Making art together is important. It can bring us joy and support us in grief. For some of us, art might be the reason we’re here. But beyond that, by coming together around art, we come to understand and accept each other a little more. After all, art is our inside - outside. The invisible made visible. And in sharing ourselves, our communities grow stronger. I love the bumper sticker quote, which I can only find attributed to either Rosabeth Moss Kanter or Glenn Hilke, stating that, “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.” I suspect that bringing different people together might just be the best possible way to make our world into the one our children deserve.
Culture and community have been recurring topics of my recent classes. A few weeks ago, I engaged my students in a Task Party, originally created by contemporary artist Oliver Herring. It’s an exciting improvisational artmaking experience. As students entered, they were asked to invent a task for another student in the class to complete, write it on a slip of paper, and drop it in a box. They then pick a task at random from the box. They can take as long or as little as they want to complete their task anyway they see fit. Afterwards, students may return to select another task and repeat. As for our materials, a few students and I were able to provide a suitable quantity of recyclables and assorted collections of household-type items. From these, students constructed vehicles, games, towers, gifts, decorations, clothing, and even a few performances, including one student who pretended to be a fish for the entire time and another student that became quite a convincing lion prowling our classroom and startling unsuspecting classmates. One of my favorite creations was a tutu fashioned from strips of plastic bags which reminded me of Degas’ Little Dancer which I shared with the class afterwards.
The first time I experienced a Task Party myself was at the 2016 NAEA Convention in NYC, where I was able to work with Oliver Herring himself. It was a huge ballroom filled with people happily interacting and making and expressing themselves. Despite how busy he was, he was extremely friendly and generous and chatted with me a bit about the event. He was more interested in my take - which is the sign of a natural teacher I think. “This is life,” I told him. “We’re exploring the world around us and ways of being and making something together.” He bowed graciously. After everything was cleaned up, a group of high school students from NYC challenged a group of high students from Provo, Utah to a game of baseball in the ballroom with a leftover tinfoil ball and tubes. It was a spontaneous, beautiful, hopeful moment I was fortunate to catch.
After my class task party, I reviewed my students responses, nearly every one of them mentioned connections with fun, spontaneity, creativity and/or socializing. Almost unanimously, they shared with me that the experience was like nothing they had experienced before. Good. That’s what we’re going for in this course. Also, the vast majority seemed to really enjoy themselves after struggling with a little anxiety, indecision, and ‘maker’s block’ and overcoming their resistance. I was proud of them. Only a few, however, seemed to recognize the possible connection to community in how we navigated and shared space and time, temporarily creating something egalitarian with shared decisions and consequences. I frequently asked students to consider how the experience might relate to “community” in my feedback as a friendly challenge to take their thinking to the next level. The next time a class has a task party, I’ll be sure to center community more explicitly for our post-discussion.
The following week, we revisited Big Ideas. In my last post, I wrote about some of the challenges my students and I experienced as I first introduced the Big Idea method of lesson planning to the class. I had spoken to my mentor and “sister-by-another-mister” Melanie Davenport, who helped me realize how, while I had thought of my content very matter-of-factly, that for my classroom, the introduction of this new way of doing things represented something of a culture clash. For some of my students, this was a significant departure from the way they thought about lesson planning. It had been a little more like oil and water for a few than peanut butter and jelly like I might’ve hoped. But that wasn’t the end of the world since struggle can be important to learning. My suspicion was somewhat validated later when a student explained to me she had been taught to always begin with a standard. But from my perspective, if you’re doing anything worth doing in the classroom, there is a standard for it - so what excites YOU?!
After our review, we transitioned to a discussion of “authenticity.” I believe students should value authenticity in creating their lesson plans. It can mean many different things, but for me, an art-integrated lesson is authentic when students are doing things that artists actually do or at least looking at the artwork they have created. This way, students are learning from actual practitioners involved in the field of visual art. If I was teaching medicine, I would want my students learning from doctors - not the amateur medic down the street 9 out of 10 times. I’m hoping more lessons will follow my lead this semester as this discipline-based / T.A.B. foundation was something I found lacking last semester. But a lesson can also be authentic when students are doing things that they want to do, making choices, and engaging meaningfully in creativity and artmaking. In that way, the learning is natural rather than forced or contrived and the students are being AND expressing themselves.
