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Holy artwork, Batman! Teachers should be using #SeeingAmerica and SmartHistory!

Art is hard. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s that sometimes I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s modern art that causes me trouble. Maybe I’m just too literal. The piece to the left hanging in Seattle’s art museum? I got nothing.

But with the help of an older sister and a daughter, both strong with the art force, I’ve gotten better at making sense of color, shape, perspective, of context and hidden messages. And with the help of a lot of bright people at places like the Smithsonian and Library of Congress, I’m also getting better at looking at art as a form of primary source information, as another way to understand place and time,

For the last few months, I’ve been highlighting the very cool way that teachers are using Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms to help students think about the Bill of Rights and contemporary issues. I love using interpretations of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere and Alonzo Chappel to talk about historical accuracy and encourage historical thinking. The National Portrait Gallery has been huge in showing me ways that we can use portraits such as the Lansdowne image of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and John Brown in his US Army blanket by Ole Peter Hansen Balling. And who hasn’t used images such as John Gast’s American Progress to lead conversations about Manifest Destiny and the interactions between settlers and American Indians?

But I’m starting to believe even more in the power of artwork as story and primary source. So it’s always great to find another site and set of tools that help integrate art into instruction and learning. I recently ran across SmartHistory and am loving it.

Smarthistory believes that:

art has the power to transform lives and build understanding across cultures. We believe that the brilliant histories of art belong to everyone, no matter their background.

Art connects us to the world; it allows us to imagine, to create, to build and to inspire, and it shouldn’t be locked up in a textbook. Smarthistory takes you inside museums and outside to ancient temples and brings you into conversations about how to interpret and understand the images you’re seeing.

Now more than ever we need understanding, rigorous analysis, and nuance, and art teaches the critical thinking needed to better comprehend current events and their cultural and historical context.

Smarthistory is the window through which to learn about today’s biggest clash points: we interrogate faith, class, race, gender, and power through a study of art and objects from ancient times until the present. We help learners navigate their world by teaching the skills of interpretation and judgement to help them make meaning of the world around them.

If that doesn’t define our job as social studies teachers, I’m not sure what does.

There are tons of things to explore at Smarthistory. Jump right into in-depth explorations of different time periods found on the home page or hover over the Guides tab to jump straight into serious art history.

But be sure to save some time for exploring their Seeing America section, what Smarthistory calls a “portal to American history and art that examines the long history of the United States, from before European settlers to the modern era.” They do this by making “key works of art accessible for the U.S. history and social studies student.”

You’ll find lessons and suggested activities organized by broad themes, historical periods, or by common classroom topics such as Civil War or the American West. You can also view all the Seeing America content in one place.

seeing america 1

Scroll down to get access to their Teaching Guides. I especially love their Guide on Rosie the Riveter. And it’s not just paintings. Their lessons and videos also highlight objects and artifacts. The The Triangle Trade and the Colonial Table, Sugar, Tea, and Slavery activity and video uses a hand-made silver sugar bowl to help kids understand how the connections between the European demand for sugar and the enslavement of Africans.

go deeper

If you’re like me and struggle with getting it, Smarthistory can help. No matter what you teach, you’re going to be able to find resources and artifacts aligned to your content.

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mr. Wiebe,

    Thank you for your post. I’ve just come across your blog as a pre-service high school history teacher. As an art history alumna and a former museum educator at the Museum of the American Revolution, I have been determined to incorporate visual culture into my classroom. So often historians/history teachers fall into the trap of using art to simply “illustrate” a historical event or person. While this is useful in garnering student engagement and engendering historical empathy, it treats art as a means to an end, rather than as objects intentionally created in a specific historical and political moment. Art/visual culture is a lens through which we can study politics, religion, history, language, social class, etc. Plus, the use of art/artifacts tends to make history feel that much more real to students.

    I’ve never heard of SmartHistory before, and I am grateful that you’ve shared it! It will be extremely useful to my colleagues and me in incorporating art into the classroom. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    Thank you,


    November 14, 2019
    • glennw #


      Thanks for sharing! Absolutely agree with your comments – art can help tell such an important part of any historical story. (I’ve got my art history daughter to thank for some of my understanding of the power of art!)


      November 14, 2019
  2. Guy Tumolo #

    I am sorry if you feel slammed by us preservice teachers, we have just been hitting the blogs hard and really seem to love stumbling on yours! I absolutely love this and couldn’t help comment. I think art and literature are a gateway to understanding past events that are so often caste aside as unimportant, or as you said, explored at only the surface level. This is in sharp contrast to the reality that they so often harbor the true feelings and understanding of the people in a particular time or space in such a way that formal writing can never do. I think right back to the emergence of political cartoons, the crass titles placed on Revolutionary United States artworks and let us not forget fictional writings power to show political points of view. I think you are so right that it is about time that social studies teachers look for more to supplement the letters from our past and to really understand the views of the people through all media.

    December 5, 2019
    • glennw #


      No worries! Glad you stopped by and poked around a bit. I didn’t spend enough time finding ways to integrate art and literature into my instruction as a beginning teacher so I’m glad you’re thinking about ways to do that.

      When you’ve got a few extra minutes, be sure to check out a few other lit related posts at:

      Good luck as you move further along on teaching track!


      December 6, 2019

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