Kindergarteners paint a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. with objects

By Kindergarten Teacher Jenna Wright
Students' object portraits

I am a strong believer in helping my students become productive citizens through character education, and I believe that history provides endless examples of the profound difference people of strong character can have.

In the summer of 2013, I had the privilege of participating in the National Museum of American History's Teach-it-Forward Institute, a professional development program for Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia teachers. While attending the program, I was fascinated by the idea of using object portraits to represent an individual.

Nine object portraits by students, containing books, ballet shoes, dolls, balls, flags, and more

What an array of teaching opportunities they provide: from exploring objects and other primary sources, to investigating how the objects could be related, to analyzing the significance of each object, and then connecting all of those objects to represent one particular person in history. The possibilities were endless. I knew it would work perfectly with teaching character education through fascinating individuals from history.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of his "I Have a Dream" speech, I set out to teach my kindergarten students about the importance of strong character though the life of Martin Luther King Jr. I could not wait to use object portraits as a concluding activity for my students to represent such an inspiring individual in a tastefully artistic and historically accurate way.

We spent months exploring a combination of primary and secondary sources to learn about the history of African Americans in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, and the impact he made. Students explored and analyzed photographs, watched videos of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking, indulged in many books written about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, and engaged in meaningful discussions with one another about their discoveries.

My student historians share what they learned. This video is also available on YouTube.

I was amazed at the deep level of thinking my little historians were demonstrating throughout their explorations and overjoyed by their enthusiasm for history. They made connections and related the teachings of Dr. King to their own lives. I would overhear students saying things like "Martin Luther King would want you to use kind words" while helping their friends sort out a conflict. Some students even made a connection between the struggle of African Americans and the struggle of Jews while learning about Hanukkah. While witnessing my students making such deep connections independently, I could not wait to see what they would create for an object portrait.

To make sure students understood what an object portrait was, I showed students an example of an object portrait that I made for myself and explained why I used each object. I then asked each student individually to tell me one object they would pick to represent Martin Luther King Jr. and why. Since many objects would be too large to fit in a picture frame, I printed off pictures of what the students had asked for. I then split the students into groups and let them cut and paste their objects inside the frame. Each member in the group had a chance to share what they picked with their group. We concluded our study with each group sharing their object portraits to the class. They were proudly displayed in our class for the rest of the year. I continued to hear students talking about the teachings and strong character of Martin Luther King Jr. right up to the last day of school.

To find a lesson plan on building object portraits and language arts-integrated lessons on Martin Luther King Jr., visit Smithsonian's History Explorer. For information on the 2015 Teach-it-Forward Institute, e-mail the educators at the museum at

Jenna Wright is a kindergarten teacher at Maryland City Elementary School in Maryland. The Teach It Forward Institute is part of the museum's A. James Clark Excellence in History Teaching Program.