The Slippery Slope of Censoring Student Artwork (Ep. 019)

If we want to offer up choice and student voice in the classroom–which just about everyone agrees we should do–how do we deal with ideas that might need to be censored? Andrew talks about how to know when students are pushing the envelope too far, and how to deal with the issue when they do (4:00). Ian Sands comes on to talk about how student choice affects expression (10:30), what he allows in his classroom (14:45), and what compromises you should be willing to make (20:00). Full episode transcript below.


Resources and Links:

  • Here are two great articles by Ian, and two more that deal with how we deal with censoring artwork.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host Andrew McCormick.

I think we can all agree that in polite adult society, there are a few things that we just shouldn’t talk about: money, sex, religion, politics. As art teachers, I think we need to look at these mores and say, “You know what? Screw that.” Our students really aren’t all that adult yet, and they definitely aren’t very polite yet. Shoot. Look at the world we live in. Who are we kidding? Look at social media. Look at YouTube. Tune into the daily smorgasbord that is the visual culture that our students inhabit, and you’re going to see all types of imagery and depiction of things that we probably find troubling or unacceptable: sex, drugs, and rock and roll, violent video games, and misogynistic stereotypes that degrade and devalue women, unrealistic Photoshop ideals of masculine and feminine beauty. The visual culture landscape that our students navigate everyday is filled with a million confusing messages.

What better compass than art to navigate this mess? In making art, students are allowed to play with troubling and confusing ideas and images. They’re able to comment, critique and solve some of their own ideas and issues through playing with these slightly edgy images. If we allow this work, are we setting ourselves up for more trouble down the road? My god, man. Think of the children. Let’s call this what it is, a sanitized, infantile approach to the world that our students live in and to the art curriculum that they inhabit. That’s censorship. When we say, “You can’t make that piece of artwork because X, Y and Z,” we’re censoring our students. This is a very slippery slope, and we’re going to discuss that today with Ian Sands.

Ian : Hi, my name is Ian Sands. Most people know me from Apex High School, but I have recently left Apex High School. I’m now at South Brunswick High School in Southport, North Carolina.

Andrew: Ian has been a big hero of mine for a number of years. I was really happy to have him on to talk about how tricky censorship and choice can be.

Ian : Censorship to me is something I try to not do with my students as much as I possibly can until I think that maybe they have crossed the line and an administrator or someone is going to step in. Without that fear, I’d probably let them keep going.

Andrew: If we allow students freedom to make choices in their own artwork, they are going to naturally bump up into ideas and subject matter that might make us squirm a little bit: violent images, dark imagery rife with emotions like anger, confusion, and sadness, and isolation, images that wrestle with sex, and sexual identities, societal norms, stereotypes. These are some pretty heavy topics but ones that we shouldn’t shy away from because they make us feel uncomfortable or, worse yet, we censor our students because of our own little scaredy cat censor voice inside of our head. What will the principal think? What will the parents think? Someone is going to get mad, and I’m going to lose my job. Man, forget that. If the students are engaged and passionate about their work and making an interesting and critical stance on a topic, more power to you. Full steam ahead.

That’s really what’s the heart of our conversation today, the slippery slope of censoring student artwork. This is especially troubling and problematic if we set up our classrooms to allow for student choice. I want to talk today about two big specific points. Then we’ll get Ian on to talk some more. Number one, how do we decide when our students have gone too far? Where is this line? Number two, how do we deal with those censorship worthy offenses?

How do we know when students have gone too far? Spoiler alert. I try as hard as I can to allow my students to do as much as they can, but I can think of a few things that I would definitely say are out of bounds. In my 11 years of teaching, this doesn’t come up very much at all but some big ones, super explicit, violent work. Number two would be like a derogatory work whose whole aim is to put down another person or a group of people. Lastly, maybe some sexually explicitly work. Those would be the big ones.

I’m actually in this idea thinking about an article that Ian wrote a while back on the AOE website. You can head on over there and search it up. I’ll paraphrase it just off the top of my head. I believe it’s called When is it Okay for Students to Draw Handguns or Draw Guns? What I like about this article, I’ll go ahead and paraphrase it, is that it’s all about the context. In this case, a violent image or in any other case, any questionable imagery, is it commenting and taking a critical or interesting stance on a bigger issue? If the answer is yes, then I say we go ahead and we green light that project. If it’s a simple dumb glorification of violence or dumb glorification of anything that we find inappropriate, well, then I think we’re going to put the breaks on that and have a conversation with that artist and say, “Why are you making the artwork this way? Is there a better way to do it?” Again I think this comes down to the context of the message.

A simple policy in the art room for you all might look like this. If the school handbook says, “You can’t wear a t-shirt with certain type of images on them,” then you’re not going to make artwork depicting those sort of things in my classroom: drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual innuendos. If that’s a dress code violation in your school, then that should be an art room violation. That policy is totally easy for students to understand, and then you’re not the bad guy. You’re just upholding school and district policy, which is a good thing. Ultimately, if you feel uncomfortable with a student’s work, it’s worth a conversation with that student if there isn’t a better way to go about it. At the same time though be critical of yourself and ask why are you are having such a hung up with this. In the end, it’s not out-and-out censorship to tell a student that you don’t want them working on that artwork at school.

I always tell students that if they need to make inappropriate, harmful, mean-spirited artwork that has sex, drugs and rock and roll in it, by all means go ahead and do that on your own time. We’re not going to waste taxpayer money on my teacher salary and the electricity in this room for you to make that sort of artwork. Go home and just knock your socks off with that. You know what? In the 11 years of teaching, I’ve offered that a number of times to students, I’ve never once had a student come back and show me their finished scandalous work. I think that they just want to be shocking in class. It’s not cool to make shocking artwork at your mom’s kitchen table without all your friends around anymore.

I think that begs the question of what does censorship in the art room then even look like? The history of censorship gets us thinking about banned and burnt books, prison time and penalties, punitive measures for something that’s already been done. This has never happened to me. Dare I say this has never happened to any art teacher out there. Hey, kid. You just drew a gun. You’re going to get an F for a semester, and you owe the school district a thousand dollars. That’s preposterous.

While there are a bunch of cases of knee-jerk, zero tolerance policies gone wrong where kindergartners are suspended for pointing a finger or a twig at another kid and saying, “Bang, bang. You’re dead.” That’s not what we’re really talking about in the art classroom. What we’re doing is we’re just telling kids you should not be working on that project in class for this reason, this reason, this reason. That’s not too bad.

The other one that I do quite a bit when I encounter work that I think is going to be questionable is I will tell students, “I’m going to allow you to work on this in the safety of this classroom.” I tell them, “There’s no way I’m going to put this out in the hallway. There’s no way I’m going to display it. I’m not going to be submitting it to art shows regardless of how awesome this is.” In a way, that’s a soft form of censorship. I pretty much guarantee that the artwork isn’t going to find an audience in my building barring Instagram and Snapchat post. Seriously, most of my students are fine with this and they kind of understand it.

Most importantly, the biggest way that I deal with censorship worthy offenses, I talk with the young artist about why. Why are they making it this way? What’s the context? What is the message? How effective are you going to be with the way that you’re doing this? Is there a better, less shocking, more effective way out there? Sometimes I think shocking is necessary and it’s effective. Sometimes I think it repels more eyeballs than it attracts.

This whole episode is built around how tricky censorship and choice-based art education can be. We all know that choice and TAB are really gaining a lot of support amongst the art education community out there. I want to recommend AOE’s course Choice-Based Art Education. I’ve taught this class a number of times and I know firsthand that all the teachers get a ton of great tools and tricks to think about as they start adding choice to their normal art teacher repertoire. It’s a three-credit course and it begins at the first of every month. Head on over to the and check out this class along with all the other great classes under the courses tab.

Since we’re talking about choice, I can’t think of a better guest to bring on than Ian Sands. Let’s hear from him now.

All right. First of, Ian, I want to properly prop you up. You’ve been a big hero of mine in the world of TAB and choice-based ed, especially someone who’s been doing it at the high school level. I saw a video of yours and discovered your website probably about four years ago, and it really started my transition over to a modified choice structure. Here’s my first question to you. Speaking about student choice, have you ever had to censor student ideas, and subject matter, and expression as you’ve let them go on their own way with choice?

Ian : Very rarely. For some reason, students seem to censor themselves. I’ll tell you, I had a couple of cases. I had a girl about two years ago who said to me she wanted to do … I think it was a photograph. She want to do a photograph of her friends’ butts. She was going to write something. I think she was going to write cheeky. I remember exactly now. It was a text art project. She want to write cheeky on their butts. I was kind of like, “I don’t really think you should be taking photographs of them.” She was really adamant about wanting to do it and I had to hem and haw about it a couple of days trying to figure out how I was going to get out of it. Finally I said, “If you can get the principal to agree with this project, I’ll go along with it.” That ended that. She ended up painting a butt in abstract. It actually became an abstract painting and actually turned into something she got very more interested in than butts which was the abstract concept.

Andrew: That’s a nice little course. Not only did they self-censor but they also maybe made a piece of artwork that was maybe better in the evolution of that idea.

Ian : Because of that, she ended up doing a painting. Absolutely.

