Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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Tuesday 06.30.20

Moving forward: Reflections on teaching while white in the time of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter

By Krissy Ponden

This past month I have been reflecting on my teaching practice, the possibility of continued or intermittent distance learning in the fall, my own complicity in oppressive systems, and how I must prioritize my own unlearning as a white woman socialized to blindly accept the status quo. Frankly, it’s exhausting. But I know my choice to work toward a more just society doesn’t even begin to compare to the daily struggle of being Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color in America. And while 80% of teachers in America are white, more than half of their students do not have to read a book or participate in a webinar or watch a documentary to understand the depths to which history, politics, economics, and prejudice negatively affect their lives. For them it is not theoretical; it is their reality.

I did not touch on all the myriad cultural identifiers that fall under the umbrella of “diversity” this month in my posts. It is important to remember that while race is at the forefront of the conversation right now, ability, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and a host of other identifiers contribute to the marginalization of millions of people. The intersection of these identities adds a layer of complexity to discussions about equity and justice, as every individual’s experience is made up of all the factors that position them farther away from the accepted norm.

As professionals who are tasked with the education and care of young people, our highest priority should be working to dismantle the systems that keep our students from succeeding. If not, all of our efforts to teach them watercolor techniques, perspective drawing, art history, and ceramics will be in vain, and we will continue to lament the fact that students seem disengaged and are underperforming (according to our standards). Just as we as educators are more than a pay scale, our students are much more than a seat in a system designed to fail more than half of them. Listen to your students. Believe them. Support them. And help remove the roadblocks that stand in the way of their success. 

Student presentationCenter students’ lives in their learning and let them use art as an outlet to process their experience.

To wrap up my month as the NAEA Mentor Blogger, I am posing the following challenge to myself and my fellow art educators: Commit to learning something new each day that challenges your worldview. Be open to the experiences of others, and believe that what they tell you is true. Understand the difference between intent and impact. Position your students’ lives at the center of their learning, rather than your preconceived ideas of what they should know or do. Diversify and decolonize your bookshelves, social media feeds, the businesses you patronize, and the company you keep. And finally, for teachers who, like me, perceive themselves as white, lean into your own vulnerability; settle into the discomfort of unlearning a lifetime of unchallenged whiteness. That is social justice in action.


Monday 06.29.20

Your existing curriculum CAN be a social justice curriculum Part 2

By Krissy Ponden

Yarn mural

In part one of this post, I gave a brief overview of Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards and how they were designed to be embedded into your current curriculum. This might seem daunting if you have not previously considered the intersections of social justice and art education and are worried about having to scrap years’ worth of lesson planning and research. However, by asking essential questions that consider broader concepts beyond just art media and materials, teachers can guide students to have deep discussions about injustice and the ways in which history informs our present.

WampumAcknowledging the meanings different cultures ascribe to colors (such as this Haudenosaunee wampum) helps us understand ways of being apart from our own.

The first two domains, Identity and Diversity, are necessary for reducing prejudice. This is often viewed by teachers as the easiest areas to incorporate into their lessons as there are relatively low stakes. Let’s imagine you are teaching a unit on color theory. An essential question that considers Identity might be: What qualities or meanings do I ascribe to different colors? Or Diversity: Why do the same colors have different meanings to different cultures? These two questions ask students to think about their own experiences with color and how it is not a universal experience but a cultural one. While we may see many brides wearing white in Western cultures, in India it is common to see brides wearing red. Black is traditionally the color of mourning in America, whereas Cambodians often wear white to a funeral. These examples can help students expand their understanding of culture and see how their own experiences are similar or different to others’. Color can also be talked about in terms of how it changes over time within a particular culture. Pink was considered a masculine color for young boys in America around 1890 because it was a version of red. Ask students where they primarily see pink today, and chances are they will say in young girls’ clothing and toys.

Student artwork critiqueThe right questions can help students consider visual culture in a broader sense and its impact on communities, especially those of the global majority.

The above conversations can be lighthearted and interesting, and while they are important it is critical that we eventually move beyond prejudice reduction to collective action. The domains of Justice and Action are typically more challenging to teach. This is because they ask students to contemplate issues of equity and brainstorm ways that they can work toward positive social change. Taking the same color theory unit, a Justice question could be: How have the negative connotations we associate with the color black contributed to the oppression of Black communities? Now students are being asked to consider their own biases and make connections between symbolism and equity. Or, Why are the villains in stories commonly described with dark colors? How has the Black community worked to reclaim agency and empowerment with the Black Lives Matter movement?

