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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« An Unfinished Capstone | Main | Do Politics Have a Place in the Art Room? »

June 01, 2020

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.

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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.

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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.

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