How We Address Race in the Art Room, Part 1 (Ep. 224)

What does it look like to have difficult conversations in our art rooms? How do we work with our students as they take on the topic of race in their artwork? Today’s episode is part 1 of a conversation about how we address race in the art room with guests Lena Rodriguez, Jenn Russell, and Dr. Wynita Harmon. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University. And I’m your host Tim Bogatz. In last week’s episode, we talked about how educators can begin to educate themselves on issues of race, if they are so inclined. And today I want to talk more specifically about how we address issues of race in the art room. What does it look like to have difficult conversations? How can we guide kids when they take on topics of race or any social issues really when they’re creating their art, is it appropriate for us to speak up on the topic when we’re in a professional setting?

There are a lot of questions on my mind about the best way to address race in our art rooms and I think a lot of questions on everyone’s mind. Today I’m bringing on three of the best teachers I know to discuss all of these ideas and all of these questions. I’m going to do my best throughout this conversation to stay out of the way and listen, all three guests have been on the show before, so we’re not going to go into big introductions, but back today are Lena Rodriguez, Jen Russell, and Dr. Wynita Harmon. And we have a lot to talk about, so we will go ahead and get started. Let me bring everyone on now.

I am now joined by Lena Rodriguez, Jenn Russell, and Wynita Harmon. Lena, how are you today?

I’m doing great. Ready to talk about some important things today.

Tim: All right. We’re excited to have you, Jen. How are you?

I’m doing good. I’m doing, and I’m glad I’m here.

Tim: All right. We are glad to have you. And Wynita, How are you?

Wynita: I’m doing well today, thanks for having me here.

Tim: Thank you for joining us. Let’s just go ahead and dive right in. I know this is a big topic there’s a lot that we need to talk about. Let me just start with, I guess a simple question, Lena, I’ll ask you first. How do you encourage kids to have honest conversations in your art room? Like how do you get them or how do you let them deal with difficult issues?

Lena: A lot of times I find a way to lead them to it, where I have minimal control in the direction of the conversation. I just prompt with the question or perhaps we might look at a piece of artwork and try to dissect what’s going on in this piece. Why do you think this is going on? And most often they find ways to relate it to them. And if they don’t immediately, then I kind of lead with those questions. Well, have you been in a situation like that or in the news, have you heard of something like this, or in your history class have you discussed something that could tie along with that? And before you know it, especially… I teach high schoolers, they’re pretty well-read and pretty well-informed at least the students that I work with and they’re able to kind of make those connections and those conclusions. And if we’re lucky, a good little debate is sparked. And that’s when the dialogue gets really interesting and really gets to the core of how different people are feeling and giving their responses to that.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. That’s good to hear about. Jenn, what about you? I know you teach high school also. Is it similar for you? What does that look like in your classroom?

Jenn: Yeah, definitely. Most of the times they are talking about it within themselves already. Sometimes it stems from a critique where someone has put something in their art and it sparks a little bit of a debate. Other times I just bring it up. I typically open my class with what my kids call or I call like a Jimmy Fallon type monologue and so… Or I guess David Letterman, because sometimes I do top tens.

And so sometimes I’ll include something that either I’ve heard kids talk about that bothers them or something that has been really prevalent in the class, just a reoccurring theme. And I tend to address it that way so that they can talk about it. And then I just go table by table. Because my kids are a little independent and so some days I’m a lot more helpful than others. And other days I am just a sounding board, they need someone to bounce ideas off of and just to talk to. And so some days I am that sounding board and sometimes I’m devil’s advocate and I propose the opposing idea just so that they can talk it out, so that they can process it in a different manner that is with someone else in an open, safe setting so that they don’t feel like they’re being attacked for their views or their opinions. But usually they’re the ones who tend to bring it up in that sense.

Tim: Yeah, I think so. But I think you bring up an important point in just saying, we need to be able to provide a safe setting for our kids because they’re still young, like as old as they act as old as they want to be, they’re still young, they’re still learning, they’re still growing and we need to give them the opportunity to kind of fully explore those ideas. Now Wynita I wanted to ask you and just kind of get the elementary perspective because I know these types of conversations aren’t always taking place in the same way in the elementary art room, so for you what happens in your room when kids want to take on difficult issues in their art?

