Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech—Know It When You See It


The Lesson


19a. Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)

19a. Norman Rockwell (1894–1978), "Freedom of Speech", The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 35 1/2 in. (116.205 x 90.170 cm.).

Credit: The Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass. ©1943 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, Ind. All rights reserved.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

—The Constitution of the United States, Amendment I

Do you recognize freedom of speech when you see or hear it? As the United States apprehensively approached World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt listed four American freedoms in his State of the Union address to Congress in 1941. In order to make these abstract ideas more widely understood and appreciated, Norman Rockwell illustrated how these freedoms appear in everyday American life. In this lesson students learn to recognize freedom of speech within their community, state, country, and world. After examining Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech, they will report on a town meeting and create a collage featuring examples of free speech.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom of Speech illustrate the American right of free speech?
  • How is the First Amendment evident in everyday local community life?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson students will be able to

  • Explain how artist Norman Rockwell composed this painting to idealize the right of ordinary American citizens to speak their ideas without fear of censure
  • Identify the five freedoms in the First Amendment (religion, assembly, press, petition, and speech) and be able to give an example of each in daily/community life, state community, national community, and international community


When President Franklin D. Roosevelt alerted Congress to the necessity of an impending war in January 1941, he identified four ideas—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—which were central to the New Deal and which were also to guide his wartime policies. Yet despite an effort on the part of the government to communicate these ideas, by the summer of 1942 a survey revealed that a majority of Americans had little knowledge of the Four Freedoms. This situation inspired American illustrator Norman Rockwell to create one of his greatest artistic achievements. He conceived The Four Freedoms as four idealized scenes of these freedoms in ordinary American life. These first appeared in 1943 as covers for the popular The Saturday Evening Post magazine before touring the country in an exhibit promoting the purchase of War bonds.

In the 1940’s, most Americans were familiar with Rockwell as an artist of idealized life in small town America. His detailed scenes featuring ordinary people captured the essence of America’s generous democratic spirit. Rockwell was born in New York in 1894 and became an illustrator for Boys Life magazine soon after graduating from art school. In 1916 he created his first of over 300 covers for The Saturday Evening Post.

During Rockwell’s career abstract art dominated the art world. Although his art was loved by Americans, it was shunned by art museums, curators, and art historians as mere illustration, not fine art. Not until 20 years after his 1978 death did major art museums and art critics begin to acknowledge his paintings as fine art.

See the Educators Resource Book on the Picturing America Web site for further information and discussion ideas.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout.
  • Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites.
  • Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Look and Think

Before discussing Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech, have students study it individually and write their answers on Worksheet 1, Look and Think. Use the worksheet questions and the students’ answers as a framework for a class discussion about the art. Encourage them to notice details that Rockwell added to help us understand this story and the feeling between the people in the painting.

  1. Study this painting. What do you know about the man who is standing?
    1. What is he doing? Because his mouth is open, he seems to be speaking.
    2. Where is he looking? He is looking up, probably towards a moderator who is leading this meeting. However, notice that he also seems to be looking to a higher authority, which suggests respect and something almost spiritual about his speech.
    3. What is he wearing? A blue plaid shirt and a wrinkled jacket.
    4. Are his clothes old or new? His clothes are wrinkled. His jacket sleeve on the lower right is worn or tattered. The clothes are not new.
    5. What might he do for a living? Why do you think this? His clothes suggest that he is a manual laborer. Because his hands are much darker and rougher than the hand in the lower right, he might work outdoors with his hands.
    6. What is in his pocket? Folded papers—probably like the blue paper on the lower edge of the painting. The letters on this, “…UAL REPORT”, “TOWN” and “… MONT,” suggest that this is the annual report of a town in Vermont. Because it is folded and in his pocket, we might guess that he has read this report.
  2. Where is the viewer of this painting? Seated a couple of rows in front of the speaker. How does this viewpoint influence how we feel about the man speaking? We are looking up at the speaker. This might suggest that we admire or respect this person.
  3. Where is this group of people? The flat black background could be a school blackboard. The rail that the standing man is gripping could be a church pew. But in fact, they are in a town meeting. Small New England towns often pass and discuss local by-laws and budgets in town meetings. Each eligible voter has a right to speak and vote in these meetings, sometimes called the “purest form of democratic governing.” In traditional American assembly, citizens make their voices heard as they and their neighbors decide the course of their community.
  4. Look carefully at the people in this painting.
    1. What might be the profession of the two men on either side of the standing man? Why do you think this? Because they are in suit jackets, ties, and white dress shirts like 1940’s professional men such as bankers, lawyers, doctors, and business owners usually wore.
    2. What are these two men looking at? At the speaker’s face.
    3. Are they listening to the standing man? Yes. How did the artist suggest that they are listening to the speaker? Rockwell made the ears slightly larger than life and they are looking at him. Notice the prominent ear in the lower left corner.
    4. Who is the oldest person in this painting? One of the men in black jackets on the left side of the painting.
    5. Who is the youngest? Maybe the speaker or the woman wearing the black hat.
    6. Who probably is wealthiest? Maybe one of the men in suit jackets.
    7. Who may be poorest? Maybe the speaker. Traditionally managers who usually wear white collars are wealthier than laborers or blue-collar workers. The speaker literally is wearing a blue collar.
  5. Do these people respect each other’s opinions? How has the artist suggested this? They have gathered together and are focusing their gaze on the speaker.
  6. How has Rockwell made a humble citizen seem most important in this painting? He has placed him higher than the others, at the apex of a visual triangle with quiet a few eyes looking up at him. (Have students trace this triangle, which begins with the head of the man to the left of the speaker and ends with the ears of the man on the lower right.) He has created value contrast (the difference between light and dark) between the speaker’s light, brightly lit face and the flat black background.
  7. How does the standing man feel about what his is saying? He seems very intent. His hands grip the seat back in front of him. Notice the light reflections in his eyes.
  8. Imagine a topic that the standing man might be discussing. Why might others in the room value his opinion? Perhaps the man is telling how a decision will affect his life or family. Maybe he is explaining why a town improvement is needed near his home, or how a town rule will affect his job, or describing his dream for bettering his community. Others might value his viewpoint because his life, background, and needs are different than theirs.
Activity 2. First Amendment Rights in our Press

