Professional Practice

Examining Your Teaching and Your Pedagogy (Ep. 226)

Self-reflection is a valuable tool for every teacher. In today’s episode, Candido discusses how self-reflection has benefitted his teaching. He also talks with Alisha Mernick about one way she approaches self-reflection, as well as tips for creating an inclusive classroom and what we can do to help students find their voice.

Alisha describes strategies that may not be acceptable in all districts. Ensure you are following all district guidelines when implementing new strategies into your practice. Full episode transcript below.

Resources and Links


Candido: I want to start by applauding those teachers who take the time and make the effort to create genuine inclusive art curriculums. As our demographics continue to change and evolve, so should our methods of instruction. Some past practices and traditional methods of teaching have become antiquated, and no longer, or maybe never did, serve our current student population. However, some of our colleagues and thought leaders have and continue to provide us with new ideologies and approaches to teaching. To learn more about this, I’ve called upon a good friend and scholar, Alisha Mernick. As long as I’ve known, Alisha has made strides in our field, to help art teachers understand the importance of honoring the history and identity of our students. This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Candido Crespo. Alisha, how are you? Welcome.

Alisha: I’m good. How are you? Thanks for having me.

Candido: Good. So, I’m calling upon you, because there’s some stuff that we need to cover that I think it’s really important to our profession, but before we get into those questions, I think it’s important that the audience knows a little bit about you, so can you share, maybe your teaching history and your current teaching placement?

Alisha: Sure. So I have been playing make-believe art teacher since I was in preschool. I did my undergrad in visual art, UC Santa Cruz. I did a master’s in art ed at NYU, and then I’ve been teaching primarily in a high school classroom in Los Angeles for about a decade. And just this semester, started lecturing art education students at Cal State University, whoo.

Candido: Awesome. Congratulations on the new position. And I have to ask, even being from New York, I was completely clueless as to NYU’s graduate degree, can you tell me what drove you out to New York for that?

Alisha: It was the only program I applied to.

Candido: Oh, okay.

Alisha: Yeah, it was at the time, at least, the only graduate program that was specifically art education, and had a focus on contemporary art and critical pedagogies. So I was really invested in this idea of art can save the world, I knew that, but I didn’t know what that meant, and their program description really spoke to me.

Candido: Is it a program you still refer to in your work now?

Alisha: I do. I have definitely directed people to a few of the folks that I learned from there. So I know Dipti Desai, Jess Hamlin, Rob MacCallum, these are all folks that their theory and their focus on love and critical pedagogies, and critical multiculturalism really influenced me, and so when folks want to know more, yeah, I recommend them.

Candido: Cool. Very cool. All right. Thanks for sharing that, but I’m ready to get to the good stuff. So, what is critical pedagogy?

Alisha: Ooh, okay. Oh gosh. How do we even summarize this and quickly? So, okay, critical pedagogy is a teaching approach, which challenges student to examine and question power structures, and patterns of inequity and inequality. The goal of critical pedagogy is really to raise students critical awareness, or their critical lens about the world, and also feel empowered to alter and transform the world that they see around them. And I think it works really well with the arts, because that’s a lot of what we do.

Candido: Sure.

Alisha: Yeah.

Candido: But before we go any further, is this something that can be implemented at all grade levels?

Alisha: 100%, yeah, 100%.

I think that all kids want to have conversations about what they’re seeing happen in the world around them, and I know that some of us worry about having difficult conversations young, but the kids are having these conversations. They’re thinking about what they see, they’re thinking about what they experience, and it’s up to us to be brave and give them space, to talk about it in a supported way in our classrooms.

Candido: All right. Is there a difference between critical pedagogy and like teaching with criticality?

Alisha: I think there is only, in that critical pedagogy is a classical framework, like it has a history, so Paulo Freire, 1970s, Brazilian literacy and workers rights movements, like it has this really historically grounded moment. And then, bell hooks has written about it too, and integrating black feminism into it as well. But there’s this historical framework that I was educated in, that I implement pretty tightly, and it is a little bit different than just having a critical lens about what we teach.

Candido: Is there more to that?

Alisha: Well, I think… Okay, yes.

I think the defining difference, like the big difference is that, critical pedagogy requires that the teacher allow the student to have some shared power in the classroom, as opposed to just being critical about what we are teaching, how we are teaching, it is about sharing that decision making power with our students, so that we’re really modeling the change that we want to see in society.

Candido: So collaboration in its purest form?

Alisha: Yes. The elimination of power hierarchies within the classroom itself.

Candido: And having those difficult conversations, or bringing current events into classroom, no different in social studies addressing it, right? I mean, if social studies is having like current event Fridays, that’s not any different than us talking about it in the art classroom.

