One Starfish at a Time: Combining Animals, Art, Literature, and Community Service

byKimberly Towne


I have had a poster hanging in my classroom for many years. It has the following story on it:

A small boy lived by the ocean. He loved the creatures of the sea, especially the starfish, and spent much of his time exploring the seashore. One day he learned there would be a minus tide that would leave the starfish stranded on the sand. The day of the tide he went down to the beach and began picking up stranded starfish and tossing them back into the sea. An elderly man who lived next door came down to the beach to see what he was doing. "I'm saving the starfish," the boy proudly declared. When the neighbor saw all of the stranded starfish, he shook his head and said "I'm sorry to disappoint you, young man, but if you look down the beach one way, there are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see. And if you look down the beach the other way, it's the same. One little boy like you isn't going to make much of a difference." The boy thought about this for a moment. Then he reached his small hand down to the sand, picked up a starfish, tossed it out into the ocean and said, "I sure make a difference for that one." 1
This poster sums up my own personal philosophy and a concept that I feel is important for students.

In this unit, I have developed a community-service art project that integrates literature, Victorian history, and animal art. The unit focuses on the idea that one person can make a difference, and in this case, they can do so using art as the conduit. I will want the students to understand how artists can not only contribute to society but actually change society. I will use two visual artists, Edwin Landseer and Harrison Weir, and an author, Anna Sewell, as exemplars of artists who have made clear contributions to society. To that end, the students will read Black Beauty, understand its historical and cultural context, analyze paintings and ultimately create an animal portrait that will be used to make cards that will be donated to the local SPCA to be sold.

While these different topics might seem unrelated, they are actually very interconnected and supportive of what I am trying to accomplish. By looking at the Victorian period and the change in perceptions of animals, I have been able to combine literature, art, history, and community service. During the Victorian period, many things were happening that worked to change the culture's view of animals and even some of the laws concerning animal treatment. Anna Sewell's Black Beauty is an example of how one person's work directly impacted the world and resulted in changes, first in perceptions and ultimately in laws. Artists also created work that showed a shift in attitudes towards animals. Using this time period and these works, I will show students how people have and still can make a positive impact on the world.

There are three reasons why this unit is timely and appropriate. 1. The students must perform twenty hours of community service. My students come from a variety of elementary schools throughout the system, and as far as I know, none of the elementary schools requires community service. Many of the students struggle with this requirement. Either they don't have the ability to get out to school-community service opportunities, they haven't found a project or a charity with which they want to work, or they just are overwhelmed with the transition to middle school. Regardless of the reasons, the majority find it challenging to get their hours. By teaching this unit, I will introduce the students to community service, and they will be given an opportunity to gain these hours. This will help alleviate the anxiety that some feel about this new requirement. 2. By using animals as the main theme, I have chosen an appealing and easily accessible topic. 3. Students at this age are beginning to find their own identities and want to feel that they have some control and power in their lives. By teaching this unit, I hope to give them a sense of empowerment. I want them to feel that they too can change the world.

While I have taught in an inner-city school system for twenty-two years, I have been an International Bachelaurate art teacher for the past ten years. I teach in the Middle Years Program, which is designed for students aged eleven to sixteen. The program is divided between a middle school and a high school. I am the art teacher in the middle school, responsible for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. The students come from thirty-three different elementary schools and are accepted based on application. While the students are gifted academically, they come to school with a range of experiences and backgrounds.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) program was started in 1968 in Geneva, Switzerland, serving high school students, and it has grown into a program that serves students ages three to nineteen. Currently, IB programs are in 3,632 schools in 146 countries, and they serve over a million students. 2 IB has a number of components in its teaching philosophy. The emphasis of IB is to develop students who are critical and creative thinkers. There is also a focus on making connections between traditional subjects and the real world, with one of the areas of interaction being service learning. In IB schools, the students are required to perform a certain number of community-service hours a year. While I have always allowed students to earn hours in the art class, it has been in individual ways. I give students opportunities to help hang displays, help in the art room, and participate in poster contests. I have not incorporated community service into my actual teaching curriculum. I have wanted, for a long time, to find a project that would be a community-service project. I also like to integrate history and literature into the art curriculum. IB stresses the importance of interdisciplinary and integrated instruction. By creating a unit that has a strong community-service component, I will be integrating this IB focus into my curriculum and providing the students an opportunity to gain community-service hours and become more comfortable with service learning in general.