Wynita: I want to also share that I do connect with Jenn with the safe space, art rooms are that safe space. And so I definitely try to promote that. And so with my classroom being centered around seeing students as their artists and giving them those choices, I really want to allow their voices and ideas to be heard. And so when those difficult issues, current events and things like that pop up, I just want them to know to express that what comes to mind. I usually typically just inquire on their inspiration. What has you feeling that way? Gain a little bit more context, but I definitely encourage them to create artwork as many of us do, as art is an expression of their self, their thoughts and interactions. And so I definitely encourage that as it comes up in the classroom.

Tim: Now I want to, I guess ask a little bit about the topics that we’re talking about, even when we are in our safe spaces, our creative spaces, because I think for us, for a lot of teachers I guess we’re hesitant to speak up, we’re hesitant to share our values, to have difficult conversations in the art room. Jen, let me ask you first, do you think that we should be having conversations about race? Should we be having conversations about all of these difficult issues and why or why not?

Jenn: I am 100% on board with having these conversations. And I know that it’s hard for some teachers because of where they teach or their administration or their district or whatever. But if you can find a way to broach the topic with your students, that still allows them to feel, all of them feel included and all of them feel valued, then why not? That’s real world relevance and experience and they’re going to need to practice talking about that in a way that isn’t ostracizing to others or isn’t… Because at least in my classroom, my kids are the best at calling each other out in a way that they understand is not attacking towards each other. And so I am a proponent of talking about it. It’s one of the first things that I address in my classroom unfortunately, I work in a diverse school.

I come from a diverse background. I come from a diverse area, but when my kids first meet me and they’ve never had me. I allow them to interview me and one of the questions that I get all the time is well, like… And I can tell what they want to ask because I look the way I look and then I sound the way I sound. And so they’re like, what, what? and I’m like, what am I? You can ask that question, that’s okay. And so that’s one of the things that I openly talk about is just, I’m a mixed person, I’m biracial. My mom is Hispanic and she’s very fair-skinned. And my dad is legitimately African, he’s Nigerian. And both my parents are immigrants to this country and we just kind of dive into it.

And the more comfortable I am about it, the more comfortable they are about it, because if I was like, well, I’m not going to talk about that today. Then that would already set the precedence in my classroom that, that’s not okay to talk about.

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jenn: And so I’m okay with it. I’m okay with who I am. And they also ask about experiences that I’ve had. And so once that dam is broken, my kids feel comfortable with asking me questions and I do want them to ask questions because that’s how education happens. And we’re not history teachers, these may or may not come up or for some people, it only comes up in February and… It’s hard to encompass it without it being built explicitly into the curriculum. And so for me, it’s just an everyday chat because some of my kids, when we do explorations for sustained investigation or how are we going to start that they start with their identity?

Like who are they? When we do brain dumps a lot of the times they talked about like, gosh, why am I doing this? And honestly, and like who am I? And why do I look the way I look, you know? And so that kind of starts that thought process. And so I definitely… Sometimes it can get sticky, I can only in the seven years that I’ve been teaching high school can only think about like one time when I was like, okay, enough, we’re done here. But usually they’re really great about just being themselves, talking about it openly with themselves and kind of policing each other on that.

Tim: Yeah. Now, Lena, what about you? Are you someone who is always trying to speak your mind in your classroom? Do you limit yourself? Is it a matter of finding balance? Like what does that look like for you?

Lena: I get really passionate about things and it’s never gotten me in trouble necessarily in the classroom, but I do have to kind of put on a different hat to make sure that I am sharing my belief system, but not being preachy or not stepping over those bounds of me being an educator, leading those conversations. I do love what Jen was talking about though, because just her being forthright and just saying, Oh, is this what you’re asking? Let me tell you. I love that because I think oftentimes we make things worse by making things seem taboo when they don’t have to be taboo, especially with young people who are still learning, and growing, and navigating. It’s completely different for somebody who’s lived life and has had some certain experiences. And probably should’ve picked up on certain social cues, but when we’re talking about young people, we want them to feel comfortable at.

For instance my daughters, they’re adopted. My twin daughters, they’re nine now. And I remember when we first adopted them and as they grew a little older, we would have family members that would say, Oh, do they? When are you going to tell them? And how do you think… It’s like what they’ve been knowing, even before they were too young to understand. And we always let them know they were not in mama’s belly, right. And so it was never a shameful type of thing and I think that’s where we go wrong a lot of times, sometimes we tiptoe around certain things without just being honest and just humble and saying, Hey, I have to ask you this. Because then when they feel like they have to tiptoe around, then that’s when it feels kind of bad and uncomfortable.