Alisha: Totally. I think the big… The only potential argument for difference is that, arts ed approaches it more creatively. So, whereas in history, we’re studying and learning about current events or critical issues, in art, we’re going to step forward and asking students, what can we do? Like what can we do to address this? How can we shift this? What alternative ways of being could we explore in the world? And really stretching those creative muscles as well.

Candido: Okay. Yeah. I’m a bigger fan of that than writing the essay, but that’s-

Alisha: Amen.

Candido: Yeah. But, so no offense to any other subjects that might be listening to this conversation. Your recent presentations, they revolve around decentering. Can you help define that, and maybe what your vision is?

Alisha: Sure. So, I think similar to what I was sharing about critical pedagogy, really eliminating power hierarchies in the classroom between mean teacher and students. So, teacher as dictator, student as… Whatever, you know what I mean like?

Candido: Yeah.

Alisha: This… Yes. And this flip towards seeing teacher and student as collaborator, as equal, different levels of experience and understanding of course, but not as boss and employee. So that would be an example of decentering a teacher in a classroom, or decentering the focus and where the power is held.

So in art education, we’ve got this really complicated history where art education has been notoriously Eurocentric. There’s this complex history of it being used to civilize or assimilate different people into a very specific culture. And I illustrate this for my students by asking them to, on the first day of school, to just name all the artists that they know, I ask them, what do all of these artists have in common?

And students always notice that they are they’re dead white men. They are old or deceased European, usually painters and drawers. And we have a little conversation about, if that accurately represents what the word artist means. And so, I know that we can at completely eliminate this centering of European art history in museums and schools all at once, but one of the things that I really want to raise awareness about with my students is that there is this historical centering that takes place. They all absorb it and know it just through their growing up in our culture. And I’m interested in pushing them to question that centering of the narrative, that questioning of that dominant narrative, and looking for ways to truly integrate diverse artists across the curriculum.

Candido: So, if you’re questioned about this, are you reentering? Are you eliminating? What’s your response to that question?

Alisha: Yeah, that’s a great question. Decentering does not mean eliminating. When we talk about decentering of the presence of European Eurocentric art in the classroom, we are not talking about no longer teaching that art, we are not talking about replacing that with a different cannon, we are talking about completely eliminating the separation between the canon and the other. So, instead of having like the core curriculum where we learn the quote masters, and we learn the quote like classic or traditional art theory, and then there’s this kind of add-on approach of learning all of the others, the world art, the diverse artists, the feminine, feminist arts, the queer arts, whatever, it’s eliminating that separation completely, existence of a center in an outside.

Candido: Got it. Okay. All right. Does this, this is just my curiosity, does this also apply to like elements of design and like those things as well? Are we like, are we questioning their origins and saying like, there’s more to this as well? Or are we thinking that way? In addition to the like artists?

Alisha: You’re ready to step on some toes. I have a… Yes, I think that art theory itself, the way that we do art and design education itself, is so heavily centered on elements and principles of art, which refer back to like these very specific Bauhaus like moments in history that just became integrated throughout visual and performing arts standards in the states. For me personally, part of decentering whiteness in my classroom, part of decentering Europe in my classroom is, decentering formal analysis as a like overarching structure to my course. I still use all that language, it still all exists, but it’s no longer the core purpose of how I structure my curriculum.

Candido: I want to… So I’m probably much more of a jump into the practice part than I am dive in too deep into the theory admittingly.

Alisha: Yeah, go for it.

Candido: So, in thinking theory to practice, I want to know about your in the news lesson, and maybe you can share how we can implement that lesson into particularly fourth and sixth grade, fourth through sixth grade maybe.

Alisha: Yeah, totally. So I have taught this lesson in seventh through 12, and I’ve seen it taught in younger grades as well. This is a lesson that I’ve been doing for gosh, like almost a decade, and that I’ve given to other teachers and seen them do with kids. So I know that kids can do this. In the news lesson essentially, is asking students to research a current event. So, reading an article, listening to a podcast, watching a video about a current event, and then creating an artwork, which asks a question, or makes a statement about that current event. We also try to have the work be expressive, so there is some tell technical learning, they learn how to use the elements and principles of art expressively, they learn how to choose materials to express an emotion. And then they create an art piece about a current event that also communicates their feeling about that event.

And what that allows for, is space in the classroom for students to develop criticality, or to center joy. It is an opportunity for students to look at the world around them, to analyze and interpret that world, to think about what their judgment is, how it could be better to propose revisions, all of that artistic process, but towards society. So it’s a very socially engaged project. The students, I also ask them to incorporate newspaper material, just so there’s this kind of symbolic link to the theme, but it becomes this space in the classroom where kids can make art about social justice issues, political issues, LGBTQ issues, identity issues. There’s just a lot of room for them to ask questions about what’s happening around them, and to share those questions and ideas with their classmates.