Authenticity is especially important as some students consider exploring different cultures with their students through art-integration. Whether or not you believe that cultural appropriation is a problem or not, I think any educator can agree that it is a disservice to students when teachers misrepresent or stereotype other cultures, intentionally or not. We have a responsibility to the truth as teachers. Those interested in exploring other cultures should do so with humility, as if they are entering the home of a stranger for the first time. Do not speak for people that you know little to nothing about. Speak for yourself instead. Does this mean I want my students to avoid the artwork of other cultures? Of course not! But, as an authority figure in the classroom and in the interest of intellectual honesty, it is dishonest at worst and ignorant at best to present some problematic lesson you found on the internet as if it accurately represents a group of people in anyway without doing some serious research and questioning. Don’t believe everything you read - it’s the internet for the love of gravy!!
I wholeheartedly believe teachers can teach what they do not know. We can’t know everything and studying a topic the night before your lesson does not make you an authority persay. Many might say they teach themselves first and then teach their students, but why not just learn together? Bu humble. Model curiosity and instead make that the focus. Become a community where power is shared, not centralized. Be respectful and responsible, again, as if you had were in a stranger’s home. Whenever possible, include the voices of the actual people of that community, in person or simply through video, audio or text. Invite members of that community to speak for themselves and invite your students to learn from everyone instead of only what you think about the world.
As a member of the teaching community and someone who works with aspiring teachers, I value authenticity and am practicing embracing vulnerability. I created this blog to be more transparent and make me more vulnerable. Because we must be ourselves or our students will sniff us out as phonies in a heartbeat. Teaching helps me be my best self. But I had no idea that a national tragedy would call upon me to respond with all of the authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty I could muster for the sake of my students.
On the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2018, 17 students and teachers were shot dead at Stoneman Douglas High School in Lakeland, Florida by a gunman with a semi-automatic rifle. I went to high school about 45 minutes away from there. According to conservative estimates, this was the fifth school shooting in 2018. That’s almost one incident per week. So far. This was only a few days ago. And every school and learning community in the country has been hurt in some way as a result.
When I first heard the news, I wanted to throw up. I cried. Over the next few days, I cried several times each day. Maybe I too had become desensitized to the continuous stream of mass shootings in America and it was all finally coming to a head. This seemed like something more than empathy and a loose connection to the area for me. I wasn’t expecting to react as strongly as I was. And in re-reading that sentence - how could we let things get to this point where I would say I either should’ve expected such an event or not felt so strongly? I was sick to my stomach, a little out of it, and heartbroken for those children that would no longer graduate and go on to live the rest of their promising lives. Those teachers that gave their lives to protect their students.
I couldn’t go on as usual and pretend that every teacher and every student in this country had not just been stabbed through the heart. I couldn’t process our shared grief alone. If I was experiencing such difficult emotions, then I guessed that some of my students may feel the same. Or worse. They might be asking themselves, why am I going into this field? Do I really want to become a teacher? Sure - we all had those moments. But most of us weren’t worried that we might die doing the job we love. It is most often our hearts - our love of children, the world, and learning - that bring us to this profession. That our children might be the price of our national inaction - of our shared failure to come together and make a difference again and again is appalling.
As future teachers, the real world won't stop at my students' classroom doors. And it can't stop at mine either. So I decided to change my plans. I decided to improvise. We would talk and share and make art together. And maybe, just maybe, that will make a small difference. And that’s what we did.
Asked them to check-in with themselves and try to find out how they were feeling. I told them we would be improvising and getting real and if at any point they found that our conversation was too much, they could step outside or leave at any time if that was what they needed. Then I began to open up. “I feel awful,” I said. I told them why. I feel heartbroken and angry at the same time. I described the pit in my gut, the weight on my chest, and the nausea in my stomach.
I don’t know how to talk about this,” I said, “but we’re going to talk about it anyway. I’m not a counselor. I’m not qualified. But that’s okay. And you won’t be either. And there may come a time, if it hasn’t already, that you will have to talk to your children about things they should never have to think about. But we can still do some good.”
I reminded them of the counseling services at school and the contact information I include prominently in our course syllabus. Counseling is for everyone and you don’t need to feel a certain way to see a counselor. While sometimes it takes time to find a good match, as with anything. I wanted to de-stigmatize mental health services, so I shared that in my early thirties, a cognitive psychologist helped me acquire tools that have helped me become a little bit healthier. I’ll always be grateful.
