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August 10, 2021

Lesson Plan: Explore art and movement inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series

Panel 58, “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities” from Jacob Lawrence’s 1940–41 work, The Migration Series.

 

For a google doc version of this lesson, click here (you will be prompted to make a copy). A full list of educational standards can be found at the end of the google doc.

Note for instructors: This is a lesson divided into two separate 50 minutes periods, Part 1 and Part 2.

The lesson can be considered as an arts-based curriculum, or as arts integration supplemental material for educators interested in studying the Great Migration within the broader context of African American history. Educators may also find that the lesson provides content, thematic and process connections to a variety of other subject areas.

Overview and Objectives

This is an arts and inquiry-based lesson that puts a work of art at the center of study. The artwork that inspired this lesson is a single panel painting by the artist, Jacob Lawrence from his 60-panel work, The Migration Series (1940–1941).

The lesson considers the Lawrence painting as a focus “text.” Participants will engage in a “close reading” of this visual/diverse media through artmaking, careful observation and analysis. They will investigate the visual language of the painting and learn contextual information about the artwork and artist to derive meaning, both personal and as it relates to the historic context of the painting (such as the Great Migration, 1916–1970).

Through visual art and movement explorations of direction, level and line (elements evident in the artwork) participants will be challenged to engage in their own art-making/choice-making process using these elements.

Through the lesson’s use of open questioning that asks for description, analysis and interpretation, participants will strengthen their skills of observation, perception, connection-making and critical and analytical thinking. They will also be asked to pose their own questions as learners and to engage with the visual world of the painting and its surrounding context to develop their own (supported) interpretations.

More about “The Migration Series” and artist Jacob Lawrence can be found here

Note for instructors: In 1993, Lawrence changed the captions [for the Series] because he felt the language did not capture the ongoing journey of African Americans in America. …the new captions attempted to capture the more enduring nature of the narrative told in The Migration Series. (Phillips Collection online text) The Phillips Collection link above uses these revised captions. 

Essential question

  • What are the different ways we can physically “reach,” considering direction, level and line, and how might we consider these elements when interpreting the theme or visual narrative of Panel 58, “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities” from Jacob Lawrence’s 1940-41 work “The Migration Series”?

Estimated time

Part 1 and Part 2 taught in two separate 50 min periods

Subjects

Visual Art, English Language Arts, Social Studies, African American History, Dance

Grades

6-9

PART 1 

Estimated Time: 50 min

Materials for Part 1

  • Chart paper and markers for wall journaling used to capture lesson content and participant responses. Wall journaling from Part 1 should be posted again and added to in Part 2.
  • White board or other method for projection with a screen to display a high-quality image of the focus work of art.

Activity 1 (10 min)

Participants gather as a full group in a circle and the instructor offers the following prompts, giving participants the opportunity to notice each other’s choices:

  1. What are some different ways we can physically “reach?” Try one. Then try a new and completely different way of reaching.
  2. Try some reaches in a variety of directions:
    1. Sides
    2. Diagonals
    3. Front
    4. Back
    5. Other? What should we name that direction?
  3. Try some reaches at different levels:
    1. High
    2. Low
    3. Medium
    4. Other? What should we name that level?
  4. Individually: Using your whole body, create a “reach” that combines your own specific choices of direction and level.
    1. Ask one participant to demonstrate the “reach” they just created. 
    2. Ask the rest of class to observe closely and describe the choices made here regarding direction and level.

Activity 2 (10 min)

Participants should gather in groups of three and the instructor can guide these groups through the following prompts:

  1. Share with your group the “reaches” each of you just created.
  2. Choose one person’s “reach” pose that you will all work with for this activity and practice getting the three of you to look exactly the same in that pose.
  3. Now, think carefully as a group how each of you can vary that pose in a small, subtle way by changing something about the pose’s direction or level. So, you all look the same basically… EXCEPT for small differences in direction or level. You can consider changing the position of body parts and/or your whole body.
  4. Practice doing these three poses in a straight line, not necessarily facing or looking at each other.

Activity 4 (15 min)

Participants should re-gather as a whole class. 