Candido: Okay. Two questions from that. One, the newspaper articles that are used as a material, as a medium, do they need to be the same article? Or we can have a little fun with that.

Alisha: No.

Candido: All right.

Alisha: So it’s so hard.

Candido: It’s the visual element, right? I was going to say, oh man, trying to fill that article.

Alisha: No, it’s just the texture, it’s just to have that texture. And honestly, as Eurocentric as it is, my inspiration for this project is Guernica, Picasso’s Guernica, because he has this, there’s parts of that image that have a newspaper texture to it. And the overall composition is, it’s black and white and gray, it’s heavily, it’s busy, and it’s all about this… Picasso wanting to raise awareness about this current event, where there was the bombing of a civilian town in the north of Spain. Like it’s very rooted in contemporary practices, even though it was a historical example.

Candido: All right. So I still have the other question, but making reference to something you said earlier, this decentering doesn’t eliminate because as you just said, we can still reference, right?

Alisha: Right. Yes. And an example of that is that in this presentation, it’s like I’m showing students Picasso, in the same breath and the same slide set as I’m showing them three or four different artists who are not European quote masters.

Candido: Got it. And my other question is how often do you do interdisciplinary work? Because it sounds like a project that can very easily be tackled with a social studies teacher, but I don’t know how many people are trying do that, or how many art teachers are being called upon. I have a personal beef with this, that it’s very easy for administrators and other subject teachers, other classroom teachers to find us for favors. But if we’re going to teach a project like this, and we want the assistance of a social studies teacher or a classroom teacher, what do you think? Your thoughts.

Alisha: I’ve not done this as a true collaboration with other subject areas. I think it would work really beautifully for that. I taught at a school that was 97% ELL English language learner. And so every single class was encouraged to incorporate reading and writing as much as possible. So, I mean, in retrospect, maybe that’s part of why this was such a text heavy lesson. Yeah, but it wasn’t a collaboration with other disciplines, and I, just to speak to the point of being asked for favors constantly, I think like every other area in our lives we have to get comfortable setting up boundaries, and reminding people, we have our own standards, we have our own, we have our own focus.

Candido: Yeah. Right on. And I think I might have expressed this to our listeners already, but I’m a no type of person. So, the favors don’t come to me as often as they used to. I want to move on to another question here that I have for you. In your work, you encourage educators to invite hope and action when facilitating this critical dialogue, can you explain what you mean by this?

Alisha: Yes. I think criticality is an essential part of transforming our society. I think seeing and naming an issue, is the first step to addressing that issue. But if we allow students to stop at just raising awareness, if we are just focused on spreading the bad word, spreading the bad news, it is depressing. It’s as simple as that, I think there’s…

Candido: Yeah, absolutely.

Alisha: Criticality is one key piece, and the other key piece is hope. If you do not have hope, you are just bumming yourself out, you are just bumming out your community with this artwork, but that hope needs to come through in the artist’s statement, in the artwork itself, and really from the teacher, like the teacher has to model this belief in the power of art and visual culture to enact change and transformation.

Candido: Okay. All right. What I’m thinking about in right now is what does an example of this look like, yeah.

Alisha: Well what does it mean.

Candido: Yeah. Oh yeah, or what does it mean.

Alisha: Yeah.

Candido: So hold on, let me ask this first. A community that is facing some difficult situation, the kids throughout the community do lead a community project that they invite local members of the community residents to participate in mural making, this is taking whatever they learned in class, putting into practice in the community. It is a combination of doing both things, analyzing whatever the problem is in the community, and taking an active approach to find a resolution, or at least spark the conversation.

Alisha: Yeah, 100%. And I think that’s it, it’s like, it can be as simple as, you just read this depressing news article, what can you do? Or what… Like you just learned about some horrible situation in the world, it’s like what would you rather see happening? So in… Here’s another example of this, just for my classroom, I have a full day that we spent looking at political cartoons around the Chinese exclusion act, we talk about immigration reform. We listened to some campaign speeches from a few years ago that were expressing some upsetting viewpoints. It was really centering a negative dominant narrative about immigration. So, we did this analysis of the political cartoons, we had this conversation about what are the dominant narratives about immigration in our country right now, that’s a bummer of a conversation, right?

Candido: Sure.

