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History Nerdfest 2016 Day One: Learning to Look with the National Portrait Gallery

I flew into Washington yesterday afternoon and had a few hours to kill before the Nerdfest kicked off and so had the chance to visit a couple of the DC museums – I spent a few hours at the International Spy Museum and a couple of hours at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Never been to the Spy Museum, a little cheesy but still interesting. (To give you an idea, if you’ve never had the chance, it has a whole floor dedicated just to James Bond villians.)

The National Portrait Gallery? So cool. Seriously. Three huge floors of . . . well, mostly portraits. But other artwork and photographs and famous people and Civil War images and basically America from start to the present through the eyes of artists. (To give you an idea, the famous painting of Alexander Hamilton is. Right. Over. There.)

I’ve been before to the NPG before and stood there looking at all of this history, thinking to myself

How can social studies teachers use this?

Thanks to the last session of Day One and Briana White, now I know. As the manager of Teacher Programs at the National Portrait Gallery, Briana knows how social studies teachers can use all of that history.

She started by sharing the mission of the NPG:

Our task is to tell the story of America by the depicting the people who shaped it.

And then jumped right into it by sharing the elements that we and students need to think about when looking at a portrait or painting:

  • expression
  • hairstyle
  • pose / posture
  • clothing
  • setting
  • medium
  • objects
  • scale
  • artistic style
  • color


Like any other primary source, we need to train our students to look at these elements when we give them images or when they find images on their own. She did say that some portraits “lend themselves to a richer conversation” and shared an example by demonstrating what she calls the 30 Second Look strategy. Briana asked us to look at a projected image of the 1796 Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.


But only for 30 seconds. And in that 30 seconds, we needed to try and remember as many details about the image as possible.

She then instructed us to turn away from the image and began to ask us a series of questions. (You could do the same thing by giving each kid or group of kids a copy of the image and then ask them to turn the image over at their desks.)

Her questions:

  • Who is in the image? How do you know?
  • Is he sitting or standing? How is he standing?
  • What are his hands doing? Palms up or down?
  • How are feet positioned?
  • What direction is he looking?
  • What type of furniture is in the painting?
  • Describe the different pieces of furniture?
  • What was the type of fabric on the chair? What color was it?
  • What did the table leg look like? Would the chair and table be part of the same set?
  • What was under the table
  • How many books?
  • What was on the table?
  • What about the tablecloth? (Think about the texture of this as well as the fabric of the chair.)
  • What is he wearing? What stood out for you? What does the clothing remind you of? Was it seem casual or formal?
  • What was going on behind him? (Rainbow, clouds, columns, maybe smoke?)
  • Where does the rainbow start and end?
  • Tell me about the floor.
  • Is Washington inside or outside?
  • In this portrait, there are two animals. What are they? (Eagle in table leg, two dogs on table as part of the inkwell.)

(Get more info on this particular portrait at the NPG site and this kid friendly version with additional teaching suggestions.)

So why use the 30 Second Look strategy?

  • It’s engaging because it asks kids to solve a problem
  • It forces kids to see details
  • It encourages kids to “look again”
  • It can be a great way to scaffold different types of questions
  • It helps kids start to make sense of and practice using visual details
  • But the biggest reason to do this is because it helps students collect foundational information, the basic facts of historical thinking. There aren’t really any inferencing questions. “No nitty gritty of the analysis.”

You want kids to do the inferencing and the interpretation while looking at the image. But start with collecting the data and the 30 Second Look helps encourage the collection. This is a lot like the three stage media analysis we’ve talked about before. This is perfect stuff for helping students observe, collect data, and then infer to solve problems.

Briana also had us look at two different images of Pocahontas with the idea of looking at the similarities and differences between the two. Same idea. Collect the data. Organize the data into patterns of same and different and then solve the problem.

Start with how they are the same. Then the differences.

And then hit them with the questions:

Which image was created first? How do you know?

One was based on life and one was a copy. Why? How do you know?

Lead the conversation. Then have them vote. (Think you know? Head to the end of the post to check your work.) A great way to encourage problem solving and the use of evidence.

You can do the same thing with beginning and end of presidency pictures. Briana mentioned that she used images of both President Lincoln and President Obama. And same sort of question: Which photo was taken first?

Try these two ideas along with a few other ideas she shared:



Then head over the Gallery’s Classroom Resources for even more goodies. Then check out the very cool stuff they have over at the Smithsonian Learning Labs here and here. But wait. There’s more. Be sure to check out all of the Gallery things highlighted on the Google Arts and Culture site.

(Okay. Which Pocahontas image came first? The black and white engraving came first. Pocahonta sat for the engraving in clothing she wore to meet the king while in England with her husband John Rolfe. How do we know? The second color painting is not a realistic representation. Biggest clue? The last sentence of the text at the bottom said she was married to Thomas Rolfe . . . Thomas was actually her son. A mistake made by the unidentified artist who copied the original engraving later in the late 1600s.

View a cool video explaining more about the Pocahontas images at the Smithsonian Learning Lab.)

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. This site has many lesson plans on pdf that might be helpful:
    The following is also a wonderful resource, that includes portraits:

    December 2, 2016
    • glennw #

      Yes! I love that site and forgot all about. But didn’t know about the lesson plans. They look great. Thanks for reminder and heads up!


      December 2, 2016

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