Finally, to address Action: How can I work to reduce color prejudice in my own community? Students need to understand that they can be part of the solution. By giving them the tools to respond when they hear or see negative comments or microaggressions about color, we are empowering them to make a change that benefits everyone.

BLM mural Color is more than just theory; it has been weaponized to oppress groups of people throughout history.]

Feel free to use this worksheet to write your own essential questions for each of the four domains for a unit of your choice. By seeking to minimize conflict through prejudice reduction and directly challenging inequity through collective action, the Social Justice Standards provide a framework to help us move forward as antiracist teachers. It is important to note that not all four domains need to be addressed in every lesson; not only would that be difficult it would also feel contrived. Aim to try to embed one or two essential questions in each of your units with the goal of addressing all four domains at multiple points throughout the year. Ideally, if teachers in all grade levels and across all disciplines give students opportunities to practice these standards, students will learn to advocate for themselves and others and stand up to injustice.

- KP

Tuesday 06.23.20

Your Existing Curriculum CAN Be A Social Justice Curriculum: Part 1

Student critiqueHow can we adapt our existing curriculum to reflect social justice issues?

It can be overwhelming to try to revamp your curriculum to ensure it is more equitable and representative. As teachers, we have spent countless hours carefully choosing artists to study, writing lesson plans and assessments, and creating exemplars. It is tempting to want to take a break from all of that and just continue using what we already have. However, just as we assess our students, we also need to continually assess ourselves and our materials. Have you ever finished teaching a lesson and immediately thought of half a dozen things you would do differently the next time you teach it? Lessons are dynamic and evolve as we work with them and groups of students; we take note of what’s working and where we need to better support student understanding. Adding social justice to your curriculum should be another aspect of this assessment, and it is easier to do than you might think.

Social Justice Standards

Teaching Tolerance launched their Social Justice Standards in 2016 as an anti-bias framework for teachers that is designed to be embedded into the curriculum. Rather than creating lessons specifically to address social justice issues (which you absolutely can and should also do!), these standards can also be a way to evaluate your existing lessons to find opportunities to have discussions about inequity and bias. Based on Louise Derman-Sparks’ four goals for anti-bias education, the 20 anchor standards are divided into four domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. The standards are scaffolded, and examples of outcomes and scenarios are offered from Kindergarten to 12th grade. This matters because how can we expect high schoolers to have an understanding of the ways in which group identity plays a role in unfair treatment if they have never been asked to consider what social and cultural groups they belong to? Just as we would not teach algebra to students who do not have a basic mastery of mathematical equations, we should approach social justice education as a strand of developmental progression that carries through all grades and disciplines.

PrintmakingAny project can be a gateway to discussions on equity and justice when the right questions are asked.

Think about a lesson or unit plan that you currently teach and that both you and your students love. In my next post, I will be showing you how to create essential questions for each of the four social justice domains for the lesson of your choice. Stay tuned!

Wednesday 06.17.20

Supporting LGBTQIA+ Students in the Art Room

By Krissy Ponden

UnknownPride, by Margot, 8th grade, 2018

This week, the Supreme Court extended protections from the Civil Rights Act to gay, lesbian, and transgender workers in a landmark ruling widely celebrated as a victory for anti-discrimination. While the ruling was specifically in response to hiring and firing practices, it is also significant for LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies who advocate for equal protection, representation, and inclusion in society. The decision also comes in the middle of Pride Month, 50 years after the first pride march was held in New York City on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The historical significance of this cannot be ignored.

For art educators who have recently been thinking about ways to make their classrooms more representative in terms of race, I propose this moment of reflection as an opportunity to also highlight LBGTQIA+ artists. While public opinion has grown to favor broad support for LGBT rights, schools still remain far behind in terms of providing accurate, comprehensive, and representative LGBTQIA+ education. The consequence of this lack of visibility in schools is alarming: According to GLSEN’s latest school climate report, over 80% of transgender and gender non conforming students reported being harassed in school because of their gender expression. Schools are still incredibly heteronormative spaces and students are assumed to be straight and cisgendered, while the reality is that many students are queer or questioning or have a friend or family member who is. What message does it send when students do not see themselves or those they love reflected in physical spaces and curricula?

What can teachers do?

  • Introduce LGBTQIA+ artists into your curriculum. Let the artists speak about their experiences whenever possible. An example of an accessible artist for younger students is Rae Senarighi, a transgender painter whose powerful portrait series, TRANSCEND, celebrates the diversity of non-binary identities. According to Senarighi, “Transgender youth should be able to see space for themselves in the fine art world.”

