Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

Picturing First Families

Created October 1, 2010


The Lesson


Picturing First Families

George Washington ("The Porthole Portrait") by Rembrandt Peale, c. 1823-1860

In this lesson, students take a virtual trip to Washington, D.C., and visit the National Portrait Gallery, the White House, and the Library of Congress, with a side trip to the University of Virginia to gather clues about America's original First Family, their lives and this period in American history. Students learn why we pay tribute to George Washington today by featuring his portrait on our currency. For contrast, students compare the National Portrait Gallery's Washington portraits with contemporary images of the First Family in the White House today. They gain an understanding of the significant role the First Family plays in representing the nation and the image of American families projected to other countries. This lesson can be extended through a variety of activities including writing a story about a family photograph and creating a personal family portrait to illustrate traits and characteristics of the student’s own family.

Guiding Questions

  • What can we learn about America’s original First Family and current First Family by looking at portraits of these families?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

  • Identify America's First Family, understand their role and know where they live
  • Recognize George and Martha Washington and understand why they are important in American history
  • Look for details in historic portraits to learn more about the people portrayed.
  • Compare historic portraits with contemporary photographic images
  • Describe what family portraits can tell us about a family and individual family members

Preparation Instructions

  • Log onto the National Portrait Gallery, available through EDSITEment, and click on Exhibition to preview the portraits suggested for use in this lesson. If you do not have Internet access in your classroom, print portraits 9, 10, 11 and 12 as resources for the lesson. It will be helpful to read the background information provided with each portrait.
  • Collect a selection of images of the President and his family from newspapers and newsmagazines.
  • Preview First Kid for a Day, from the Classroom section of the White House Historical Association website, which is suggested for student use in this lesson. (If students do not have computer access in your classroom, you may wish to print resources from this site to incorporate in this lesson.)
  • Preview The Papers of George Washington, available through EDSITEment. Frequently Asked Questions provides background information about George Washington, Martha Washington and their home in Mount Vernon. At Frequently asked Questions about George Washington, note the Special Link for Kids to a five-part comic strip about young George.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introducing the First Family

Begin by explaining that students will look at pictures to learn what they tell us about history and about families. Show the class several photos clipped from newspapers and magazines of the President and his wife and family. Ask the class to name them and to share what they know about America's First Family. The following questions may help guide this discussion:

  • Who are the members of this family?
  • Why are they called the "First Family"?
  • Where do they live?
  • Do they have pets?
  • What do we see members of the First Family doing on TV and in newspaper photos?
  • How long will this family be America's First Family?

Write key facts about the first family on the chalkboard.

Note: If you have Internet access in the classroom, you may wish to visit First Kid for a Day to enrich this part of the lesson. Designed for classroom use, as well as acting as a classroom program for Washington D.C. areas schools, this site includes image sets of presidents and their families, Grade K-8 lesson plans, and other program and White House online resources appropriate for children.

Activity 2. Who were George and Martha Washington?

Display for students the following portraits of George and Martha Washington from the National Portrait Gallery:

Display portrait 9 and portrait 12: Ask students to look at the portraits carefully to see what they reveal about the people portrayed. The following questions may help guide this analysis:

  • What are the people wearing?
  • How is their hair styled?
  • What is in the background of the picture?
  • What can you tell about the people from how they are posed and the expressions on their faces?

(If students have watched the popular PBS show "Antiques Roadshow," they may already be familiar with this method of analyzing portraits for clues.)

Ask each student to contribute a descriptive word to characterize the person in each portrait. Write their words on the chalkboard. If students haven’t already guessed the people in the portraits, tell them who they are. Also let students know that George Washington, our first President, is known as the "Father of Our Country" and that he and his wife Martha were America's original "First Family.” Explain that Gilbert Stuart painted the portraits more than 200 years ago, using oil paint on canvas.

Display portraits 10 and 11: Ask students if they notice anything unusual about these portraits. Explain that the painter, Gilbert Stuart, purposely left them unfinished.

As you look at the portrait of Martha Washington, you may want to share some of the background information about her available at The Papers of George Washington. If you explain to students that Martha destroyed nearly all of George’s letters to her shortly before her death, it may be interesting to explore why she did this. Perhaps she had a sense of the historical importance of her life with her husband and decided that destroying the letters was a way to keep her private life private.

As you look at the portrait of George Washington, you might want to relate Stuart's anecdote, included in the background about this portrait, about the President's new set of false teeth. You may also wish to share some of the background information available at The Papers of George Washington. Students may be particularly interested in the questions and answers about George’s family, his false teeth (with a link to a photograph of the teeth) and the celebration of his birthday.

