Social Studies Teacher Guides

Discover how you can integrate American art into your social studies classroom!

The Smithsonian American Art Museum's educational materials are free for your use. Teacher Guides are downloadable PDFs, listed with corresponding standards and grade levels for your convenience.

What can photographs of the Civil War tell us about the conflict and developments in the documentation of war?

This lesson plan looks at numerous aspects of the Civil War through period photography.

Primary Subject and Grade: US History 5–12, Visual Arts 5–12

Secondary Subject and Grade:

Components: Lesson plan, images, Student Activities

Standards: US History Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1860–1877).
Visual Arts K–12.6 Making Connections Between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines; K–12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures; K–12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter.

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How might history have been different if alternate plans for the Reconstruction of the South had been put into practice?

Political leaders and parties in the tense time after the Civil War proposed various plans for Reconstruction. By observing artwork of this period, students will learn how these plans affected the South (and North) and relationships between people of different races and geographic regions.

Primary Subject and Grade: US History 8–12, Visual Arts 8–12

Secondary Subject and Grade:

Components: Lesson plan, images, Student Activities

Standards: US History Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1860–1877).
Visual Arts K–12.6 Making Connections Between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines; K–12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures; K–12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter.

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What can American Art teach us about the transformative impact of the Civil War on the country?

This teacher guide provides background information, key images, activities, and lesson plans inspired by The Civil War and American Art exhibition that can be used either in conjunction with a museum visit or in the classroom.

Primary Subject and Grade: US History 5–12, Visual Arts 5–12

Components: Lesson Plans

Standards: US History Era 5 Civil War and Reconstruction (1860–1877).

Visual Arts K–12.6 Making Connections Between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines; K–12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures; K–12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter.

Common Core Reading/Language Arts RH.11–12.1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting; RH.11–12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem; RH.11–12.9. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

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What did Manifest Destiny mean to the United States? How did Native Americans and African-Americans fit into Westward Expansion?

This lesson plan compares Emanuel Leutze's 1861 study of Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way to the final mural in the United States House of Representatives. Analysis of the artwork and the changes made to the final version teach the history of Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny.

Primary Subject and Grade: US History 5–12, Visual Arts 5–12

Secondary Subject and Grade:

Components: Lesson Plan- Student Activity Suggestions, Historical Background, Interpretation Activities

Standards: US History K–12.5 Era 5 Expansion and Reform (1800–1861).
Visual Arts K–12.6 Making Connections Between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines; K–12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures; K–12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter, Symbols and Ideas; K–12.1 Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques and Processes.

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What can American landscapes and other paintings tell us about the evolution of democracy in the United States?

This portion of the Land and Landscape module focuses on the influence of land ownership and the evolution of American civic ideas through landscape.

Primary Subject and Grade: US History 5–12, Visual Arts 5–12

Secondary Subject and Grade: Civics K–12

Components: Visual Analysis guide, Historical Background information, images, activity suggestions

Standards: Visual Arts K–12.6 Making Connections Between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines; K–12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures; K–12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter.
US History Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585–1763); Era 3 Revolution and the New Nation (1754–1820s); Era 4 Expansion and Reform (1801–1861).
Civics

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What can George Catlin's artworks and other primary sources reveal about the natives of the Great Plains and their interaction with nineteenth-century white culture?

This information-packed teacher guide incorporates numerous primary sources that complement the artworks and writings of George Catlin and detail his interaction with the Native Americans of the Great Plains.

Primary Subject and Grade: Visual Arts 5–12, US History 5–12

Secondary Subject and Grade:

Components: Lesson Plans

Standards: Visual Arts K–12.6 Making Connections Between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines; K–12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures; K–12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter.
US History Era 5 Expansion and Reform (1800–1861).

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What do Carl Van Vechten's photographs from the 1930s tell us about the New Negro Movement as well as the causes and effects of the Harlem Renaissance?

This teacher guide provides contextual information, key images, and discussion questions to accompany the exhibition Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten. Topics include some of the debates among Black thinkers, writers, and historians in the definition and articulation of Black identity and history as part of the New Negro Movement.