I will have the students read the novel Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, published in 1877. This bestselling book is credited with changing public opinion and ultimately laws concerning the ethical treatment of horses in Victorian England. I will share with the students background information on the book, the time period, the author, and the impact of the novel. In conjunction to looking at the time period during which Black Beauty was written, I will also look at Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), an artist who specialized in painting animals. He painted humanized animals, often depicting them in service to humans. Landseer is famous for his dog portraits; and to provide a balance, I will also share the artwork of Harrison Weir (1824-1906), an author and illustrator, who, while depicting all sorts of animals, was very much a cat enthusiast. For the studio part of my unit, I will have the students create animal portraits and poetry about animals. The pictures and the poems will then be turned into notecards. We will print off multiple copies and donate them to the local SPCA to be sold. In this way we will be doing community service and having our artwork positively impact the local community.

Concurrently, I want to understand and be able to share with the students the emergence of the animal rights movement in Victorian England. It was part of a larger movement involving increasing concern for the poor, children, the mentally ill, and the elderly; this movement was basically an advancement towards an enhanced social consciousness. I will need to tread lightly with the topic because I have students who can be upset by issues such as animal cruelty. I will include information on Anna Sewell, who I think will be an inspiration to the students, as she is an inspiration to me, on Edwin Landseer and his paintings, and on Harrison Weir and his illustrations. In selecting images, I will focus on those that have a quality of anthropomorphism or in some way elicit empathy from the viewer.


My unit will focus on how literature and art can change ideas, specifically how they can influence the current culture and its laws. My sixth-grade curriculum begins the year with a unit on communication, specifically on how art communicates. This unit, on Black Beauty, Weir, and Landseer, will follow the communication unit and will explore not only how art can be used to communicate ideas and beliefs, but also how it can change ideas and beliefs. The examples from art and literature that will be shared with the students will be ones that have made an impact on the perception of animals and animal rights. This has a personal connection to me since I am a big supporter of animal welfare, animal rights, and pro-animal legislation. Developing a unit that will allow me to share with my students something I feel strongly about is an added bonus that teaching of the unit will offer me.


Children enjoy looking at art that shows animals and reading stories about animals. I believe this unit will provide the students with an engaging unit that teaches a larger concept by using examples that they will find appealing. Sixth-grade students are coming to middle school and are trying to figure where they fit and how to progress from being children to teenagers to ultimately adults. It is an awkward and confusing stage. I want this unit to influence the way they see the world and how they perceive the impact one person can make on that world. I want them by the end of the unit to feel that they can successfully make a difference, however small, in their world; in short, they will understand that they too can save at least one starfish. I hope to provide a vehicle by which they can concretely do something to make the world a better place. After this experience, my hope is that they will transfer this concept to their future community-service work and ultimately their lives even after their time in the IB program.

Content Background

In order to be prepared to teach this unit, a teacher needs to understand the role of animals in art and the shift that occurred during the Victorian times. While other art images will be discussed, the work of Edwin Landseer and Harrison Weir will be the focus. In conjunction with the shift of the depiction of animals in art, the rise of animal-protection groups, both of which were occurring simultaneously, will be explored. And finally, the work of one woman who made a direct impact on animal treatment laws of the time will be examined.

The Victorian Period and Attitudes towards Animals

The Victorian period ran concurrently with the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901. The art and events that are covered here occurred roughly during this time period. During her reign, Britain was prosperous and relatively peaceful. This was a time seeing a great increase in British power, with expansion of the British colonies in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. This period followed and completed the Industrial Revolution in Britain, which was a period of huge cultural change.

In Britain, a number of separate and collective events occurred that began to change Victorian society. The Victorian Age, which has been called the Age of Reform, saw tremendous political, social and cultural transformations. Shaken by the French Revolution, the British opted for reform instead. And this reform, which allowed more men to vote than ever before, also called into play the need for more extensive social reform. People who had never had a voice before now had a voice. The Condition of England question, Dickens and his novels, the Evangelical Christians preaching the moral obligation to improve the human condition, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, and the rise of literacy, all against the backdrop of the final stages of the Industrial Revolution, were just some of the forces at work. This made for an age of social upheaval and ultimately social change.

In the early nineteenth century, animal protection societies were developed. In 1822, there was the first law created regarding animal cruelty; and just two years later, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which later became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was established. This was the first animal protection organization. 3 In addition, there was a shift in the function that some animals played in art. The convergence of these events underscored a shift in Victorian Britain's perception of animals.

During this era, the theory of evolution was also influencing many aspects of life, including the perception of animals. Topics of writing, conversation, and debate at the time included animals' position in the evolutionary chain, their character and capability to feel and express emotion and their relationships, be it as pets or as working servants to people. At this time, the relationship between human and animals became more a central concern. Charles Darwin's ideas of evolution were certainly part of the context of these dialogues, and the ideas about animals were discussed and debated from all sides. 4 Animals in this period were subjects of paintings, sculpture, prints, scientific representations, illustrations in books and magazines, cartoons, and children's books. The subjects of these images range from sensitively painted portraits of dogs, to cartoons of politicians as animals and to centerfold-like reproductions of prize-winning bulls.

