Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Romare Bearden's "The Dove"—A Meeting of Vision and Sound


The Lesson


Romare Bearden, (1911–1988)

Romare Bearden, (1911–1988). The Dove. 1964. Cut-and-pasted photo-reproductions and papers, gouache, pencil and colored pencil on cardboard, 13 3/8 x 18 3/4”

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What does the artist see? How does that vision shape our perceptions of society? In The Dove, artist Romare Bearden challenges us to examine Black culture in America. Constructed out of ordinary scraps of paper, his collage figures link the present day experience of the 1960s to the past. By examining the art of Romare Bearden, students will learn to appreciate the artistic and intellectual achievement of Black artists in America in the first half of the 20th century. By listening to music, students will see how art and music intersect to tell us a story. They will relate that story to their own lives.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Romare Bearden define Black identity in The Dove and what are the sources of his inspiration?
  • How does jazz music relate to the art of Romare Bearden?
  • How can we relate art and music to changes in American society?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify Romare Bearden’s collage technique and explain how his vision represents African American identity.
  • Discuss the importance of improvisation in jazz music.
  • Analyze how changes in art and musical style reflect changes in society.


In many ways, examining the life and art of Romare Bearden is like weaving a passage through the rich collection of individual stories that reveal the struggle of people of color to become fully accepted in American society. Which Bearden should we examine? Each stage of his life is like one of his eclectic collages. Each collage figure possesses a complex dynamic. Each recalls personal moments in Bearden’s life: growing up in the South, migrating North with his parents, as well as experiencing the music of the jazz age and engaging in the civil rights movement.

Bearden was born in North Carolina and like many African Americans maintained contact with his Southern roots. It is not surprising therefore that we see trains and fields in his work. Coming of age in New York during the culturally rich period of the Harlem Renaissance, the teenage Bearden deepened his love of music as he listened to Duke Ellington play in his family’s apartment. Thus the sights and sounds of the jazz age left their impression in his art. The man Bearden went to war in a segregated army to fight Fascism, when his country drafted him into service. The soldier Bearden later took advantage of the G.I. Bill and studied in Paris. By the 1960s, the mature artist Bearden found his vision in collage techniques.

At the same time that Romare Bearden was becoming a true artist, civil rights leaders debated over the direction of their movement. The ‘New Negro’ of the 1920s gave way to the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Jazz, that buoyant expression of the 1920s, reflected the crisis in American society over the Vietnam War and civil rights.

Preparation Instructions

The activities in this lesson are designed to be primarily visual and audio with a strong focus on creative expression. Teachers can adapt them to various grade levels. Most importantly, this lesson focuses on empowerment. It encourages students to develop their own questions and search for answers using appropriate library and Internet resources. Their interaction mirrors the interaction of jazz musicians.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Developing a Keen Eye

Based on an inductive approach, the keen eye activity is divided into two (2) parts and requires one class period.

Part 1 asks students to compare photos from the Farm Security Administration. Part 2 encourages students to think critically about The Dove and develop questions that they would ask the artist in an interview. At the end of this lesson, students will create an art magazine that answers those questions.

Part 1 – Urban and Rural Life

Part 1 is a brainstorming activity to encourage students to find similarities and differences in photographs and draw tentative conclusions based on evidence. It is intended as an introductory exercise to a discussion of The Dove. You can easily expand this exercise into a full period discussion as part of an extended exercise on living conditions in contemporary America. By including a third image, you can challenge students to re-think their assumptions about the evidence.

Step 1: Divide the class into pairs or small groups of 3 or 4 students. Have the groups compare photos 1 and 2. Pose the following questions and require students to circle the evidence in the photos.

  • When do you think these photos were taken?
  • What do you see in these photos?
  • What do they tell you about daily life?
  • What do these photos fail to reveal about the people and places?
  • How do people interact in these photos? How much space is between them?

Allow students 10–15 minutes to complete this exercise. They must also summarize those findings in a single thesis statement. They can use the downloadable worksheet.