Students will learn what the five freedoms of the First Amendment are: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Assembly, Freedom of Press, Freedom of Petition and Freedom of Speech. Teach students the acronym RAPPS (Religion, Assembly, Press, Petition, and Speech) to help them remember. Define each the right that corresponds with each part of this acronym.

Tell the students, that they will be looking through their local newspaper to find the First Amendment in action. This activity can be done individually or in pairs. Worksheet 2 is provided for this activity.


  1. Look through the newspaper and find an article that shows the First Amendment in action.
  2. Cut out the article.
  3. On a separate sheet of paper write the following:
    1. The name of the news article
    2. Which part of the First Amendment that is “in action.”
    3. One solid paragraph that uses evidence (text from the article and from the Bill of Rights) to explain how and why this article illustrates your amendment in action.
  4. Staple or lightly glue your article to your paper.

NOTE: Do not use articles that refer to international stories or in other countries—our laws and rights are not extended into the international community.

Once students have finished, have them share their articles with the rest of the class. The presenting students should summarize their article for the class and then the class can guess which part of the First Amendment is being described.

Activity 3. Breaking News: The Town Meeting

Students will have an opportunity to place themselves in the painting, while creatively responding to writing prompts as a news reporter. Depending on the time availability, teachers may want to discuss in more depth the characteristics of various news articles (news, features, style, etc.) and allow the students to choose their type of article to write. (Worksheet 3 is provided for this activity.)


Pretend you are a reporter covering the meeting shown in the painting. Write an article or a blog entry about this town meeting and what was said. Imagine what the other participants in the meeting said.

Answer the questions below to help frame your news article:

  1. What will the title of your news article be?
  2. What type of article are you writing? (news, feature, style?)
  3. Create the setting for your article: where did the meeting take place (city, state, and building)? When did the meeting take place? Who was invited?
  4. Create a purpose for the meeting. Why were these people meeting? What was the most important topic on the agenda?
  5. Name two of the people in the painting. Create a quote for each of them based on what you think they would have said about the town meeting prior to it (their expectations) or after the meeting (in summary). Be sure to think about their facial expressions as you create the reactions.
  6. What was/were the resolution(s) to the meeting?

If interested, create a podcast of your article or create an interview using the same information as if you were the people in the painting and there.


Create a collage of First Amendment freedoms in the

  • community
  • state
  • country
  • world

Assign students or pairs of students to each of the regions above. Have students search newspapers, magazines, campaign flyers, posters, and Internet sites to find examples of citizens exercising their first amendment rights of free speech and assembly. Students may print out, copy, and cut out headlines, photographs, cartoons, and phrases. After arranging these to show their meaning, they may paste these on paper or cardboard. They may add marker lines to emphasize meaning. On a separate sheet of paper, have students write what they have included in their collage and why. Students should specifically point out first amendment examples. Have students explain their collages to each other. Display the collages and their analysis.

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Art History
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Persuasive writing and speaking
  • Kaye Passmore, Ed.D, Art Education Consultant (Corpus Christi, TX)
  • Amy Trenkle, NBCT, 8th Grade U.S. History Teacher, Stuart-Hobson Middle School (Washington, DC)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources