Exploration of Green River Cliffs

Green River Cliffs, Wyoming by Thomas Moran

Heidi Hinish
National Gallery of Art
Head of Gallery and Studio Learning


Highly experienced in using artful thinking routines developed at Project Zero, museum educator Heidi Hinish challenged herself, as this project was in its early stages, by layering in a global thinking routine to see if it would raise issues of global significance around a particular work of art. She has since used these ideas as an in-gallery experience at various Project Zero-related education conferences and through the National Gallery of Art’s own teacher education programming.

Learning Goals

How can works of art spark thinking about issues or questions of global significance? How can we support and encourage some of the characteristics of learning that underlie the development of global competence, such as: identifying an issue and explaining its significance, expressing one’s own perspective and recognizing the perspectives of others, and listening and communicating effectively with others?



In this lesson, learners engage with a 19th-century American landscape painting, using a combination of artful thinking and global thinking routines, to deepen their understanding of art, history, and broader issues that affect them, their communities, and the broader world.

This approach was originally developed to model with educators how global thinking routines and works of art can be used to engage students in thinking about issues of global significance, while also deepening their connection to a work of art. It can easily be adapted for a school audience, in particular middle and high schoolers, as well as adult learners. The topics and work of art are relevant to almost any age and the open-ended routines can be adjusted with timing and language accommodations for various developmental levels.

The lesson is intended as an in-gallery experience that lasts 2-2.5 hours. It can be adapted for classroom use and can be shortened for a school-based lesson.

Subject areas of interest:
Social Studies–American history, westward expansion, Native American history
Science–preservation, geology, environmental degradation
Art–artistic process, American artists, the relationship between American landscape painting and American identity, visual literacy
Literature and Language Arts–dispossessed peoples, mythologizing, truth, identity
An additional context is the museum, and how the work of art connects with other paintings present is the same gallery space.

Key Learning Experiences

Thomas Moran, Green River Cliffs, Wyoming, 1881, National Gallery of Art (25 x 62 inches)

Step 1: Introduce the lesson, set expectation for learning and experience

Use this time to share the aims of the lesson and their connection to global competence, as well as to set expectations about the kinds of thinking they will be expected to employ, about slowing down the pace of learning, and about how they will interact with their classmates and the content of the lesson, e.g., through images and drawing on their own observations and ideas.

Step 2: Look carefully to get connected to the work of art (See-Wonder-Connect thinking routine)

Ask students to spend a quiet minute looking carefully at Thomas Moran’s painting, Green River Cliffs, Wyoming, then jot down at least 5 words or phrases that describe something they noticed as they looked at the work of art. Invite them to share their observations with a neighbor. Finally, gather observations from the whole group

If time permits, give students a quiet minute to look again. What new discoveries will they make during a second look?
Summarize observations.
Share some basic information about the work of art, such as artist, title, date, and size.

Step 3: Get closer to the painting through wondering, invite curiosity, make students’ interests and thinking visible

Building on students’ observations, now go deeper into the painting through questioning. Invite students to think about the questions and puzzles they have about the work of art. Ask them to imagine, if they could ask the artist Thomas Moran a question, what would they ask? Have students jot down a few questions, and then turn to a neighbor and share their questions with each other. Finally, gather questions from the group.

Try to gather all of their questions before responding. Document questions on chart paper. Questions often extend looking and are a powerful form of thinking by themselves.

Once everyone has shared, you may look for trends among the questions, and perhaps respond to some things the group is curious about.

At this point it may be helpful to talk about Moran’s first journey West to a little-known and wildly beautiful region called Yellowstone.

Step 4: Compare Moran’s painting with photos from the same time, think about the choices Moran made as an artist, begin to broaden the conversation beyond the work of art and incorporate historical references

On his way to Yellowstone, Moran stepped off the train in Green River, Wyoming, and what he actually encountered there was somewhat different from what we see in his painting.
Invite students to compare Moran’s painting with two photographs of Green River taken around the time that Moran visited. [Images: Andrew J. Russell, Temporary and Permanent Bridges, Citadel Rock, Green River (detail), 1868, and Unknown Photographer, Green River, Wyoming, c. 1876]
What similarities and difference can students find? What choices did Moran make as an artist, and why might he have made those choices?

The National Gallery of Art’s painting of Green River Cliffs, Wyoming was painted in 1881, about 10 years after Moran’s first visit. Moran revisited this subject many times throughout his career. Students may be interested to see what Moran called his First Sketch Made in the West, a watercolor he made after arriving in Green River, Wyoming, in 1871.
Ask students to imagine that they could step back in time to the 1870s and visit Green River for themselves, how might they now think/feel about Moran’s painting of this place?