Step 2: On the board, draw two boxes with sufficient space between them for a summary of The Dove. Write group responses on the board alongside the evidence used to support their arguments. After students complete part 2 of this activity, you will write their conclusions between the boxes, using a different colored marker or chalk.

Part 2 – The Dove

Having drawn tentative conclusions from the photos, students are ready to see how Bearden uses collage to change our perceptions of space and society.

Step 1: Display the Picturing America Image of The Dove, or project an image of The Dove or ask students to view it online at Picturing America.

Step 2: In small groups, have students answer the following questions. Allow approximately 10 minutes for this exercise.

  • Who do you see in the image?
  • What colors do you see?
  • What materials did the artist use?
  • How are the people portrayed?

Step 3: Summarize student remarks on the board (approximately 5 minutes).

As a bridge to Activity 2, ask students if they see harmony or discord (dissonance) in The Dove. With a colored board marker or chalk, write harmony and dissonance on the board. Have the students fill out the accompanying worksheet.

Step 4: Thinking about perception

In a class discussion, ask students to compare The Dove to photo 2.

  • Question 1: If you were in photo 2, where would you be standing? If you walked to the left in photo 2, what would you see?
  • Question 2: If you were in The Dove, where would you be standing? If you walked to the left, what would you see?

NOTE: Depending on students’ responses, you may need to point out that Bearden breaks down our sense of perception and brings us into the picture. Breaking down barriers and understanding how our changed perceptions reflect larger social changes are two ideas that you may need to stress. It is equally important to stress that the collage represents a larger reality. The photos are brief moments. They represent what the photographer sees from a specific perspective. The collage embodies multiple views, which you can link to improvisation in jazz music in Activity 2.

Preparing the Interview

Tell students that they have been asked to interview Romare Bearden for a local art magazine and write a short two paragraph essay for the Saturday edition. Have students write two questions they would ask the artist. Students should exchange questions. Students with similar questions form a pool of reporters. Each pool will research a question using appropriate Internet sites. At the end of this lesson, each pool will prepare an essay for the art magazine project. In addition, each pool can assume responsibility for one section of the magazine:

  • Editing
  • Art
  • Local News
  • Music Reviews
  • History
  • Poetry

Supplemental Material

Link the study of art to literature and refer students to American Passages Unit 14, especially the overview of Ralph Ellison. In addition, direct students to Making Sense of Documentary Photos. Additional art related lesson plans are available at Romare Bearden: Piecing Together View Point.

Activity 2. Developing a Keen Ear

Activity 2 is designed as an informal introduction to jazz to encourage students to discover the intersection of art and music in Romare Bearden’s The Dove. It consists of three phases:

  • Phase 1: Listening to sounds about place using “The Joint is Jumpin’”
  • Phase 2: Listening to jazz and introducing the concept of improvisation.
  • Phase 3: Concert Visit: Visualizing sights and sounds of jazz in The Dove using a short 3 min. video. If Ken Burns’ Jazz series is available in your school library, select a short 5 minute segment for viewing as an alternative.

Students will learn to appreciate the rhythms of jazz music at an emotional level and visualize motion in Bearden’s artwork.

Note: If you wish to expand this activity, you will find worksheets and lesson plans and other music available on the Smithsonian Jazz Class website as well as at PBS Jazz.

To prepare for this activity, you will need copies of the following, some of which are in the public domain. Many are also available on CDs in local libraries.

Phase 1: Listening to Sound (15 min)

Step 1: Break the class into small groups of three to four students. Tell students to relax. They should close their eyes. Play “The Joint is Jumpin’” (2:48 min).

Small Group discussion questions:

  • What sounds do you hear in this music?
  • What instruments did you hear? Are the instruments soft or loud?
  • Where do you think this music was played?

Step 2: Elicit responses to the questions. Focus discussion on ‘place’. You can point out that jazz was played live in clubs and in homes (see Harlem Rent Parties) as well as in a speakeasy during the prohibition era. You can later develop these themes into additional activities.