  1. The instructor asks one trio to volunteer to share the poses they came up with. The rest of the class is in one part of the room all gathered as an audience. The trio sharing should stand in their straight line however they rehearsed it. (Note: In this trio, the direction in which each member faces may vary, and some may not necessarily face the audience in their poses.) 

The instructor should guide the participants observing the trio through the following prompts:

  1. How are these figures different from each other regarding direction or level
  2. What kinds of lines are created by any of the three individual figures?
  3. If you were to “read” this trio of figures from left to right, what do you notice about their sequence
    • While the trio maintains some sort of straight line, how would you like to sequence or arrange them differently, and why? 
    • How does this new sequence affect our experience or interpretation of the trio?

Activity 5 (15 min)

  1. Before projecting the painting itself, have participants answer this question: “Based on what we explored in class today, what are you wondering about the painting you are about to see? Put your wondering in the form of a question.”
  2. The instructor projects Panel 58 from The Migration Series (a high-res version can be found here). 

Note for instructors: Once you have opened the above link, click on the magnifying glass symbol above and to the right of the white square outlining the painting. Then to have the image fill the screen, click the X on the above left of the black screen background. It is important to only focus on the image here and not the text to its right, because coming up next and again in Part 2 (with selected information on the artwork) participants will be asked for their own interpretations. (The information to the right of the image on this link can certainly be shared with the class at the end of Part 2.)

  • The full group should discuss the following prompts:
  • What stands out to you in this painting?
  • How does the painting relate to different things we studied today? Be specific.
  • In what ways do you notice different directions? Levels?
  • Look carefully. What kinds of lines are created anywhere in the painting?
  • How is the idea of “reaching” explored by the artist? 

Next, for the below question the instructor gathers several different interpretations from the class, all supported by evidence of what the participants notice and analyze in the painting. Write participant responses to the question on your wall journal and save for next class:

  • Based on everything we’ve just said: If you were to interpret the meaning of this painting overall, what would you say is its central theme or narrative?  Does anyone have a different interpretation? Explain.

Before next class, ask participants to remember (and practice!) their own “reach” poses from their trios.

PART 2

Estimated time: 50 min

Materials for Part 2

  • Worksheet and Lawrence Quote handout (1/participant)
  • Post wall journal from Part 1 and some fresh chart paper for Part 2 journaling
  • Markers for wall journal
  • White board or another method for projection with a screen to display a high-quality image of the focus work of art
  • Projection for NewsHour segment video clip

Activity 1 (10 min)

Instructor should prepare by posting wall journaling from Part 1 and projecting the painting of Panel 58 again. 

Note for instructors: Once you have opened the above link, click on the magnifying glass symbol above and to the right of the white square outlining the painting. Then to have the image fill the screen, click the X on the above left of the black screen background. It is important to only focus on the image here. (The information to the right of the image on this link can certainly be shared with the class at the end of Part 2.)

  1. As a whole group, discuss the following: What are some of the things we studied in our last class? 
  2. Instructor introduces background information on the painting and the Great Migration, generally. Instructors may use the following text, or their own introduction if they have already been studying the Great Migration or Lawrence’s series: 

Tell participants that next you will read information about the painting slowly, but only once. Ask that they listen carefully and pick up as much as they can to answer 2 reflection questions at the end.

Instructor reads aloud the below text:

We are looking at Panel 58 of a total of 60 panels of paintings that make up The Migration Series by the renowned artist, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000).

[The entire series of paintings represent the story of] The Great Migration, sometimes known as the Great Northward Migration or the Black Migration. [This] was the movement of six million African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West that occurred between 1916 and 1970. (Wikipedia)

[The Great Migration] forever altered the social, economic, political, and cultural fabric of American society. (Phillips Collection online text)

Lawrence’s panels provide a moving portrait of the broader human quest for freedom, equality, and opportunity that fuels ongoing patterns of migration around the world today. (Phillips Collection online text)

The panels were painted in 1940 – 1941, and each has a brief caption at the bottom. This Panel’s caption is: “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities”

Instructor writes the caption on the wall journal: “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities” then continues to read the following:

In 1993, Lawrence changed the captions [for the Series] because he felt the language did not capture the ongoing journey of African Americans in America. The new captions attempted to capture the more enduring nature of the narrative told in The Migration Series. (Phillips Collection online text)

Instructor then shares Lawrence’s revised caption

“In the North the African American had more educational opportunities”

For the purpose of this lesson, we will consider the original caption written when the painting was created, bearing in mind that the entire Series was painted in the early 1940s [and, specifically depicts the migration] during the 1910s to the 1930s. (Phillips Collection online text)

Activity 2 (15 min)

Have participants work with the handout from the materials list. It can be found here (same link as in the materials list).

