Grades 6–8 Lesson Plan



In this two-part lesson, students will explore the iconic style that artist and activist Keith Haring employed to challenge public perceptions of art and the role of an artist in society.


Evaluate and Identify: Students will evaluate multiple paintings and drawings by Keith Haring, identifying the lexicon of symbols he created throughout his body of work.
Observe and Analyze: Students will observe how the use of consistent symbolism in Haring’s body of work develops a narrative, and they will analyze how this narrative communicates the artist’s perception of his times.

PART I (approx. 60 mins.)

Focus Questions

  • Who is art for, and how does an artist create a lexicon?
  • How do artists express the times in which they live?



  • lexicon: The vocabulary of a particular language, field, social class, person, and so forth
  • semiotics: The study of signs and sumbols as elements of communicative behavior
  • spokesperson: A person who speaks for another or for a group
  • symbolism: The practice of representing ideas or concepts with symbols, or of investing objects with a symbolic meaning or character


DO NOW (5 mins.)

1. The teacher distributes the postcards, then tells the students, “This is a self-portrait of Keith Haring.”

The teacher asks:

  • What do you notice about this self-portrait?
  • What is the artist’s perception of himself?
  • Who is he speaking for? What might he be saying? Who might he be speaking to
  • If you were to draw your self-portrait, how would you represent yourself?

The teacher asks the students to Think-Pair-Share a response to these questions. Students share their
responses in a brief whole-class discussion.

2. The teacher and students choral read Haring’s quote, featured on the postcard:

An artist is a spokesman for a society at any given point in history. His language is determined by his perception of the world we all live in. He is a medium between “what is” and “what could be.”

—Keith Haring


  1. The teacher tells the students that Keith Haring created a series of symbols that he used repeatedly in his artwork. “For Haring, these symbols were a lexicon that he used to communicate ideas, and the symbolism in his art creates a narrative. Over the next two class meetings, we will analyze and explore the semiotics of Keith Haring’s work, analyzing his perception of the world we live in and the issues he chose to address as a spokesperson for his society.”
  2. Students watch a short video clip of Haring creating an iconic subway piece: “From the Archives: Keith Haring Was Here."
  3. The teacher tells the students: “In the video, Keith says, ‘You don’t have to know anything about art to look at it or appreciate it.’ Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?” The teacher takes a thumbs-up pulse check, and then students can volunteer to share their reasoning.
  4. The teacher draws a few commonly used symbols (such as a peace sign or a dove) on the board and asks: “What do these symbols mean? How do you know that?”


  1. The teacher tells the students: "We know what symbols mean when we have a commonly accepted definition of what they stand for. Now you will have a chance to work in small groups to become experts on the symbolism that Haring used in his artwork. We have eight examples of Haring’s art, each representing a different theme from his body of work. You will look at one artwork, and then you will have ten minutes to sketch that focus piece on your worksheet, noting any symbols you see and explaining what you believe they may stand for. Then you will return to your expert group to share your observations and to take notes on the artworks you did not analyze. After comparing ideas and sketches, your group will create a ‘symbol dictionary’ for Haring’s work.”
  2. Activity directions:
  • Assign a number to each of the eight samples of Haring’s body of work.
  • Break the students up into groups of eight. Then assign each student in each group a number from one to eight.
  • The students who are numbered “one” gather around artwork number one; the students numbered “two” gather around artwork number two, and so forth. (For example: in a class of twenty-four students, three students would gather around each piece of art. In a class of thirty-two, four students would gather around each piece of art.)
  • Distribute Appendix A. Instruct students to sketch and then describe what they see in their focus artwork.
  • After each student has completed a sketch and a written observation, he or she talks with the other seven members of their expert group.
  • Every student takes turns teaching the others about what he or she saw while the others take notes and complete their worksheet for each of the eight pieces of art.
  • After all eight students have instructed the group and guided one another through completion of the worksheet for each artwork, the group decides what they think the symbols in the artwork represent.
  • As a group, they then complete the symbol dictionary for Haring’s work, based on their personal interpretations.

REFLECTION (10 mins.)