Animal Portraiture

Since there has been art, animals have been depicted. They are so ubiquitous that it is challenging to examine the history of this subject matter. The variety of functions that animals serve in art also creates multiple lenses through which to view animal portraiture. Through much of the history of art, animals have served specific purposes. Much of the time, animals were symbols or metaphors, religious expressions or even simple decoration. Rarely was the animal simply the subject "for the subject's sake," that is, until closer to the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The role of animals in portraits actually began to shift during the mid-eighteenth century. Up until this time, animals in portraits, often dogs, had been used to signify the rank, identity, and status of the person who was in the portrait. These were not meant to depict individual animals but rather to convey information about the person being depicted. But during the eighteenth century, this situation began to change, and dog "semantics" or the use of the dogs as symbols became more open ended and ambiguous. Real pets began to be included, and they would even have their own sittings. These dogs would truly be painted as portraits of unique, individual, and idiosyncratic animals. 5 The dogs would take on a semi-independent or complementary role to the person who was the subject of the painting. It was also during the eighteenth century that portraits of dogs by themselves emerged as an independent genre.

In the Victorian period, the breed of dog itself communicated certain information because there was a hierarchy to the breeds. This hierarchy of different breeds was endlessly examined in breeding manuals and reinforced in dog shows. There was a definite perceived correlation between one's dog's breed and one's class status. It was also a time when people began keeping pets as companions and not just as working animals, something that prior to this time had been done only by the wealthiest of the upper classes. By the mid 1800s, the "Victorian cult of pets was firmly established," so much so that the magazine Punch often published cartoons that made fun of dog owners who dressed their dogs and feed them from the table. 6

Edwin Landseer (1802-1873)

One of the most popular artists of the Victorian period was Edwin Landseer. His work was reproduced in various levels of quality, medium, and price so that almost every house had copies. 7 His iconic images would have been as familiar to Victorians as the Mona Lisa is to us. While Landseer's work is less popular than it was, I believe the students will find it appealing; and if looked at in the light of what was happening in British society, his images can be very powerful. Landseer is most famous for his dog portraits, although he also painted wild animals in some very ruthless depictions. In his dog paintings, Landseer was able to represent the affection and connection between man and dog. According to Diana Donald, Landseer "seemed to penetrate the minds of his subjects as no previous animal painter had done, prompting sympathetic emotions in the viewer, and tacitly reprehending cruelty towards animals in general…. They [his paintings] were emotive moral dramas, in which the mentality of animals, and its relationship to that of humans, were the real subject." 8 Landseer, therefore, invented a new kind of animal art. His dogs were depicted as heroes and saints with their virtues being at least equal to or even excelling those of humans. 9 A good example of this type of art is Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller. In this painting, a St. Bernard is saving a man who has been partially buried by snow. This was painted in 1820, when Landseer was only eighteen. It clearly depicts the dogs as the heroes, literally saving the man's life.

There was a trend by poets, writers, philosophers, and scientists, to explore animal psychology. Landseer's paintings often had literary allusions, but they also greatly influenced the thinking and writing of the time. They were often reproduced or cited in publications dealing with animal behavior. 10 Classic examples are the hero dog or saint dog, and dogs mourning their dead owners. Perhaps the most famous is The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, of 1837, in which a collie is sitting next to a draped coffin with his head resting on the coffin. This touching painting clearly depicts the pain and sorrow the animal is feeling at the death of his owner.

In some of Landseer's most famous paintings, dogs demonstrate individual personalities and seem able to have their own emotions and even thoughts. Landseer often did this by contrasting dogs. A wonderful example of this is Dignity and Impudence, a painting with a bloodhound, looking very serious, and a small West Highland Terrier, looking very mischievous. It should not be surprising that Landseer became the painter of the Queen's and the royal family's animals. 11 According to Landseer's obituary, published in the Art Journal in 1873, "his dogs are not mere portraits only, they are thinking, almost rational creatures, wanting only the gift of speech to hold converse with us." 12 My hope is that the students will agree with this assessment, since I certainly do.

Harrison Weir (1824-1906)

While Landseer was perhaps the most famous of animal painters at this time, he certainly wasn't the only one glorifying animals. Harrison William Weir was an author and illustrator who focused his work on animals and birds. He was an adamant supporter of animal welfare and a cat enthusiast. Apprenticed to an engraver, George Braxton, at the age of thirteen, Weir was a prolific artist, painting, engraving, and illustrating, with his work appearing in children's books, periodicals, and natural history books as well as books about poultry. He also wrote extensively, from children's books to manuals on breeding. He founded the first cat show, which he organized at the Crystal Palace in London in 1871, and he was a prominent judge. 13 In 1887, Weir established the National Cat Club and served as its first president and show manager. In his book Our Cats and all about Them, Weir described a variety of breeds, the preferred characteristics in breeding, diseases, and guidelines for judging a cat show. Harrison Weir is considered to be the "father of the cat fancy." 14 In addition to spending a great deal of time writing about cats, he also bred purebred cats.

