- Explore History in Art
- Lesson Plans
- More Resources
In this section you will find a variety of resources to enhance your classroom use of Oh Freedom! The menu on the left will take you to bibliographies and the glossary. Below is a number of suggestions about how you can integrate Oh Freedom! artworks and tools into history lessons.
Check back often to find new materials to help teach about the Civil Rights movement through the unique lens of the Smithsonian collections.
Teaching with Oh Freedom!
Oh Freedom! is an interdisciplinary resource that helps K12 teachers and students explore and interpret the history, influence, and legacy of the Civil Rights movement. Using artworks as springboards, teachers and students can delve into the artworks’ historical and artistic contexts, artists’ backgrounds, related artworks and historical documents, and audio recordings. But why teach history this way? What can artists tell us about civil rights? How do you use art in the social studies classroom?
Why Use Art to Teach History?
Teaching with art can make the social studies classroom come alive. You can use artworks as primary sourcesusing them either independently or with documentsto teach about a particular historical event or era. Artworks can help all students to process and articulate their ideas. You can use artworks to pose questions, identify assumptions and perspectives, promote new insights, and develop arguments through open-ended conversations. As art historian Joshua Taylor said, “to see is to think.” When integrated well, teaching with artworks can help students become more active participants in their own learning by:
- visualizing and personalizing what they have read about in textbooks,
- raising questions to foster richer classroom discussion,
- increasing visual and historical literacy, critical thinking, and higher-order thinking skills,
- thinking about the ways artworks both shape and reflect history, and
- examining assumptions and finding meaning to help construct an informed understanding about historic events, people, and ideas.
What Do Artists Contribute to Civil Rights History?
American artist Robert Rauschenberg (19252008) reminds us that “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.” Artists that grapple with African American experiences not only tell stories about civil rights, they also play a crucial role in rewriting and expanding its narrative. In doing so, they create artworks that serve as visual “texts” with the potential to illuminate society’s ideas about a particular event, place, or idea. Sometimes the featured artworks focus on famous events or people. More often they reveal neglected or forgotten stories about the resilience and triumphs of ordinary African Americans who were essential in the long struggle for civil rights. In both cases, artworks related to the Civil Rights movement can engage, inform, and inspire students in compelling ways that complement traditional approaches to history. They provide another lens through which to master subject matter content and to practice historical thinking and visual literacy skills.
How Do I Use Oh Freedom! Artworks in the Classroom?
Although Oh Freedom! offers interpretations of artworks and related material, we encourage teachers and students to evaluate the sources to find meaning and form their own opinions. But how do you use Oh Freedom! and its artworks in a civil rights lesson? Here are just a few strategies you can use with this website and its features.
Begin a lesson on the Civil Rights movement using the site’s interactive timeline. Its visually engaging paintings, photographs, and prints are the foundation of the site and can help spark student interest. Have students explore the timeline to get an overview of the dates and events that mark the history of civil rights from the turn of the twentieth century to the present day. Be sure to have them focus in on ten-year time spans because events and artworks on the timeline collapse and become hidden over longer time periods. See the instructions for using the timeline for more details.
Begin another lesson with the premise “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Use either a color reproduction or projected digital image of an artwork to encourage careful looking and open-ended discussion. If using the site, be sure to enlarge the artwork image by clicking on the picture. Some images have a zoom function, which allows viewers to enlarge the image further and focus in on particular details they might not otherwise see. In addition to the Looking Questions offered below the artworks, you might want to consult some Learning to Look strategies developed by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. To document their observations, students can use the Observation vs. Interpretation worksheet in that packet.
Students can then investigate the artwork using some of the same questions they would use to examine any other primary source, such as: Who made this? When? Why? Out of what material? This helps put the artwork into a broader context. This might require some additional research outside the object itself. They can use one of the Document Analysis Worksheets from the National Archives as a guide.
Use the same artwork to make historical connections. Ask students to answer questions on the Visual Literacy Graphic Organizer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Using that worksheet they can connect their first impressions about the artwork, which are often personal and emotional, with their knowledge about historical details of the time period or event being discussed. Students may relate the work to what they already know, use additional resources you provide, or conduct additional research to answer questions. Note that each artwork page has a section titled About This Artwork, which details some historical and artistic connections. You and your students may find others.
After learning more about the work’s historical and art context, ask students to revaluate their first responses. What assumptions guided their first impression? What perspective did they assume? There will likely be many different answers, so encourage students to discuss their initial ideas. Has their interpretation of the artwork changed? Has it become more nuanced? Is it possible to appreciate the artwork on multiple levels (intellectual, emotional, historical)? Students can find it empowering to learn that artworks provide no “right” answers and that they can develop their own interpretations.
Ask students to share their ideas on the website. Students can write their own interpretations of an artwork using the My Notes feature at the bottom of the page. (They will need to register and log in to do so.) Alternately or in addition, they can Tag the artwork with keywords relating to their interpretations. They can also contribute their ideas to the Comments box at the bottom of the artwork page. For more details about the site’s features and how you can use them in your lessons, see the FAQ page.
Finally, propose an interpretation of the artwork that relates to the history of civil rights. Please share your ideas for teaching with Oh Freedom! by submitting a lesson plan, tagging artworks, or discussing the artworks or lesson plans on the site.