Monthly Mentor

Dr. Patty Bode (July)
Each month, a different member and NAEA awardee is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Patty Bode just wrapped up her second year as interim principal of Amherst Regional Middle School in Amherst, MA. She is an art educator, researcher, lecturer, and activist. Bode’s research, teaching, and community collaboration focus on advancing student and teacher voices in art curriculum reinvention and transformation—opening borders and questioning what counts as knowledge. Throughout her work, she consistently asserts critical multicultural perspectives and teaches racial literacy through imaginative practices in art education. Click "GO" to read her full bio.

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July 02, 2018

Global Understanding Amidst Flag Waving

From Dr. Patty Bode

I will be reflecting on visual and material culture that is commonly proliferated during the month of July across the USA, with special attention to the semiotics and symbolism of the United States flag and the Statue of Liberty in this series of monthly mentor blog posts. Each post will consider our mission statement, which asserts that NAEA “advances visual arts education to fulfill human potential and promote global understanding.” Practices in art education that may support the mission of global understanding will be discussed in the context of these images. While promoting global understanding can sound like a lofty goal that may seem out of reach for the work of art educators, there are many concrete teaching strategies that can move us closer to this worthy aspiration.

IStock-621909850Accessed from https://www.istockphoto.com

Show the image of the US flag to students of any age group or grade level in most US schools, and ask: “What does this mean?” and you will likely hear similar responses such as: “Freedom, liberty, patriotism, pride, unity, justice for all.” In such discussions, documenting the students’ words and ideas on the board shows all students that their voices are heard. This can open a dialogue about visual and material culture and the how society imbues specific symbols with meaning.  You can help students think about: Where and how do we learn these messages? Who teaches us, and how do we know the meaning and definition of certain symbols? This supports metacognitive reflection about “how do we know what we know?” It adds a layer of critical introspection about social messaging.

I have used this lesson-starter dozens of times in many different school environments and the initial answers about the US flag are usually the same in urban, rural, suburban, public, private, charter, religious, and secular PK-12 schools. After discussing these responses and the way we learn about the meaning of the flag, I pose another very simple question: “Might it mean something else to somebody else?” Students quickly reply with variations on ideas such as:

“It could mean fear to somebody in a country where we are at war.”

“It could mean hatred to some indigenous people who wish their land was not invaded.”

“Maybe it could mean confusion to undocumented immigrants who want to be here, but are worried about being imprisoned or deported.”

“It could mean inequality to families of African American heritage because of the history of enslavement.”

Just giving students the invitation to consider others’ perspectives can be a transformative act.  Context matters. Listening to and considering the ideas of others does not negate some students’ positive or patriotic feelings about the US flag, rather it widens their perspectives, so that their own ideas and feelings can be understood in broader sociocultural contexts. Artists and communities of social practice also use symbols and image proliferation in a variety of contexts. They may appropriate iconic symbols and recontextualize them in art materials, installation formats or by juxtaposing other imagery.

JuanSanchez-1989-NeoRican-Convictions

For example with this image by Juan Sánchez (1989),  I find that students can spend up to an hour studying closely through inquiry-based dialogue led by the questions, “What do you notice?” and “What do you wonder?” I use these dialectical practices rooted in Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, combined with  Harvard Project Zero’s Artful Thinking, the work of Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine on Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), and Terry Barrett’s frameworks for Reflecting, Wondering, Responding to art. I keep asking and listening and repeating what students say. I do not give answers. I do not pre-teach information about the image. Student voice and student questions are emphasized while community dialogue is prioritized spawning collective uncovering of ideas and interpretations.  Students notice and question with phrases such as: “the US flag appears in opposite colors and why did the artist chose to do that; the heart means love, but the nails in the heart seem to mean suffering; there’s barbed wire, and who is it keeping in or keeping out; the Puerto Rican flag and the silhouette – who is that; those documents must be important; the statue of liberty and why is she cropped off; the text, the words, the story...”

Untitled-5-01

In the final portion of this lesson’s discussion I display these two images side by side and ask students: “Both of these images contain the United States flag and the Statue of Liberty: Do they mean the same thing? A lively dialogue ensues with students explaining semiotics, symbolism, social context and arguing over artists’ intent.

Of course there are always more questions to ask such as: Why flags? Do flags unite or divide us? Are there flags that go unrecognized? Who decides? What flags matter to you? Why?

One avenue to promoting global understanding is to help students cultivate multiple perspectives, that is, to examine commonly held viewpoints through the prism of criticality and inquiry. There may be a wide variety of lenses through which meaning is made of a symbol, yet students may have not yet been exposed to the range of possibilities and understandings of such symbols.  The United States flag and the Statue of Liberty each hold iconic status in national and international visual and material culture. Within one’s individual belief system and affiliation groups, there are likely common understandings of these images. However, there are multiple interpretations of these images. To make an effort to see oneself, one’s perspectives, one’s group, one’s society or one’s flag, through the eyes of others can develop empathy for the experiences of others, and strengthen participation in democratic dialogue. Rather than teaching that there is one correct way to understand an image or object, we can help students expand knowledge about that various meanings of these objects, and learn about the roots of these perspectives. In this way, art teachers do not proselytize their personal, regional, political, religious, or national views, but they provide an educational setting in which all views can be considered and the origins of such views may be investigated, discussed and added to the mosaic of understandings.

Next week, I will investigate other imagery that takes up the US flag and the statue of liberty and how these can support art projects in the PK-12 art room and college classroom, including these two pieces by Faith Ringgold.

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Faith Ringgold. American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967. Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in.

Faith Ringgold. We came to America, 1997. Acrylic on canvas, painted and pieced border, 74.5” x 70.5 in

- PB

References:

Barrett, T. (2003). Interpreting Art: Reflecting, Wondering, and Responding. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

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