Alisha: I could have turned around and had students make art that was like anti that, like protest art against all of the hate and negativity. But what I did instead, was I asked students to create a portrait of a real life immigrant, honoring their actual story, honoring their lives, and to serve as a counter narrative to all these negative stereotypes that we’re hearing. And I was in inspired to do that, because if you rewind 15 years to my degree where I was learning critical theory, a big part of critical race theory is this focus on counter narrative. So, allowing space for counter narrative telling, and centering those stories of marginalized and minoritized peoples, so that we can hear the truth. And I, yeah, so I try as much as I can to have projects that both raise awareness and criticality, but also center joy and allow for hope.

Candido: Ah, I think I unintentionally did a project that actually, that did this, yeah. So we were studying Jacob Lawrence and I invited all the students to go home that day, and to see who they can speak to the oldest generation in their family, to find out how they ended up in our town. So it wasn’t so much, I asked, so that it was completely inclusive, right? I know that not everybody in that family was born in the town that we taught in. And it turned into a beautiful project because I had the first generation Salvadorians telling me, just the journey that they took, or that their parents took. And then I also had my black students telling me how their grandparents migrated from the south. So it turned into a real beautiful project, and yeah, I accidentally did that. So, that’s cool.

Alisha: I love that. And I had a really similar experience with this project. Like I had kids tell me stories about… Oh God, I had a kid who told me a story about actually getting picked up by border control, and like being detained and like losing all of his belongings, like these stories come out, and this child has been carrying and living this truth, and has never had a space in school to share that story. After he shared that story, I swear, his classmates saw him with like this extra layer of love.

Candido: I imagine.

Alisha: I feel like this honesty and this authenticity and the sharing that happens when we can create a space where kids are comfortable doing it, God, that space just keeps getting better and better. Just the love and respect and support that is required. I feel like it multiplies itself, and it creates these spaces that are just inertly hopeful. Because we become this really loving community. It’s like, yeah, we’re looking at, we’re reading about all these horrible current events, but we’re also reading about lovely current events, and we’re also creating this really lovely environment together.

Candido: Yeah. I love that, so I’ve had the privilege of witnessing you present, and just having access to you as a friend. But there’s something that you bring up that I think is really important, a kind of important way to end this conversation, and why is contemporary art ideal for critical dialogue and consciousness raising? I think that’s probably a good way for us to wrap the conversation though.

Alisha: Are you? You’re quoting my article.

Candido: I sure did.

Alisha: Yeah, I really think it is. Okay. So, contemporary artists, literally, what does that mean? That means it’s people who are living and making work right now. And the best way to get students to look at the world today, is to show them art about the world today, about artists today. So every work of art, every work of art is reflective of the time and place in which it was created. So, you can look back at any historical period, you can learn about the values, you can learn about the fashions and the foods and all that, surface-level stuff. But you can also learn about like, what was important in this culture, what was their belief system? Contemporary art reflects all of those things. The contemporary world is represented in contemporary art.

So when you look at artists from the 1980s on, and students are interpreting the hidden messages and understanding the artist’s stories there, they are getting artist’s eye view of the world around us, and it helps. I think artists, we’re really good at looking closely. It’s like kind of what we do. We’re really good at observing, we are really good at representing things in a way that help draw attention to interesting details for other people, and there are so many contemporary artists who are doing that, in a way where they are drawing a to critical issues. So, it’s a great way to engage students in conversations about critical topics, where I am not the teacher at the front of the room, lecturing about my, I don’t know, like communist agenda. I am the teacher at the front of the room, bringing in artworks from a vast variety of different perspectives, and allowing student to interpret and discuss those perspectives.

Candido: Perfect. So, as you said, I did steal that quote right out of your article, because what I want our listeners to know, is that you recently started a Substack, the creative practice. And how can people who want to know more about what we’re talking about here, connect with you and your studies and your writings?

Alisha: So, I love writing. I forgot how much I love writing, because it’s been so long since I was in school. I have been creating many like pocket guides, pocket Pds, and lesson plans and resources. I’ve been sharing them on Instagram at missmernickarts, and on Substack at the same missmernickart tag.

Candido: Perfect. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, and having this conversation that we hope will continue, right?

Alisha: Yes. Thank you.

Candido: So what have we learned? Our students are incredibly capable of so much, but we as educators need to help put them in a position, that allows for this level of ability and growth. Connecting with Alisha served as a pivotal moment in my career, allowing me to reframe my approach to teaching. It hasn’t been an overnight transformation, it’s a gradual change, but my hope is you heard something of value, that’ll encourage you to add a critical lens to your approach to teaching. For more resources on this topic, check out episode 225 of Art Ed Radio with guest host, Dr. Wynita Harmon, and five ways to create a culturally sensitive classroom by Anne Marie Slinkman in the article section of the AOEU website. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. I hope you’ve learned enough to want to know more. Catch you next week.

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.