Primary Subject and Grade: 5-12 Social Studies, Language Arts, Visual Arts

Secondary Subject and Grade: Music

Components: Teacher Guide, Looking Questions

Standards: In addition to addressing US History Content Standards' Era 7, this teaching resource supports the following Historical Thinking Standards:

 

Historical Comprehension

  • Appreciate historical perspectives--the ability (a) describing the past on its own terms, through the eyes and experiences of those who were there, as revealed through their literature, diaries, letters, debates, arts, artifacts, and the like; (b) considering the historical context in which the event unfolded--the values, outlook, options, and contingencies of that time and place; and (c) avoiding “present-mindedness,” judging the past solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
  • Draw upon the visual, literary, and musical sources including: (a) photographs, paintings, cartoons, and architectural drawings; (b) novels, poetry, and plays; and, (c) folk, popular and classical music, to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate upon information presented in the historical narrative.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

  • Consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes, and fears.
  • Analyze cause-and-effect relationships bearing in mind multiple causation including (a) the importance of the individual in history; (b) the influence of ideas, human interests, and beliefs; and (c) the role of chance, the accidental and the irrational.

Historical Research Capabilities

  • Obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators.
  • Interrogate historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created; testing the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness; and detecting and evaluating bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.
  • Identify the gaps in the available records and marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time and place in order to elaborate imaginatively upon the evidence, fill in the gaps deductively, and construct a sound historical interpretation.

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How can we look deeper to get more meaning out of visual images?

This basic visual literacy activity takes students through ways to look at selected images with the idea that they can begin to construct meaning from images and artworks.

Primary Subject and Grade: 5-12 Social Studies, Language Arts, Visual Arts

Secondary Subject and Grade:

Components: Teacher Guide, Classroom Activity

Standards: Visual Arts K–12.1 Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes; K–12.2 Using Knowledge of structures and functions; K–12.5 Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others; K–12.6 Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines.
Performing Arts K–12.2 Acting by assuming roles and interacting in improvisations; K–12.6 Comparing and connecting art forms by describing theatre, dramatic media (such as film, television, and electronic media), and other art forms.

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What can a work of art reveal about a period of American history?

This set of fifteen teaching posters features selected artworks from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and Archives of American Art on five historical themes.

Primary Subject and Grade: 5-12 US History, 5-12 Visual Arts

Secondary Subject and Grade:

Components: images, Student Activities, Artist Bios

Standards: US History Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801– 1861); Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1860–1877); Era 7 The Emergence of Modern America (1890–1930); Era 8 The Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945).
Visual Arts K–12.6 Making Connections Between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines; K–12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures; K–12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter, Symbols, and Ideas.

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How does Norman Rockwell tell a story in a single frame?

This teacher guide provides background information, key images, and lesson plans that can be used either in conjunction with a museum visit or in the classroom.

Primary Subject and Grade: US History 512, Visual Arts 512, Language Arts 5-12

Secondary Subject and Grade:

Components: Lesson plan, images, Student Activities, background information

Standards: US History Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930); Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945): Era 9 Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s).
Visual Arts K–12.6 Making Connections Between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines; K–12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures; K–12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter.
Language Arts K12.1 Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world.; K12.3 Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.

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Download Artworks featured in the Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell Teacher Guide (PDF)

 

What can we learn about leadership from writings about and images of George Washington?

During and after the American Revolution, as the new nation was struggling to define itself, George Washington emerged as a leader. Although he expressed reluctance to enter public life, he played a significant role in setting precedents for the infant government. In this lesson, students use a combination of artwork, everyday objects, and primary sources to learn about George Washington’s life and leadership.

Primary Subject and Grade: US History 5–12, Visual Arts K–12

Secondary Subject and Grade:

Components: Lesson Plan, Annotated Images, Student Activity

Standards: US History Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation (1754–1820s).
Visual Arts K–12.6 Making Connections Between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines; K–12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures; K–12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter.

Download Teacher Guide (PDF)