How is art a reflection of time, place, and culture? How can contemporary art be used to inspire and empower student voice? These guiding questions were the subject of a three-day intensive educator institute offered by the Seattle Art Museum I recently attended.
Teachers from all levels and subjects were invited to explore these questions while viewing Denzil Hurley’s “Disclosures” and Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms,” in addition to other artists and pieces currently on display at SAM.
Because art is an expression of identity and making sense of how we each perceive and exist in the world, it has a place in our curriculum, no matter the subject. Our students are engaged in the process of shaping their identities. As teachers we get the distinct honor of playing a positive role in this process, and we should be aware of the many ways we and our curriculum can support this.
“I want to live hidden in the world that lies midway between mystery and symbol.”
As a writer and an English teacher I have always focused on how to help my students express their creativity, but I am consistently searching for meaningful ways to expand my repertoire and to include more visual art as well. In fact, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts require that students “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.”
On the first morning of this phenomenal training we were asked to consider how we create space for students to express or share an aspect of their identity in our classrooms. I found it helpful to begin with what we are already doing well so as not to get overwhelmed or discouraged.
Take a moment and jot down your list in response to the question:
How do you create space for students to express or share an aspect of their identity in your classroom?
What noticings do you have? What are potential next steps?
My quick list:
- Frida Kahlo collages (students view Self Portrait Between the Borderline of Mexico and the United States and then create their own collages juxtaposing conflicting aspects of their identity)
- Narrative essays- fiction and nonfiction on a variety of topics
- “Where I’m From” poems
- The House on Mango Street vignettes (Students write personal vignettes in the style of Sandra Cisneros)
- Memoir Writing (After reading Tuesdays With Morrie, students choose an aspect of their lives to delve into in no fewer than 15 pages)
- Literary Arts Night (An annual event we put on to celebrate reading, writing, and storytelling at our school)
- Poetry Out Loud performances
My noticings after reviewing my list are that the activities are pretty writing-heavy (in an English classroom, this is not necessarily surprising) and that the only visual art project on the list is the Frida Kahlo collage.
My potential next step is to find a way to balance more visual art with the creative writing opportunities. I’d even like to combine some of those activities to enhance the overall creativity.
For instance, I’m curious about how we can include visuals as part of The House on Mango Street vignettes in a meaningful way.
From keynote speaker Denzil Hurley to guest presenters Erin Shafkind (Nathan Hale HS Art Teacher) and Kathya Alexander (Writer, Storyteller, Teaching Artist, and Actor) we examined how contemporary art empowers individual voice and communities to respond to current events and cultural changes, and to think critically about what students can learn from individual and collaborative art-making through many forms of media and art making activities. It was an incredibly inspiring training and one that I will work to incorporate into my classroom all throughout the year.
Perhaps my favorite activity of the workshop was using inspiration from the morning we’d spent in the Kusama exhibit to create poetry of our own in response to the artwork. Kathya Alexander shared a useful template students can use to guide their poetry-writing in response to art. A good phrase to use for repetition throughout the poem is “I see”
A kind of person
Noun & verb
Color/Something in the sky
Something in the ground
Something in nature
Something that grows
Something in the art
Something in the art
Something it looked like the art was doing
Kind of person
What they wear
What they do
Opposite of first line
“I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life.”
As a writer, it was a thrilling experience to draw inspiration from visual art and I am so looking forward to incorporating more of this into my HS ELA classroom in an effort to get each of my students to examine the single dot that is their own life too.