I also told them about last semester. The best friend of a student in my class had been wounded in the Las Vegas Massacre. Is that horrific event fading from our memory already? Back then, I began class by mentioning the event, telling the students about the counseling services, and after a brief period of time moving on with the scheduled lesson. Why didn’t I change my plans then? What did I think was more important? I feel a little ashamed. But tonight was going to be different.
Then I told them a story - my story. The story of a child that grew up in extreme circumstances and was part of an invisible population - namely students that are homeless and live in terrible circumstances with a dysfunctional family, in my case fueled largely by mental illness, alcohol, and shame. I told them how I had been emotionally, psychologically, and physically abused for years starting when I was 8 years old. I was held back a year simply because I wasn’t allowed to go to school for most of the year. By the time I was 12, I was an unsocialized, severely obese, unhygienic child with dirty clothes. I was a pariah, isolated at school, a mysterious but obvious target of ridicule and isolation by teachers and classmates, and completely on my own at home, trapped by the delusions of a mentally ill parent. For a long time, my shared belief that those delusions were true also imprisoned me. I was lonely, sad, confused, and above all, full of rage.
I had touched the darkness as a child. I admitted to having fantasized about my own death many times back then. How vividly I imagined everyone in my school lamenting my avoidable death. They would finally regret having ever been mean to me or excluding me I thought. I admitted how, during a particularly low point, I had fantasized about getting back at all my classmates that had hurt me by transforming into a giant robot and gunning them all down in cold-blooded revenge. Add to that I was being told that these people were my enemies and out to get me. I didn’t care who I hurt because I was hurting so badly I couldn’t feel that human connection. But eventually, I came out the other side, damaged but unbroken. No one should ever have to know those feeling I felt as a child. Those feelings are something I will have to carry with my the rest of my life. And every time another horrific shootings occur in this country, I’m back in that time of my life again, reliving all those terrible memories.
I consider myself lucky. I can’t say why or how I survived all that. Part nature, part nurture, and a lot of luck I assume. “But for a slight twist of fate,” I told my students, “I could easily have ended up in prison - or dead.” But a huge part of what helped me survive, I believe, was art. When I was younger, I escaped to my drawing. I constructed an elaborate comic book universe complete with storylines and characters, drawing and redrawing them over and over. And I gradually improved. As I got older and took charge of more and more of my life, I learned that the world could be different than I had been told. It was then that my art became a connection to others - a way of reaching out. Would you believe that by seventh grade, in the same class I described above, that I gave everyone in the class their own drawing just to thank them for being my classmates? And again in eighth grade. Art was there to help me when no one else was.
I told my students how later in high school, the first drawings I made that I considered “Art” were created one summer as I tried to process feelings resulting from an incident with a broken door, a bloody bed sheet, and a fist reeking of alcohol from another family member. I can’t remember ever being angrier in my life than I was that night. I wanted to steal a car; drive it into a tree; die; or end up in jail. I wanted to overdose (even though I’d never had a drug). I wanted to do anything I could to get back at my attacker by hurting myself. But I was isolated yet again. This time on a mountain with nothing around for miles. Instead of going for a knife, I picked up color pencils. I made art that showed the emotions that I could not articulate in words nor share with anyone.
Art, I believe can save lives. And art just doesn’t help us survive, it can help us thrive, as it enables us to process life and the world around us, even when we experience emotions to which we can’t give names or describe. I believe art brings us together and that being together is perhaps the best, most powerful thing we can do. So, for the rest of class, we painted and doodled and spent time together.
My students seem okay for the most part. But they shared several heartbreaking stories. Paranoia. Fear. Sadness. During lockdown drills, how as a student teacher, having to explain to kindergarteners why they have to pretend to hide from a bad man that has come to hurt them. My generation never experienced anything this. “This generation is resilient,” I tell them, “and don’t let any of these other generations disrespect you, because this is their mess - my mess - and we didn’t clean it up. But we have to try.” Through our sharing we became closer. Only a few spoke publicly, but everyone listened deeply. Everyone in our community was heard.
I’ve done the best I can do. That’s all any teacher can expect from themself. I was honest with my students. And I hopefully gave them an example of what to do when they do not know what to do. And moreso, maybe I gave them some hope. That, like in my life, it’s possible to turn things around. We’re not destined for an endless string of tragedies. I showed them that we can be damaged, but that doesn’t mean we have to be broken. And maybe they’ll remember that art can help us make meaning out of senselessness and bring a little order to what may sometimes seem like overwhelming chaos. That in art, whatever art is for any of us, we can find connection, strength, and healing.
