Building an Inquiry with Middle Year Students about Black History

I told you I’d tell you how it went today after my Black History Music Appreciation lesson with the middle years. It’s so much easier if I do a list, so I’ll make one list what we did, another about things that went well and another on things I need to work on.

WHAT WE DID

  • Last week we began small art journals. Each week, they receive an art journal prompt inspired by the content we’re studying and the outcome the Gov of Sask requires us to hit. I use the journal as a way to prime the kids for the content before we begin the lesson. By the end of this unit, I want the kids in the following grades to be able to say:
    • I can investigate art-making processes to express ideas about identity and how it is influenced. I can problem solve (Grade 6, Outcomes CP 6.10 & CP 6.12).
    • I can create art that expresses the importance of place. I can manipulate the elements of art, principles of design or symbols to express ideas and communicate visually (Grade 7, CP 7.10 & CP 7.11)
    • I can create visual art that expresses student perspectives on social issues. I can problem solve (Grade 8, CP 8.11 & CP 8.12).
    • I’ll explain more about the visual art prompts in the list of things I want to improve.
  • We read about Bessie Smith in a short summary of her life. Then watched a 10 – minute documentary about her life and discussed it.

WHAT WENT WELL

  • We had some really good conversation. Our topics and questions ranged from a) who the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) are; b) some of the things they did/do; c)why it’s important to study history, especially black history; d) I asked one of my classes if they noticed any racist tones in the doc we watched (because I did). We looked at why it’s important we look at resources with a critical eye and ear.
  • A student who seemed uninterested in arts ed seems to have come alive with the topic and the challenge of the art prompts. He made a lot of different connections using symbolism and the two of us could speak candidly about racism. Which speaks more of his maturity than it does of my teaching. Culturally we are very different so the fact that we could connect over something like racism that tends to divide people was something I never considered before. But I hope it will continue because I liked the honesty and transparency.
  • I’ll talk more about the visual art prompts in the things I need to improve. There are various problems with them BUT many of the kids jumped into it even though it was an uncomfortable topic and weren’t entirely sure where they were going with the prompt. They explored it without knowing what or where the prompt would lead. The fact that many of them were trying to find connections to the message they were attempting to send is huge. Maybe the art wasn’t super impressive and maybe we fell off the mark on the message we were trying to send but I can see the beginnings of them developing their own voice and the unique way they see the world.

WHAT I NEED TO WORK ON

  • I need to create a safe place for BIPOC kids to be able to express themselves. Maybe I never will be able to understand them the way a BIPOC teacher would but I want them to feel safe enough to take a risk, share their thoughts and ideas without worry of backlash. It’s going to take some time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is trust but I hope that at least once this year, there will be a project or a moment where they can say they expressed themselves honestly and vulnerably. I want them to be able to walk away from that project or moment knowing they were heard. It sounds very Dead Poets’ Society but like, legit, I want something good to happen here.
  • So the biggest problem was my art journal prompts. They were too general and I need to bring a bit more structure.
    • The grade 6’s prompt was, ” CP 6.11 – Create a visual pattern that reflects your cultural identity. Use CONTRAST (bold/subtle, rough/smooth, light/dark).” That wasn’t too bad but I think some of them were having a hard time connecting the two together. How do you make a pattern of cultural identity? One of the kids was Norwegian and he thought of Vikings but couldn’t think of anything else. So I said something about him also being Canadian. What are some images that come to mind. “A Viking ship on a sea of maple syrup,” he says. I say, sure but you need to find a way to bring a pattern into that. So he chose to make the ship a pattern and I thought that was a creative choice.
    • The grade 7’s prompt was, “CP 7.11 – Draw a line to separate sides of your page (horizontal, diagonal, vertical). On Side #1 – draw a place that reminds you of the word “exclusion” or “not belonging.” Focus on VALUE (ie. Shading with black and white). On Side #2, draw a place that reminds you of belonging and safety. Focus on COLOURS.” They were getting stuck on images or places that reminded them of exclusion. I told them they didn’t need to tell me the story of where it was or what happened. They could focus on a detail in the place, like the tile or the carpet. The other problem with the prompt is it’s got too much going on. It’s an overwhelming prompt with too much. So I’m going to try this again with them. Everything will be the same except I want them to focus on textures instead of value or colours. Think of a place you felt excluded. Draw the texture of something you saw or felt. Vice versa with side 2, belonging/safe place.
    • The grade 8’s prompt is the longest and the one that needs the most work…

CP 8.12 Pick ONE and answer through visual art:

  1. If racism was a plant what would it look like? What season would it grow in? How would it die?
  2. If racism was a garden, what would it look like? How would the plants be arranged? Who would be the gardener?
  3. If racism was a room, what would it look like? What kind of lighting would it have? Would it be well maintained or falling apart?
  4. If racism/discrimination had a smell, what would it be? How do you draw smell? Show me.
  • The biggest problem is I had kids drawing flowers with smiley faces or clouds that said “BLM” and equating them with racism. One guy named his plant, the Racism Plant, and I’m not sure what to think about it yet but it was a very detailed picture and he put a lot of work into it. I need to work with them so they can build a stronger image. My plan is to show them some plants that are dangerous tomorrow. Not in real life. Just online. And stress the importance of clarifying their message. What are you trying to say about racism with your image? What is working? What could be problematic about it?
  • My intention with the garden and the room prompts was to focus on the mood and arrangement of the plants/objects. How can we show an imbalance of power or exclusion in these settings (ie. garden or room) through mood and imbalance? So I’m going to clarify that tomorrow and show them some pictures that don’t necessarily scream racism at me but do reveal mood and imbalance.
  • The smell one is a tough one. Apparently, it’s one of the hardest senses to write about. That’s what my creative writing prof said. Partly because everybody has so many different preferences on what smells good and what doesn’t. And I have a hard time recalling what smells smell like, too. So that doesn’t help. I only had one girl do it this prompt and she meshed it with the setting of a diner. So I need to dig a little more and figure out what she’s trying to say about her stinky cake or burger in a diner and how it links to racism. I’ll get back to you on that one.
  • I need to figure out how to develop a proper inquiry unit and I need to figure out how to do it if we only have access to my computer. How do we do this without kids falling asleep or getting restless? I don’t know how to do that yet but I’ll get back to you on that.
  • I also need to figure out what to do with kids who ask good questions but aren’t lending to main topic. How do I get them back on track but still encourage curiousity?

Anyway, bedtime. Night, night.

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