Weir also used anthropomorphism and endowed his animal subjects with human characteristics. He often depicted animals in clothes, speaking and performing human activities. I believe he is a good counterpoint to Landseer's paintings. Weir was more an illustrator, while Landseer was a fine artist, although I dislike using such delineations in the classroom. Landseer was clearly drawn to dogs, and Weir was a cat person. 15 While Landseer certainly humanized his animals and had animals portrayed in hero- or saint-like roles, he definitely painted his animals with tremendous realism and accuracy. Weir had a much more whimsical style leaning towards illustration, with many of his artworks being prints. Like Landseer, Weir created a number of illustrations showing animals doing good deeds, such as alerting the family to burglars or carrying the reins of a horse back to its owner. 16

The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner and The Old Shepherd's Dog

Both Landseer and Weir created images of shepherd dogs. Landseer's painting is oil on wood done around 1837, and it is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is approximately 18" by 24". The art critic, John Ruskin, used Landseer's painting as an example to illustrate his definition of what great art is:

One of the most perfect poems or pictures (I use the words as synonymous) which modern times have seen ... Here the exquisite execution of the glossy and crisp hair of the dog, the bright sharp touching of the green bough beside it, the clear painting of the wood of the coffin and the folds of the blanket, are language -language clear and expressive in the highest degree. But the close pressure of the dog's breast against the wood, the convulsive clinging of the paws, which has dragged the blanket off the trestle, the total powerlessness of the head laid close and motionless upon its folds, the fixed and tearful fall of the eye in its utter hopelessness, the rigidity of repose which marks that there has been no motion nor change in the trance of agony since the last blow was struck on the coffin-lid, the quietness and gloom of the chamber, the spectacles marking the place where the Bible was last closed, indicating how lonely has been the life, how unwatched the departure, of him who is now laid solitary in his sleep; — these are all thoughts — thoughts by which the picture is separated at once from hundreds of equal merit, as far as mere painting goes, by which it ranks as a work of high art, and stamps its author, not as the neat imitator of the texture of a skin, or of the fold of a drapery, but as the Man of Mind. 17

As Ruskin explains, this painting is quite powerful. In addition to the convincing realism of the painting, its expressiveness is very strong. Ruskin is drawn to this painting because of the combination of these two qualities.

Weir's image, executed in 1861, is a wood engraving, 4.75" by 4", and it is from a book of poetry Weir selected and illustrated. Weir's image is printed on the same page as a poem about a shepherd and his dog, written by Peter Pindar. The poem tells of the bond between the two and the death of the dog Tray and later of Corin, the shepherd.

    "The old Shepherd's dog, like his master, was grey,
    His teeth all departed, and feeble his tongue;
    Yet where'er Corin went, he was follow'd by Tray;
    Thus happy through life did they hobble along.
    When, Fatigued, on the grass the Shepherd would lie,
    For a nap in the suncheck - 'midst his slumbers so sweet,
    His faithful companion crawl'd constantly nigh,
    Placed his head on his lap, or lay down at his feet.
    When Winter was hear on the hill and the plain,
    And torrents descended, and cold was the wind,
    If Corin went forth 'mid the tempests and rain,
    Tray scorn'd to be left in the chimney behind.
    At length, in the straw Tray made his last bed –
    For vain, against Death, is the stoutest endeavor:
    To lick Corin's hand he rear'd up his weak head,
    Then fell back, closed his eyes, and ah! closed them for ever.
    Not long after Tray did the Shepherd remain,
    Who oft o'ver his grave with true sorrow would bend:
    And, when dying, thus feeble was heard the poor swain:
    "O bury me, neighbors, beside my old friend!"18

Anna Sewell and Black Beauty

Having read Black Beauty in a variety of formats, including the novel and various picture-book formats as a child, and having seen the Disney movie several times, I was familiar with the story and its popularity. It wasn't until I began researching the book, however, that I realized I knew nothing of the author. For someone to have written such a famous and widely read novel, one that by 1995 had world wide sales of forty million, while the entire collection of Charles Dickens's work had sold fifty million, raises the question, why is she not known? 19 Should she be known? Is her story one that would be beneficial for this unit? The answer to the last question is a resounding yes.