One way that I like to share my culture, my heritage, I’m Mexican American. Tex-Mexican, that’s what I like to call myself because my Texas heritage is just as important as my Mexican heritage. And I always let my students know when they ask, well, how long has your family been here? Oh, but we’ve been here, like we were here already. I always make that very clear. We’re a Capturing Kids’ Hearts school and so one of the things that we start our days off every day in class, and even in staff meetings, zoom sessions is good things, you know? Okay, let’s hear some good things. What’s been going on? And so of course the kids share theirs. And then the last kid’s always like, well, what’s your good thing Ms. Rodriguez? And so not every single time.

Sometimes my good thing is the donut lady threw in an extra donut in my bag this morning, right? But I also use it as an opportunity to say, well, you know what, we just celebrated Dia De Los Muertos and it was really exciting because we built this altar. And of course, a lot of my art kids are familiar with it, but I always try to find ways to kind of show, give them a peek into my life and in my home and what that looks like, because then they make a connection with that and then it prompts them to start asking questions. And again, like Jen, I want them to know that it’s a safe space. I have a book in my classroom called Ask a Mexican, and it’s all of these things that maybe you’re too scared to ask, but you’re just curious about, and I kind of wish they made those for all different kinds of cultures, even though none of us are one size fit all.

And so that probably wouldn’t work, but I always like to have artwork also of different artists of different backgrounds, and different shades, and cultures. And I think just like Jen was saying, making that atmosphere conducive to questions and honesty and transparency, but then also reiterating the message that this is a safe space by putting up images and things like that, of people that they might connect with, they might look like, or, I’m curious about this person because I’m not really familiar with this culture. And so then that might prompt them to just Google that artist and learn a bit more.

Tim: That’s a really good point. Wynita, I wanted to get your perspective on this as well. Again, it’s not something that comes up quite as often at the elementary level, but how do you deal with it when it does?

Wynita: Well, like you said, at the elementary level, I didn’t have this often. But if students did ask specific questions, I definitely would encourage and share my perspective with them. I think it’s really important to be honest and open when they have those questions about issues in the world, about your race. Like sometimes students will come up, like how did you feel about this in the news? Did you see what happened to that guy? And I’d share, I don’t feel like it’s right. And I think it’s important to have those conversations so they know your stance is really important. Also maybe like when I would share about masks around the world, sometimes with African masks they think that you’re silly, they look funny. And so just giving them that knowledge and room for growth. And so I’d explore like why they have these masks, what the colors mean, why they look like this and just giving them that knowledge.

And so those are some instances in which it came up and I would always be honest and open with my students about it. And maybe more so upper than lower, a lot of times it will come up more.

Tim: Right, right. Because kids are kind of coming into their own at that age. That’s where my daughter is right now. And just exploring a lot of those ideas. And that happens, like you said a lot more with upper elementary.

Wynita: Yeah.

Tim: But I think that is a good perspective and a good way to kind of chat with those younger kids. Let me ask next, I guess, about just art-making, how can we help guide our kids? How can we help our kids when they want to take on difficult issues with their art? Like, what do you think they need to consider? What viewpoints should they think about? Lena I’ll start with you here. Like, what is our role as teachers when kids want to address social issues or just current events in their art?

Lena: I really facilitate a class that when they’re wanting to touch on any topic, especially anything that might be considered delicate, world issues, race relations, things like that. I required that they research all of the viewpoints and try to have an understanding of all of the parties involved. And I talked to them about different news sources and not to just subscribe to just one news outlet. That they need to subscribe to several, not just in this country but internationally. We’ll even talk about how textbooks that include information about World War II, like things that are in that book differ from textbooks that you might see in other countries. And how we need to take data from all of these different outlets before we formulate our conclusion. And more than likely, you’re still going to be aligned. You’re still going to be aligned, but now you have a factual base to support your understanding. And not just that, but you have a factual base to be able to respond to critics or people that try to argue with you about why your belief is not correct.

I train them to really have an understanding of all of the sides, so then they can really be strong in their approach and be able to give that information and create artwork that evokes some sort of reaction, whether it’s a call to action, whether it’s exposing something that they feel that’s going on that needs a platform. And then being able to really understand, okay, how are you expressing this? We go back down to the elements of art, how they use their line, how you use their color, and then just ensuring that they know that the symbols that they’re using and the images that they are using are the strongest possible way to express what they’re trying to say in a way that’s archival in a sense too, not something that’s just within that moment, but something that can also help generations ahead.

Because you just never know when they create something. You just never know if that’s going to be in a history book 50 years from now. And so I tell them think all of these things through and really have a total understanding of what it is that you’re saying, because there’s nothing worse than creating something, and then it being edgy and controversial and you can’t support it with your words. You can’t support it with written texts and an artist statement. I tell them people are really interested in what artists have to say or think about social issues, use your platform but don’t dilute it by not understanding the foundation of that belief.

