Stepping Stones is a monthly column that breaks down seemingly daunting tasks into simple, manageable “steps” that any art educator can take and apply directly to their classroom. Stepping Stones will explore a variety of topics and share advice for art-on-a-cart teachers and those with art rooms.
EXPRESSING CULTURE AND IDENTITY IN ART
by Heidi O’Hanley
One of the best qualities in our society is our immense blend of multiple cultures. Today, we can easily do a DNA search to find our ancestral background and see just how many different regions of our planet make up our genetic markers. We also have families who emigrate from their native homelands for brighter opportunities, travel to explore different perspectives, and study abroad to expand their learning. This helps to build empathy and open-mindedness for a more positive future.
It is important to recognize multiple cultures in your classroom because your students come from many different backgrounds. You may have refugees, first generation families, or children from mixed heritage. Your students will all be different with individual stories, faiths, cultures, and identities. As an educator, you are responsible in helping students feel safe and accepted in our diverse society.
Discussing culturalism can be a sensitive topic, but it is important because it is a part of our identities. From elementary through higher education, students want to convey their individualism through the arts. Our art classes are one of the best outlets for students to express themselves. It is up to us, as their teachers and role models, to facilitate the learning environment for our students. There are a few approaches you can take to help build diverse relationships in your classroom.
1. Create lessons that are inspired by the variety of your students’ cultures and backgrounds. Students love to learn about artists that they can relate to. For example, if you have a larger population of Hispanic students, create a lesson inspired by Mexican folk art or known artists from the region. If you have Arabic students, create lessons inspired by Middle Eastern geometric designs or architecture. From experience, students respond very well when learning about art and artists that reflect a part of their own background.
2. When available, leave room for students to express their culture and identity in their artworks. This does not need to happen in each and every lesson you teach, but if given the chance, students love to add images and patterns that represent a bit about themselves, from their favorite toy, comic, colors, symbols, and familiar imagery from their culture. This helps give students more personal ownership of their pieces and more pride in themselves.
3. Tread lightly with holidays. Holiday projects can very fun, but there are cultures and religions that do not recognize the same holidays. For instance, I have families that cannot work with Halloween, while others recognize Samhain. I work around the holiday themes by focusing on the seasons instead. Many projects give room for students to add holiday details on their own terms. For example, I do a perspective pumpkin patch with third grade, but it’s their choice if they want to add faces, ghosts, or bats in their artworks. You can also work with winter trees, but it leaves room for students to add decorations if they wish.
4. Keep an open mind when using symbolism. Sometimes, students may express their identity and culture with the use of symbols. Many cultures have unique symbols that we may not be familiar with because they are not part of our own heritage. I had an experience in my fourth-grade class when students were painting their clay boxes. One student who was of Hindu faith added a symbol for prosperity in their traditions. The class, unaware of the original meaning, had questioned the symbol, which encouraged a conversation about using symbols in proper context. Through the exposure of a different culture, my students have a better understanding of the diversity around them.
5. Ask, don’t always assume. In some cases, you may have an experience where students are using symbols or imagery in their artworks that may or may not be familiar to you. Some common misunderstood symbols are the hamsa, dharma wheel, pentacle, lotus, ankh, yin yang, and Nordic runes. Many of these symbols represent a student’s culture or faith, but can easily be taken out of context. If you see a student using symbolism within their artworks, ask questions about the purpose of the imagery in their artwork before assuming they may be sneaking in a hidden message.
6. Invite parents and artists from different cultures to come and talk with your students. Some of the best cultural resources may lie within your own community! There are many artists residing in hometowns that are more than happy to come and talk with your classes and share their works of art. In the past, I’ve invited parents to share art and imagery from their family’s homeland, and students have responded very well to having community members come in to talk with them! n
The best way we can celebrate diversity is by giving our students the space to express themselves in positive ways. Let’s give them the opportunity to shine!
Arts & Activities Contributing Editor, Heidi O’Hanley (NBCT), teaches art at Brodnicki Elementary School in Justice, Illinois. Visit her blog at www.talesfromthetravellingartteacher.blogspot.com.