Step 3: Look at an image of The Dove. Students should now think about how their perception of the collage has changed after listening to Fats Waller. By breaking down the rules of perspective, Bearden is inviting us to join a street party full of different sights and sounds. The street is alive. How is this street different from photo 1 in activity 1? Ask students to point out party scenes. Which figures represent loud sounds (crescendo) and which soft (descendo)?

Step 4: Replay Fats Waller’s Play “The Joint is Jumpin’”as students view The Dove. How does sound bring movement to the collage?

Phase 2: Listening to Jazz – improvisation (15-20 min)

Step 1: Point to Bearden’s collage. Ask five students to approach the projection. Have each pick a figure and describe where that person is looking. Ask the class to describe the position of their classmates in the room. After discussion, point out that Bearden was both an artist and musician. Each musician has a different perspective, each interprets music differently, but they are united in a common theme.

Step 2: Have students close their eyes and listen to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker playing “Salt Peanuts” (3:16 min). In small group discussion, ask students to explain what they heard. Students will likely note that the music seems fragmented like The Dove. As a bridge to The Dove talk about one characteristic of jazz. Point out that improvisation—the spontaneous creation of music or voice—is an essential part of jazz music. Although the improvisation appears individualistic, it is still part of the collective playing experience, because the group is united by a common theme. The figures in The Dove look in different directions, but they share a common experience and a common hope.

Note: As an option, you can play suggested jazz songs listed in the listening activities for teaching Romare Bearden prepared for the National Gallery of Art resources for teachers. Students can also listen to various musicians at Smithsonian Jazz Class website. It is, however, best to use CDs because internet links often change. Depending on class interest, you can introduce other elements of jazz music: break, riffing, scat (see, for example, the Take the A Train lesson plan on the Smithsonian Jazz Class website). Introduce either one or all three characteristics per activity.

Step 3: Repeat listening and viewing if necessary.

Phase 3: Concert Visit: Visualizing sights and sounds of jazz (10 min)

Preparation: Try to project both The Dove and virtual concert simultaneously on a board, if possible. Have students use the accompanying worksheet. Note: As an alternative, ask students to view a short jazz concert (3 min) at Google video while looking at an image of The Dove.

To reinforce the concept of different jazz styles, play Duke Ellington, “It Don't Mean a Thing If You Don't Got That Swing.” After the virtual concert visit, discuss the following questions:

  • How is this music different?
  • What do you now see in Bearden’s artwork?
  • How could you relate Jazz to the music you listen to today?

Supplemental Material

A Biography of American: The Twenties (Annenberg)

Billie Holliday, I cried for you! (Internet Archive)

Dizzy Gillespie (Today in History)

Dizzy Gillespie (America’s Story)

Ella Fitzgerald (Today in History)

Jelly Roll Morton (Today in History)

Listen to Fats Waller playing Handful of Keys (Smithsonian Jazz Class)

NPR Early History of Jazz Completing the Interview (5 min)

When you have completed all three phases of this activity, you may want to return to the interview that students began in Activity 1. It has been suggested that Romare Bearden’s collages are like jazz music. Ask students if they agree with this statement and whether they do or do not see any similarity between the jazz compositions they have listened to and Bearden’s The Dove? Tell each pool to think of a new question for Romare Bearden based on their listening experience. Put these questions in the letters to the editor section of the magazine.

Extending The Lesson

Students can create a VUE Map (Virtual Understanding Environment) from images available at the Library of Congress Farm Security Administration as well as other sources, such as the NYPL Digital Collections. VUE is open source software developed by Tufts University. As a class project, have students develop maps on various events and music during the civil rights moment of 1950s and 1960s. Advanced students should visit the local library or town historical society to find images.

Students should visit Drop Me Off in Harlem and follow up their visit by talking a virtual tour of Harlem using Google maps. Have students create a collage of Harlem using historical and virtual images. Students can also read Harlem Rent Parties.

Students can use open source audio software, such as Audacity, to recreate their own podcasts and talk about their impressions of Duke Ellington using the Duke Ellington collection at the Internet Archive.

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Art History
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Music
  • Auditory analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Interview/survey skills
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Musical analysis
  • Visual art analysis
  • William Mood, UMUC (College Park, MD)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources