Closer Readings Commentary

Picturing America in My Classrooms

Picturing America website

Jay Peledge teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies (ancient civilizations) for Lincoln, MA public schools at the Hanscom Middle School on Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts.

Back in 2009, I was fortunate to have been selected to participate in a four-week Picturing Early America NEH Institute coordinated at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, and led by Dr. Patricia Johnston. The institute included elementary, middle, and secondary teachers of English, history, and art. I teach two of the aforementioned subjects, and while not every one of the institute’s lessons ended up becoming a part of my routine teaching, the vast majority of content was usable in my classrooms.

The institute has impacted my teaching almost on a daily basis, not just with new lesson ideas, but by enhancing ones I have taught for years. I have tried to share that experience whenever possible with my colleagues through presentations in my school, sharing of websites on Diigo, and connecting in Twitter chats (#sschat #engchat ). (It was, in fact, on one of the Monday night 7p.m. EST #sschat sessions that I “met” the EDSITEment staff member who invited me to write this entry.)

Using art to teach history and literature

NEH’s Picturing America website is a great place for any teacher to start gathering ideas and serves as my springboard for many lessons. When I teach the early Republic in my history class, for instance, the Gilbert Stuart portraits of Washington are a constant presence, as we now speak of the symbolic iconography as much as of the man himself.

On the Picturing America site, teachers can be connected to a variety of lessons for the “Lansdowne” portrait, in particular. I tend to use the interactive features available on the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery site. Either projected on the board for the whole class to see or used individually in 1:1 schools, students and teachers alike can examine the symbolic aspects of the painting in order to gain a greater appreciation for the heroic side of Washington. The EDSITEment unit, What Makes Washington a Good Military Leader? helps students further understand how Washington acquired his reputation.

When I teach transcendentalism as part of my unit on the “marriage” between art and literature, I tend to focus on Thomas Cole—in particular, his Course of Empire series. The philosophical elements of transcendentalism can be difficult concepts for students to grasp. It is easier for them, at first, to visualize some of the transcendentalists’ warnings regarding consumption by examining the fourth painting in Cole's series, Destruction. (I also include The Doors' "This Is the End," which plays in the background).

A colleague of mine from the institute uses the Hudson River School painters, including Cole, in a larger presentation. If you ever feel uncertain about how to interpret these works of art, the National Portrait Gallery’s tools are quite helpful.  

As for larger assignments and course creation, I completely transformed my juniors' research paper after the Picturing America institute. Now my students not only read and analyze literature, they must also provide connections to the literature's historical backdrop while concurrently adding common threads seen in a work of visual art. I have used NEH’s EDSITEment  as my source for multiple interdisciplinary lesson ideas that I use throughout the year, in order to lead students to a maturation of their own understanding of the connections between art, literature, and history.

One such lesson is on ekphrastic poetry, the literary form in which a poet describes another work of art—usually visual. In fact, in recent days I came across a new lesson using Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad, one of the Picturing America images, for just such a lesson. Over time, as students examine the different ways art connects with literature and history, they have progressively found writing on this subject as well as the course overall to be more enjoyable. One student whom I have had in both my English and history classes commented recently that looking at various images and writing about them has been his favorite activity over the years.

Art, war, and the classroom

On another level, that 2009 NEH institute has had much more impact than I thought it would. Two of my brothers have enlisted in the military since, and what has come to be integral to my lessons on the Civil War are the works of Winslow Homer, in particular his Veteran in a New Field. The painting resonates for me now in a different way. Knowing a more personal side of what it is like to send a loved one off to war, the somewhat haunting background of the painting with its untold story reverberates more strongly than ever when I teach the Civil War—or any conflict for that matter. Moreover, the ability to explore the depth of the painting with tools the institute provided for us—as well as with others, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History—has given me and perhaps some of my students a sense of comfort (a coping mechanism so to speak) that there is another story in that painting that speaks of recovery, forgiveness, and solace.

To that end, I was thrilled to learn that NEH has launched a new initiative, Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War, which speaks to the experiences of war and veterans, their families and  fellow citizens, and which brings together some of the excellent films and other Web-based resources the agency has funded over the years.