included that in his work.


Then each group had to discuss what they wrote and prepare to share at least one thing they all agreed on. One table shared out how they noticed what seemed like a red, white, and blue pattern and wondered if it was intentional. Some very good conversations.

He then continued to reveal more and more of the image, asking kids to add to their charts and continue the table conversation.





Throughout the process, Scott modeled and prodded kids to go beyond just the obvious.

At the end of the activity, he had them construct and share a summary sentence with their table partners. The next day, he followed up with a writing exercise that helped them focus their previous thinking into a paragraph describing why conflict about slavery developed in Kansas.

A very sweet but easy and powerful activity that is a great example of a different way for kids to make sense of evidence. Thanks Scott for the awesome idea!

I would have liked to see the kids capture their thinking somehow. I love the writing on desks idea – a very quick and easy way to document a conversation – but perhaps have students use a phone or iPad to take a picture of their desk for future reference?

How would you use this activity? How would you change it to fit your situation, grade, and content?


6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Did you take a picture of the desks?

    November 17, 2014
    • glennw #


      I knew someone was going to ask that! And . . . no. I was in the building without my phone and not until later did I even think about using my laptop camera to take a picture. (It’s cause I’m not very bright.)

      Their tables / desks have that slick sort of feel to them and Scott apparently does this a lot. Each group of desks had a bag of markers, a towel, and squeeze bottle. He says that the Disinfectant Handy Wipes also work great (and kills germs!) but that they got too expensive.

      Other teachers in his building use little bitty individual whiteboards that work but just aren’t very big. So he started using the tables. I just thought it was a pretty cool idea.


      November 17, 2014
  2. This would be awesome to do the American Progress painting when we study westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. Thanks!

    November 19, 2014
    • glennw #


      We actually talked about that painting! A perfect example of an image with lots of symbolism that can be confusing to kids.

      Good luck! Thanks for the comment!


      November 20, 2014
  3. What a great idea to block out an isolate parts of the image! I did a great PD at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, ME years ago where I learned a tactic known as taking a “visual inventory” of a painting. Students first analyze basic elements such as colors and rough shapes (arrangement of figures, for example). Next, they analyze objects, animals, and people (are they men or women, old or young, etc). Then they look for relationships between objects, people, animals, landscape, etc. Finally, students analyze what the artwork is saying with color, shape, objects, and relationships. One of my favorite paintings to use for this is “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” with my AP European History kids.

    November 22, 2014
    • glennw #

      That sounds like a great strategy! We need to have students do more analysis of artwork and images. I’m going to be stealing / using your idea. Thanks for sharing!


      November 22, 2014

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