2nd Grade Self Portraits & Family Portraits as a Story [Entire Unit]

I adapted this unit from a workshop I attended through The Kennedy Center, “Reading Portraits as Biographies” developed by Melanie Layne.  Rather than only looking at portraits and discussing their stories – we looked at the portraits, developed stories, created our own story through a self portrait and finally told story of our family through a family portrait drawing.

First, we started with an Introduction to Portraits.  I want students to define portraiture so using a number of fine arts portraits laid out on the table, varying in subject (individuals, groups, abstract, realistic, photos, sculptures, objects, etc), students studied the work to figure out what they could tell by the portrait.  I let them do this at their tables in groups. As they discussed what they saw, I wrote their ideas on the white board for record (“it’s a person”, “she’s fancy”, “it’s winter”, “I think that’s a face maybe”, “well it’s a person but they’re on a stamp”, etc – etc).  After a few minutes we stopped and talk about some of the things I wrote and I asked a lot of why and how.  Why do you think that she’s old?  How can you tell that it’s winter?  What details support your claim? 

We repeat this process a couple more times, each time building on the information students gather (“she’s fancy because she’s wearing a gown”, “he looks sad because he’s staring at the ground”, “maybe she’s going to school for the first time”, “she’s sad because someone died – you can tell by the items on the table”.  Keep in mind these are second graders so prompting them to formulate their own conclusions and having them be successful is amazing.  You’ll be tempted to interject but always go back to the Why and How – they’ll eventually feed off one another to come up with the answer.

Finally we stop and we ask “so what is a portrait?”. We look at our incredibly large list and pick out some of the things that are the same – all of the portraits have people or a person and all of them tells us some detail about that person or group of people through lots of means like clothing and setting.  I also ask students where they find portraits and ask them to think of places where portraits can be, even if they’re not in a museum (stamps, licenses, advertisements, pictures).

For the second activity/discussion, I introduce the students to the six elements of a portrait that provide the stories they were thinking of.  I pulled these from the workshop I took but they’re pretty obvious once stated.  We talk about each one, with the fine arts portraits in front of us to observe, and we also act it out a gesture for each one.

1. Facial Expression [how person/people feel] – circle your face with pointer finger
2. Focal Point [where they’re looking] – reach out to a space in front of you and focus
3. Gesture [what they’re body is doing/tells us] – swing your arm (like ye-haw!)
4. Clothing [what they’re wearing and their style] – pull on imaginary suspenders
5. Setting [where they are/when they are] – frame your face (like 80s vogue)
6. Object [what, if anything, they are holding or positioned by] – make a fist in your palm and press down

As we discuss each element of a portrait story, we re-act out the gestures.  This helps them remember each one better and brings a small component of drama to the classroom which kids thrive on.  By the end of it, we have discussed all the portraits we see and decidedly figured out what each one tells as a story.  My favorite moment of this activity is when the students create deep and meaningful dialog around a very simple picture.  (One 2nd grader saw a picture of an African American walking into school and a policeman outside the door.  Her clothes were a little dated and there was a crowd outside.  As young as my student was she gathered and presented to the class that it was clear to her that the little girl was headed into school for the first time, based on the crowd it was probably before “blacks and whites shared schools” and that the police were there to protect her because it’s important we respect each other and our education. A second grader said this. YES!!!)

The two previous activities are what I pulled from the Kennedy Center.  In reality, this lesson would be in a literacy classroom and then students would talk about stories and details but of course, because I’m an over-achiever, I had to take it further.  We turned it around and began a series of portrait making that told a story.

For their third activity and first art piece, students drew out a Self Portrait.  I provided a worksheet because I wanted to clearly show that this was another step that would lead up to our final art piece.  The worksheet included the six elements listed and each student was to check off the list to make sure they included enough detail for their Self Portrait Story.  Do you want the handout I used?  Here it is.

It was the perfect chance to talk about drawing realistically instead of stick figures and adding detail that would help use the entire space.

Their final activity and “big idea” art piece was their family portrait.  On a piece of paper (the back of their soon-to-be project), I had students list their family members, including themselves, and each element that would describe the family member (example: Dad – smiles alot, wear suits, has no hair, tall, likes to stand instead of sit and holds a briefcase). If they wanted to “draw” the list out using symbols, they could.

Because I have little time with them, we broke the drawing down.  We were able to use our list to make the process faster. We talked about facial expression first and fit in a conversation and demonstration of proportion and placement of where the heads might go (who is the tallest in your family?  From there, students drew the heads of all their family members.  To test them, I said “If I come around your table and can pick out how your family members feel, you understand facial expression.” So I did this for each student.  One of my students had a VERY grumpy looking sister and I exclaimed, “Now why is your family member so upset?!” and she responded “Because she just hates pictures!!”  It was great to see her apply the emotions so well.

From there, students added the clothing and gesture.  Most students decided that everyone was standing, the occasional student having a brother or sister waving.  Students could draw the bodies using shapes or first by drawing the stick figure and tracing the shapes around it.  Second grade is kind of that in between age where some can go beyond the stick figures and others are just figuring it out.  I walk through both.

Before coloring, there was one more step – the setting and any objects the students would illustrate.

Finally, students get to color.  We used Multicultural Markers for the skin tones (all I had otherwise I would prefer crayons). The paper I used this year makes what I can have students use limited to dry mediums, otherwise it bubbles up.  Next year, I think I will use Watercolor Paper so students can use watercolor pencils BUT, they understood my mistake and we used basic colored pencils to add color.  We talked about how if this was a framed Family Portrait, we would want it to be our very best so we practiced and are doing a great job of outlining shapes and coloring in the same direction.

The students are so very proud of these and cannot wait to show their family.  They love that when adults are stopping by the classroom, they can easily tell what their family is like and who has small or large families.  And as evident in the pictures, they are taking their time and doing their best.

This has been a longer unit but with so many different steps and activities, it’s been great and students are still engaged.  And when I ask them what the six elements to a Portrait are, they can recite and act them out as well as explain them because we’ve learned so much.  And all of this applies to their Literacy Core and many, many art standards!


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