Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Portraits: I've Just Seen a Face

Created September 27, 2010


The Lesson


Portraits: Boy with Saturday Evening Post

Boy with Saturday Evening Post

The day the photographer comes to school to take portrait photos is always quite a day, filled with irrepressible excitement and barely suppressed anxiety. When the pictures arrive, they are shared, traded, talked about and sometimes hidden. We are all protective of our own image.

Image has always been important to the powerful. Their portraits have traditionally been designed to impress us with the gravity of the subject. But changing sensibilities and media have tended to introduce more intimacy and spontaneity.

Creating visual and literary representations of people has proven to be an enduring human activity. Help your students examine this compulsion of ours to capture the human in image and words.

Guiding Questions

  • What differences in portraits can students observe?
  • What image of the individual do portraits convey to the students?
  • What kinds of portraits have been made of historical figures?

Learning Objectives

  • Cite at least three purposes a portrait can serve
  • List criteria for analyzing the image a portrait projects
  • Analyze a portrait of an historical figure based on the criteria
  • Relate biographical research to a portrait

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. The first three lessons comprise a unit in which students develop criteria for looking at portraits. In the culminating lesson, students use a portrait of a famous American and their own research to make a presentation to the class. The rubric provided at the end of this unit can be used to evaluate students' presentations, or as a model for designing your own rubric.

The first three lessons should fit well into a biography unit or a study of a particular period of American history. Many examples of portraits are offered, but you can also use EDSITEment resources to locate additional portraits to fit your curriculum.

For Lesson 1, ask volunteers to bring in some of their school pictures from the past.

In preparation for Lesson 2, type the list of criteria the students developed. As the students make further refinements, update the list when practical.

Lessons 4-6 are designed to stand alone. Use them after students have experience with portraits and then whenever it best suits your class. Lesson 4 helps your students write portraits in poetry. Lesson 5 can serve as an introduction to a careers unit. Lesson 6 encourages students to make self-portraits. Your students might enjoy this activity at the end of the year to create a simple yearbook.

Download and duplicate as necessary any materials you will use. Choose from the images listed or use the resources listed at the end of this unit to search for your own. If possible, print at least one color copy of color images; if that is not possible, bookmark chosen portraits on an accessible computer for easy viewing.

In this unit, students develop and work with their own criteria for analyzing portraits. Every analysis should begin with observations. Make sure the student criteria can change as new ideas arise. A set of portrait analysis criteria based on those developed by an art historian is included with this lesson (click here to download a PDF version of these criteria). The criteria can inform your leadership of discussions with the students. Additional document analysis resources:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Portraits of Children

Briefly share and discuss some portraits of students taken as school photos. Why are these pictures taken every year? Why do some students dress up for these portraits while others choose to be photographed looking as they do every day? Why do some students (or their parents) purchase pictures? What do they do with them? If they are given to relatives and friends and kept by parents, what image of the student are such people hoping the picture will project? (In other words, some would be disappointed if the picture showed the student doing something silly. On the other hand, they don't want the picture portraying the student in some artificially serious pose, either.)

In this lesson, students will try to analyze what image of the children is being projected in some archival portraits.

Students may be surprised to learn that portraits of children have been made for hundreds of years. After looking at students' school photos, share some examples of portraits of children with the class. The following list presents samples you can use, listed in chronological order (all available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City):

In addition to these portraits, show students a photo of Miss Grace Wagner, a student at Central High in Washington, DC, learning the art of auto mechanics (1927).

As students discuss the portrait(s) you select, work with them to develop a list of criteria for analyzing or judging the image a portrait projects. Students might discuss such characteristics as the posture of the subject, the subject's clothing, objects in the photo, the subject's expression. (Note: A set of portrait analysis criteria based on those developed by an art historian is included with this lesson; click here to download in PDF format. Download Adobe Reader)

Distribute copies of an appropriate number of the following portraits so about three to five students, working individually, are looking at the same image. (Assign a number to each portrait to help the students form groups later.)

Students will use the criteria they developed in the previous discussion as a guide for assessing the portrait. Then, each student should write a caption regarding the characteristics of the subject in the assigned portrait. Next, students gather with others who looked at the same portrait to share their captions and compare and contrast their assessment of the subject. If desired, a presenter can be assigned from each group to share a composite of the group's reaction to the portrait.

Activity 2. The Good, the Bad and ... Status in Portraits

Why would an important person want a portrait of him or herself? Portraits can help project an image of high status for the subject. But, portraits can also deflate that status. This lesson focuses on the image a portrait conveys.

Begin by passing out a list of the criteria the students designed for looking at a portrait. Review the criteria.

The following list of possible images, organized in alphabetical order, represents portraits of famous Americans who were selected because students are unlikely to recognize them. Distribute an appropriate number of portraits. Working individually, in pairs or in small groups, students analyze one of the portraits below (or any the teacher finds) by applying their own criteria. Students are to hypothesize about the person (status, wealth, place in history and so on) and the portrait's purpose (meant to elevate the subject's status, to deflate the subject's status, unbiased, etc.).

(Note: All of the portraits below are available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website National Portrait Gallery unless otherwise noted.)

After students offer their hypotheses, reveal the identities of the subjects, providing background information to help students evaluate their hypotheses.

Now, for fun, your students might enjoy creating portraits designed to project a particular image. Group students in pairs. Each student creates a portrait of his/her partner intended to project an image the subject chooses. This portrait can be a drawing, photograph or poem. Each student then writes a brief "biography" of his/her partner explaining the image. (For example, Bill might want to be portrayed in soccer gear, scoring a goal. The biography would discuss Bill's soccer career.)

