Columns at museum's entrance

Portraiture and History

Amy Trenkle
December 18, 2017
Drawing of a woman in turn of the century garb
Courtesy of Amy Trenkle

For the past six years, Alice Deal Middle School has been fortunate to have a partnership with the National Portrait Gallery.  For the past four years our partnership theme has been Portraiture and History.  Together, the 8th grade History teachers Yvette Simpson-Wayne, Caitlin Daniels, Megan Huber, and myself, along with Briana Zavadil White, School and Teacher Programs Manager at the National Portrait Gallery have been creating, implementing, and refining a series of lessons and activities to help students connect the portraits of the National Portrait Gallery and our U.S. History curriculum using the reading portraiture strategies

Following the chronological timeline of our History curriculum (Colonization through Reconstruction), students use the elements of portrayal, visual clues in portraits, to learn how to look at a portrait and to enrich their history knowledge by studying the portrait and its label.  The education staff of the Portrait Gallery visits five times throughout the school year and teaches the students how to read and eventually create their own portraits.  The visits are broken down as such:

  • An introduction to the elements of portrayal
  • How to read and write a museum label
  • Symbolism in portraiture
  • Letter Writing (making connections between portraits throughout time)
  • Pairing Portraits for an Exhibit
A charcoal portrait of a woman looking serious
Courtesy of Amy Trenkle

After the museum’s second visit to Alice Deal Middle School, we take a field trip to the museum to see the portraits we have studied or will be studying.  During that visit students look at the portraits up close and personal and use the elements of portrayal to interact with the portraits.   

The summative task for our partnership is the creation of a “Gallery of Notable Americans.”  Students are tasked with creating their own portrait, with museum label, of an individual that we have NOT viewed through the museum’s collection during our partnership but is part of our curriculum time frame.  As teachers we ask them to consider, “Whose stories were not told through the partnership? For instance, students could not choose Pocahontas, Phyllis Wheatley, Andrew Jackson, Dorothea Dix, Frederick Douglass, or General Ulysses S. Grant because they are some of the portraits we view during our class visits.  However, students may choose to create a portrait of Robert Fulton, James Forten, Elizabeth Freeman, Abigail Adams, Clara Barton or Prudence Crandall.  The portraits and labels are turned in for a grade to the History teachers. The museum staff then returns to the school to hang the students’ artwork to create the exhibition.  We conclude our partnership with an exhibition opening and reception for students and parents.  Because we have more than 450 students in our 8th grade, the gallery is a pretty impressive collection of notable Americans!

Portrait of a man wearing traditional native american garb
Courtesy of Amy Trenkle

This partnership has been meaningful for our department and our students.  It’s wonderful to have a connection to the museum, to access its collection, and to utilize the expertise of the staff in a way that is completely aligned to our U.S. History curriculum.  Students who are visual learners enjoy the access to the art.  The activities are each varied enough that students have multiple success points:  from analysis, to writing, to creating.  Our department appreciates the opportunity to build on our curriculum and to emphasize Common Core skills through the various activities. And all feel very proud of the finished exhibition.  

Amy Trenkle is an eighth grade history teacher at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C. 


What a fascinating project! It is accessible to many age levels and it would be great to see the school gallery.

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