Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts
Time Required: Long–Term Unit
Approximately 8 class periods
Author: Joan Dooley, A.P. Art History and Photography Teacher, Fairfax Senior High School Magnet Center for the Visual Arts, Los Angeles, with J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom

Curriculum Home
Lesson Plans
Image Bank
Biography of Lange
Lange in U.S. History
Lange and Social-Documentary Photography
Bibliography & Links

Lesson Overview

Students analyze Dorothea Lange's photographs and identify key themes in her work. They then create a thematic exhibition pairing Lange's work with work by artists who explore the same themes in other media.

Learning Objectives

• Students will discuss and analyze images by Dorothea Lange, identifying key themes in her artwork.
• Students will research the historical contexts for a selection of Lange's images.
• Students will identify artists working in other media (painters, printmakers, sculptors, for example) or other photographers who explored some of the same themes and issues that Lange did.
• Students will work in groups to create a thematic exhibition, pairing selected artworks by Lange with artworks by another artist who explored similar themes or issues.
• Students will consider how the medium of photography differs from other artistic media.


Access to the Internet and to art-history books

Lesson Steps

Days 1 and 2: Identifying key themes, issues, ideas in Lange's work. Students work in small groups, each assigned to learn about a different image by Lange. After reading the background information (provided in the curriculum resource) about that image, students discuss and write answers to questions below as a means of identifying key ideas, themes, or issues that their image might represent:

• Describe the image. What does it show?
• If there are people in the image, what are they doing?
• If there is more than one person, what is their relationship? How do you know?
• Based on what you read, what event(s) in American history does this image relate to?
• What is the artist saying about that event with this image?
• List as many nouns, verbs, and adjectives as you can for your image.
• Think of some one-word titles you might give this image.
• Review what you have written above and list one or two key themes or ideas that your image represents.

Students share their findings with the rest of the class. From the presentations, students and teacher decide upon key themes, issues, or events around which to plan several mini-exhibitions, pairing one or more images by Lange with one or more images by another artist. (Suggested themes: workers, farming, migration, hardship, hunger, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, etc.). Students divide into groups again and each is assigned a different theme.

Days 3-5: Learning about related artists in the library/Internet lab. Students are directed to books or Web resources for information about artists whose work may provide good points of comparison to Lange's art. Examples of artists who responded to some of the same events or general issues that Lange did, include: Thomas Hart Benton, Elizabeth Catlett, Alexandre Hogue, Jacob Lawrence, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Ben Shahn, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Raphael and Issac Soyer, and Grant Wood. Examples of earlier artists who explored similar themes include: Gustave Courbet, Käthe Kollwitz, and Jean-François Millet. Examples of other photographers include Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans.

With assigned themes in mind, each group selects an artist, identifying three to five artworks by him/her that have some relationship in content and/or style to one or more images by Lange.

Grades 9-12 Homework (students in each group divide research tasks among themselves): Students research the biographies of both Lange and the second artist, the historical events or social issues related to their theme, and the specific images they selected. (How have art historians and critics interpreted each of those works? What did the artist say about them?)

Days 6-8 (and homework): Preparing the exhibition. Students share their findings with fellow group members and narrow or revise the selection of images for their exhibition. Students identify a title for their exhibition.

Students divide the following responsibilities below among themselves:

• Writing exhibition texts: Labels for images should include the artist's name, title of artwork, date it was made, its medium and measurements, and name of the collection or institution it belongs to. Labels should also include a paragraph that will help others understand key information about the artwork, drawing attention to specific details or formal elements and explaining its historical or social context and relationship to the theme.
• Wall texts comprising one to two paragraphs each should explain the basic theme for the exhibition, provide biographical information about the artists, and describe the relationship between the works selected for the exhibition. When examined together, what story do they tell? One wall text should also discuss the way in which the media represented in the exhibition are uniquely suited to tell that story.
• Gathering reproductions (photocopies from books, images downloaded and printed from the World Wide Web, or postcards).
• Designing the exhibition: Determine how images will be displayed and arranged in relation to one another (side by side or in a group or grid formation, for example), and choose the typeface and format used for labels and wall texts.
• Hanging the exhibition.

Grades 6-8: This process can be simplified for younger students. Students choose one image by Lange to pair with one image by a second artist who worked in a different medium. Students write texts explaining the story the two images tell and describing how the artists show the same theme while using different media.

Each group takes turns presenting its exhibition to the rest of the class or to others in the school.

Homework: Students write about what they learned by developing their exhibition.

Highway West / Lange
Highway to the West/U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, Dorothea Lange, 1938 (print about 1965). © Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland


• Students write a review of one of the other exhibitions, evaluating it in terms of both clarity and quality of overall concept, texts, and presentation.
• Teacher observations of students (willingness to collaborate and contribute).
• Technical: careful craftsmanship in both image display and final text.
• Creative: Image choices and texts effectively convey the visual and/or conceptual similarities and differences between the artworks and draw thoughtful, insightful conclusions regarding the desired intentions of the artists.


• Students research museum careers, specifically those involved with exhibitions (curators, exhibit and graphic designers, registrars, preparators, educators, etc.).
• Students invite staff members from an area museum to their classroom to discuss the process of developing an exhibition.
• Students create their own work of art that comments on the same theme that was the basis for their exhibition.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–12

Key Ideas and Details
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Text Types and Purposes
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Visual-Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 6

Artistic Perception
1.2–Discuss works of art as to theme, genre, style, idea, and differences in media.
1.3–Describe how artists can show the same theme by using different media and styles.
Historical and Cultural Context
3.1–Research and discuss the role of the visual arts in selected periods of history, using a variety of resources (both print and electronic).
Aesthetic Valuing
4.1–Construct and describe plausible interpretations of what they perceive in works of art.
Connections, Relationships, and Applications
5.5–Establish criteria to use for selecting artwork for a specific type of art exhibition.

Grade 7
Aesthetic Valuing
4.3–Take an active part in a small-group discussion about the artistic value of specific works of art in which a wide range of the viewpoints of peers is considered.
4.4–Develop and apply specific and appropriate criteria individually or in groups to assess and critique works of art.

Grade 8
Historical and Cultural Context
3.1–Examine and describe or report on the role of artwork created to make a social comment or protest social conditions.
Aesthetic Valuing
4.3–Construct an interpretation of a work of art based on the form and content of the work.

Grades 9-12 ("Proficient")
Artistic Perception
1.3–Research and analyze the work of an artist and write about the artist's distinctive style and its contribution to the meaning of the work.
1.5–Analyze the materials used by a given artist and describe how their use influences the meaning of the work.
Historical and Cultural Context
3.3–Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the diverse issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected artworks.
Aesthetic Valuing
4.5–Employ the conventions of art criticism in writing and speaking about artworks.

National Standards for Visual Arts

Grades 9-12
3. Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures ("Advanced")
Students analyze and interpret artworks for relationships among form, context, purposes, and critical models, showing understanding of the work of critics, historians, aestheticians, and artists.
5. Reflecting upon and Assessing the Characteristics and Merits of Their Work and the Work of Others
Students describe meanings of artworks by analyzing how specific works are created and how they relate to historical and cultural contexts.