Anna Sewell was born in 1820 in England to a devote Quaker family. Quakers do not approve of blood sports or any businesses that exploit animals, including using animals for fur or in zoos and circuses. Contemporary Quakers don't think animals should be used for things like cosmetic research, and they are divided on whether they should ever be used for medical research. 20 In addition to her Quaker beliefs, Anna, at the age of fourteen, suffered an injury that permanently handicapped her and caused her pain for the rest of her life. She was caught in a downpour and was running to avoid being soaked. She twisted her ankles badly, which never healed and caused her a severe and life-long handicap. 21 Since walking was a challenge, she drove a carriage and spent a great deal of time with horses.

Anna was ill at the end of her life and wrote the book while basically being confined to her home in her last years. It is a fictional autobiography of a horse, and it is therefore told from the point of view of the horse. It is regarded as the first novel written as an animal autobiography, and its influence is seen in many later writers including Beatrix Potter and many Disney projects. The book also was the start of the pony genre in children's literature. Black Beauty begins with his happy time as a foal, and he is owned by good and bad people through his life, until his retirement. The book was a phenomenal success. Although Anna never saw the full extent of this success, she lived long enough to see a positive response through people's letters to her.

In the nineteenth-century, horses were a necessity of life, but they were often treated horrifically. Just a few of the common practices of the day illustrate this. One practice was to dock the horse's tail—basically cut it off—which resulted in causing tremendous pain. Then for the rest of the horse's life, it would be unable to swish away annoying and biting flies. Another practice was using what is called the bearing rein, which artificially lifted the horse's head and neck into an unnatural position, also causing pain while resulting in impinging on the ability to breath properly and ultimately causing serious respiratory problems. Both of these practices were to make the horse look better—better, that is, according to the ideas of the time. In addition to a disregard for the pain or discomfort caused to horses by these practices, horses were often overworked to the point of collapse, starved, and even beaten to death.

Anna, who had always felt empathy and compassion for horses, read an essay by Horace Bushnell, "Essay on Animals," in 1863. In this essay, Bushnell argued that humans were created to follow God's will and animals to follow humans' will and happily serve humans and that it was incumbent on humans to treat them well. This inspired Anna to "feel it was worth a great effort to try, a least, to bring the thoughts of men more in harmony with the purposes of God on this subject." 22 Anna hoped that her book, written from the point of view of the horse, would make people change how they perceived horses, from simply beasts of burden to feeling, sympathetic animals that should be treated decently.

Anna began writing Black Beauty in 1871, but as her health deteriorated, she began in 1876 to dictate the story to her mother. It was published in 1878, and Anna died only five months after the publication. It is considered to be the book that has had the greatest effect on the treatment of animals in the history of publication. 23 The book changed public attitudes and ultimately led to legislation banning the use of the bearing rein. This was was enacted to reduce the suffering of horses caused by humans.

In the time of Anna Sewell, society was very unequal. Abject poverty existed right next to excessive wealth and privilege. But the horse crossed economic lines and was used in a multitude of ways by a large percentage of the population. But how they were treated depended on the individuals who owned them. Anna had a strong personal relationship with her favorite pony, and she often spoke to it as she would to a person. Giving Black Beauty human thought process, even though he was an animal, was an original concept. This is a great part of what makes this book still resonate with readers today as much as it did in the 1800s. Black Beauty had strong friendships with other horses, showing courage, perseverance, and the power of kindness. The message was intended for adults, and not just children, and still today is appropriate for generations to share together. Soon after the book was published in the UK, a pirated copy was brought to the US, and within two years a million copies had been sold here. This phenomenon was not unlike that of Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by another female author, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, to a warm reception in both the U.S. and in England. What one did for the slave, the other did for the horse; in other words, they both opened the door to human empathy towards their subjects. 24

Teaching Strategies

In the IB curriculum, there is a focus on community and service. The desire is for students to become active, caring members of the community in which they live. The students are expected to develop and an awareness and a concern for the world around them and to cultivate the skills needed to become a positive contributor to society. The three essential questions tied to the community and service aspect of the IB program are:

  • *How can we live in relation to others?
  • *How can I contribute to the community?
  • *How can I help others?

Throughout this unit, these questions will be looked at in terms of what the student can do but also in terms of what Victorian animals lovers did. My hope is that students will be able to take Anna Sewell's life and the impact she had and use them as inspiration for what they themselves could do with a cause that has meaning for them. Since animals seem to be a perfect vehicle for teaching texture, the students will learn about and then create visual and tactile texture as studio art. We will use oil pastels as our medium and will focus on techniques to create the visual texture but also tactile texture using a scratching, sgraffito-like method with the oil pastels. We will also look at how art can be persuasive, using images by Landseer and Weir and selections from Black Beauty. They will read the book prior to the start of the unit. In addition to looking at how these examples are persuasive, the students will explore the images and selections in terms of their cultural and historical context and meaning.