TranscendTranscend by Rae Senarighi, 2018

  • Evaluate your physical classroom space. Are there LGBTQIA+ affirming images on the walls? Teaching Tolerance offers free posters that feature quotes from transgender activist, Jazz Jennings, and Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials.

  • Designate your room as a safe space. Place a safe space sticker outside your door so students know they can come to you.

DoorLet your students know you are an ally.

  • Work with your students to establish community norms. How will you respect all voices and ensure that students do not feel targeted because of their identities?

  • Encourage students to create art that challenges social and gender norms and helps present a more nuanced conception of identity.

Haley Just Be Me by Haley, 7th grade, 2019

These are just some examples of ways to make your classroom more inclusive and representative for LGBTQIA+ students. As with race, it is important to admit what you don’t know and strive to better understand. The lives of our students are literally at stake. Art educators love to teach the rainbow; we must ensure we are supporting our rainbow students too.


Saturday 06.13.20

Striving Toward an Antiracist Classroom

By Krissy Ponden

This past week, NAEA President-Elect and Chair of the ED&I Commission, Dr. James Haywood Rolling Jr., put out an impassioned call to action for artists and educators to work to dismantle the systems of oppression that have negatively, and oftentimes violently, affected the Black community. I have spent much of the past few weeks reflecting on my own complicity in these systems in an effort to move forward toward an antiracist way of being. As someone who has been involved in diversity work for over 20 years, one thing I know for certain is just how much I still have to learn.

It is humbling and disheartening to recognize the ways in which I have perpetuated White supremacy in my own classroom over the years. I shudder when I think back to my first few years as an art teacher when I would have students recreate cultural objects without context in an effort to “expose them to different cultures.” I cringe when I recall times when I overheard a student use a microaggression in class and hesitated a moment too long to counter it, because I didn’t know what to say. And I am embarrassed to admit the number of times I have stayed silent among a group of adults even when I did know what to say, because I was not brave enough to make myself vulnerable in order to support someone else. This is being a part of a racist system.

BooksSpending my summer break reading, reflecting, learning, and listening.

In How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi shares his own journey of moving from racist ideas and actions to actively striving toward antiracism. I was struck by his assertion that we can perpetuate racism one moment and then antiracism the next. Just as culture is not static and people are dynamic and complex individuals, we each are given innumerable opportunities to work toward being antiracist. I cannot change what I have done (or not done), but I can move forward committed to effecting positive social change, starting in my classroom.

To amplify Dr. Rolling’s message, I am reiterating the action steps that he put forth that I am actively working to put into practice. These include: making space for Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC) students to express their thoughts and experiences through art, continuing to decolonize my curriculum by adding BIPOC artists and eliminating a Eurocentric focus, ensuring I present positive portrayals of Black lives and celebrate Black artists, examining my pedagogy through an equity lens, and validating the lived experiences of my students of color.

This is the most important work that we can be doing in our classrooms right now. We have each been given this moment in history to pause, reflect, and either commit or recommit ourselves to dismantling the systems that continue to hurt the very students we have been entrusted to teach. We need to lean into our discomfort and know that we will continue to make mistakes along the way. Like Harold and Dr. Rolling, I have my purple crayon firmly in hand, ready to help draw a more socially just world.


Tuesday 06. 9.20

The Power of Student Voice

By Krissy Ponden

If you know me, you know I talk a lot about the power of student voice to be a catalyst for change. I truly believe that the work that desperately needs to be done has to start with our young people. We have seen how children can make a difference from the Birmingham Children’s March, to March for Our Lives, to Greta Thunberg and the countless young BIPOC climate activists before her; youth is not a barrier to understanding, and oftentimes it is those who do not yet have the bias of experience who are able to imagine new possibilities and work fervently for positive change.

Each year, my 7th and 8th graders participate in a collaborative art and humanities project we call Voices for Change. They are tasked with identifying and researching a social or environmental justice issue they feel passionate about and then creating a conceptual art piece that speaks to it. It is not hyperbolic to say this has been transformative for many of them. In addition to art, students also write artist statements that are displayed alongside their work advocating for specific goals. These middle school students open up about their personal experiences with racism, the fallacy of social and gender norms, their fears about the world they are to inherit, and their sobering understanding that gun rights are seemingly valued more than student lives. In years when we are able, we mount the exhibition in a gallery space outside of school because these projects deserve attention and this experience deserves to be authentic right through its culmination.

This year, because of our state-ordered shut down, Voices was mounted in a virtual rather than physical gallery space. This offered the opportunity for the exhibit to reach a wider audience than in the past. Here is a selection of works from the show along with quotes from the artists. 

