In this week’s One Thing You Might Try . . . blog, art educator Paula Liz writes about how her students are using digital art projects to make their voices heard and explore ways to make change in the world.
“It has been my experience that one way to build community in the classroom is to recognize the value of each individual voice.” –bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
Our voices and actions have the power to create change. As educators, it is important to teach students that they can use their voices to speak up about issues that are important to them and learn ways to take action, no matter how small those actions may seem.
As an elementary art educator, I strive to provide my students with the space and tools necessary to express their feelings, explore their thoughts, and share their stories. Navigating how to replicate this work in a virtual setting has been challenging, but necessary. Traditionally teachers have been seen as the sole proprietor of knowledge in the classroom, but the truth is that our students hold valuable knowledge. They have so much to teach us and each other. In this digital age of learning it is more important than ever to center student voices in the classroom. The following lesson is an example of how I was able to amplify student voices, engage in critical conversations, and encourage action.
Thinking About Our Voices
For this particular distance learning art unit, third through fifth grade students created a digital poster in which they used their art and words to express their feelings about a cause that is important to them. We began by reading the book Say Something! by Peter H. Reynolds. After reading the story, I asked students to self-reflect on the following questions:
What change would you like to see in the world?
How can your voice change the world?
Why is it important to use your voice?
How can you inspire others with your voice?
How can you use your voice to create a more just society?
After having the opportunity to independently reflect, we engaged in a whole-class discussion. Through these conversations, students were able to articulate their own thoughts while also considering the perspectives of others.
Students shared ideas about racism, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Living near Washington D.C., one student shared how they took part in the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and described their experience.
In one fourth-grade class the term white privilege was brought up in our conversation and a student was able to share the definition with the class. He explained that white privilege is an “unearned advantage based on race, which can be observed both systemically and individually.”
Another student said that “We need to help end racism. People have been treated differently. It is bad how people destroy each other. Racism is unacceptable and we need peace for everybody.”
One fifth-grade student stated that “We all bleed red blood. Just because our skin is darker or lighter doesn’t mean we are different from a human being.”
Another fourth grader stated “I feel strongly we should be different because if we are all the same we can’t learn anything new. That affects our life, our brain, and our learning.”
Our conversations in this first class meeting of the unit gave students space to grapple with what they are seeing in their world.
Using Images and Words to Create Digital Posters
During our second class meeting, I asked students to visualize their responses to the questions we discussed in our first class. After identifying an issue that was important to them, they thought about how they could use art and words to express their feelings about that particular cause. For inspiration we looked at posters and imagery created by artists at Amplifier, “a non-profit design lab that builds art to amplify the most important movements of our time.” When we looked at these posters, students noticed how the artists were able to use pictures and words to express their own unique perspectives. We noticed how posters that called for unity included people holding hands, how a megaphone was used to signify speaking up for what you believe in, and how a torch was used to represent liberty. After taking a look at these examples, students began to draw their own ideas in a sketchbook and consider how they could incorporate both imagery and text to express their unique perspectives.
I then introduced students to the digital art program PIXLR (other alternative tools you could use include Kleki and Google Canvas). After a tutorial on using the program, students began constructing their digital posters.
As students began to complete their digital posters, I wanted them to understand how our words can turn into action. To introduce this idea, we read the book I Am One: A Book of Action written by Susan Verde and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. After reflecting on the story, we learned about several child activists who have used their voice to speak up for what they believe in and whose actions have created a positive change in the world. We learned about Greta Thunberg who organized a protest where millions of children all over the world used their voice to ask the government to take action on climate change and protect the planet. We also learned about Sophie Cruz who used her voice at the Women’s March to ask for the continuation of the DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans) program, which would allow her parents to remain in the United States legally. I emphasized to my students that they too can take action to create a positive change in the world. Our words can only go so far so it is imperative that we move beyond words and into action for real change to occur.
I asked students to consider and brainstorm what specific actions they could take as individuals to make such change. One student mentioned how they could attend or organize a protest. Another shared the idea of creating posters or signs to place throughout the community to bring awareness to their issue. Students discussed individual actions one can take such as recycling or conserving energy to prevent climate change or wearing a mask and maintaining social distance to stop the spread of COVID-19. A fifth-grade student stated that “what with all the chaos of the 2020 election, it has never been more important to vote,” and another asserted that “if you want to help the homeless, build shelters and speak out for the homeless and help them. Another way to help the homeless is giving them some money.” And one last student added that even “helping one flower still makes a difference. Let’s save our planet!”
Sharing Our Digital Posters
We concluded our unit by sharing our digital posters and engaging in critical conversations. These conversations included discussions about identity, power, privilege, and the ways that injustice affects our lives and our society.
For example, students had lots of thoughts to share about climate change.
“If humanity continues to stay the way it is we will be responsible for extinction. As soon as the ice caps melt it's game over.”
“Our world is dying, and we need to take care of it.”
“We need to make a change. Don’t trash our future.”
Other students reflected on action.
“You can change the world no matter who you are or where you come from.”
“Don’t give up! Stick up for what you think is right, just like Dr. King did when his skin color wasn’t getting treated equally.”
“Actions speak louder than words, and if you act, they will listen. So, act. We are all Americans, so we need to work together.”
In those moments, the students became the teachers. Through their art and words, they were able to share their knowledge and experiences. They were also able to inspire one another to take the actions necessary to create the future that they envision.
Our student’s voices, art, and actions can change the world. As educators, let us equip our students with the necessary resources to be the change they wish to see.
About the author
Born in Puerto Rico and raised near Baltimore, Paula Liz attended the Maryland Institute of Art where she received her BFA in Painting and MAT in Art Education. She believes in the power of student voice and community artivism. Paula Liz has over ten years of social justice art teaching experience at public, private, and charter schools in New York City, Austin, and DC. Paula Liz currently teaches elementary art at a two-way immersion school just outside of DC (in Maryland) where she continues her anti-bias, anti-racist art teaching.
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