Discovering STEAM at the NGA: A Mini-Lesson on Fractions in Art

This post is part of a series written by Live It Learn It’s Experiential Learning Fellows. During their year-long fellowship with LILI, Fellows are planning their own experience-driven mini-units that include both classroom and field components. In these posts, Fellows will reflect on the experience of planning and leading a Live It Learn It-style unit of study.

In today’s post we’re hearing from Marissa Werner. Ms. Werner is a 4th grade teacher at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in DC’s Ward 1.

Mini Lesson, (divided below into Pre-Lesson, Field Experience, and Post-Lesson)

Objective:  Students will identify fractional relationships in art and architecture. Through written responses and discussion, students will use evidence-based reasoning to defend their thinking about what they see in the art, specifically artwork found at the National Gallery of Art.

Time: The lesson can be taught over 1-3 school days.

  • Pre-Lesson: About 20 minutes (taught the day before the Field Experience)
  • Field Experience to museum: Minimum 1.5 hours
  • Post-Lesson: About 20 minutes (taught the day after the Field Experience)


Age Group: This lesson was developed for a 4th grade class, but could be adapted for 2nd-5th grade learners.

Teacher Planning:

Before the Pre-Lesson, teachers should have an understanding of Project Zero’s (PZSee, Think, Wonder (STW) thinking routine.  If you’ve never done a STW with your students, you can use this opportunity to try it for the first time.

In preparing for your trip to the National Gallery of Art (NGA), it may be helpful as the teacher to visit the NGA to get a better idea of the space, as the museum is very large. All works of art that will be seen during this trip are located in the East Gallery of the NGA – specifically on the ground floor, mezzanine, and upper levels. If you get turned around, the Museum staff members are very helpful in directing you to the piece of art you’re looking for. 

Lastly, preview the Pre and Post-Lesson artwork, as well as the art pieces found in the Fractions at NGA Questions Packet. Consider scaffolds for learners who may not be familiar with terms like “fractional unit” or the idea of fractions being equal parts, including parts of a set rather than a single object.


Present students with a color copy of Yitzchok Moully’s Apples & Honey, or project the image on the board so each student can take a closer look at it. Guide students through the STW thinking routine, asking them to jot down what they see, what they think it means, and what it makes them wonder. Note: Do not tell students to focus on finding fractions yet. Allow them to look closely and make meaning of what they see without any prompting. Many students will notice the apples or the jar and that there are different colors. None of my students noticed a fractional relationship during the Pre-Lesson. Be sure to keep a record of student responses because they will look at them during the Post-Lesson.

Inform students that they will be visiting the National Gallery of Art to go on a hunt for fractions that are hiding inside of works of art, on the floors, walls, and ceiling of the actual building. Introduce them to the Fractions at NGA Questions Packet and show them the picture of the sculptures and paintings that they will be looking at. Remind students that in order to be successful at this, they will need to look at and think about art slowly.

Lastly, discuss museum etiquette and expectations with students. They should always stay with their small group and chaperone. They should never be closer than two feet from the works of art and should never touch anything unless labeled “Please Touch.”

Field Experience:

At the National Gallery of Art, explore the ground floor, mezzanine, and upper levels to look for the 5 pieces of art found in the Questions Packet. Remember that the back page of the packet is for students to look for other examples of fractions that they find, stopping along the way to discuss each one as a group!

Students studying “Cakes” by artist Wayne Thiebaud

As students answer the questions, encourage them to share their thinking and support their ideas with evidence, based on what they see. Students may see some of the fractions differently. They should be encouraged to share that! Use the answer sheet to help monitor misconceptions and big understandings.

Before leaving the museum, ask students how their thinking around fractions and art changed by participating in this scavenger hunt. Highlight students who mention noticing fractions, partitioning, equal groups, sets, etc. in places they had never noticed before.


Back in the classroom, show Yitzchok Moully’s Apples & Honey again on the board. Tell students that they will now use the STW thinking routine for the same image, since they have spent time looking at art in a new way. Again, do not tell students to focus on finding fractions. This time, many students may notice that 8/9 of the objects are apples, 1/9 is a jar of honey, 2/9 are blue apples, ⅜ of the apples have a red spot on them etc. There are many different fractions to notice. You may also gain a better understanding of misconceptions, for example, many students may write that 8/8 are apples instead of 8/9.

Allow students enough time to share their responses and record all of the different fractions that students found, as well as what they think and wonder about fractions/the artwork. Ask students how participating in this experience helped them see fractions or art in a new way.

Other Notes:

For teachers/students who cannot visit NGA: Lead a virtual scavenger hunt by putting enlarged images of the sculptures and paintings around the classroom to replicate the experience.

For 2nd grade teachers: Introduce the concept of fractions as equal parts by focusing the questions on “fairness” and “equal shares” and naming the number of parts to build a conceptual understanding of what fractions are and are not.

Extensions: Allow students time to make a piece of art that shows a fractional relationship. Have students write their own word problems based on the Apples & Honey painting, or allow students to choose their own piece of art to expand upon.

Below: Student examples of See, Think, Wonder responses during the Pre-Lesson (left) as well the Post-Lesson (right) after visiting the NGA. 

If you take photos and post them on social media, be sure to tag us @liveitlearnitdc or #LILIpad. We’d love to hear how you connected fractions and art in your classroom! 

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