The content of this unit will be covered in the classroom but also through homework assignments. I have ninety-minute classes that meet every other day for the entire year. The students will read Black Beauty independently, outside of class. To help keep them engaged and focused, they will have questions to answer as they read. I will develop graphic organizers that will facilitate the students' comprehension of the book. To introduce the subject, I will share a PowerPoint of images of animals in art from a variety of times and cultures. The focus will be on how all cultures, throughout time and place, have used animals in their art. Our job, while looking at the PowerPoint, will be to begin to determine what role the images of animals served. In class, students will be introduced to the Victorian time period and the changing perceptions of animals, as well as to Anna Sewell's life. A variety of activities will be used to accomplish this. Students will be shown and have opportunities to interact with images by Landseer and Weir, including The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner and The Old Shepherd's Dog. There will the balance of dog and cat images, as well as a few other animals, to give inspiration to the students for their own work. I want to students to have the freedom to select what animal to depict in their animal portraits. I have collected over the years numerous calendars and images of dogs, cats, and other animals, both domestic and wild. I will have several images available for students to use as references. Basic instruction on drawing animals will be given. I find that at this age, students desperately want to be able to draw realistically and need very specific instruction and support to feel that their work is successful. They will be given instruction in class and then allowed opportunities to practice in their sketchbooks. Finally, as a homework assignment, students will create poems using whatever poetry style they choose, about their animal portrait.

Classroom Activities

Lesson One: Background and historical information

Prior to the start of the unit, the students will be given a copy of Black Beauty with questions and graphic organizers to help them as they read. When I begin teaching, the students will have completed this part of the unit. Before even addressing the novel, I will do a Venn diagram activity. I will have both images, The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner and The Old Shepherd's Dog, projected in the front of the room. The students will be asked to compare and contrast the two images. I want them to do this without any background knowledge of the paintings. I will collect their graphic organizers when they are finished and save them in order to revisit this activity later in the unit. After this, we will quickly review the novel, answering any questions. Next, I will show a PowerPoint that shows animals in art from a variety of times and cultures. While viewing the PowerPoint, the students will try to decide the purpose or function of the animal in each piece of art. For the remainder of the class period, the students will work on creating a sketchbook page on the functions of animals in art. This will be finished for homework.

At the beginning of the next class period, I will introduce the term anthropomorphism and ask the students to give me examples that they know. We will then look at a PowerPoint that shows examples of animals in Victorian art, focusing on the art of Harrison Weir and Edwin Landseer. Information on the two artists will be in the PowerPoint. The students will be given questions to answer while looking at the PowerPoint to help them focus on the key information. They will then create two sketchbook pages, one on each artist.

On the third day, the class will begin with the question "Why?" In small groups, the students will brainstorm possible reasons why Anna Sewell wrote the novel and why Landseer and Weir choose to paint and illustrate animals as the bulk of their work. After they have done this, we will discuss their answers as a group. I will guide their questions with information about Sewell, Landseer, and Weir in order for the students to realize that there was a shared concern for animals between the three. At this point we will focus on Anna Sewell. I will give them a list of facts about Sewell and Black Beauty and the novel's impact. They will use these facts to write a short biography of Sewell from the point of view of the horse, Black Beauty. This will be completed for homework. At this point I will recap what we have talked about and emphasize how art and literature can be used to change people's ideas and even laws. I will then explain that we will be making animal portrait cards as a community service project.

On the fourth day I will give back to the students their Venn diagrams made on the first day. I will ask them to revisit the two images and add anything that they feel that they missed. Next I will give each student a handout with John Ruskin's quote and the Harrison Weir poem. Working in pairs, the students will read each piece of writing and discuss how, if at all, it changed their perception of the painting. Using their Venn diagram and the new information provided the past two days and the writings they were given, the students will write a persuasive essay explaining which art image they feel is most powerful.

Lesson Two: Texture

One of the studio focuses of this unit is texture. The students will learn the difference between visual texture (texture depicted in art, i.e. simulated texture) and actual texture (texture that can actually be felt). They will also use texture effectively in their animal portraits. In class, we will begin with a brown paper bag game. Each table will have several brown bags, each with a different object in it such as cotton balls, sandpaper, toothbrushes, and random objects. The students will take turns putting a hand in the bag and feeling the item and guessing what it is. Next, they will each pick a bag and using only their touch, try drawing the item. We will then discuss the difference between visual and actual texture. In their sketchbooks, they will write the two definitions and create a sketchbook page illustrating the two types.

The next class period will focus on visual texture and developing visual texture with oil pastels. After a demonstration of different techniques, the students will make a sketchbook page with twelve squares with each one illustrating a different visual texture created by the students.