Step 5: Broadening 0ur context, using the work of art as a source of inspiration, identify issues or questions the matter to to the students, their communities, and the world

After diving deeply into the work of art, it’s time to step back and consider the painting within a broader context. Invite students to brainstorm, based on their discussion so far, what are some larger issues or questions about the world that are raised by the painting. These issues may have existed during Moran’s time, today or both?
Give students time to think for themselves and then share in pairs and/or with the whole group. Document students’ global issues on chart paper.

Moran’s painting raises a number of issues or questions that have contemporary relevance and global significance. Teachers may choose to keep this portion of the exploration open-ended and welcome a range of responses, or to narrow the scope of responses by connecting with a particular content area or topic, such as: American history, Westward expansion, the authenticity of images, truth and journalism, idealizing indigenous people, and the impact of industry on nature.

Step 6: Using a global thinking routine, explore one issue more deeply and discuss its significance

Have students form small groups and ask each group to choose one of the global issues raised by the work of art that they would like to explore further.

Students will use the global thinking routine “The 3Y’s” to guide their discussion. Review the steps of the routine and provide students with the question prompts

  • Why might this issue matter to you, as an individual?
  • Why might this issue matter to the people around you? Your communities, friends, family, your city, country?
  • Why might this issue matter to the world? To people we may never meet, or places we may never go? Let’s stretch ourselves to really think about how this issue might impact the world outside of ourselves and our communities?
  • As you go along, make note of what you would need to know or to learn more about to go deeper with your ideas? What more do you need to find out?

Invite each group to select and then share one or two key takeaways from their conversation. Perhaps, there was an issue or question that they kept coming back to or an “aha” moment for the group.

Step 7: Reflect

At the end of the lesson, ask students to reflect on the experience and to surface any new observations, ideas, or questions.

  • What new ideas or questions do you have about the work of art now?
  • How did the work of art help us think about issues of global significance?
  • Brainstorm some actions that you or others could take related to these issues of global significance.



  • Thomas Moran, Green River Cliffs, Wyoming
  • Thomas Moran, First Sketch Made in the West
  • Andrew J. Russell, Temporary and Permanent Bridges, Citadel Rock, Green River (detail), 1868. Image Courtesy of the Andrew J. Russell Collection, The Oakland Museum of California.
  • Unknown Photographer, Green River, Wyoming, c. 1876

Museum Educator Reflections

This experience may function as a stand-alone lesson designed to help cultivate dispositions that underlie students’ developing global competence*, or it could be a launch for research or other projects that explore global issues in greater depth.

A few thoughts about sharing information: I usually resist sharing a lot of information about the work of art until after students have had a chance to ground themselves in the work through careful observation and building a rich visual description. Adding bits of content during a discussion should feel natural and happen gradually. Sharing a small amount of content that might answer students’ closed-ended questions during the “see” portion of the lesson may allow students to “wonder” about deeper, more open-ended ideas than had they not known some of the basic information about a work of art. To enhance engagement and retention, I like to share bigger chunks of information in the form of a quick story. I’ve chosen to weave in information stories after the “wonder” and “connect” parts of this lesson, to deepen thinking about the artist, the work of art, and its historical context.

This lesson has generated rich discussion of the painting and some of the larger issues that grew out of that conversation. At the end of the lesson, I sometimes take the group back to our initial question: What role can works of art play in exploring questions of global significance?

Teachers who have participated in this lesson at the museum receive a packet of information on the painting and artist, along with complementary materials. They also receive the working definition of global competence and a map of the core dispositions and skills that underlie one being/becoming globally competent. We take a look at these documents and note those ideas that we touched on in the lesson. I also ask, Are there other qualities to this experience that resonated with you? One question I have is, What’s next? This is followed by, How might this lesson or its components be applied or adapted for your learning setting and where might you take it next?

* “Global competence is the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance” (Boix-Mansilla and Jackson, 2011).

Researcher Reflections

In creating this well-crafted lesson, Heidi has pushed herself out of her comfort zone. As a museum educator skilled in using artful thinking routines, she was uncertain about the direction the layering in of the global thinking routine would take her audience. She was pleasantly surprised, however, at how engaging “The 3 Y’s” turned out to be–mining the painting for a number of significant global issues. It added a level of complexity that launched learners on a path of inquiry. The exploration of the work of art and the use of the Thinking Routines clearly sparked discussion of complex topics.

She was mindful of the potential for this kind of lesson to spark inquiry in a classroom setting, should a teacher have more time with students, yet it also yields intellectual rewards as a stand-alone workshop for visitors to a museum.

Of particular note is the time needed for an adequate exploration of issues of global significance prompted by “The 3 Y’s.” Heidi and her fellow museum educators are accustomed to spending a good amount of time with a single painting, but other educators should bear in mind that exploring one work with two different routines requires a minimum of 90 minutes. With more time, she is able to lead learners to explore the curatorial choices of placing works of art within the same gallery, or head into deeper inquiry around the topics raised by the exploration of the painting.