Historical Witness, Social Messaging Lesson Plan Land Use and Lawmaking in California

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J. Paul Getty Museum
Education Department

Historical Witness, Social Messaging Lesson Plan
Land Use and Lawmaking in California (Intermediate Level)

Grades: Middle School (6–8)

Subjects: Visual Arts, English-Language Arts, History-Social Science

Time Required: 5–6 class periods, plus independent work

Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff
Lesson Overview

Students will read writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson and discuss the principles of transcendentalism. They will then discuss a landscape photograph by Carleton Watkins and use pinhole cameras to create photographic essays depicting a modern-day environmental issue.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

    • read excerpts of Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson to learn about transcendentalism.

    • use pinhole cameras to create photographic essays that explore a local natural environment.

    • create at least three photographs showing different perspectives.

    • write artist’s statements about their photographic essays.

Featured Work of Art

Tutucanula - El Capitan 3600 ft. Yo Semite, Carleton E. Watkins


  • Copies of excerpts from Nature (1836) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Reproduction of Tutucanula - El Capitan 3600 ft. Yo Semite by Carleton E. Watkins

  • Background Information and Questions for Teaching about the photograph

  • Student Handout: Protecting a Local Environment

  • Student Handout: What’s in a Photograph?

  • Directions for making a pinhole camera from the lesson "Capturing Light: The Science of Photography" (www.getty.edu/education/for_teachers/curricula/art_science/lesson01.html)

  • Materials for a pinhole camera: empty cardboard oatmeal canisters and lids, wax paper, rubber bands, thick black paper (cut to the same length and width of the oatmeal canister), small and thin pin or needle, black electrical tape, black paint, and paintbrushes

  • Photosensitive paper purchased from a camera supply store

Lesson Steps

  1. Tell students that they will be charged with the task of creating photographic essays that explore a local natural environment, including factors that could impact it negatively. Before taking any photographs, students must first conduct research on the Internet or in their school or local library. Pass out the handout Protecting a Local Environment. Based on their research, students will complete the handout and answer the following questions:

  • What can an individual gain from experiencing the local natural environment?

  • What different factors could negatively impact an individual’s experience of the environment? (Pollution, litter, commercial development, tourism, etc.)

  • What are the causes of these different factors?

  • What are the consequences of these factors? (Health hazards, endangered species, aesthetic concerns.)

  • What should be done to protect the environment? What can the community do to persuade the local, state, or federal government to take action and protect the environment?

  1. Pass out copies of excerpts from Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson. You may wish to select excerpts based on your specific curricular needs or choose to excerpt the first paragraph. (To view the complete Nature, visit The Internet’s Complete Guide to the Life and Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (www.rwe.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=107&Itemid=42). Discuss Emerson’s main points. Explain to students that Emerson was at the center of a literary, political, and philosophical movement called transcendentalism. Transcendentalists emphasized the role of the individual in shaping his or her own experience without the influence of authorities and institutions. For Emerson and other transcendentalists, like Henry David Thoreau, truth and beauty could be attained by experiencing nature, writing, creating art, and meditating.

  1. Inform students that Emerson praised photographs of Yosemite taken by Carleton Watkins. Display a reproduction of Tutucanula - El Capitan 3600 ft. Yo Semite. Ask students why they think that Emerson liked Watkins’s works. Explain that Watkins's images helped define America's preference for landscape views depicting rugged wilderness and celebrating spectacular landforms on the grandest of scales. Watkins's photographs confirmed the sense of wonder celebrated in America's wilderness.

  1. Explain that Watkins had the ability to photograph a subject from the viewpoint that allowed the most information to be revealed about its contents. Ask students what they notice in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the photograph. Point out how Watkins positioned the camera in such a way to include the decaying tree on the left-hand side of the composition and the façade of El Capitan on the right. He was also able to capture the top of the looming granite cliff in the background and the stillness of the water in the foreground.

  1. Tell students that, in the spirit of the transcendentalists and of Carleton Watkins, they will create their photographic essays by spending time with nature and creating art. To prepare students for shooting photographs, pass out the handout What’s in a Photograph? and review the information with the class.

  1. Students will be responsible for making a pinhole camera out of a recycled oatmeal canister and will use their camera to create original photographs. See the lesson "Capturing Light: The Science of Photography" (www.getty.edu/education/for_teachers/curricula/art_science/lesson01.html) for directions on how to construct and use a pinhole camera.

