A close read of Charles Nahl’s Sunday Morning in the Mines!

From “http://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nahl_1872,_Sunday_Morning_in_the_Mines.jpg

One of my favorite 4th grade Social Studies topics is The Gold Rush.  To get my GATE teaching certification, I created a differentiated unit of study on the topic, and one of my favorite lessons from that unit is a close read of the painting Sunday Morning in the Mines by Charles Nahl.  For those who aren’t familiar, close reading is a thoughtful, critical analysis of a text (or piece of art) in order to develop a deeper understanding of the text’s form, craft, or meaning.  It’s taking a critical eye and looking into a piece of writing, a poem, a painting, etc. and searching for deeper meanings and themes.  Click here for a link to more information about close reading.

I begin by asking the kids to take a look at the painting and ask them what they see, and what parts of it jump out at them.  I have them discuss what they see with their partner, and then jot down some ideas in their double-sided notebooks.  Next, I ask them to look for something they think is important, or something in the painting that they haven’t noticed yet.  Then, we reconvene as a class and on butcher paper, I write down things the students noticed.  If the kids are missing something important, I might ask guiding questions, such as, “What do you think the men in the background are doing?”

Next, I model an “I see…I wonder…I would argue” prompt. Mine might look something like this:

I see men in the background under a tent or some sort of covering.”

I wonder what they are doing?”

I would argue that they are fighting.  I say that because one man is either throwing a punch, or has the other man’s neck in his hand.  They seem to be moving around in an excited manner.”

It’s essential that the kids give examples and show evidence from the painting to support their argument.  I give them a chance to write one on their own in their DSNB and then we share out.

Next, I take a piece of butcher paper and divide it in half vertically, and label the left side “Left side” and the right side “Right side”, referring to the two sides of the painting.  I ask students to use descriptive adjectives to explain what they see on the left side and then on the right side.  At this point, the differences between the two sides start to become apparent.

Finally, I might say something like, “So as you know, like writers, artists often try to convey messages in their paintings.  Sometimes the paintings have a theme or represent an idea.  So what do you think the painter is trying to tell us?  Discuss with your partner.”  Then I would ask for volunteers to share out loud.

After a lengthy discussion, I would have them respond to the following prompt in their DSNB, “Charles Nahl’s purpose for painting ‘Sunday Morning in the Mines’ was ____________________.”  Make sure you support your claim with evidence!!”  Click here for a copy of my lesson notes.

I love opening the kids’ eyes to this painting!  The main theme of the painting is that there were two sides of The Gold Rush, both the good and the bad, and they are represented on the left and right side of the painting, respectively.  The redwood tree trunk in the middle of the painting provides a line of division between the two scenes.  On the left, you have the “wild” side and general lawlessness of the Gold Rush: wild riders tearing through the campground, fighting, drinking, smoking, gambling, and the drunk miner precariously clutching his gold dust, while nefarious individuals eye it covetously.  On the right side, you have Sunday as a day of rest: writing home to families, laundry, and reading from the bible.  Nahl had first-hand knowledge of the gold rush, as he was actually a miner in the early 1850’s, so his representations of the mining tools, camp luxuries, and insight into camp life lend authenticity to his painting.  The man inside the cabin writing a letter is said to be a self-portrait of Mr. Nahl.  I love the lizard posted up on the rock in the bottom right hand corner of the painting, just surveying the whole scene!

If you teach about the Gold Rush, consider using “Sunday Morning in the Mines” as a creative, engaging, multi-faceted approach to integrating several educational topics and ideas, including common core state standards for 4th grade (key ideas and details and integration of knowledge and ideas), close reading, theme, accountable talk, and art!