Students respond to selected questions (orally or in writing):

  • What do you believe each symbol could represent?
  • How does your understanding of the symbols help you "read" the message of the artwork?
  • What is the unifying theme of all these images?
  • Haring was known as an activist artist. using your understanding of his lexicon, what do you think he stood for?
  • What more would you need to know in order to fully understand his work? Why?


Create your own lexicon of symbols

Keith Haring said: "I paint images that are derivative of my personal exploration. I leave it up to others to decipher them, to understand their symbolism and implications. I am merely the middleman.”

  • If you could draw your own artistic life map using symbols to represent your experiences, what would it look like?
  • What lexicon would you create for your life?
  • How does your lexicon intersect with important historical, political, and social events that might shape your choice of symbolism?

PART II (approx. 60 mins.)

Focus Questions

  • If what the artist creates is how the artist influences society, what is the role of an artist in society?
  • What is the artist's responsibilitiy to society?



  • antagonist: A person who is opposed to, struggles against, or competes with another; an opponent or adversary
  • propaganda: information, ideas, or rumors deliberately and widely spread to help or harm a person, group, moevment, institution, nation, or other entity
  • provocateur: a person who provokes trouble or causes dissension or the like; an agitator


DO NOW (5 mins.)

The teacher reads quote below while students participate in a quick, silent gallery walk activity to refresh their memory of Haring’s body of work:

I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.

—Keith Haring


NOTE: This activity allows teachers to design a center for each supplemental text. Students should identify the main ideas and important details described in each text. If the teacher so chooses, these can be accompanied or augmented by short video segments or images pulled from the Internet, or the teacher can simply highlight and read aloud passages of other texts.

  1. The teacher tells the students: "Keith Haring believed that an artist should use his or her perception to play the role of an antagonist or provocateur in society. Today, we will look at eight pieces of artwork by this activist artist. First, we will read about some political and historical issues influential in the late '70s and '80s and consider how Haring addressed these themes in his art. After creating a context for his artwork, we will revisit the artworks you see here and attempt to pair each piece with a theme we think it addresses, base on our understanding of Haring's use of symbolism to create a political narrative."
  2. Student centers: These are thematic stations with historical supplementals, and should be set up as follows:
  • Art in Public Spaces
  • Technology and Media
  • Street Art
  • Hip-Hop Culture
  • Reaganomics and Capitalism
  • AIDS: The Rise of a Movement
  • Apartheid and Nelson Mandela
  • Nuclear Concerns


  1. The teacher tells the students: “In addition to your student-created symbol dictionaries that you completed yesterday, you have a worksheet that lists some commonly agreed-upon meanings of Haring’s most frequently used symbols. Now you also have background information on the time period in which Haring was creating his art. You will use all three of these tools to complete a second gallery walk.”
  2. Distribute Appendix C.
  3. The teacher tells the students: “Take the list of themes I have just distributed and match each theme to one piece of art that you believe it is meant to represent. Tape it to the wall. Then justify your reasoning with a discussion of the symbolism you see in the art.”
  4. Model how art patrons discuss artwork in a gallery show. This discussion can happen organically, as if students were patrons of a New York show of Haring’s work.


For a fun experimental twist, provide drinks and snacks, play 1980s hip-hop, and so forth during the gallery walk.

REFLECTION (5 mins.)

Students respond to the questions below (orally or in writing):

  • How does an artist become political without using art as propaganda?
  • What is the relationship among the artist, access, and consumption of art?
  • How does this notion relate to public space? Public art?
  • What did this artist live and experience that shaped his art?


At the close of the lesson, the teacher asks the class to respond, either in writing or orally, to the questions below:

  • If you were an artist, what would be important to you?
  • What would you say through your art?


Choose one idea or issue of our time that you would like to communicate to an audience. Then create a piece of art, using symbols to communicate your message.


ELA and Literacy in Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

Speaking and Listening: Comprehension and Collaboration, 1c and d

Students will pose and respond to specific questions around the central theme and review key ideas demonstrating understanding of multiple perspectives.

Reading Informational Text: Key Ideas and Details, 1 and 2

Students will cite textual evidence and identify a central idea.

Reading Informational Text: Craft and Structure, 5

Students will analyze how a particular element of a text fits into the overall structure to contribute to the development of ideas.

Reading Informational Text: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, 7

Students will integrate information presented in different media or formats to determine a theme or central idea.