  1. Individual write (5 min). Instructors can tell participants, “Now that you know a little about this painting’s history and its caption, write a brief reflection on each of these 2 questions.” Tell them for Question 1, they can refer to the wall journal for their comments from the end of Part 1 about what they thought was the central theme or narrative of the work.
    1. Has the meaning of this painting changed at all for you since last class? Would you add to or change anything about your interpretation of its theme or narrative?
    2. What might be 2 different interpretations of the word “reach” in this painting?
  2. Partners: Participants share their responses to the questions with a partner. (3 min)
  3. Whole group: Partners share back to the whole group. (7 min)

Activity 3 (15 min)

View the PBS NewsHour segment on The Migration Series from 1995 when the Series was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The clip includes a brief interview with its artist, Jacob Lawrence. Instructor should ask participants to listen carefully.

  1. Review the quote on the second page of the handout, which is a quote taken from the interview. Done Individually: Silently, read it carefully twice through.
  2. Whole class discussion: Ask the class the following questions, based on the quote:
    1. What do you imagine motivates an artist to create something they didn’t know anyone would ever see?
    2. In what ways can we interpret even this one panel’s visual narrative as being a “universal statement?”
  3. With whole class standing, instructor offers following prompts
    1. Individually, as best you can remember it, try getting into your own specific “reach” pose you did with your trio from last class. As you hold that pose, notice specifically all the directions, levels and lines you create.
    2. Now, come out of your “reach” and look closely at the painting again.
    3. Considering what you have learned about the painting, if you were to place yourself somewhere in the painting in your “reach” pose, where would you be?
    4. Why there? Explain your choice and your interpretation of that choice as it relates to the painting.

Activity 4 (10 min)

As a whole group, reflect on the project with these final prompts:

  1. What was most meaningful to you about our study of this painting and its artist?
  2. What would you like to further research about this painting, the artist, or this work’s historic context?
  3. Look closely at the painting and think carefully: What is one question you would like to ask the painting itself or its artist, Jacob Lawrence that you likely would NOT be able to research? It is a question that will remain a “wondering.”

Extension activities:

  • View/study more in-depth Lawrence’s entire 60 panels of “The Migration Series.” The captions accompanying images on this site are the 1993 revised captions. Instructor can have the group compare, contrast and discuss the significance of both captions. Participants can also once again consider the below Phillips Collection explanation for Lawrence’s revisions (directly below).

[Lawrence] felt the [original] language did not capture the ongoing journey of African Americans in America. …the new captions attempted to capture the more enduring nature of the narrative told in The Migration Series. (Phillips Collection online text)

If needed, here again are the two captions for Panel 58:

“In the North the Negro had better educational facilities” (early 1940s)

In the North the African American had more educational opportunities” (1993)

  • Participants can write poetry related to Panel 58 or others. The full NewsHour segment can be viewed here and includes poets reading work inspired by The Migration Series. You could incorporate this part of the NewsHour segment into a poetry writing class related specifically to Panel 58 or to the whole Series.

Heidi Miller, MFA, is an arts in education consultant based in New York, NY. For Lincoln Center and independently, she has trained and managed teaching artists of all disciplines and taught extensively in pre-K through 12th grade classrooms and in higher education. Heidi writes arts-based and arts integration curriculum, and conducts professional development workshops for artists, educators, school and district administrators, and directors of cultural organizations. hmillerwork@gmail.com

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Common Core CCSS
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.1: Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.5: Describe how a text presents information (e.g., sequentially, comparatively, causally).
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7: Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
    • National Core Arts Anchor Standards
    • Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
    • Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
    • Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

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