Teacher Creativity Flourishes with Digitized Portraiture

Two people taking pictures of a portrait on a wall

Have you ever stood in front of the iconic Lansdowne portrait of George Washington and thought about the artist’s intent? Ever been stopped in your tracks by the angular portrait of the dancer Martha Graham and thought, maybe this could help someone understand scale and proportion? Or wondered what the nineteenth-century portrait of 18 inventors and scientists Men of Progress might look like if imagined in present day? Would you be surprised to learn about connections between the life of the twenty-first-century pop icon L.L. Cool J and that of the twentieth-century oil magnate John D. Rockefeller?

These and other questions have been the sparks of fruitful conversations between museum educators and teachers, as well as teachers and their students. Since its launch in June 2016, the Smithsonian Learning Lab (learninglab.si.edu) has inspired teachers and students across the country to look more closely at the digitized portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s collections. What is most exciting are the creative ways teachers have integrated the analysis of these portraits into their classrooms—and not just the visual arts or history.

With the Smithsonian Learning Lab, anyone with an internet connection now has access to over two million digitized resources from across the Smithsonian’s art, culture, history, and science museums, as well as its research centers. What’s more, you cannot only discover resources of interest, but you can also curate them into collections and annotate them with additional quiz questions or hotspots to pinpoint specific not-to-be-missed details. While a portrait may serve as a lesson’s cornerstone, it can also be paired with an audio recording, a video of a curator’s interpretation, or iconic artifacts that help students see the big picture.

For the past two summers, teachers from across the country who have participated in the Learning to Look Summer Teacher Institute at the National Portrait Gallery, have also been introduced to the Smithsonian Learning Lab as a tool to share what they’ve learned and build a lesson concept using portraits. The teachers’ creations are as varied and unique as each of the classrooms they represent.

  • Michelle Van Lare of Arlington, Virginia, introduces her eighth grade English/language arts students to character development through portraiture and paired texts. With portraits ranging from Toni Morrison to Sonia Sotomayor to Roald Dahl, students examine how artists capture human complexity through visuals and language.
  • Lauren Hetrick of Newville, Pennsylvania, wanted her AP World History students to practice close-reading skills, along with historical thinking skills, and she created a collection that explored a single portrait, “A Morning in Damascus,” in depth by using “Reading Portraiture” strategies. In three scaffolded activities, she builds upon the students’ knowledge and includes analysis of the portrait, along with comparisons to a poem and other artworks.
  • Stacey Horman of Damascus, Maryland, ran into a challenge when she taught AP art history last year and realized the students did not have the appropriate context for analyzing the “Horn Players” by Jean-Michel Basquiat. She decided to flip her lesson and provide the students with resources in the Lab that featured jazz references in artworks, including portraits of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. By the time the students entered her classroom, they were ready to discuss the artwork more critically and thoughtfully.
  • Rachel Slezak of Nashville, Tennessee, connected Paul R. Meltsner’s portrait of Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance in America, with mathematics in Angles in Motion. By including this unexpected portrait in a lesson about angles and scale, she was able to tap into students’ interests and connect geometry concepts with real-world applications.

Beyond these examples, we have seen countless imaginative connections of using portraiture in the classroom across the disciplines to develop historical thinkers, creative minds, and thoughtful citizens. Here are some of our favorites

Ashley Naranjo is a Learning Initiatives Specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Acess