What’s that Bear doing There? Making Inferences

Lesson Plan


Students will examine Cowboys Roping a Bear and learn how to make inferences for comprehension and also how to gather information from a painting. They will also realize how these skills transfer from looking at art to reading.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe and interpret what they see in the image of Cowboys Roping a Bear.
  • recognize when they are using background knowledge to understand the image;
  • apply the process of reading a painting to reading text;
  • develop a greater store of content knowledge from information portrayed in the artwork.


  1. Show students the image of Cowboys Roping a Bear and have them describe what they see. Ask the students what they notice about this picture. How many people do you see? What are they wearing? What are they doing? How many animals do you see? What kinds? What is the setting in the painting? How can you tell? Why? Have you ever seen anything in this image anywhere before? What? Where did you see it? Encourage each student to make an observation. Then, ask students if there is anything they wonder about the painting. Are any parts confusing? Do they have any questions about what they see?
  2. Explain that when students are learning to be confident readers, one of the most important parts of understanding what a book or other literature source is trying to tell us is being able to make inferences from the text. Learning about art uses many of the same skills. Tell students that they should make inferences when they have questions or are wondering about something, and explain that that is what they are going to do next. Tell students that using an inferences chart and some reading skills, they are going to answer the questions they have about Cowboys Roping a Bear. Here are two examples of inference charts (or you can use your own graphic organizer):

Example 1

Example 2

  1. Using the questions students developed in the first part of the lesson, have them complete the inference chart to come up with answers. Students could work in groups, individually or as a class to answer one or more questions. Example questions students might have is: where does this painting take place? When does this painting take place? Why are they roping the bear?
  2. Review the inferences made for accuracy. Share with the students information from About the Art and the “Details” section as is appropriate to the discussion. It might be interesting to note as you are discussing this information that students who have greater background knowledge will have more accurate inferences. Just as with reading text, if you don’t understand what is going on, it is hard to answer questions about it. Make sure that incorrect inferences are corrected and that all the questions students had are answered accurately.
  3. NOTE: it is important to discuss with students that artists do not always factually depict people or events. You can explain the concept of “artistic license,” using the idea that real vaqueros roping a bear might not have appeared so elegant and neatly choreographed. Viewers learn to factor in artists’ choices just like readers learn to take into account an author’s choices to make a story read well and flow. Make sure to distinguish between fact and fiction in answering students’ questions and reviewing their inferences.
  4. With this exploration of Cowboys Roping a Bear, students have just added to their understanding of ranching in California in the late 1880s. They will know a little more about the geographical components of the American southwest and the culture and lifestyle of the vaqueros. Explain that the more content knowledge students have the better foundation they have for understanding what they are reading.


  • Paper to take notes
  • Variety of pencils or other writing implements
  • A whiteboard or chart to write a group inferences chart if not working individually
  • An inference chart for each student, such as this chart or this chart (your choice!)
  • About the Art section on Cowboys Roping a Bear
  • One color copy of the image per small group of students, or the ability to project the image on a screen or wall


CO Standards

  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Cowboys Roping a Bear

Cowboys Roping a Bear

About 1877

James Walker, United States

Who Made It?

James Walker was born in England in 1818 and moved to New York with his parents when he was a child. He lived in New York for most of his life, traveling frequently in the United States and to Mexico. He was living in Mexico City in 1846 when the Mexican War broke out. He was forced into hiding for six weeks before being able to get behind United States lines. In addition to painting scenes of the war, he was fluent in Spanish and served as an interpreter for United States troops. In the 1870s, he moved to California and was captivated by California’s romantic Mexican past. He established a studio in San Francisco, where this painting was probably made.

What Inspired It?

After moving to California, Walker often visited the ranches of his Spanish-speaking friends. This painting was probably made after a trip to a ranch near San Diego. During his visits, Walker became fascinated with the life and culture of the vaqueros [vah-CARE-ohs]—the Spanish cow and ranch hands. In this painting, the men are not roping the bear merely for amusement. In the early 1800s, grizzly bears were one of the biggest threats to cattle. While the Anglo-American style was to use heavy artillery to control threatening bears, the vaqueros preferred to rope them from the back of a well-trained horse. This method of bear control required a great deal of skill and was a dying vaquero art.


Vaquero Attire
Vaquero Attire

Vaqueros outfitted themselves in dashing yet functional dress, and Walker shows all the details:

  • Wide-brimmed hats with flat tops gave protection from the sun.
  • Thin leather jackets, similar to today’s jean jackets, were often decorated with silver. They were tough yet light and protected against thorns and bug bites.
  • Leather pants had buttons down the legs that could be buttoned or unbuttoned according to the weather.
  • Botas [BOW-tahz], leather leg wraps, were worn for extra protection against cactuses and snakes.
  • Colorful woven blankets, called serapes [sehr-AH-pehs], were rolled up and carried behind the saddles.

Most vaqueros made their own reatas [ray-AH-tahs], or ropes, by braiding four to eight strands of rawhide together. Most reatas were about 60 feet long.

The Lasso
The Lasso

The lasso is a long rope with a loop at one end that, once the rope has been accurately thrown, tightens securely around the target. It was a tricky maneuver—a vaquero used a special technique to toss the rope and quickly drape one end of it around the saddle horn, or handgrip. If he did not drape the rope around the saddle horn before the animal pulled the rope taut, the vaquero could injure a hand, even losing a finger or two between the rope and saddle horn.

The Bear
The Bear

At one time California supported the greatest number of grizzly bears in North America, but they became locally extinct by 1908. The decline of the California grizzly began during the Spanish Colonial period. At first, the bear population increased as free-ranging cattle provided an easy food source, but their numbers dropped with the increase in human settlement and the killing of grizzlies by cattlemen. Grizzlies were often captured for sport by vaqueros using only horses and ropes.

Mirror Images
Mirror Images

Walker balanced the figures in this painting by pairing each rider’s pose with the rider opposite him. For example, the two vaqueros getting ready to throw their lassos are opposite each other in similar poses. Color is also mirrored, this time left and right, as seen in the two riders wearing white shirts on white horses.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.