The Knotted Line

Unique, artistic timeline lets kids explore freedom in U.S. history

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Subjects & Skills

Character & SEL, Communication & Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Social Studies

Price: Free
Platforms: Web

Pros: Interactive tool encourages students to think about complex issues; includes suggestions for multiple classroom uses.

Cons: The unconventional approach to learning history could be challenging for some.

Bottom Line: Students will benefit from this eye-opening and interactive approach to studying history.

There are multiple ways to use The Knotted Line in a classroom setting. In thinking big, the site could provide an overall structure, as well as materials, for an entire course or unit on issues covered in the timeline. Even with more supplemental use, students can benefit from the interactive and visual quality of the timeline, as opposed to reading about the same content in a textbook.

When planning your lessons, build in extra time so that students can explore independently. Also, build in space for teacher-guided activities that implement some of the suggested discussion questions and instructional activities. You can also use individual pieces of the timeline to support your teaching of a very specific topic. For example, during a unit on Civil Rights, the painting on Plessy v. Ferguson could be used, along with the additional resources, to delve into issues of race, law, and discrimination. The Knotted Line's approach to history could also serve as a model for a culminating project in which students choose an issue and display it using multimedia resources. 

Editor's Note: While The Knotted Line site is still live, it won't work on most devices since it requires Flash.

The Knotted Line, a dynamic, interactive, multilayered timeline, was created by artist Evan Bissell to examine the issues of freedom and confinement in U.S. history. Fifty mini-paintings are embedded in the timeline for users to reveal, through which they can explore related content.

Throughout, layers of information are provided with each painting to support an in-depth study of a relevant topic. For example, for a 2007 painting entitled "Immigration’s Prison," the image links to statistics, related events, videos, discussion questions, and additional resources. Users can also scroll through the paintings or search various historical themes as alternatives to following the timeline. Beyond the historical events, the timeline includes hypothetical future possibilities to promote discussions about where society is headed.   

The Knotted Line was created to support educators as they address complex issues in the classroom. The site's unique and innovative format will engage students and allow for independent exploration or guided classroom activities. The timeline is a jumping-off point to pique interest and spur discussions about freedom in America and how it relates to the imprisonment of various groups throughout history. The accompanying resources include paintings, videos, audio, charts, and text.

The variety of modalities used here can help increase accessibility to many types of learners. Learning is encouraged beyond just the timeline. For example, the first timeline entry has a painting about Columbus, and one of the suggested activities is role-playing a trial. The activity requires students to apply what they've learned as they develop critical-thinking and communication skills.

Learning Rating

Overall Rating

Students will enjoy exploring the timeline. They can uncover the hidden paintings, answer thought-provoking questions, review others' responses, or select links to reveal more content on the topic. 


Discussion questions, relevant videos and graphs, lesson plans, and additional resources are provided for each painting on the timeline. An overall curriculum guide is set for release in August.


A welcome page explains the purpose of the site and has introductory videos. In addition, there's an explanation of how the timeline works and suggestions for how to get started. Some kids may need more guidance along the way.

Common Sense reviewer

Community Rating

The Knotted Line attempts to unravel the complex interplay of power and freedom as themes in US History

The Knotted Line is an ambitious effort to build a timeline of American History that brings to light complex relationships and parallels between and among seemingly unrelated events. Knotted Line manages to pull off this work of art by viewing history through the related prisms of freedom and power. To use this timeline is to examine themes through history, relating events hundreds of years apart chronologically, yet fresh and relevant to each other when examined side by side.

For example, upon clicking on the “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882” link one is presented with a brief overview of Chinese exclusion and self-empowerment that begins with a failed attempt by Chinese workers to agitate for better working conditions on the railroads in 1867 to the Chinese Progressive Association’s successful work on supporting the increase in San Francisco’s minimum wage above the state’s mandate in 2003. A discussion question directs viewers to examine a primary source painting commemorating the completion of the trans-continental railroad asking, where are the Chinese? Brief audio and video clips, and still images, support learning. Additional links tie to the broader themes of power and freedom through examining Afro-Asian and Asian struggles in the United States. I love it!

The Knotted Line has a definite point of view concerning American History. That is rather clear when one looks through the material. As long as you know this going in, then have fun!

Sample Uses
This resource cries out for use in US History and APUSH courses. The thematic approach and non-linear treatment of history is refreshing.

Do I plan to use it?
If I teach US History or APUSH next year, then I am in!

Commitment and Learning Curve

Best for ES MS or HS?
HS teachers


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