Lesson 1 of 8
One 50-minute class period

Identity and Belonging

From the Unit:

Learning Objectives

In this lesson, students will

  • Identify how their identity is shaped by the past
  • Interpret a work of art based on descriptive observations
  • Generate hypotheses based on evidence from a primary document (a painting)
  • Ask questions about the life of Arshile Gorky to guide future inquiry about the Armenian Genocide


Lesson one introduces students to the Armenian Genocide by having them think about the role of history in shaping their own identity. Looking at an autobiographical painting by Arshile Gorky, a renowned American artist and a refugee from the Armenian Genocide, will stimulate students' questions about how his identity was shaped by the past. These questions should provide an entry point into a study of the Armenian Genocide.

The lesson addresses these essential questions:

  • What does my name mean? Where did it come from? How is my identity shaped by the past?
  • Who is Arshile Gorky? Why did he change his name? What influenced his painting of "The Artist and his Mother?" How was his identity shaped by the past?
  • How do you interpret a work of art? What can we learn from looking at a painting?



Warm up:

As a warm-up activity, have students think about their own identity by "free writing" on the subject of their own name - first name, middle name, last name - for five minutes. [Prompts: Where does your name come from? What does your name say about who you are? How does your name connect to your family's history?] Encourage students to keep their pen on their paper for the whole time. In pairs or small groups have students share their "free writing". Ask groups to share examples of how names connect us to our history.

Main activity:

  1. Introduce Reading 1, "What's in a Name?" (pp. 3-4 in Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization). As they read, have students underline words and phrases that address the question, "What's in a name? What can names tell us about a person?" Ask students to report which words and phrases they underlined. Both Peter Balakian and Michael Arlen provide examples of people who have two names - an Armenian name and an "American" name. Discuss why people might change their name or why they might go by two names. What does it mean to have two names? How might this influence someone's identity?

  2. Introduce students to the painting The Artist and his Mother by Arshile Gorky. If you would like to read a formal analysis of the painting before teaching it, see The Artist and his Mother, Arshile Gorky. Explain to students that Gorky's birth name was Vosdanig Adoian. Brainstorm why he might have changed his name.

  3. Ask students to record all of their observations about the painting. Clarify that at this point they should only record what they see, not what they think it means or their opinions about the painting. [Prompts: What objects do they see? Where are they placed? What colors are they? What do they notice about lines, shading, perspective, facial expressions, etc.?]

  4. Then have students compare their observations with another classmate or a small group. Ask students to come up with some interpretations. [Prompts: Based on their observations, what do they think the painting means? What does the painting tell them about Arshile Gorky? Does it give you any clues regarding why he might have changed his name?] Option: Have students divide a piece of paper into two columns. On one side, have them record their observations about the painting. On the other side, have them record their interpretations.

  5. After a few minutes, give students some additional information about how history has shaped Gorky's life. You might consider reading them this paragraph from Jonathan Jone's article in The Guardian (referenced below):

    Arshile Gorky (1904-48), one of the greatest American painters, was so uncertain about how to make sense of his Armenian origins that he adopted a Russian name, telling people he was the nephew of the writer Maxim Gorky - implausibly, since this was a pen name. Arshile Gorky's real name was Vostanig Adoian. Born in Khorkom, on the shores of Lake Van in eastern Turkey, he had a childhood dominated by nature, folklore and religion, marred only by the departure of his father for America. In 1915 Turkey decided to get rid of its Armenian minority. Throughout eastern Turkey, Armenian men were taken out of their villages and murdered, women and children driven on forced marches causing mass starvation. An estimated million people died. Gorky's family fled to Yerevan, now capital of Armenia.

    Gorky's mother, depicted in this painting, died when Gorky was a young boy. She died of malnutrition as a result of a forced march ordered by the Ottoman government.

  6. Ask students to connect their observations and interpretations of the painting to this information from Gorky's life (i.e. the mother's floating ghost-like appearance; the boy who is close to the mother, yet not able to touch her; the mother's empty eyes.) [Prompts: How does this information about Gorky's life influence your interpretation of this painting?]

Follow through:

To transition to the rest of this unit, have students write a list of questions they have about Gorky and his life based on their analysis of this painting. Explain that the purpose of the next few classes is to help students understand what happened in history that influenced identity. The class can return to this painting later in the unit in order to interpret it with a new understanding of his historical context.


  1. Ask students to create two identity charts, one for themselves and one for Arshile Gorky. For an example of an identity chart, see page 9 of Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization.

  2. Ask students to write about the question, "What event or events from the past have influenced my identity?"


Have students create "K-W-L Charts". First, ask students to divide a paper into three columns (or you can provide a template for them):

Column 1: What do you Know about Gorky?

Column 2: What do you Want to know?

Column 3: What have you Learned?

Students can complete columns one and two in class or for homework. You can record their questions from column two and post this in the room. Students can complete column three as they proceed through the unit.


Lesson 1 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Identity and Belonging

Students are introduced to the Armenian Genocide and the concept of identity through the artwork of Arshile Gorsky, an Armenian American artist and refugee.

Lesson 2 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

We and They, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire

Students learn about the Armenian people and the challenges they faced as they advocate for certain rights within the Ottoman Empire.

Lesson 3 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Analyzing Historical Evidence

Students explore the ways in which historical evidence has been used to construct a narrative of the Armenian Genocide

Lesson 4 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

The Range of Choices

By studying the dilemmas facing individuals, groups, and nations in response to genocide, students deepen their understanding of the range of choices made during the Armenian Genocide.

Lesson 5 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

American Responses to the Armenian Genocide

Students study two US responses, one diplomatic and one humanitarian, to the human rights violations that occurred during the Armenian Genocide.

Lesson 6 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

What is Justice after Genocide?

While learning about the post-war trials that occurred in Turkey, students study the challenges of seeking justice in the aftermath of genocide.

Lesson 7 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Nation Building

Through a debating activity, students contemplate the United States' participation in nation building abroad. They will focus on the case study of Armenia after World War I.

Lesson 8 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Denial and Free Speech

Students examine why and how some government officials have refused to acknowledge the crimes against the Armenians as acts of genocide.

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