Sunday, December 20, 2015

(Actual or virtual) trip to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Traditional field trips are fine, but they disrupt the school day, and lessons missed while away interfere with learning.  Consider, instead, assigning projects that require students to visit museums and galleries on their own time.  Technology plays a key role in either situation.

My school has a distinct advantage here.  We are located in northern Virginia, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, and just a few miles from the national mall and its amazing (and almost all free-admission) museums.  We take full advantage of that opportunity by sending our U.S. History students (juniors) on self-scheduled trips to those museums four times a year.  We assign the projects early in the quarter so that our students have ample opportunity to fit them into their schedules.

For their second quarter project, we send our students to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Image result for national portrait gallery dc
National Portrait Gallery
8th St. NW and F St. NW, Washington, DC
While there, they visit the American Origins, 1600-1900 exhibit.  That exhibit correlates to our second quarter study of the antebellum, Civil War/Reconstruction, and Gilded Eras.  They wander purposely through the entire exhibit, then select twelve portraits for further scrutiny.

For each of the twelve portraits, students take notes using this template:
  • Categorize: (a) What is the gender and race of the portrait's subject?  (b) What was the societal role of the portrait's subject? (Examples: Politician, Writer, Inventor.)
  • Observe: What do you see in the painting?  List the 3-4 most important features.
  • Interpret: What do you think each feature you observed means?  Make a connection between the subject's role and the features you observe in the portrait.
  • Analyze: Most rooms have themes (displayed as quotations in large print above one of the portraits).  Make a connection between the subject's life and the theme for that room.
When they get home, students create and send us a digital presentation (using PowerPoint or Google Slides) about their museum visit.

Most students love these trips because it gives them the flexibility to choose when they want to go and an opportunity to explore downtown with their friends.  Parents love them as well because they often accompany their kids and enjoy the time together.  We love them because it expands our classroom and takes advantage of our rich museum resources.

Adapting this assignment to students living outside the region is easy.  Instead of sending students to the actual museum, send them to the exhibit's website.  As you could guess, we assign this adaptation to students who prefer not to travel to the actual museum.

From there they can explore images surveying 14 different topics or eras.  Like the actual museum, each image group begins with a pertinent quotation, a short essay,  and then portraits with accompanying biographical information and commentary.

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