3 Projects to Help Us Be More Human

watercolor painting of the earth

The arts can be a powerful tool to teach students about cultures, environments, and other groups of people they might not encounter in their life. Studying artists’ work can help expose students to new ideas to consider the world around them. Like the media, art can tell stories and provide a new perspective.

Building knowledge and seeing the humanity in others can help students develop empathy.

Creating art with this in mind can also be transformative as students form and express their ideas about the world. Here are three projects to help students reflect on themselves and think about others.

Project 1: “A World I Want to See”

watercolor painting of the earth


This project aims to help students think about their environment and how they can make it better. Students will spend time identifying things that matter to them and how they can contribute to others in positive ways. This project can reinforce how students are a part of their environment along with others. You can pick which mediums and styles work best for your class and embed genres like landscapes or surrealism. Artwork, like Chris Jordan’s Intolerable Beauty series, and murals by JT Daniels are great resources to show students how work can reflect an environment and community.

Building Background:

Students should use mind-mapping or free-writing to reflect on their current world, country, state, or school, and the local community. Here are a few guiding questions you can modify based on your students:

  • Who are the people in the environment? 
  • What does the environment look like? 
  • How does the environment feel? 
  • What do they like/dislike about the environment? 
  • How do they personally fit into the environment?

The Arts as Change Agent (Ep. 073)


Have students identify two to three aspects that are most important to them and articulate how they want to see those areas change to better others. Once students have identified what they’d like to see changed, have them create a plan to contribute to that mission. Students can take all of these ideas and sketch their visual responses according to your other project requirements. Used saved reflections to create a strong artist statement accompanying the finished piece.

Project 2: “Me For President”

mount rushmore


Running for any office puts the candidate in the position of identifying their own values and strengths and how those could be used to lead and help their constituents. Having students design their own campaign imagery allows them to build self-awareness through reflection and connect to what the people around them need. Students can also think of themselves as a leader and change agent. Make curricular connections to symbolism, positive/negative space, and design concepts like typography and branding. You can use prior campaign graphics as resources for students to see common approaches and how designs have evolved.

Building Background: 

Researching what people need is one way for the students to determine their platform. You can start by having students identify what position they’re running for, like President of the United States or Student Council President. Then, have them identify the following:

  • Who are the people your position is leading and supporting? 
  • What 2-3 things do they want from you as a leader? 
  • What are 2-3 things you want to be known for? 
  • What do you hope to achieve in your role? 

Separately from the qualities, have students brainstorm each of the various places to incorporate campaign designs. They can design one or a series of designs, including a yard sign, logo, billboard, social media ad, t-shirt, etc.

Building Awareness and Empathy (Ep. 183)


Once students have identified how they want to be represented, they can start creating their designs. Digital tools and apps, like the Adobe Suite, are great, but there are other options like drawing tools and cut paper. Students can compile their series of designs into one format, like a slideshow or a poster, to complete the experience. In place of an artist’s statement, have students present their project to the class—as a campaign speech.

Project 3: “In Their Shoes”

children's drawing


Learning another person’s story can be transformative—so can telling that story through art. In this project, students identify a key person(s) to help tell their story through art. This project helps students build a connection, strengthen a relationship, and learn about someone else’s life. Hearing how someone else navigates the world or a situation will help students understand that other people have different experiences from their own. Being aware of other life experiences builds empathy for others. This project will work with various subject matters and styles, but portraiture is the obvious choice. Artwork by Rae Senarighi and Stacy Pearsall’s Veteran’s Portrait Project are great examples of telling stories that engage the viewer.

Building Background: 

While artistic style grabs the viewers’ attention, the subject matter should be memorable and meaningful. Helping students identify the right person(s) to inspire their work will take time and needs to be well-thought-out. The project isn’t just about creating a portrait; it’s meant to create a meaningful experience. Try these guiding questions to help push student thinking:

  • Who in your family do you know the least about? 
  • Who is a meaningful person in your life? 
  • What has someone else experienced that you never will or never hope to? 
  • Who lives in a different community than you? 
  • Who has a good story to tell? 

4 Ways to Practice Empathy in the Art Room


Once students have identified their subject, help them craft questions for an interview to learn more about their person. Students can opt for a standard question and answer or ask their person to share their most meaningful story. The idea is for students to think about how a story can be told through their image. Depending on how you want to approach the project, students can also collect a reference image by photographing their subject or asking for an image. While all of this planning and preparation time might feel excessive, it can help teach students steps like brainstorming and idea development. Great subject matter can help make great art. Finally, interviews or recordings can accompany the final display to further the connection to the subject.

It’s not your responsibility to tell students what to think, but it is a teacher’s responsibility to help students think—and, at times, challenge their thinking. Creating artwork forcing students to reflect on themselves, their community, environment, and those around them is a meaningful way to develop their own thoughts and opinions. Showing students how art can tell stories and be informative reinforces the value of art and its powerful impact on viewers. Students might need help thinking beyond the obvious, but that’s why you’re there, to push them with support.

What other projects can help students learn about other groups of people?  

What artists are creating work that speaks directly to young people?  

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Nick Gehl

Nick Gehl is a department chair of fine arts and a former AOEU Writer. He enjoys working with art teachers to improve the student experience in the studio and foster more leaders in the arts.

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