Activity 3. American Portraits in History

Throughout this unit, students have used their own pre-determined criteria to analyze various portraits and hypothesize information about the subject. Now, students will research a famous American for whom they also have a portrait.

Begin by conducting a model discussion of a portrait of an American with whom the students are familiar. For example, analyze, as a class, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson created when he was President. (The portrait is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory, with background information available from the National Portrait Gallery, also reviewed by EDSITEment.)

Have students use the class criteria to guide the discussion. Make sure students look carefully at the objects in the image: a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a bust of Benjamin Franklin, a globe and an electrostatic generator. What do these indicate about Jefferson's life and interests?

Once you feel confident the students understand the analysis process, assign each student (or small groups) a portrait of a famous American and have students research the biography of their portrait subject. Students are to deliver a presentation or write a brief report tying the portrait to the subject's biography.

The following list contains examples of the range of portraits of famous Americans available through EDSITEment resources. Use them to access additional portraits to fit such themes as biography, American Revolution, Presidents, First Ladies, Famous American Women, Civil War, Native Americans, Black History, The Twentieth Century, and many more.

Activity 4. Portraits in Pictures and Words

Words can "paint" a portrait. The following poems, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed The Academy of American Poets, effectively use language to create an image of the subject:

Using a portrait poem appropriate to the class, attempt an analysis using the students' criteria for graphic portraits. In what ways do they apply? In what ways do they not apply?

Using Prelutsky's "Super Samson Simpson" as an example, here are some lines that might apply to the criteria:

Criteria: Line:
the subject's position "my grandma carries me"
the subject's expression "My muscles are enormous / they bulge from top to toe"
objects in the portrait "I like to carry elephants ... I pick up half a dozen / and hoist them in the air"

"Bloody Bill" presents a portrait of a character, Bloody Bill, created by the narrator. The pirate is described colorfully enough that students could draw his picture: "Bloody Bill / Was marching up the sidewalk / On the old Spadina Hill ... He had a sort of eye-patch ... He wore a bloody dagger / In his muddy, bloody belt." The poem also serves as a portrait of the narrator, who uses the story of Bloody Bill to avoid a fight.

"As Soon as Fred Gets Out of Bed" also works as a portrait (albeit a bit silly looking portrait): "But near his ears, above his brains / is where Fred's underwear remains."

A poem can also do, directly, what a portrait can only do indirectly?that is to take the reader into the mind of the subject. For example, "Last Night I Dreamed of Chickens" describes a child's dream.

After reviewing some of the ways poems can create portraits, your students can create their own poetic portraits. Some simple forms work particularly well for portrait poems. The cinquain, a five-line form, can be constructed as follows:

Line 1: a one-word topic, such as the subject's name (noun)
Line 2: two describing words (adjectives)
Line 3: three action words (verbs)
Line 4: a four-word phrase
Line 5: a synonym or equivalent for the topic

Students also could create poems to serve as captions for a gallery of portraits suited to a unit of study (a study of U.S. presidents, for example) that are available on various EDSITEment-reviewed websites. The couplet-a verse composed of two lines, usually rhyming-might be an appropriate form for students to use with this assignment. Students might also want to draw or paint portraits to accompany their poems.

Activity 5. Portraits of People at Work

Why are so many portraits created of people with their work? Like the boy painted with his pet falcon in Lesson #1, objects in a photograph can help convey information. How do the objects in the following samples add to the images these photographs project?

Students can create a gallery of portraits of subjects and their work to accompany a unit on careers or to report on jobs in a given place or historical era.

Activity 6. Self-portraits

When you create a portrait of yourself, you can project any image you choose. What personal image was each of the following artists trying to project in creating their self-portraits? Why don't artists always create flattering portraits of themselves? (Note: All of these portraits, except for Robert Cornelius, are accessible on the EDSITEment-reviewed Metropolitan Museum of Art website.)


Now, each student can design a portrait to project a self-chosen image. Using a camera or digital camera would be a great way of creating the portraits. An exhibition (on a bulletin board or the computer) with appropriate captions can be mounted. You may wish to work collaboratively with your school's art instructor on this project.

Extending The Lesson

  • If appropriate technology is available, assign small groups of students to find and download portraits related to relevant historical events, and to label them with bibliographic information and historical analysis. For example, portraits could be used to create a picture book about important personalities involved with an historical event being studied in class.
  • Have students conduct research on the history of photography, including the daguerreotype process, and how changes in the technology over time affected the potential content of photographs.
  • Encourage students to use portraits to trace social and cultural changes through time, such as in military uniforms or high-society fashions.
  • Assign students to gather and analyze a variety of portraits of one individual, such as a political leader, artist or scientist, to reveal how that person's image changed over time. These images of Abraham Lincoln—starting before he had a beard, to shortly before his death—make a good case in point:

Recommended Readings for Younger Readers, from the Library of Congress's Learning Page:

  • Butterfield, Moira and Susan Peach. Photography. London: Usborne Publishing, 1991.
  • Freedman, Russell. Lincoln: A Photobiography. New York: Clarion, 1987.
  • Lowe, Jacques. Looking at Photographs: People. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.
  • Meredith, Roy. Mr. Lincoln's Camera Man: Mathew B. Brady. New York: Dover, 1974.
  • Sullivan, George. Mathew Brady: His Life and Photographs. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1994.
  • Turner, Robyn. Dorothea Lange. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1994.

Additional Recommended Reading:

  • King, Penny and Roundhill, Clare. Portraits (Artist's Workshop). New York: Crabtree Publishers, 1996.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis


Activity Worksheets