  1. Students’ photographic essays should comprise three to five images that explore the local natural environment that they researched. The essay should communicate different ways that people impact the environment or are impacted by the environment (i.e., litter, noise pollution, traffic, negative impact on air quality, respiratory issues and other health concerns resulting from air pollution). Students should plan on shooting at least eight pictures using photosensitive paper. Remind them about Watkins’s deliberate compositional choices evident in Tutucanula - El Capitan 3600 ft. Yo Semite and encourage them to try different angles and to shoot in different positions (i.e., crouching or standing on a chair rather than simply standing) so they can see how different perspectives affect the outcome of the image.

  1. When students have completed the assignment, instruct them to write an artist’s statement that can be exhibited with their photographs. In their artist’s statements, students should reflect on their experience of taking photographs in a local natural environment. They should respond to the following questions:

  • How would they describe their experience photographing the environment? What inspired them to shoot in a particular location?

  • How did their research influence the subject matter of their photographs?

  • What did they learn from examining Carleton Watkins’s photograph that they considered while making their own images?

  • Based on their experience, do they agree with Emerson and other transcendentalists that truth and beauty can be attained by experiencing nature, creating art, and writing?

Instruct students to include specific examples from their personal experience or their photographs that support their ideas. Students should also include an introduction and conclusion in their essays. For further ideas about how to how to craft artists’ statements, view the lesson “Exploring Photographs, Lesson 3: Writing the Artist’s Statement” (www.getty.edu/education/for_teachers/curricula/exploring_photographs/lesson03.html).

  1. Set up a class exhibition in your school library or another local venue and invite the school community to attend.


Students’ completed Protecting a Local Environment handout should include thorough responses to all questions. Assess photographic essays based on their relevance to the environmental topic and whether they depict varying perspectives. Assess artists’ statements on the inclusion of an introduction, conclusion, specific examples from their personal experience or their photographs, and responses to the questions posed.


Discuss additional photographs that Carleton Watkins made in Yosemite, such as the following images:

  • Part of the Trunk of the Grizzly Giant, Carleton E. Watkins

  • First View of the Valley, Carleton E. Watkins

Standards Addressed
Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 6

1.0 Artistic Perception

1.1 Identify and describe all the elements of art found in selected works of art (e.g., color, shape/form, line, texture, space, value).

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.
2.0 Creative Expression

2.4 Create increasingly complex original works of art reflecting personal choices and increased technical skill.

2.5 Select specific media and processes to express moods, feelings, themes, or ideas.
3.0 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).

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing

4.1 Construct and describe plausible interpretations of what they perceive in works of art.

Grade 7

1.0 Artistic Perception

1.1 Describe the environment and selected works of art, using the elements of art and the principles of design.

1.4 Analyze and describe how the elements of art and the principles of design contribute to the expressive qualities of their own works of art.

2.0 Creative Expression

2.2 Use different forms of perspective to show the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface.

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context

3.2 Compare and contrast works of art from various periods, styles, and cultures and explain how those works reflect the society in which they were made.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing

4.2 Analyze the form (how a work of art looks) and content (what a work of art communicates) of works of art.

5.0 Connections, Relationships, Applications

5.3 Examine art, photography, and other two and three-dimensional images, comparing how different visual representations of the same object lead to different interpretations of its meaning, and describe or illustrate the results.

Grade 8

1.0 Artistic Perception

1.1 Use artistic terms when describing the intent and content of works of art.
2.0 Creative Expression

2.6 Create a two or three-dimensional work of art that addresses a social issue.

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context

3.3 Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.

History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 8

8.6 Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people from 1800 to the mid-1800s and the challenges they faced, with emphasis on the Northeast.

7. Identify common themes in American art as well as transcendentalism and individualism (e.g., writings about and by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, etc.).

English—Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 6


3.0 Literary Response and Analysis

3.6 Identify and analyze features of themes conveyed through characters, actions, and images.


1.0 Writing Strategies

1.2 Create multiple-paragraph expository compositions.
Grade 7


3.0 Literary Response and Analysis

3.1 Articulate the expressed purposes and characteristics of different forms of prose (e.g., short story, novel, novella, essay).


1.0 Writing Strategies

1.2 Support all statements and claims with anecdotes, descriptions, facts and statistics, and specific examples.
Grade 8


3.0 Literary Response and Analysis

3.7 Analyze a work of literature, showing how it reflects the heritage, traditions, attitudes, and beliefs of its author. (Biographical approach)


1.0 Writing Strategies

1.1 Create compositions that establish a controlling impression, have a coherent thesis, and end with a clear and well-supported conclusion.

© 2008 J. Paul Gett yTrust

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