I still want to cry. My eyes are welling up as I write these words. But we can either present ourselves to our students as products or processes. For their sake, I think they need to see the process, because we are all learning to live together in this world and they need to see that we all are in the same boat. We are all trying our best to figure out this thing called life. We can create and we can destroy. Our world can be a task party.
Thank you for reading. To all my teachers - readers, friends, colleagues, and those I may never know - keep being the kind, strong, brave, authentic, vulnerable beautiful creatures I know you are. We need each other more now than ever. And to everyone, take care of each other. Because that will make the world the one we want to live in and the one our students deserve. I believe we can make that world a reality. But only together.
As you know, my nemesis is the “school art style.” This term was introduced in the 1970s by art educator Arthur Efland. It represents everything I am against in art education. Bland, prescribed, superficial, “cookie-cutter” forgeries, created en masse by class after class, year after year, to meet the expectations of parents and satisfy antiquated notions of artmaking as individualistic, teacher-driven time-fillers with little room for choice or meaningful exploration. Canned art. Guaranteed to succeed. My mascot, Carl the Color Wheel, stands for my feelings about that kind of paint-by-number anti-creativity too common in artrooms across America. It is inauthentic. Opposed to this meaningless mimicry, I want my future teachers to involve art authentically in their classrooms. Debbie Clement is a great example of the difference during the younger years, as she writes a great post about authentic vs inauthentic artmaking. Below is an example from her blog of the dreaded “school art style.”
I don’t believe that some art is better than no art. If the teaching promotes misconceptions and is anti-art, I would rather there be a void of artmaking in their classroom thank you very much. On the other hand, very responsible teachers sometimes avoid artmaking exactly because of their anxiety about possibly “doing it wrong.” Good intentions are not enough and real harm can be done unintentionally by well-intentioned people. Instead, we can do our best to prepare our students to be as authentic as possible, proceeding with respect, evidence, and sensitivity.
In the last few weeks of class, my students and I have been exploring some broader issues that relate to arti-integration and classroom creativity. How does art relate to culture? Art and culture have been inseparable since long before there were words for either one. To talk about art outside of culture and its complicated network of connections to people with relationships in a society is to try to understand a fish without knowing anything about the existence of water. Authenticity is critical to both artmaking and culture. They are participatory and dynamic, not fixed and passive. They both intimately involve creating and making.
To provide my students with a strong foundation for exploring art and culture authentically, we first began with authentic artmaking experiences, such as the monoprinting we did in class a few weeks ago. Then two weeks ago I lead the class in a discussion on the topic of “Authenticity v Inauthenticity.” Each student began by thinking of or Googling examples of each and then sharing their examples with a partner before we sharing with the entire group. We then wrote down the various meanings and words the group associated with each word in an effort to come to a communal understanding. We often think a word has one meaning to everyone, but they don’t do they? That is a simple lesson that I feel like has taken me a long time to learn. So unpacking a word in class and what it means to everyone is not only something a constructivist educator would do, it’s something I think is important to do so that we know whether or not we are speaking the same language. It’s a way of determining shared values. We had a variety of ideas along the spectrum between the two terms as well as examples. My favorite was probably the three students who brought up the example of the Mona Lisa and a forgery, just because they made the art connection. Still, I would be lying to myself if I believed every student would make the connection between a copy of an artwork and paint-by-numbers. Beliefs are hard to shake and for some, I’m sure, paint-by-numbers matches their idea of art. Personally, I don’t think they have any place in any classroom - except perhaps for the one Andy Warhol did. It was probably our longest discussion of the semester and it was one in which the whole class seemed engaged and interested, which was reflected in many responses as well. I saw that in just a few cases students seemed to conflate “authenticity” with “originality” which I would say is a related idea, but very different. I did do a little bit of reteaching in pointing this out in my responses to their feedback. You can find all of their responses here.
After this discussion, students read an article by OSU AAEP professor Dr. Acuff titled (Mis)Information Highways: A Critique of Online Resources for Multicultural Art Education and were assigned to participate in an online discussion afterwards. For the discussion, students were asked to respond to the following prompt:
What are some multicultural mistakes to avoid?
