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Exploring Works of Art: Parts, Purposes and Puzzles

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Social Studies +2 Age Levels Elementary (9 to 12 years old), Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old)

How does Art shape our knowledge of the world? What is the purpose of Art?  What shapes our ideas about Art?

These are some of the questions students will explore in this collection. The focus of this collection is on visual art, including images drawn from photography, painting and sculpture. The 17 images are drawn from a  variety of Smithsonian museums.

I use two activities, built on Project Zero thinking routines, to guide and scaffold the students' thinking. For more information and resources visit,


The activities can be done sequentially or individually over two 50-60 minute class periods, depending on how far the teacher would like to extend the follow-up discussion after the first activity or the number of images explored in the second.

 The first activity, “What makes you think that? invites students to identify their own ideas about art,  what they consider “good” art and to reflect on how they arrived at their conclusions. Students are invited to sort the works into two categories, "good" or "bad" art.  Once they have sorted the works, they document the reasons for their choices and then compare with a partner,  followed by whole class sharing.

It is interesting for students to think about where their beliefs come from and the discussion may extend to the influence of culture, perspective, religion, or personal versus public opinion.

 In the second activity “Parts, Purposes, Puzzles students delve deeper into individual works.  Students make careful observations, analyze component parts, consider the purpose of the artists choices, and pose questions.

The activity can be done individually or in groups.

As a concluding activity, students might find it interesting to revisit their initial rankings, and consider what they might now change and why?

Tenement Flats

Smithsonian American Art Museum


Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Still Life

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mexican Landscape

Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Davicos (Portrait of the Davico Sisters)

Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Quiet Valley

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Untitled (Big Man)

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Symphony of a Big City

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Cyclops Slurpee Cup

National Museum of American History


National Museum of African Art

Manifest Destiny

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Zombie Jamboree

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Barbara Kruger Time Lapse - Hirshhorn Museum

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Baby carrier (mei tai)

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Bill and Melinda Gates

National Portrait Gallery

What is good Art?

Sorting Activity