Wessels Living History Farm - York Nebraska Learner Resources for the 1930s
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  Suzanne Ratzlaff  

Online Lesson Plan
Read More than Words

In this lesson students will learn how to interpret the interplay of photographs and words using the work of the Farm Security Administration as starting points.

Lesson Plan by Nancy Childs, Visual Arts Curriculum Specialist, Lincoln (Nebraska) Public Schools.


  Vernon Evans "Oregon or Bust"  
Suggested grade level: 6th-8th. The student will:
  • As an art historian, the student will conduct "visual" and primary source research on an FSA photograph. He or she will compare photographs of the same or similar subjects, taken over a period of time.
  • Standards
  • As a creator, the student will use factual information collected through research to write fictional stories based on a visual image.
  • As an aesthetician, the student will debate the following questions – Is a picture more valuable as a work of art or as documentation? Can a picture have value in both categories? What criteria are used to evaluate art and journalism?


Bell ringer –There is a cliché that says, "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words." But is that really true?

Handout of Oregon or Bust
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First, in order to study it, download and print out a PDF version of the "Oregon or Bust" photograph by FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein along with a modern photo of Vernon Evans in 1977. As an alternative, you could use a computer projector and play the video of the interview with Vernon above. Ask the students what they think this picture is about. Students can offer more than one scenario or interpretation. Push them to justify their speculations with details from the photograph.

Next, have the students read the caption. Then, hand out the second page with the modern photo of Vernon Evans and the interview with him. Have the students read the interview.

Compare the students' remarks with the text and the interview. How accurate was the students' interpretation? What clues did they use to "read" the picture? Make a list of these clues.

Is there a way to organize the clues we use as we do "visual research" as we look at a work of art?

How did the textual information affect our interpretation of the photograph?

Initial Inquiry: Is a Picture Really Worth a Thousand Words? How do we "read" a picture? How does an art critic read a picture? How is a fine art photograph similar or different from a documentary photograph? Were the FSA photographers journalists or artists? What was the intent of the FSA project? How important is it for a documentary photograph to be presented with written text?

The Resources

Handout, Nettie Featherston
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  • Prints of some of the FSA photographs on this page [additional photos below].
  • Paper to write on.
  • Writing utensils.

Links from within the Wessels Living History Farm site. [Note that clicking on these links will open a new browser window. Just close it and you'll be back to this page.] Direct the students to these pages to learn about the FSA and to see video segments from some of the individuals in the FSA photographs.

The Process

Handout, Fleeing a Dust Storm
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After the group has completed the "bell ringer" investigation, divide students into small groups, assign them an FSA photograph and ask them to prepare a short presentation based on visually reading the photograph. A suggested format might be –
  • Start with one sentence that is an overall statement about what you think the photo is about.
  • Then present ideas about the details that you see in the picture.
  • Conclude with a response to the picture.

After each group has presented their "visual" research on the photo, they will conduct documentary research by examining any text materials or other primary source documents they can find related to their photo. Students will share the findings of their research with the teacher to check for accuracy.

Next students will write a piece of fiction based on the photograph and their research.

The final presentation of the groups work will be presented in three sections:

  1. The initial "visual" reading of the photo.
  2. The factual research of the photo.
  3. The fiction based on the photo.

After viewing and reading the presentations of each group, the class will discuss the relationships among personal interpretation, fact and fiction. A "compare and contrast" grid could be used to facilitate and document this discussion.

Learning Advice

Handout, Fritz Fredrick
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In art criticism, Feldman's four steps are often used in a lesson like this –
  1. Describe
  2. Analyze
  3. Interpret
  4. Evaluate or Judge
Description is generally based on facts. Analysis, interpretation and evaluation are all based on opinion. It is important for a student to be able to support his or her opinions with facts.

Assessment Activity

Students will create a rubric like the one below, generate the wording or the criteria on which their success will be judged and then use it to assess their work. The steps are as follows:

  • Divide students into three groups, A, B, C.
  • Using "Post it" notes each student in the group will write a phrase describing a "Not Very Good" activity, a "Good" activity and a "Very Good" activity for the section they are assigned to.
  • After students have written their phrases and posted them in the column they intended them for, they will read the phrases of the other students. If a student feels that a phrase needs to be moved to a different column, they are free to move it. The group should then discuss the phrases, eliminate duplicates and come to a group consensus on condensed versions of the acceptable phrase for each column.

Visual Reading of the Photograph

Not Very Good



Very Good
Factual Research on the Photograph

Not Very Good



Very Good
Fictional Story based on the Photograph

Not Very Good



Very Good

Each group presents their grid to the class as a whole. If the group feels that there need to be changes, they must come to consensus on what the change should be. In the case of a stalemate the teacher holds deciding opinion. (If students complain about this use of power, I tell them to get a college degree and get back to me – and then we'll talk about it.)

After this rubric is created, it will be used by the students to evaluate their completed work and the work of one other group.

This rubric can be created at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the project. I think it can be very helpful to do it closer to the beginning of the project that way students have a clearer understanding of the criteria upon which they will be evaluated.

In order to create the rubric, students need to see samples of the work they are expected to create. This could be the work they did as an entire group, interpreting, researching and writing about the FSA photo at the beginning of this lesson plan. Or ou can work from samples of work created by previouse students It is good to have good, very good and not very good examples for them to examine.

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