The students brought up a number of strong examples with a lot of crossover. I was extremely satisfied by their demonstration of their understanding of the reading and the connections they had made to examples from their own educations and found lessons. I feel that this exercise is a vital part of the course because it meets the students where they are. “In an impromptu surveying of my class of 27 art education pre-service teachers at the University of North Texas (UNT), in Denton, Texas, USA, 100 per cent claim to always use or frequently use the Internet to find lesson plans or ideas for curriculum development” (Acuff, 2014). The vast majority of teachers today will look online for teaching materials. Acuff asks them to be critical of the materials they find that they otherwise might take for granted. The internet can just as easily perpetuate ill-informed and harmful teaching practices as it can disseminate more empowering and humane approaches. “There is no way to control information disseminated online, nor verify its authenticity or accuracy. Therefore, art teacher educators must be proactive in engaging in dialogue and frank conversations with their art education, preservice students about online content and its place in teaching, pedagogical construction and curriculum development” (Acuff, 2014). For students who had not yet been able to view many lessons with a critical lens or even think of many examples, I feel that the discussion presented them with examples they might not have otherwise considered and may have revealed the pervasiveness of problematic practices. If you would like to see their discussion posts and responses, I’ve copied the entire online discussion here (as of 11/12/2017). All student names have been removed.
At this point, I felt that the students had a strong enough knowledge base in which to proceed with an interdisciplinary artmaking experience that directly connects culture and artmaking. The project was first inspired by an article I read as an undergraduate written by my then professor Dr. Melanie Davenport titled Using Simulations to Ground Intercultural Inquiry in the Art Classroom (2003). “Becoming members of distinct, emergent communities, constructing shared cultural understandings through dialogue within the group, creating artifacts of both practical and aesthetic use, and finally, dealing with problems of interpretation and evaluation provides students the scaffolding to construct further understandings about the intercultural processes that contribute to the evolution of visual culture over time” (Davenport, 2003). In her article, Davenport discusses how simulation can be a helpful tool for exploring cultures in a way that invites students to walk in another’s shoes while enabling the maker to better understand their own shoes. “Viewing the visual world through an intercultural lens adds a much needed cosmopolitan perspective (Appiah, 1998) to the consideration of the visual manifestations of culture, past and present, and the interactional processes that shape our world” (Davenport, 2003).
Another student in Dr. Davenport’s class, my friend Laura Hein, an art teacher in North Carolina, took Melanie’s idea and ran with it in a fun way. She groups her students together and gives each group odd materials with which they are asked to construct an original culture which culminates in the sharing of objects and stories from each group. One example I remember was a culture that worshipped chickens because they had received feathers as one of their materials. She inspired me to design my own lesson based on Davenport’s article. In my case, I wanted to constrain my students not just with materials, but with a realistic scenario as well. I had recently discovered Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs & Steel and had loved it. Diamond wishes to understand modern day disparities between cultures by tracing back the most significant catalysts for change throughout time. What advantages enabled some cultures to dominate others and is it possible to identify the origins of those advantages? Was it differences between the people? Or was it a difference of circumstance? As you can guess from the title of the book, Diamond identifies technological factors such as the invention of guns and steel, as well as biological factors such as germs, as having played some of the most significant roles in human history. But beyond these factors, well beyond recorded history, Diamond identifies that luck, essentially where you were born including your geography and resources, as being the earliest factors that contributed to the growth and spread of some communities and the later challenges of others.
As a K-12 art teacher, I liked multicultural lessons where students would explore how a “Big Idea,” like love or death, might be depicted in various cultures around the world. Or a lesson where a teacher might provide students with examples of an object like a piece of clothing or a mask or a tool and explore how the context, use, meaning, and appearance changes from place to place. Like many, if not all, students in America, I made my fair share of “art” things that were just culture knock-offs and crappy copies. Like a lot of kids, I’m almost positive I made some construction-paper feathered headdresses and some artifacts with a paper towel tube. It’s hard to recall when or what now. Those were examples of disposable culture. Culture as superficiality. Viewing culture through the lens of a gift shop. I detest lessons like that but I’m afraid that some still see culture as sombreros and boomerangs.
Why are toilet tube totem poles so problematic? There are so many writers who do so much better a job unpacking this than I can. I would just briefly ask: Why do you think copying an object from a culture will help students understand the people of that culture? How does copying an idea, but using completely different materials and for completely different reasons under completely different circumstances, help students connect in any way shape or form with the specific time or place or people that created the original? I do believe that you can gain inspiration from objects from other cultures but that inspiration should be authentic. WHY was this object made? How do YOU, today in your specific time and place, answer that same “Why” question? I don’t accept that you, 21st century person, would answer the question the creators of that artifact were trying to answer in exactly the same way. If you do, that seems like simple plagiarizing, which is academically, artistically, and morally dishonest. Can you not learn from copying? Of course you can. But you sure as hell aren’t copying anything if you’re using a cardboard tube to mimic a religious artifact. Instead of copying a dreamcatcher, for example, is there anything that you could create to catch your own dreams or make them come true?
