Learning to Look Summer Teacher Institute

This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend the National Portrait Gallery’s Learning to Look Summer Teacher Institute.  I’ll be the first to admit that I have a limited background on portraiture.  One of the things that compelled me to apply for the institute in the first place was when I tried to use a portrait of Frederick Douglass in my AP Language and Composition class.  I found that I couldn’t give the students much information about the portrait, besides the obvious, “Look!  It’s Frederick Douglass’s face.”

By the end of the institute, I was ready to talk to my students about portraiture and use it in the classroom.  Back in the classroom, I started with a warm up using the Smithsonian Learning Lab (learninglab.si.edu); I showed the students 2 different portraits of Richard Nixon.  One was the painting by Norman Rockwell, and the second an image by Ross Barron Storey.  I also showed portraits of John F. Kennedy—one by Elaine de Kooning and another a photograph by Jacques Lowe.  Immediately, my students started pointing out light versus dark shades, colors, abstractions.  We then looked at the same images, and I had them apply their knowledge of rhetoric to it: what is the author’s purpose?  What is the tone?  Who is the audience?

The learning lab collection that I created for this activity is online here.

Some of the responses were:

“If you look at the picture of Nixon post-Watergate, it looks like his face is in shadow—but just about half.  It makes me think that the artist’s purpose was to question whether or not he’s two faced.”

“Kennedy was a little illusive after his death.  He died with controversy surrounding him.  Maybe this portrait of him is meant to show that.  It’s obscure and unclear.”

“Wasn’t Kennedy loved by everyone?  I think that the cool tones, mainly shades of blue, are the author trying to tell us that this is all of America’s response to his death.  Everyone is just sad and confused.”

Painted portrait of Pocahontas
Pocahontas by an unidentified artist, after 1616; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Gallery of Art; Gift of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, 1942

I was blown away with the cross curricular responses, as well as the intelligent, thoughtful reactions.  I continued using portraiture with a unit on Indigenous literature; we looked at portraits of Pocahontas, Russel Means, Chittee Yoholo.  We analyzed pictures from multiple exhibitions (a favorite of the students was UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar)

I now use portraiture in all my classes.  As a warm up, I’ll have students look at different portraits and discuss questions about the portrait in small groups.  Often I use images from Learning Lab to introduce a topic or unit.  When discussing the Holocaust, photographs and portraits of various historical figures have come in handy.  Other times, I ask the students to write full responses to the portraits.  Finally, I use one of the many strategies the museum’s educators taught us during the institute last summer. One of my favorites is the “30 Second Look.”  I think it’s so important for students to completely immerse themselves (a single image) in something other than their cell phones and grades.  Overall, this institute has been one of the most useful professional developments that I have attended.  There was a complete immersion in the museum that I simply hadn’t experienced before.  I was ecstatic to sign up for presenting at my county’s professional development day over the summer (something I had never done before).  And most of all, I was excited to show my students the world of portraiture.