Expressing Yourself: Women in the Arts

Students explore the topic of "coming of age" through stories about the experiences of professional female artists of color who have fought to claim their space in a world that has long excluded people who look like them.

Unit Summary

In this unit, students will continue their yearlong interrogation of what it means to come of age by studying the transformative power of artistic expression. By focusing on the experiences of professional female artists of color, students will learn about barrier-breaking women who have fought to claim their space in a world that has long excluded people who look like them.

Students will spend the first two weeks reading Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, the memoir of ballet dancer Misty Copeland, who made history as the first female African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, the most prestigious ballet company in the United States. Students will read about the ways that Copeland overcame obstacles in her life, and think both about how ballet shaped Copeland’s coming-of-age experience, and the broader impact that Copeland has had on the art form of ballet. Students will finish off this first part of the unit by writing a short analysis of a dance performance.

Students will spend the next five days studying women in the visual arts, analyzing the lives and work of feminist art activists, the Guerrilla Girls, Japanese-American sculptor Ruth Asawa, Native American painter Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, the quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and Latina printmaker and activist, Favianna Rodriguez. Through articles, interviews, and videos, students will learn about the myriad ways that an artist’s identity can shape the work that they make, and the ways that art can be used as a powerful platform for communicating ideas—and changing the world.

In this unit, students will read and talk about artists, but they will also regularly “read” and talk about works of art. For each visual artist that students study, they will spend at least fifteen minutes looking closely at the artist’s work and discussing observations, questions, and reflections with classmates.

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Texts and Materials

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Core Materials


This assessment accompanies Unit 3 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.

Unit Prep

Essential Questions


  • Why do people make art?
  • Why does an artist’s identity matter?
  • What are some of the obstacles female artists—and specifically female artists of color—encounter?

Reading Enduring Understandings


  • Women and minority artists have historically faced many obstacles to their success, and the fight against prejudice and discrimination in the art world continues today.
  • Art is a powerful way to express oneself and one’s own identity, and can be a platform for an artist to communicate their unique perspective to the world.
  • All people benefit from the inclusion of more diverse voices in the art world.




chaotic deride distorted innovative intuition provocative prodigy surpass trailblazer turbulant visionary


afterword anecdote illustrate metaphor memoir prologue simile

To see all the vocabulary for this course, view our 6th Grade Vocabulary Glossary.

Notes for Teachers


  • We are very mindful of the fact that this unit barely scratches the surface of this topic. There are so, so many extraordinary, diverse artists—both female-identified and non-binary—that we could have chosen to feature. And there are so many different types of art that we could have studied! By focusing just on ballet and the visual arts (and just on Americans working in the last fifty years), we have had to omit the vast majority of art forms and art makers.
  • We are particularly aware that this unit is lacking representation of openly queer, trans, non-binary, disabled, and neuro-diverse artists. We strongly encourage you to supplement this unit with artists whose work speaks to you, whose identities mirror your students’, and who raise different questions about the purpose and impact of art.
  • Be aware that this unit discusses some difficult topics. Life in Motion includes descriptions of domestic violence, eating disorders, and the N-word. The lesson on Favianna Rodriquez briefly discusses abortion and reproductive rights. You may want to inform parents and school support staff when these topics will be discussed.

Fishtank ELA Connections


Lesson Map




Perform a Close Reading of a dance performance using inference and evidence.





Brainstorm questions and determine individual responsibilities.





Compile and evaluate research information into a digital presentation





Present using appropriate volume, eye contact, emphasis, and pronunciation.


2 days


Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.6.1 — Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

  • L.6.1.a — Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).

  • L.6.1.b — Use intensive pronouns (e.g., myself, ourselves).

  • L.6.1.c — Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in pronoun number and person.

  • L.6.1.d — Recognize and correct vague pronouns (i.e., ones with unclear or ambiguous antecedents).

Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • RI.6.2 — Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

  • RI.6.3 — Analyze in detail how a key individual, event, or idea is introduced, illustrated, and elaborated in a text (e.g., through examples or anecdotes).

  • RI.6.4 — Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings.

  • RI.6.5 — Analyze how a particular sentence, paragraph, chapter, or section fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the ideas.

  • RI.6.7 — Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

  • RI.6.9 — Compare and contrast one author's presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person).

  • RI.7.2 — Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RI.8.3 — Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events (e.g., through comparisons, analogies, or categories).

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.6.1 — Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  • SL.6.1.c — Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.

  • SL.6.1.d — Review the key ideas expressed and demonstrate understanding of multiple perspectives through reflection and paraphrasing.

  • SL.6.3 — Delineate a speaker's argument and specific claims, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.

  • SL.6.4 — Present claims and findings, sequencing ideas logically and using pertinent descriptions, facts, and details to accentuate main ideas or themes; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.

  • SL.6.5 — Include multimedia components (e.g., graphics, images, music, sound) and visual displays in presentations to clarify information.

Writing Standards
  • W.6.1 — Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

  • W.6.2 — Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content

  • W.6.2.a — Introduce a topic; organize ideas, concepts, and information, using strategies such as definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

  • W.6.2.b — Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.

  • W.6.2.d — Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

  • W.6.6 — Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.

  • W.6.6 — Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.

  • W.6.7 — Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry when appropriate.

  • W.6.9 — Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Spiral Standards