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Bring a Painting To Life

These plans were developed by CAP (Curriculum Arts Project) at symphonyspace and are reproduced here with their permission.

For Teachers

Overview | For Students


1. For this activity, you will need to show the painting “The Last Moments of John Brown”.

2. All students will also need the Character Questionnaire (PDF format) if you want them to develop their character in writing. If so, print it out and make a copy for each student.


You can use the questions from Activity A and read them to the class. If this is your preference, you only need a copy for yourself. Read through the Character Questionnaire and decide which method would work best for your class.

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Before the Lesson

The teacher will need to do the following before beginning this lesson.

1. Review materials list and make sure you have located, and, if necessary, printed and copied those necessary for this lesson.

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Internet Resources Directory

Click here for websites providing supplementary information for students on John Brown, the Raid on Harper's Ferry, Abolition, and the Civil War. These websites are not essential to the lessons that follow.

However, in the Extensions section, there are follow-up reading, writing and looking activities, some of which reference these websites.

Note: Every website we link to was visited by our team before we activated the link to make sure it's appropriate for children. But we do not monitor or control these sites and they can change. In addition, many of these sites may have links to other sites, which we have not reviewed.

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A. Who Am I? ( 1–2 periods / Writing/Drama Activity)

STEP 1: Show the painting “The Last Moments of John Brown.” (see Materials) Once they all can see the picture, have them get a paper and pencil/pen ready, and then read the following steps to them one at a time:

  • Look carefully at this painting and each person in it. Don’t forget to look inside the doorway and by the left elbow and hand of the soldier standing closest to the front on the left side of the stairs. See if you can find at least 18 people. Maybe you will find more.
  • Choose one of the people you see in the painting.
  • Imagine that you are that person, standing in that place at that moment.
  • Use your imagination to give the person (“character”) that you have chosen a full life and background. On your paper, write down the following questions and then answer them. (Teachers – instead of reading them these questions you can print the Character Questionnaire (PDF format) and make a copy for each student.

    a. What is your character’s age?
    b. What is your character’s occupation?
    c. What kind of a house does your character live in?
    d. Whom does your character feel good about in the painting?
    e. Whom does your character NOT feel good about in the painting?
    f. What does your character hope will happen next?

  • What if we could hear what that person was thinking in the picture! Well, now YOU are that person. Please write down what that person might say or think – as if they were talking – in the moment that the painting shows us. They might talk or think about someone else in the picture. They might talk or think about how they’re feeling about what’s happening. Remember to write as if you were that person, so use “I”, as if you were really talking. (For example: “I am holding a gun because. . . ” or “I wish my feet didn’t feel so cold”.) On the other side of your paper (or on the back of the questionnaire), write a few sentences or a whole page. What you have written is called a “monologue”. A monologue is when one character speaks to the audience and tells them what’s on his or her mind.

STEP 2: Once everyone has finished writing, each person should read their monologue, without saying who their character is. After the monologue is finished, the rest of the class should try to guess which character in the picture the monologue belongs to. Give reasons for your answers.

B. Are you talking to me? (1-2 periods / Writing/Acting Exercise)

Activity A (Who Am I?) must be done before doing this activity. (You will also need to show them the example of a scene with character, dialogue and stage directions in Step 1 (#3) below. You can write it on the board or on a large pad of paper.)

STEP 1: Tell students to work with a partner, making sure that the partners wrote about two different characters in Activity A. Once they all have a partner, have them get a paper and pencil/pen ready, and then read the following steps to them one at a time:

  • Each pair is going to write a “dialogue”, a conversation between two people. In this case, the two people are your chosen character and your partner’s chosen character. Your partner and you should share the background information (the name, age, occupation ,etc.) of your characters. Read your monologues to each other.
  • Now think of something that your two characters would be talking about that has to do with the event and/or characters in the painting. It will be more interesting if one of the characters is trying to convince the other to do something that he or she doesn’t want to. Maybe they’re having an argument or perhaps it’s just a discussion. But the point is that there is a problem or a conflict. That makes it into drama. The scene you are about to write doesn’t need to happen in the exact place or time shown in the painting. It can happen anywhere or anytime, as long as it relates to the painting.
  • When you are writing a dialogue, it should be in the following form. We’ll pretend that the two characters are named Jim and Mary. You and your partner will use your characters’ names and will write a conversation that they would have.
Character's Name
What Character Says
(Action or “Stage Directions”)
Why did you come here today, Mary? (He grabs her by the arm)
I wanted to see John Brown.  
But it’s dangerous. Look at those guns! I want you to go home at once.  
No! I’m staying here. (Turns her back on him.)

Now you write the dialogue between your two characters. It can be as short as the example above or as long as you like.

STEP 2: Once everyone has finished writing, tell them to practice performing their scene. Each pair should perform their scene for the rest of the class. Discuss each scene and the issues that are raised.

STEP 3: Look at the painting again and ask the class whether they have any additional thoughts about it, having done the scenes.

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Follow-up Reading, Writing, and Looking Activities (1-2 periods each)

1. Have your students write a short newspaper article, which expresses a negative opinion of John Brown.

2. Students can click on Newspaper Articles in the Student Resource Section to read some other newspaper reports of the event or on opinions about John Brown to learn how people from John Brown's time, both famous and relatively unknown, felt about him.

3. In the Student Resource Section, students can also view another painting of John Brown, right before his execution, by a 20th Century African-American artist, Horace Pippin, as well as photos and prints of John Brown at different times in his life.

4. Students can research material on John Brown, the Raid on Harpers Ferry, Abolition and the Civil War by going to the websites listed in the Internet Resource Directory. Your knowledge of the online resources is very important. Review the online materials from the websites, and if appropriate, print out and photocopy student copies of the online material.

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Overview | For Students

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