I wanted to create a multicultural lesson that not only was the opposite of such cultural mimicry but was also more ambitious that the average example of examining an idea or object as it appears in various places or times. I wanted something experiential that would stick. I wanted to instigate not only authentic artmaking and greater understanding for what it might have been like to have lived in a different time and place. I also wished to utilize various aspects of creativity during this lesson, engaging students in play through roleplay, collaboration, questioning, uncertainty, risk taking, and, of course, making. I believe the purpose of a constructive multicultural lesson is to build an appreciation for diversity, greater understanding of different points of view, and greater empathy towards different people. I developed Creating Culture and it is a lesson I have shared with students over the years of what I hope is a good example of the potential of multicultural inquiry.
The idea was simple. Split the class into two and separate them as much as possible, recreating geographical distance mentally. With little more effort, this plants the seeds for group identity, as supported by literature in Social Psychology. I researched the locations and resources of two civilizations which existed at the same time but because of essential differences were very different technologically and which were examples Diamond had cited as evidence of his theory. One inspiration was the Fertile Crescent region and the other was Papau New Guinea. In each case, students were given information about the conditions in which they might’ve lived and their resources and materials, intended to be as close as possible approximations to the materials each culture would have had access to at the time. Because the original materials are not always available or safe or cost effective for the average classroom to use, such as stone carving, substitutions can be made, like soap in place of stone, for example. It is important however that these substitutions be made explicit for each group so they can apply a little imagination to surpass these real world limitations. The key, however, is that neither group knew what culture their scenario was based on or what materials the other group had. Instead, each group only knew what people would have known at the time, namely their immediate surroundings. Everything else was up to them to create. Each group set about deciding what their culture would be like and creating objects and artifacts that they would use in their shared culture.
Inevitably, cultures come into contact with other cultures. This is the “interculturality” that Davenport describes in her article. To provide this experience with students, I surprised each group with a message that people in another land had been recently found. At the time, there was no written alphabet or communication, so this forced each group to communicate visually through their objects. And this also left the door open for uncertainty, predictions, and misunderstandings. They must now interact with this unknown outgroup by sending objects back and forth. Will they trade or not? What will they offer? What do they wish to communicate? What are the intentions of the other group? In the end, we reunite the groups and discuss the cultures and objects they created and discuss the perceptions and misconceptions they had of each other and the their implications.
I’ve shared this lesson with several classes of art education students and art educators at conferences over the years. With each presentation the project has improved. This was my first opportunity to share it with classroom teachers and I was impressed with what they created together. One object that was a show stopper was a working bow and arrow one culture would have used to hunt created from mostly sticks and rafi! No matter how many times I’ve done this lesson, I’m fascinated by the differences of the objects from year to year - none are ever exactly the same - and how the interactions between the groups change each time. Some groups enter into conflict while others establish mutually beneficial relations. I would love to see a class combine my lesson and John Hunter’s World Peace Game and therefore connecting the past and the future with imagination and community. What I love about this exercise is that students see first-hand the connection between art and culture. It’s about specificity and possibility.
Here are some of the responses I received from students about the experience:
Not only were we encouraged to think about art in a new way, we were forced to be thoughtful with our decisions in a way which we might not typically think. Furthermore, it felt as if our group really came together over this assignment and we wanted to create resources which would be fitting for the entire community.
What happened next was unexpected. After the lesson was over, I stored the objects the students had constructed on a shelf against the wall, put the extra lesson plans I had provided for my students away in my drawer, and left the classroom I share with several other teachers. We are currently waiting on storage shelves which will be used to store the work from the various classes that share the room, so for now everything has to fit on a couple of small shelves out in the open. It had not been my intention to display the objects, but I was also proud of my students and had not thought much about leaving them out. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I received a message later. “Is that a teepee?”
