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Curriculum and Resources: Americans Who Tell the Truth

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New England artist Robert Shetterly began painting portraits of Americans he admired at a time when he was deeply saddened and angry at what was becoming of the United States.

I began painting this series of portraits–finding great Americans who spoke the truth and combining their images with their words– nearly three years ago as a way to channel my anger and grief. In the process my respect and love for these people and their courage helped to transform that anger into hope and pride and allowed me to draw strength from this community of truth tellers, finding in them the courage, honesty, tolerance, generosity, wisdom, and compassion that have made our country strong

Read more from artist Robert Shetterly.

Tools for Teaching:
"Americans Who Tell the Truth"

The collection of citizens portrayed in Robert Shetterly's "Americans Who Tell the Truth" constitutes a moving testimony to the power of individuals to effect positive change through their words and actions. The portraits, accompanying quotes, and biographies afford multiple opportunities to engage students in critical thinking, discussion, research, writing, and creative expression. Here are some ways to use these biographies, excerpted from the Shetterly website.


Thematic approach to "Americans Who Tell the Truth"

The portraits, quotes, and biographies can be integrated across the curriculum as well as used to teach about a specific theme or topic. You can select a theme, then click on the name to access the portrait and biography.

General Social Justice Issues:

In many respects, everyone in the Shetterly collection belongs under this heading; however, in order to encourage use of these materials across the curriculum, and with a diverse range of topics, more specific sections have been included.

Emma Goldman 
Dorothea Lange 
Noam Chomsky
Kathy Kelly
Eleanor Roosevelt 
Marian Wright Edelman

Antiwar/Peace Movement Work:

Henry David Thoreau
Wendell Berry 
Samantha Smith 
Marian Wright Edelman 
Dwight Eisenhower
Jody Williams
Muhammad Ali
Chief Joseph Yalektit  
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Howard Zinn

African American Civil Rights Movement:

Harriet Tubman 
Sojourner Truth 
William Sloane Coffin 
Paul Robeson
Muhammad Ali  
Eugene Debs   
Malcolm X 
W.E.B. DuBois 
Frederick Douglass
Rosa Parks 
Martin Luther King, Jr.
James Baldwin 
Ralph Ellison 
Abraham Lincoln 
Perry Mann

Native American Studies and Issues:

Chief Joseph Yalektit
Winona LaDuke 

Women's Rights:

Eleanor Roosevelt
Mother Jones
Elizabeth Cady Stanton 
Judy Wicks 
Susan B. Anthony
Emma Goldman

Worker's Rights:

Mother Jones   
Cesar Chavez
Utah Phillips

Role of the Media/ Journalism in a Democracy:

Noam Chomsky
Susan B. Anthony
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Amy Goodman
Utah Phillips
Perry Mann
Studs Terkel
Dorothea Lange 
Bill Moyers

Economics:

Listed here are individuals whose life work is related to concerns regarding distribution of wealth, labor movements, and the role of economics in the political climate of the nation.

Frances Moore Lappé 
Jonathan Kozol 
Ralph Nader
Helen Keller
Dr. Paul Farmer
Derrick Jensen  
Winona LaDuke
Robert F. Kennedy
W.E.B. DuBois 
Granny D. Doris Haddock
Rachel Carson
Mother Jones   
Marjorie Kelly 
Paul Robeson
Cesar Chavez
Judy Wicks 
Utah Phillips

Science:

Use these biographies to highlight the connection between science, politics, social justice, and activism and to provide a historical perspective on the environmental movement and the power of the individual to effect change.

Rachel Carson
John Muir
Terry Tempest Williams
Ralph Nader
Dwight Eisenhower
Utah Phillips
Wendell Berry 

English/Language Arts:

Use of quotes from an individual's life either derived from speeches, writings, or both, is a powerful tool for the study of communication. Many of the truth tellers portrayed are well known for their writing. Here's an opportunity to highlight their social and political activism as well.

Arthur Miller
James Baldwin
Woody Guthrie
Bill Moyers
Henry David Thoreau
Walt Whitman 
Zora Neale Hurston 
Studs Terkel
Jonathan Kozol 
Wendell Berry 
Howard Zinn
Amy Goodman
Mark Twain
Perry Mann
Ralph Ellison


“Living” Timelines

After hearing or reading a biography and having some class discussion of it, ask your class to get into groups of eight to ten students. Students can decide cooperatively upon the events in the biography they would like to portray as a group and the specific role each individual will play for presentation to the class.

With the help of the group, each student then prepares to represent her portion of the biography.  Included in the brief presentation would be relevant dates, importance of an event in the life of the person and/or its significance to our broader study of truth tellers. For example, students presenting Lincoln's biography would be asked to make connections to the significance of events in his life for our country and also share related events and information from other parts of the study.

After preparation is complete, students then form a line in front of the classroom to create their “living” timeline. The rest of the class will also have prepared the same biography. Each group is asked to critique each presentation based upon criteria set out in a rubric that is provided in advance and created by the teacher and/or students. Suggested criteria would be the presence of a chronological series of events, the ability to portray their significance in the life of the individual and related study and general knowledge of the historic events.

When all the living timelines have been shared, each group can determine what they missed or want to change and put those in their class notes along with the timeline.