Tim: Yeah. That’s a really good way to put it. Jenn, what about you, similar approach, different approach? What does it look like when your kids want to take on something controversial?

Jenn: It’s similar in a way, but we do our research as they go. And I mean, there’s initial research to be done, but I’m like if you want to do it, do it. And then we have… All of my different classes are like squads, or like I asked them to come up with like a team name at the beginning of the year. I’m like, are you guys going to be like a squad? Are you guys going to be a gaggle? Are you guys going to be like a fam? What are we going to call ourselves as second period, right? And so whatever they decide to be within…. There’s four giant tables in my classroom. And they each seat eight, and within that table that’s your immediate… Like they’re your nuclear family. And we practice looking at each others artwork in a non comparison way but it’s just, Hey, let me see what you’re doing or whatever.

How are you going to approach this? Because I’m kind of stumped or… They’re the first line of defense in a way and so they all converse within themselves as part of the art making process. And then they start going and then they branch out like, Hey, let me see what’s your schedule looking like. Okay, let me see where you’re headed. And they have to at least ask three people at the table before it gets pitched to me. And then when we talk about it like, Hey, and in a one on one sense. Like, okay, so what are you going to do? And then this is what I want to do. This is what it’s going to look like, hopefully. And this is what it’s going to address. And I’m like, okay, cool, go for it. Knowing that they’re going to hit issues along the way.

But that’s part of their learning process is how to solve those issues. That’s not my job. My job is not to solve the problem for them. It is to help them solve the problem and facilitate that learning. But I’m always like go for it, knowing that, there’s going to be speed bumps along the way. And that’s part of… To me the most crucial learning part is that somebody at their table is going to like be like, maybe not like that… And that serves a twofold purpose, right? That’s part A like, okay, the kid who did it is going to need to figure out how to rectify it or how to adjust it and then B the kid who’s like, they need to learn how to have that conversation with each other. And so for us there’s research, there’s research before but then there’s a little bit of the human research as they go on how to actually solve this issue at hand, right.

They wanted to do this and how they’re going to get this done. But I do like what Lena said about like researching even the opposing view. Because a lot of my kids are just like, I know what I know and I know what I feel and that’s just it, because I’m 18 and that’s what matters. But I always tell them, I’m like you need to be woke and you need to be woke all around and especially now. And so I definitely address that, but for me, it’s more of like a learning experience on them and how they’re going to solve these issues as they arise. I’m like, yes, go for it. And then we solve as we go. Because I know that there’s going to be a lot of issues when they do it.

Tim: A lot comes up in process. Wynita, what about you? Like how do you support your students when they’re wanting to take on difficult topics?

Wynita: I definitely would align with both these ladies in supporting that inquiry from our students and how Jenn said, like maybe there are those students that are going to kind of have a little… They may be like, what are you doing? Like, is that okay?

Tim: Yeah.

Wynita: When I support those students and let them get that inquiry going, I definitely want to also share with them, like think of your classmates. Could this be hurtful? You know, how do you think other students would feel about this too? Of course, create your work, but be mindful, especially at the elementary level. And then what we can share in the hallways. Maybe it’s something that can only go on their portfolio, but I like them to get their thoughts out, but also giving them those tools, those resources, maybe they want to do that research and just focus on the artistic thinking process and diving deeper into the topic, but also getting that background information to learn more about it. It’s different probably from the middle and high school, but it definitely still pops up. And I want to encourage students to share those things, but be mindful of how it can affect others.

Tim: Now we’re actually going to cut the discussion off right there, because we are at a good stopping point and there’s so much more to get into which I want to split off into next week. But before we go, just a couple of things that I want to note here. First, I love how Lena talked about being a guide for our students. As they navigate difficult topics, as teachers we don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, the last three weeks of podcasts have all been about how we don’t have all of the answers, but we can still help guide our students, help them explore, help them discover what they’re thinking, and how they want to express those ideas.

And secondly, in a similar vein, Wynita talked about how she is always honest with her students, she doesn’t necessarily bring up these topics, particularly at the elementary level, but she doesn’t shut them down either. Even if you don’t want to share your own thoughts, just hearing your kids out can be incredibly valuable as they explore, as they process, as they express themselves, as they learn. Hey, next week we will have the second half of this conversation and I hope you can join us then.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening. And we will talk to 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.