Norman Rockwell in Arrested Development

There’s a wonderful exhibit running at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s “Norman Rockwell’s America.” I’m taking my AP U.S. history students to view the exhibit later this week. Field trips like this can be fun and educational on their own, but I’ve decided to make it even more so by attaching an assignment to the trip that incorporates modern technology. The original inspiration for the assignment came from a combination of sources including a colleague and a television show, but I’ve tweaked the initial concept in a few places. I’m sharing it here because I think with some adaptations it could be used in a variety of grade levels and subject areas.

If you are familiar with Rockwell, you probably know that his images tend to show America in a highly rosy and idealistic light. Even when he touched on more controversial topics like public school integration in the 1950s, the images he created were tame and lacked the true grit of reality. I enjoy Rockwell’s imagery for its nostalgic factor and its quaintness, but in terms of teaching U.S. history, the images often do not go far enough, leaving whole groups of society out of the picture and telling only half the story. I knew that I wanted to make sure my students thought about this as they viewed the exhibit and afterwards.

Before we go to the exhibit, I’m doing a mini-lecture on Rockwell and some of the works they will see. I’m also going to tell them ahead of time about the assignment, so they know what to look for as they view the works.

For the assignment, the students are to pick one painting or magazine cover from the exhibit that interests them and make a note of it so they can look the image up once we return to school. Their challenge is to take their chosen image and modernize it, to use Rockwell’s image as an inspiration but to then tell more of the story. The idea is to show another side of the story or a more realistic portrayal of the history, to show the people who Rockwell neglected or to show the scene in a more historically accurate way. To do this, they will stage a scene with real human beings, costumes, props, and backgrounds. They will snap a photograph of their scene in “arrested development,” and upload the image to their computer. Putting the two images – Rockwell’s original image and their new photograph – side by side, they will annotate the two images. This can be done in a program like Szoter or in a simple Pages document. In addition, they will provide a written explanation of why they chose Rockwell’s image and what the artist was trying to say. Then, they will explain how they updated it in their photograph, what the different components in their work represent, and how it illustrates more of the original story, more of the history behind Rockwell’s original work.

I’m really looking forward to seeing this assignment to fruition. I think that it incorporates historical knowledge, creativity, and critical analysis, and I think the students could have some fun along the way.


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