Ask the class if this portrait of George Washington looks familiar and if they might it have it before. Allow time for responses, then show students a one-dollar bill and pass it around the class to give students a close look at the portrait it features. Do the same with a quarter-dollar coin.

Activity 3. Honoring our First President

Explain that memorializing George Washington on our currency is just one way we pay tribute to him. Ask students if they can think of other ways we honor George Washington. (Examples: Mt. Rushmore; the Washington Monument; hundreds of places named after him, including Washington state and Washington, D.C.; celebrating his birthday in February.)

To expand this discussion of why we honor The Father of Our Country, remind children of the story of the cherry tree and George's truthfulness (or recount the story if it is unfamiliar). You may want to explain that Washington’s honesty set an example for all other Presidents to follow. You will find the fable, illustrated with a portrait of the young George Washington, at The Papers of George Washington, available through EDSITEment.

This is an excellent opportunity to highlight key facts about George Washington, such as his role as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution, his contribution to establishing the Constitution of the United States and his place in history as the first President of the United States. Without him, the American Revolution and the new country might not have succeeded.

Revisit the students' descriptive words about George and Martha Washington. Now that they have learned more about George and Martha, see if these adjectives seem to accurately depict their character.

Activity 4. Fast Forward 200 Years

Once again, display the contemporary images of the current President and his family. You may also want to take the class to look at the photograph of the President displayed in your school, or bring the photo to your classroom. Encourage children to talk about how these images are different from the portraits of George and Martha Washington. Points of discussion may include how the First Families are dressed, their facial expressions and what they are doing in the photographs.

Discuss how techniques for making pictures of the First Family have changed in 200 years. Explain to the class that painters are still commissioned to paint presidential portraits, but that is no longer the only way we can see images of our President and his family. Today, photographs and video let American children see their President every day in newspapers and newsmagazines and on television and the Internet. It may be interesting to have the class compare what they know about their President today compared to what children living in America in Washington's time would have known about their President.

Extending The Lesson

Use one or more of the following ideas to expand children’s understanding of the topics in this lesson: Learn More about George Washington

  • These sites provide resources to give students further insights into the first president:

  • Learn More About Martha Washington

    These sites provide resources to give students further insights into the life and times of Martha Washington:

    • The Biography of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, available through EDSITEment. Read to students the quote that begins the biography and discuss how it reveals a woman who preferred to be at home but was still loyal to her husband's career as a soldier and politician. You may want to look at a photograph of George and Martha’s home at Mount Vernon displayed at The Papers of George Washington, available through EDSITEment, and talk about why Martha preferred her home to accompanying her husband to the sites of battles, both military and political.
    • The Custis Family portraits and letters at The Papers of George Washington, available through EDSITEment, give insights into George and Martha’s family. Although George Washington himself never had children, he adopted Martha's surviving children from her first marriage. He wrote several letters to these children and to his grandchildren that are available on this site, as well as portraits of two of the Washington grandchildren.
    • National First Ladies Library, available through EDSITEment, offers additional articles and biographical materials about Martha Washington.
  • Explore Washington’s Place in American History

    Visit these sites for resources to introduce students to key topics in American History:

  • Write a Story about a Family Portrait

    Explain that each family’s collection of photographs creates a personal portrait gallery. As a take-home assignment, ask students to look at their family’s photographs, choose one they like and write a story about it. The story should tell who is in the photo, what the photo tells about the person or people in it and why the child likes this particular photograph. (Students may have to ask parents for details of people and places in older photographs.) Ask students to read their stories with the class and, if possible, to bring the photo or a copy of the photo to share with the class.

  • Create a Personal Family Portrait

    Discuss with students how they could create portraits of themselves and their families. The following questions may help focus this discussion:

    • What people would they include in the portrait?
    • What setting would they choose?
    • What would people be doing in the portrait?
    • What items could they include to tell about their family's special interests (pets, musical instruments, sporting equipment, etc.)?
    • What would people who see the portrait learn about their family?

    As an in-class or take-home assignment, have students draw and color a personal family portrait to display in the classroom. If this lesson precedes a special holiday (Christmas or Hanukkah, Mother's Day, Father's Day, etc.), you might want to help children frame the portraits with posterboard as special gifts to take home.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

National Portrait Gallery

The Papers of George Washington

National First Ladies Library
Documents from Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention
Words and Deeds in American History

Additional Resources:
Brief biography of Martha Washington (available through the EDSITEment resource, National First Ladies Library)

The Basics

Time Required

2-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Critical analysis
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Visual analysis