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Paintings as windows to the past Return to listing



In an age of high stakes testing, driven by a pedagogy resting on a “facts” based” approach to learning, history teachers are at times hard pressed to engage students and challenge them to use higher level thinking skills. However, through an interdisciplinary approach to learning, teachers can begin to not only cover relevant material in the curriculum but also challenge students to develop interpretive skills and to think critically. In essence, through this methodology students can begin to “do” history. Resting on this basic assumption, Paintings as Windows to the Past will explore proven strategies to bring the fine arts into the history classroom in order to broach history content. Paintings will become the primary sources through which students begin to explore the past. While not abandoning aesthetics, the students will in essence move beyond an emotional reaction to works of art and set the work in a broader socio-historic context. Instructors will explore ways to inject additional primary documents into the lesson so that students can build strong, evidence-backed interpretations of works of art.

Course objectives

The participant will

  • identify advantages of engaging students through in interdisciplinary pedagogy.
  • identify, critique, and explain the six interpretive steps used through the REED-LO scaffold/interpretive model.
  • analyze and interpret works of art using REED-LO.
  • identify the primary steps involved related to designing interdisciplinary lessons tying history and the fine arts.
  • create an interdisciplinary lesson combining the fine arts and history content.
  • critique and analyze interpretations of themes tied to world and United States history.

Course requirements

This course takes place over seven weeks. Each week you will be required to complete a series of readings, complete an assignment, and engage in on-line discussions. Each week we will focus on one primary work of art, as well as possibly additional secondary works. Each work of art will be explored aesthetically and within its surrounding socio-historic context. Participants will complete the course by creating a lesson plan that uses a unique interpretive scaffold we will use during the course, at least one work of art, and supplemental primary sources. Participants will receive a digital packet containing all of the lesson plans created during the course.

Course information

This course is appropriate for third through twelfth grade social studies and art teachers. While the sample lessons used in the course are geared toward students in high school, the basic concepts can easily be applied at the third through eighth grade learning levels.
Time commitments
Participants will need to devote roughly four to six hours each week to completing reading assignments, participating in online discussions, and designing a lesson plan.
The course runs for seven weeks. Weeks begin on Wednesdays at midnight and end on midnight the following Tuesday.
Credits and fee

The course is $135.00 plus the cost of Dating Jane: Domesticity, Death, and Photography in a Nineteenth Century Portrait. This book can be purchased through Politics and Prose.

Course Syllabus


What may appear to be a simple question becomes deceptively complicated! Over the course of this week, we will explore different perspectives on art and art theory. Through various readings and activities, I hope to demonstrate that works of art do indeed contain meanings that in many cases move beyond being objects that are items of beauty or even disgust. As a case study, we will focus heavily on a work of art by the 19th c. American Naïve artist, Linton Park. You will also have the chance to begin to explore a famous work of art by Picasso in order to set the work within a larger socio-historic context and move beyond aesthetics.


Portraits are arguably in many cases more than simple reproductions of the likeness of individuals. Quite often, a portrait attempts to “say” something about the individual depicted. Through the use of props, symbols, and even the sitter’s stance and expression, the artist can begin to reveal hints about the sitter’s character. The best portrait artists can bring a psychological edge to the sitter that can begin to reveal the essence of what type of person the sitter was. In this manner, portraits, even portraits of “ordinary” people, can begin to shed light on a host of historical topics and themes, even themes and topics that move beyond the subject. Through the manner in which the subject is depicted, a light begins to shine on wider issues. In this manner, a portrait can become a phenomenal launching pad to explore historical content.


He arguably gave birth to Modern political thought. He advanced a political line of thought that continues to reverberate through politics today. Even his name morphed into an adjective to describe a cutthroat approach to politics. Yet it is a portrait of this man, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), painted posthumously that may reflect the way many perceived his character in the late 16th century. Through this portrait by Santi di Tito (1535-1607), painted ca. 1590, we find a possible window to learn more about Machiavelli—and about a line of thinking, physiognomy, that artists have used to make subtle, or at times not so subtle, comments about the underlying character of a subject. This week, we will explore the concept of physiognomy and see if it can help us better understand the Santi di Tito portrait of Machiavelli.


So how do we successfully engage students through using art? How do we insure that students pull the historical content we as instructors need to cover from a particular work of art? This week, we will examine a scaffold I designed to help address these questions. A scaffold is simply a matrix students can use as a guide as they work through a particular academic challenge. The scaffold I designed, REED-LO, helps students navigate the six steps involved in formulating an interpretation. REED-LO is an acronym for each step of the interpretive process, and it allows students to explore works of art at multiple levels.


Now that we have formulated an opinion of Pax Pacific outside of its historic context, we will now examine Step Five, Locate, in greater detail. This step, as a history teacher, is the most important step as it allows the student to become exposed to core content material. In this case, you will read a poem that directly influenced Pierre Daura as he painted Pax Pacific. According to the artist’s daughter, this poem inspired Daura to paint Pax Pacific. With this new knowledge, we can assume that Daura was trying to put forth a similar meaning in his painting. Thus, by understanding the meaning of the poem, we can begin to develop a more accurate meaning of the painting.


Participants will now explore, in detail, a 1938 painting by Robert Riggs. Using REED-LO, as well as a packet of primary documents, participants will formulate an evidence-based interpretation and opinion about the work.


Having now used REED-LO to explore two different paintings, as well as sample lesson plans that use REED-LO and works of art to examine history content, participants will now design their own lesson plan. The lesson plan will include REED-LO, at least one work of art, and additional primary documents.


  Location: moodle.learnnc.org
  Date: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - Wednesday, August 27, 2014
  Time: -
  Sponsor: LEARN NC - LNC_PWP_0614
  Price: $135.00
  Pay Methods:  Check  Credit Card
  For more information, contact the event administrator: Mike Bamford mbamford@unc.edu

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