Picturins America
About This Project   Introductory section   Lessons Plans   Extras
Picturing America Comes to Russia
Picturing America in Russia—Goals and Objectives
Preparing to Use the Picturing America Companion



Using Art in the Classroom

Cliches such as “a picture paints a thousand words” encapsulate the widely held belief that art is a powerful means of communication. While many may agree with this statement, art or other visual imagery is not always included in school curricula. The absence of art or visual images in the classroom prevents the students from becoming visually literate. As filmmaker George Lucas wonders, “If students aren't taught the language of sound and images, shouldn't they be considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read or write?”

In today’s society visual literacy is particularly important as students are bombarded with images--thanks to the technological facility of reproducing, altering, and disseminating visual information. Thus, images in general and artworks in particular can be used to help students hone their sensory perception, learn how to ‘read’ visual narratives, and develop critical thinking skills. Moreover, the examination of artworks offers the students immediate and tangible information and can be used to stimulate the students’ creativity and imagination. As mentioned in the Picturing America Teachers Resource Book, “Students who interact with works of art develop a deeper understanding of history and shared human experience” (xiv).

Picturing America

“There are more valid facts and details
in works of art than there are
in history books.”

Charlie Chaplin

Aware of art’s expressive power, numerous artists share Charlie Chaplin’s viewpoint. Likewise, many educators also believe that art works—through their visual presentation and stimulation of thought—can surpass textbooks. Following this belief, educators created Picturing America as part of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ (NEH) We the People Program. Launched in 2002, the goal of the project is “to offer a way to understand the history of America—its diverse people and places, its travails and triumphs—through some of our greatest artistic masterpieces” (Bruce Cole, NEH, 2002). Thus by incorporating American artworks into their lessons teachers can foster visual literacy and cultural and historical understanding.

Picturing America is designed as an educational tool for elementary, middle, and secondary students in the United States. The project contains forty works of American art. These artworks represent different media: sculpture, painting, photography, architecture, basket weaving, silver, and stained glass. The artworks, representing different time periods, come from public collections throughout the United States. Artworks were selected for “their quality, range of media, and ability to be grouped in ways that expand their educational potential.” (Picturing America Teachers Resource Book, xiii) While, the collection is by no means comprehensive, it does highlight significant masterpieces in American art history.


The artworks in Picturing America are organized in a roughly chronological manner and by themes; teachers are given broad flexibility in how they use the materials. So as to facilitate easy viewing in the classroom, these forty artworks are reproduced on large, laminated posters. Each side of the posters contains an image—and the two images are related to each other by subject, theme, date or visual correspondence.

Teachers Resource Book

In addition to the reproductions, Picturing America also contains a Teachers Resource Book and website. The Teachers Resource Book contains brief essays about each artwork and its creator. Written for non-specialists, the texts are designed to convey essential information and stimulate further inquiry and class discussion. The texts are accompanied by questions that teachers can use to help students examine both the art and the subject matter of the image. These questions are written for different levels and are labeled—elementary, middle-, or secondary. Additional resources and subject indexes, which help connect the images with themes and topics, are featured at the end of the book.

Picturing America Website

The Teachers Resource Book is available for free on the NEH Picturing America website (PicturingAmerica.neh.gov). The website features most of the images. It also provides links to further resources, such as related lesson plans designed by the EDSITEment website (edsitement.neh.gov). The Picturing America website demonstrates how the images could be arranged by the following six sample themes:

  • Leadership
  • Freedom & Equality
  • Democracy
  • Courage
  • Landscapes
  • Creativity & Ingenuity
Taken together, these resources give teachers an opportunity to enrich their courses—whether in language, American history, literature, social studies, or geography—by introducing these artworks.