Lesson Three: Animal Portraits

Armed with information on how to create visual texture, I will show the students several images of animal portraits, from traditional to contemporary. We will discuss different aspects of the portraits, from composition to color choice to the range of realism and expressionism. By doing this, I hope to encourage divergent thinking and to free the students who don't feel comfortable with their drawing skills to be more expressionistic with their portraits. This should help the students understand that there is no one way or right way to go about this assignment.

I have dozens of calendars I have collected over the years from the SPCA and other animal organizations. I have cut these up into separate pages, and each table will have a large selection. Students will be able to pick one for inspiration if they choose to do so. I will ask them to think about composition, zooming in or out, and color choices. I will also remind them of the texture techniques that they had learned in the previous class period. They will do four possible sketches in their sketchbooks, and then I will talk to them about which one they want to make into their portrait.

Once the students know which image they want to create, I will give them a nine inch by twelve inch piece of white drawing paper. They will draw the animal with yellow chalk and then use oil pastels to finish the image. I imagine this will take at least two class periods. During these days, for homework, the students will be asked to write a poem. When giving the assignment, I will give them a handout that explains different styles of poetry, and then they will be able to choose one type which appeals to them. I will ask that they either write the poem from the point of view of the animal or of themselves. I will scan their images and shrink them to fit on a card. I am hoping a parent will be able to help with this part. I will then take the images and poems to a local printer and have them printed as cards. We will have multiples printed and donate them to the local SPCA to be sold in their gift shop. I will ask that the students to keep track of how much they earn from the cards so that they will be able to see the impact of their efforts.

I hope that through this project the students will walk away with the idea that one persona can make a difference. Regardless of what personal causes the students feel passionate about, I would like them to not be afraid to try and be a catalyst for positive change.

Appendix: Standards

In the state of Virginia, we have standards that drive the curriculum. There are standards that deal with studio production, art history, aesthetics and criticism. I focused on one standard in each discipline in this unit.

"6.5The student will use appropriate art media and techniques to create both visual and tactile textures in works of art. "

The studio standard is on texture. The students need to learn what visual and tactile textures are and be able to create both in works of art. By using oil pastels, the students will create visual textures and to a small degree, tactile textures.

"6.12The student will identify the contributions of artists to society."

The art history standard addresses how artists contribute to society. I will show the students how Anna Sewell, Edwin Landseer, and Harrison Weir all made contributions. In addition to this specific standard, I will give the students an overview of the history of animals in art.

"6.13The student will discuss the ways that art can be persuasive."

Throughout the unit, this criticism standard will be a recurring theme. The whole unit focuses on how people can make an impact, how they can persuade.

"6.19The student will respond to works of art and analyze responses in terms of cultural and visual meaning."

By looking at the historical context of Edwin Landseer and Harrison Weir, the students will see how the culture of the times had a direct influence on their art and on the meaning of the art.


1. Starfish poster. Northern Sun.

2. "Facts and Figures." International Baccalaureate Organization.

3. Diana Donald, Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750-1850. (New Haven: Yale University Press [for] The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2007), vii.

4. Simon Cooke, "Animals and Victorian Art." The Victorian Web: An Overview.

5. Donald, 111.

6. Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and other Creatures in the Victorian Age. (Cambridge, Mass,: Harvard University Press), 1987.

7. Donald, 127.

8. Donald, 127.

9. Donald, 132.

10. Donald, 135.

11. Deborah Morse and Martin A. Denenholz, eds. Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture. (Aldershot, England: Ashgate), 2007.

12. Qtd. "The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner , Landseer, Edwin Henry (Sir, RA) , V&A Search the Collections."

13. Roger Ingpen, "Weir, Harrison William (1824-1906)." Rev. Ian Rogerson, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

14. "Harrison Weir-about the Cats like Science through the Eyes of an Artist." Printed Souls.

15. Ibid.

16. Simon Cooke, "Harrison Weir (1824-1906) A Man of many Parts." The Victorian Web: An Overview.

17. Qtd. "The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner , Landseer, Edwin Henry (Sir, RA) , V&A Search the Collections."

18. Harrison Weir, The Poetry of Nature. (London: Sampson Low, Son, & Marston), 1868, 83.

19. Adrienne E. Gavin, Dark Horse: A Life of Anna Sewell. (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Pub.), 2004, 2.

20. "BBC - Religions - Christianity: Quakers." BBC - Homepage.

21. Gavin, 34.

22. Gavin, 142.

23. "Black Beauty Study Guide - Anna Sewell -" Study Guides, Lesson Plans, Homework Help, Answers & More -

24. Michelle Norris, "How 'Black Beauty' Changed The Way We See Horses: NPR." NPR: National Public Radio: News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts: NPR.


Teacher Resources

"BBC - Religions - Christianity: Quakers." BBC - Homepage. (accessed July 11, 2013).

This website gives basic information on a variety of faiths, including the Quakers.

