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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« Your Existing Curriculum CAN Be A Social Justice Curriculum: Part 1 | Main | Moving forward: Reflections on teaching while white in the time of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter »

June 29, 2020

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


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