I was accused by a co-worker of cultural mimicry. The person might have been unsure mainly because it wasn’t a teepee and hence, if it was, it was not a very good one. Or maybe they had already made up their mind. No, it’s an original creation. “And is that a headdress?” It’s a headdress, but for an invented culture. It’s not based on any existing culture. I was subsequently forced to defend myself and my students work. I did by providing most of the materials which I have included in this post. This evidence seemed satisfactory and so it appears I’m no longer under suspicion. The solution offered was that I should’ve had a lesson plan displayed along with the objects. This is fair, as they were visible even though my intention was mostly to store them rather than display them. Would less visibility have prevented any of this conflict? I’m not sure. The accusation was not accompanied by interest in my plans or rationale.
The incident in question was the impetus for this longer than usual post. We often don’t have all of the work and thought that goes into a project or assignment at our finger-tips to answer our critics. So here it is. Years of of research and planning and practice. Weeks of exercises, discussions, readings, and projects. And all of that can be threatened by a single uninformed accusation. Such an accusation can be potentially career damaging. I knew that right away. I was shocked and upset. I was also insulted personally on behalf of my students. Do I allow or encourage my students to make shoddy reproductions of objects from other cultures? No. No I don’t. Here’s an example of me saying exactly that to a student in fact when reviewing a lesson plan they had submitted to present to the class. I can imagine how someone outside of my department, seeing these objects together without any explanation or context and without knowing me, could assume the worst. What disappoints me about this incident is not that I might be asked to explain what my students do. I can do that easily. What is most disappointing is that the question was accompanied by a presumption of guilt and that it came from within my own department suggesting at best a lack of trust. There are two ways at least to approach any situation. As a teacher, I give a lot of feedback and ask students a lot of questions. I recognize the critical distinction between the question "Is that a tee-pee?" and "What was your class working on?" That distinction is judgment. That is a part of the ecosystem in which teachers operate and we must be prepared for it.
There are of course three takeaways from this. The first is tough, because it cannot always be possible to see things the way someone else does. Acknowledging difference means acknowledging different experience. I saw a four-corner pyramidal structure with a woven netting cover created for a tropical environment. I didn't imagine how someone else might interpret these objects as they lay piled on a shelf. If I had simply provided a copy of my lesson plan near the ‘offending’ objects, would that have prevented this miscommunication? I suppose we must operate under the assumption of better safe than sorry and always provide pertinent information for any work we display both in and out of our classrooms.
Now, having experienced being implicitly labeled racist, or at best culturally insensitive or ignorant, I have two choices at least moving forward in my teaching. I can give into that fear of being criticized by someone that takes something I’m doing out of context. Perhaps stay away from hands-on multiculturalism all together as such can present risks for those that engage students in such exploration. I would perhaps avoid any risk if I threw out this exercise all together in favor of an in class discussion instead for example. Or I can continue to do work with students that engages students in meaningful cultural inquiry. I can continually reaffirm my embracing of difference and do the work of becoming a better ally and a better informed teacher, open to authentic criticism of my practice, which there is surely room for, as I am by no means free of the power structures that perpetuate inequity in our education system and our country as a whole. But I’m working to be better all the time. You shouldn’t expect rewards for this kind of work, other than the reward of better teaching and better relationships with my students. You should, however, expect criticism. Some of it fair and some of it not.
The lesson for my future teachers? Document EVERYTHING. Record responses. Record feedback. Record responses to responses. Create plans. Review plans. Take photos. Record video. Do everything and anything you can do to capture the amazing things that happen in your classroom. And one day you may need some of that documentation as evidence to protect yourself from people on the outside of what you’re creating in your class together with your students. And more importantly: Know WHY! Why are you doing what you’re doing? Do you have evidence for what you’re doing? Could you defend it if you had to? Always be sure, not in the appearance of the products that your students will create, for that leads to the standardized, mechanized, dead pedagogy plaguing so many schools. Instead be sure of the process, the WHY, behind what you’re doing. Be mindful of different perspectives but be aware that some perspectives might just be wrong. That doesn't mean you can just ignore them. Always display contextual information with work. Next time, I'll create a QR Code linking to this post.
We will not create safe cookie-cutter copies and meaningless things with our students. Meaning is messy, like people and the differences between them. We must create learning that lives and breathes. We must never give in to allowing our work to become another example of the “school art style.” We must constantly support our students in authentic making and exploration. And we must do this in spite of resistance and very real risks.
You may download my lesson packet Creating Culture here.
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers for undergrads planning on becoming classroom teachers. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while experimenting with more effective approaches to teaching visual art integration.