You can ask students to present the timeline in their notes using a different color for each person in their group. If you are using the “sketchbook journal” methodology of note taking and record keeping for class (see below), have students enter the living timeline there.
On the following day, have each group form again. Have one group return to the front of the classroom. Ask them to line up as they were the day before. A great way to stimulate memory and deepen knowledge is to extend this activity in using the following variations:

  1. You can repeat this assignment several times over a period of days using different biographies.
  2.  Give students one minute to rearrange themselves. Next, ask them to restate the living timeline in their new roles to stimulate knowledge of the biography in its entirety, rather than merely their original role. In effect, they are “trading” parts with someone and can be each other's teachers.
  3. Have one group return to the front of the classroom out of order. Ask someone to volunteer to put them in the correct chronological order.
  4. Put eight to twelve students (as needed for a biography) in the front of the class. Ask a student to volunteer to arrange them based on any biography you have studied thus far.
  5. Do the timeline from the end of the life and work forward to its beginning. Presenting information in reverse is an excellent strategy for memorization for some students.
  6. Line up two or more biographies from the same time period or based upon another criterion. For example, line up students representing the biographies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Have other students insert themselves in the timeline as representatives of other events in our country's history.

This kinesthetic, spatial approach to representing a life and timeline presents a powerful visual image for students and aids in retention of knowledge. Overtime this activity can be used for review or extended studies.


Role Playing and Dramatization of Biographies

  • Invite students to take on the role of one of the Americans. Provide ample time in advance for students to research and practice. Following the actor's presentation, enter into a forum of discussion with the "audience." Students in the “audience” can be press members (an excellent way to work with the responsibility of the press in a democracy) and ask questions of the individuals about their life's work. For example, ask Dorothea Lange about the subjects of her work or Samantha Smith about her need to travel to Russia.
  • Many individuals risked their lives for their work or cause. Set up a panel of those individuals (Lincoln, ML King, Jr., Malcolm X, Mother Jones, etc.) and have them discuss why and for what they risked their lives. Allow this panel discussion to eventually engage the “audience” through questions or debate.
  • You might also set up a similar panel on the issue of civil disobedience using, for example, Thoreau's writing as a basis. Assemble “Americans Who Tell the Truth” who engaged in civil disobedience and were willing to go to prison or lose employment for their efforts. Again, have participants hold a forum on the topic and discuss causes and beliefs for which they might risk employment and endure imprisonment.  Then open this topic up to the class or small groups for discussion and sharing.
  • To engage further in drama, ask students to choose one or more interaction(s) or event(s) in the life of an individual that had some special meaning for them personally. Have them dramatize the event(s) in writing and then perform them for the class with assistance from fellow students where needed. If there is time, these could be developed and performed as a longer-term project.


Citizenship Projects

Interviews:

Each student chooses five individuals from the community to interview about citizenship. Questions need to be open ended rather than true/false, multiple choice, or yes/no inquiries. Following the interviews, students “portray” their subjects in a visual way. They can use a photograph or video or create a sketch, sculpture, painting, etc. If possible, enlist the help of a local photographer or artist to instruct the students. Given one month to prepare this assignment, students assemble their interviews, reports in essay form, and portraits in a binder or portfolio. At the end of this project, you might culminate the unit with a forum on citizenship.

Citizenship Forums:

Holding a public forum on citizenship in your school compliments and deepens students classroom learning. The interview project and forum work together to empower students in their communities.

Each student chooses one interview question to ask the audience during the forum. The interview questions should be examined carefully in preparation for the event.  If time permits, each student could be encouraged to make a brief statement before they begin discussion of their question with the group.  As students form their statements, they reflect upon and share with peers which interviews sparked new thinking for them or surprised them. Additionally, they share which portrait from Americans Who Tell the Truth stirred or disturbed them most and why. Students could also select a quote from Americans Who Tell the Truth series that meant the most to them and recite it to the forum audience.

Preparing for the forum in class is not limited to the formation and evaluation of questions and statements. Students practice their statements, quotes and questions nightly for about two weeks prior to the forum. Attention should be given to elements of public speaking as well as to the purpose and content of a forum. Include a discussion regarding the role of media in a forum and how media assists or hinders the accurate representation of events.
Following the forum, students were asked to write about the experience, evaluate its effectiveness and reflect on personal growth.


Sketchbook Journals

The use of sketchbook journals has become a wonderful way to bring color, visual representation of knowledge and visual spatial constructs into classroom work. Eric Jensen, among others, writes about the brain's love of color and its use in retention, organization and study. Organizing a space graphically to share knowledge of a subject is an important capacity for all students but in some, is the primary learning style. The opportunity to create a journal of this type allows students to go beyond the less complex task of rote note copying and on to the higher level thought process of organizing information into specific visual representations through the use of space, form and color.

How to:

Provide sketchbook type journals, colored pencils, crayons, oil pastels, chalks, etc.

Students choose which of the biographies told, heard, read or seen by the class will be represented in their journal.  Students create a simple artistic rendering of the individual and write a poem, song, composition, haiku or other piece to accompany the portrait in order to demonstrate their knowledge. Individual tasks can also include composing essays based upon the quotes used in the portraits. For variety, cooperative groups or partners can create a poem together, share notes, or brainstorm ideas to write a representative. Varying the writing task daily affords diverse writing experiences and encourages the creative use of class notes that deepens understanding of the material.

Students might also create a page that is a timeline or series of timelines with different themes. One timeline might show the life in chronological form; another might involve different colors depicting the person's life in terms of relationships he/she had and their significance. Another way to illustrate and use color is to map the person's life, showing their journey both literally and figuratively. All pages in the sketchbook journal are begun with a border that frames the space. For many students who are challenged in this way, drawing the frame with a ruler and then decorating it, creates a visual boundary and allows for much more intentional use of the page. For some students a blank page can be overwhelming; the border seems to provide a much-needed “beginning” to the work. All of these are ways to create a journal that represents the lives studied in Americans Who Tell the Truth.  Rob's book serves as his journal of the study.


These curriculum materials are adapted from the work of Michele Hemenway.

See the full set of Robert Shetterly's portraits at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.

Artist Statement: read more from Robert Shetterly about the inspiration for this project.

 

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