Seventh Graders Illuminate US Historical Figures

Walk down the South Hall of 86 Fourth Avenue these days, and you’re likely to feel as though you’re visiting the National Portrait Gallery. Drawings of United States historical figures adorn the walls, courtesy of art teacher Hilary Harnischfeger’s seventh grade students and a multidisciplinary collaboration between the Visual Art and History Departments.
Referencing the list of historical figures students study in sixth and seventh grade (provided by history teachers Georgina Wells and Mark Weinsier), Ms. Harnischfeger assigned each of her students a figure to draw. She provided them with a picture from which to work and a one inch-by- one inch viewfinder. But she was careful not to share the identity of the historical figures until several weeks after students began drawing. 

“I didn’t want them to feel tempted to research other artists’ renditions of their person’s portrait in an attempt to get it ‘right.’ It was important to me that they draw with as few preconceived ideas as possible of what their portrait should look like. The choice to have them use the viewfinder was similarly motivated. It slows down the process of simply looking at a selected area of an image without becoming distracted by the whole and helps students thoughtfully observe nuance in shape, line, and shadow.”

After learning the identity of their figure, students conducted research to build upon what they learned in history class and wrote a short biography to accompany their portrait. In many instances, the student-artists mentioned their intention for the drawing.

Kafi B. said of her portrait of Mary Bowser, “I was hoping to capture her bravery.” Likewise Nancy C. said, “I tried to incorporate her emotions and personality and tried to make it feel like she was there,” of her depiction of Harriet Tubman. Philip M. wanted to capture Frederick Douglass’s “seriousness and determination,” and Colin M. emphasized a notable feature of John Quincy Adams’s style, saying, “I wanted to highlight his wispy white side hair because not many people have haircuts like that today, and I wanted it to really stand out.”
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Grace Church School is a co-educational independent school in downtown Manhattan, New York City providing instruction for nearly 800 students in Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12.