Dyan Branstetter | February 2018

Celebrate Black History Month with an Arts Integrated Unit on Romare Bearden

Are you looking to integrate the arts into your literacy block?  Or to incorporate African American artists and history into your lessons? Or simply test out some project-based learning for 2018? Here’s a unit for you to use that does it all. While it is designed for enrichment 3rd graders, it could be used with fourth and fifth graders with little to no modifications.


This unit is a study of artist Romare Bearden in combination with the book Me & Uncle Romie: A Story Inspired by the Life and Art of Romare Bearden, by Claire Hartfield. This unit emphasizes process over product. After a lot of guided exploration, students create a collage in the style of Romare Bearden’s “The Block” that depicts a block in their neighborhood. Students also write a narrative piece using their created collage as the setting.

To begin:

Before even mentioning the project, students read the story Me and Uncle Romie in partner groups. As they read, students watch for how main character James’ feelings change throughout the story. Then have them identify what it is that makes his feelings change. This points us towards a discussion on the theme of the story. After reading, we identify James’ problem and the solution to the problem, which also points us towards the theme. Finally, we talk about the setting and Uncle Romie’s (and James’) art and how it is such an integral part of the story itself.

After reading, I present the details of the entire project upfront to get students excited. I share the product that students will be required to create. Typically after learning the guidelines, they’re motivated to gain information in order to complete the project. They actively seek out the content necessary to help them create it. I love seeing this happen because it is such a natural way to learn. Find a student handout with the overview here.

Class structure:

While much of this project takes place during the workshop part of our class time together, the beginning of each session focuses on reading or art skills and strategies that are necessary for fully comprehending both the fiction and nonfiction readings. All of the instruction that I mention below occurs during the mini-lesson which is always followed by workshop time. Reading the story simultaneously with the nonfiction research, collage creation, and narrative writing makes for insightful and unique student work. Once the students are immersed in their work, I can confer with students about their process or utilize the time to conference with individuals and meet with small groups.

Uncovering Background Information:

To complete this project, third graders must first learn what a collage is. Then they explore Romare Bearden’s art to learn about his style and inspirations. (At this point, students usually haven’t figured out that Uncle Romie is Romare Bearden.) Throughout the project, I use the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s interactive online tool “Let’s Walk the Block”.

During our next whole group mini-lesson, I project the online tool. I explain that this will be guiding our exploration of Romare Bearden, specifically, his collage called The Block. We then watch the short video clip about this work. This is a bit detailed to introduce at this point because students are still making connections between the narrative, setting, and nonfiction information. However, I’ve found it is the best way to share the mentor art for this project. Once students dive into the rest of the website’s features, in combination with more class discussion, they begin to put together the pieces to understand the big picture.

Guiding the Learning:

The MET’s interactive website is not an easy read for third graders. So I created a WebQuest that guides students to clarify words, phrases, music, and people listed as Bearden’s inspirations. This essentially completes a close read of the nonfiction text AND the art on this interactive tool. They compare this to information that our anthology provides on collages. This prevents students from quickly clicking around the website without actually doing anything. Download the WebQuest to print for your students here.

One of the strategies I’ve included in the WebQuest to help students interact with the text is called “Evidence For, Evidence Against”. The directions for this section are included, but if you need a more detailed explanation you can find it here.

Clarifying Vocabulary and Going Deeper:

Our next mini-lesson centers on taking the time to clarify words that we don’t know. There are so many tier 2 and 3 vocabulary words and unfamiliar names in the Let’s Walk the Block online tool, and many students just read right past them. Understanding who the famous people are, as well as the meanings of these words, provides a much better experience for students as they work to make connections.

We divide and conquer the amount by assigning every student a different word and person to clarify. Students scatter to look up their word and do a thumbnail research sketch of their famous person. Then we all reconvene to compile our information as a class. Many of the people who inspired Bearden are famous African American artists, poets, and musicians. As the students uncover these connections it paints a great picture of the Harlem Rennaisance for them to discover. In addition, students hear snippets of jazz, read poetry, and see works of art from this movement since part of their thumbnail sketch requires them to post a famous work by their famous person.

Read more about this activity here, or download the teacher directions with words/people to clarify and students guide sheet here.

Beginning the Collage:

After students have explored the WebQuest enough to recognize Romare Bearden’s collage work, I share our collage requirements. (To help scaffold time management for students, I require that they are finished with step 6 of the WebQuest before they begin their artwork.)

  1. Students will design a collage to represent the block where they live. (We talk about “poetic license here since not all of us live on an actual block.)
  2. Students will create the collage in the style of Romare Bearden.

As a class, we look at the “Be an Artist” portion of the Met’s online tool which guides students through the steps of creating a collage. I provide each student with a 24″ x 8 sheet of paper and any media we have.

Designing the Assessment Tool:

After the students start planning their collage, we stop and develop criteria for assessment. I base this on the project guidelines and on student input regarding elements of collage. (I count each students’ collage as a supplemental reading score; the students need to comprehend the information about Romare Bearden’s style and demonstrate that they read to comprehend the elements of collage. I consider it a performance-based reading assessment.) I find that by waiting until students start the project to develop the assessment criteria, this equips the students to better choose what they should assess. (Plus, it is a great review of the requirements.) Students not only have the end of their project in sight, they begin to realize the challenges.

I help to guide them, but the students usually set the bar high. Then, I format the criteria as a checklist or rubric, and students assess their work before turning it in. Student involvement in the development of assessment criteria causes students to self-monitor their way to success, resulting in higher quality student work and accountability. Here’s an example.

Pulling it all together:

With our mini-lesson/workshop approach to this unit, students are working simultaneously on their WebQuest and collage art. Depending on the group, I like to extend and culminate the project in writing class. Some groups have had difficulty mastering our skill of identifying and changing “point of view”. To help learn this, we work on writing a narrative using our collage as the setting. Students can write in first person or third person to create a story that occurs in the collage that they created.

Other years, students have really struggled with informational writing. To help with this (and to help with assessment), I’ve had students write artist statements to accompany their collage art. Either writing option is fantastic for early finishers or as a separate portion of the project. I’ve found that requiring students to complete all of the writing in addition to the artwork and WebQuest has been too overwhelming for some.

Whether you pick and choose components of the unit or use it in its entirety, I hope that your students are able to gain a better perspective on the rich influence of African American art in our country’s history!

Find this unit in outline form here.

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.