“The fate of wrongfully incarcerated people rests on the willingness of our society to speak up and help advocate for those who have not had a chance to do so themselves.“
Krystle, 8th grade, Guilty as Charged, 2020

“So what will be the outcome of this pandemic? Will it help us be more careful around others when sick to keep everyone safe? Will it create a world where we are more distant from each other? Or can we choose to see the positive outcomes that can result if we work together to reimagine our future?” Lexie, 8th grade, The Vibrancy of Life Diminishing, 2020

“If we let plastic production continue unchecked, then more and more animals will be endangered, and we could end up erasing species that we never even knew existed.” Madeline, 7th grade, Plastic Ocean, 2020

Listen to these students and others talk about their artwork during the 2020 Voices of Change Virtual Reception. These kids have something to say, and it is our job as the adults who are guiding them to become thoughtful, passionate, and empathetic people, to listen.


Wednesday 06. 3.20

Do Politics Have a Place in the Art Room?

By Krissy Ponden

Is it possible to remain politically neutral when teaching? I’ve recently seen many comments by educators asserting that they “don’t let politics enter into their classrooms.” While this seems logical on the surface, there is one key flaw that is literally unspoken: silence is not apolitical, it is a means of upholding the status quo. Additionally, by not allowing conversations about current events and issues that directly affect our students, we are essentially saying that their experiences (and by extension, the students) are not as important as our predetermined curriculum.

There have been days when my eighth graders have walked into my classroom and I can just see on their faces and in their body language that something is weighing heavily on them. In these moments I have put aside my lesson plans and just offered them a space to reflect. We have had conversations about all sorts of topics that might be considered “political,” however while I moderate the discussion and correct misinformation, I neither tell them what I think or what they should think. Students engage with one another and offer thoughtful commentary, counterpoints, and personal insight. They know more about what’s going on than we assume.

My school had just ended for the year right when the protests began and the only thing on anyone’s mind was the name George Floyd. I know for a fact that had we met in person or online, it would have been the first thing that came up. 

Floyd-1A mural in Minneapolis by Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Niko Alexander, and Pablo Hernandez

Art then becomes a natural extension of these conversations. This morning I received an email with the image below from a 7th grade student who wrote, “I know school is over and we don’t have any more assignments, but I made this drawing.” I want my students to be able to create personally meaningful pieces that they feel gives them a platform with which to engage in our national dialogue. Our students need to know that it is not only ok for them to think about and discuss current events, political issues, and divisive topics, but that it is necessary for them to practice being active participants in our democracy. Art can be a powerful way to reflect, mourn, and make sense of the world, and we should encourage our students to not remain silent, especially in the face of injustice.

I cant breathe


Monday 06. 1.20

Why Should You Make Social Justice a Part of Your Art Curriculum?

By Krissy Ponden

Social justice means that everyone in society regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, gender, and other identifiers is treated fairly. Importantly, this does not mean equally, as different people need different things to thrive. As art educators we understand this concept intuitively; it is why we scaffold our lessons and let kids with unsteady hands use rulers. We give kids the tools they need to succeed.

Embedding social justice topics into art curricula should not be something that is reserved for only our oldest students. It is a misconception that social justice is too mature for younger students to handle, when the fact is that we teach the concept of fairness to our very littlest students.

So what does this look like in practice? Is it possible to teach Kehinde Wiley as a contemporary African American portrait artist who uses colorful patterned backgrounds in his work? Of course. Is it a more powerful lesson to also talk about whose portraits have traditionally graced the walls of museums, what Wiley is referencing by the regal way he paints his subjects, and why it was so significant for him to be chosen to paint President Obama’s official portrait? To address these topics, we need to know the history of this country and the way it has shaped centuries of policy and public opinion. Are these easy conversations to have with students? Not always. Are they necessary? Absolutely.


Interdisciplinarity and cross-curricular collaboration can support this important work. My 5th graders read Langston Hughes in their Literature class and talk about how the Harlem Renaissance was the first time African Americans were able to publicly revel in their culture. My colleagues, Trésor Kayumba and Ariel Warshaw, and I designed this lesson together to give students relevant background information before I introduce William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, and finally WIley.


Yes, students eventually create self portraits with colorful backgrounds, but their work is supported by an understanding of stereotypes, implicit bias, and personal identity. We display these alongside their powerful “I Am” poems they craft in their Writing Seminar with the title, “What Do You See? (When You Look at Me?).” Portraiture is powerful, and it is important for our students to understand who has historically had that power and why.




- KP