Social Studies Related Drawings

Framing Social Studies Lessons Around Works of Art

Cris Tovani and Elizabeth Birr Moje argue in their book No More Telling as Teaching that students frequently expect their teachers to do the majority of the thinking for them in class. There is a level of comfort for both parties when a single narrative removes the messiness of understanding topics that go beyond the surface level of discussion. Despite this, new content-area standards, such as those based on the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework, require that students be the ones who ask questions and wrestle with texts, as well as the ones who draw their conclusions about course concepts.

When teachers have to address specific content in their courses, repurposing instruction to elicit or incorporate students’ ideas can seem like a daunting task. Inquiry and structure, on the other hand, do not have to be mutually exclusive. It is common practice in my classes to ask students to examine common sources using a specific lesson progression, with the understanding that no two students will come away from that work with the same conclusions.


To accomplish this, I occasionally use works of art as jumping-off points for my lessons. Because each piece of art represents the artist’s interpretation of his or her world, looking at art can be a powerful experience. In the same way, students’ interpretations of the art will differ depending on their prior knowledge, observational skills, and personal preferences.

Museum educators use three guiding questions from Visual Thinking Strategies to elicit discussions, and they can also be used to help students focus when they are viewing artwork for the first time in a classroom. The questions are:

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Instead of jumping right into a discussion about the artwork using these questions, I ask students to spend the first few minutes of the class observing the artwork on their own and writing down their reflections to answer the questions that I’ve prepared for them. I also write out my reflections with them every time, even if I’m already familiar with the image, to demonstrate how my understanding of the image changes over time.

Students benefit from extended periods of freewriting, according to Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s book 180 Days, which explains how such extended periods of freewriting help students generate new ideas and communicate first-draft thinking. To encourage that type of thinking, I later ask students to revisit and confirm or revise their responses as they come across additional texts that are related to the initial image in some way.

A painting of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois, for example, serves as the centerpiece of a ninth-grade Modern World History lesson on the French Wars of Religion. Because there is so much going on in the painting, students almost always have questions about why people are being thrown from windows, who the various groups represent, and what sparked the conflict in the first instance. Students write down their initial thoughts using the freewriting technique described above, and volunteers then share their thoughts with the class during a whole-class discussion about their ideas.

The “investigation” portion of the lesson is when I ask students to work in pairs to read a short textbook segment that is related to the subject of the painting during the second half of the lesson. To facilitate student reading of chunks of text, students summarise the main ideas, and students make connections to their written responses to the painting, I typically use an interactive reading guide based on Doug Buehl’s Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning. After discussing the content with their partners, students have the opportunity to share any new insights with their classmates before moving on to the next brief segment. Students are not simply reading the textbook to learn content; rather, they are reading to construct meaning around the questions that they identified as important during their initial attempts to comprehend the painting.

Portrait of Elizabeth I of the Armada
Elizabeth I as depicted in George Gower’s “Armada Portrait,” by an unknown artist
In another lesson from the same unit, I use a variety of sources, in addition to the textbook, to help students conclude the reign of Elizabeth I of England, and I use these conclusions to guide them through the process of writing their conclusions. The lesson is structured around her Armada Portrait, which prompts a slew of interesting questions from students, including the following: What is the significance of the two different views out the windows? What is the significance of her hand on the globe? Is there any significance to the crown that has been placed on the table in the background?

Students travel around the classroom to three centers, each of which contains a source that provides some context for the painting: a brief biography of Elizabeth I, the text of her speech to the troops about the Spanish Armada, and an animated video that highlights her achievements as queen. Students discuss each source in small groups before writing short reflections on their own that help them process ideas that are related to their earlier research questions.

After both of these lessons, I ask students to revise their freewrites to incorporate specific evidence from their classroom experiences. Ideally, they’ll be able to provide answers to their initial questions, provide evidence to support their inferences, and fill in any knowledge gaps that they identified at the start of class. Because the inquiry process is cyclical, it is acceptable to pose new questions as well.

“I paint flowers so that they will not die,” said Frida Kahlo, a famous Mexican artist. Drawing on this concept, art enables students to visually access historical content that would otherwise appear foreign or irrelevant in a classroom setting. Consider one of your upcoming lessons and how a piece of art might serve as a starting point for discussion. You will be astounded by the questions that your students come up with and the depth of learning that occurs as a result of their inquiries.