"Black Beauty Study Guide - Anna Sewell -" Study Guides, Lesson Plans, Homework Help, Answers & More - (accessed July 10, 2013).

This website is a study guide to use with students while reading the novel. It also has some background and contextual information.

Clark, Kenneth. Animals and Men: Their Relationship as reflected in Western art from prehistory to the present day. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1977.

This is a history book on animals in art and is a wonderful resource for the art classroom.

Cooke, Simon. "Animals and Victorian art." The Victorian Web: An Overview. (accessed July 12, 2013).

Cooke, Simon. "Harrison Weir (1824-1906) man of many parts." The Victorian Web: An Overview. (accessed July 12, 2013).

The Victorian Web is a wonderful website which has a tremendous amount of information on all aspects of Victorian culture.

Donald, Diana. Picturing animals in Britain, 1750-1850. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale

University Press [for] The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2007.

This is a wonderful book on animals in art during the Victorian period and prior. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in this subject.

Dorre, Gina M.. Victorian fiction and the cult of the horse. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006.

This book deals with Victorian literature and the horse. Unless one is very interested in this topic, it is probably too specific for resource.

"Facts and Figures." International Baccalaureate Organization. (accessed July 15, 2013).

Gavin, Adrienne E.. Dark horse: a life of Anna Sewell. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Pub., 2004.

This biography is definitely worth reading. It shows what a wonderful person Anna Sewell was.

"Harrison Weir Biography." Landseer Art Gallery. (accessed July 15, 2013).

A website on Edwin Landseer which has some biographical information on Harrison Weir.

"Harrison Weir-about the cats like science through the eyes of an artist." Printed Souls. (accessed July 15, 2013).

A website with some biographical information on Harrison Weir.

Hurll, Estelle M., and Edwin Henry Landseer. Landseer; a collection of fifteen pictures and a portrait of the painter with introduction and interpretation.. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1901.

This 1901 book has a great deal of biographical information on Edwin Landseer.

Ingpen, Roger. "Weir, Harrison William." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (accessed July 11, 2013).

Klein, Jennifer, and Elizabeth Stuart. Using art to teach reading comprehension strategies: lesson plans for teachers. Lanham, MD: R & L Education, 2012.

This is a great resource for anyone wanting to integrate reading strategies and art.

Morse, Deborah Denenholz, and Martin A. Danahay. Victorian animal dreams: representations of animals in Victorian literature and culture. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007.

A wonderful, comprehensive book on Victorian England and their representations of animals. I would highly recommend this as a resource.

Norris, Michelle. "How 'Black Beauty' Changed The Way We See Horses: NPR." NPR: National Public Radio: News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts: NPR. (accessed July 10, 2013).

This website gives information on the impact of the novel.

Ormond, Richard, Edwin Henry Landseer, Joseph J. Rishel, and Robin Hamlyn. Sir Edwin Landseer. New York: Rizzoli, 1981.

This is the catalog from the last major American exhibition of Landseer's work. While done in 1981, it is still the best resource on the artists.

Ormond, Richard. The monarch of the glen: Landseer in the Highlands. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2005.

The exhibition catalog to a 2005 exhibition of Landseer's work in Scotland, this book focuses on the Scottish aspects to his work.

Perkins, David. Romanticism and animal rights. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

This interesting book focuses on how writing during the Victorian period, in unprecedented amounts, urged kindness to animals and how this helped fuel the animal right movements.

Ritvo, Harriet. The animal estate: the English and other creatures in the Victorian Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

This is another wonderful resource on Victorian England and their views of animals.

"The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner , Landseer, Edwin Henry (Sir, RA) , V&A Search the Collections." Search the Collections , Victoria and Albert Museum. (accessed July 15, 2013).

The Victoria and Albert Museum's website has a great deal of information on the artist and this painting.

Weir, Harrison. The poetry of nature. London: Sampson Low, Son, & Marston, 1868.This book can also be found on line for free.

Student Resources

Lavie, Arlette. Who cares about animal rights?. New York: Child's Play, 1992.

This children's book introduces several animal right issues from fox hunting to furs to zoos. It also shows the different ways animals are used by humans. It is an easy, concise way to introduce a multi-faceted topic.

Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty: An Autobiography of a Horse. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1922.

This version can be found online for free.

Sewell, Anna, and Alice Thorne. Black Beauty. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1962.

This picture book version still retains the story and sense of language in a condensed version. While it would take some time to read out loud, it has pictures and would be a good potion if reading the original were not possible.

Comments (0)

Be the first person to comment

When you are finished viewing curriculum units on this Web site, please take a few minutes to provide feedback and help us understand how these units, which were created by public school teachers, are useful to others.
THANK YOU — your feedback is very important to us! Give Feedback