Andrew: I think I agree with you. I really try to never censor students as they get going, but I have a couple of instances where I have had to tell kids like, “I don’t know that you can do that.” My go-to, I call it the grandma filter. I’m like, “If you can show that to your grandma and be totally fine it with it, then I’m also totally cool with it.” Usually nine times out of 10, they’re like, “I don’t want to show this to my grandma.” Other than just cheeky butts here, can you think of some other reasons why art teachers would ever feel the need to censor student artwork?

Ian : Sometimes it’s silly things like … If it’s drugs or alcohol-based, for some reason, kids sometimes want to … At the high school level, you’re going to have that. They want to draw a marijuana leaf or something like that. Can I say marijuana on the air? That’s what they want to do. You have to be, “Nah.” They’re like, “No, Mr. Sands. It’s a maple leaf.” I’m like, “No, that’s not a maple leaf.” I try to reel in that stuff. I guess if it’s a policy of the school like they couldn’t come to school with a shirt that had a big Budweiser label on it or a marijuana label on it, plant on it, then I think those are the things that I would censor.

Andrew: Right. I think some of that goes back to basically it’s a black and white district or building policy that you can say, “We don’t allow this in the school on your t-shirts. We’re not going to allow it on artwork.”

The one that’s tricky for me, I think drugs and alcohol references are pretty clear cut, but violence is another one. We live in this day and age where violence is everywhere. I’ve had to take my students on a case by case basis and say, “I’ll allow it if you are taking an interesting stance or saying something interesting about violence and not just glorifying it.” I wonder if you ever feel like you’ve had to do like a case by case scenario with students.

Ian : When I was in early high school, middle school to maybe 9th grade, I used to draw fingers all the time, my own fingers. I would look at the fingers and I draw them. Then when I got to the end of the finger, I wouldn’t want to draw the hand so I would cut off the finger. I’d show the bone and the guts of your finger coming out and the blood dripping, everything like that. It was probably really violent if I think about it now. It was just my solution for finding the end of the finger. What was I going to do at this point? I don’t have as much violent imagery, I guess, coming out of the high school as I think maybe a middle school or even younger, maybe the younger high school students will produce. I do sometimes have to think about guns. Guns is one that comes up quite often.

Andrew: How do you approach that? When kids want to draw that, paint that, where do you draw the line on what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable?

Ian : I think it goes by community. I’ve had this conversation with a couple of different people. You can have a community that’s located near, let’s say, a military base or a hunting community, more rural. Guns are going to be part of the things that go on in their life. It may not be as violent for them to draw someone carrying a gun when they’re going into the woods to shoot a deer where someone maybe in Chicago and New York City is going to be like, “Why does that guy have a gun? If you have a gun, you’re going to shoot somebody. That’s the purpose of it.” I think community has a lot to do with it.

Like you mentioned, also what’s the idea, what’s the point behind it? I had a girl who did a picture of a gun. It was a really well-done, high contrast imagery of a gun right in your face and the person was holding the gun. Mostly you just saw the … You’re just staring down the barrel. She was making a statement about gun violence. I thought it was a fantastic piece. One of the other art teachers I worked with was like, “You can’t put that on the blog. You can’t put that on the blog. You can’t have a gun on the … ” I was like, “It’s such a good piece.” Then later during the week, actually I did put it on the blog. There was a shooting at a school. It made me reconsider going back and I took the piece off the blog after that because I was like … It was a situation where it wasn’t appropriate any longer.

Andrew: That’s really interesting. I think sometimes our students live these lives that are more rich with experiences and then we want to sanitize them, whitewash it. If a student is making a critical stance or grappling with something, it becomes a lot more tricky for teachers to deal with it. I would never say that you did it wrong or right. I can feel your pain on whether you put it up or then take it down later. How did the student take it when you told her that you had to take it down or that you did take it down?

Ian : I don’t think I even brought it up to the student that I had done it. It was just something that I thought was the right thing to do based on the circumstance of what had happened. Other than that, I didn’t have a problem with it. I don’t think my administration would have a problem with it because it was such a strong piece. It wasn’t just like I’ve got a gun and I’m going to shoot someone. She was making a stance about basically the … It was about what’s the point of violence? Why do these things? You had the shooting which made me take it down which was almost the opposite of what the point of her picture was, if that makes sense.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah. Totally.

Ian : I should probably left it up but it seemed inappropriate visually.

Andrew: I’ve had a handful of students when I let them choose things, they’ll make things that make me a little squeamish or just, “Boy, am I going to get in trouble for having them do this?” I think sometimes if they can verbally tell me what it’s about … Then I also think I’ve put some stuff on Instagram that I think … If there was an artist statement and the student wrote what it’s about, I think that could make it all better as far as displaying this stuff.

We’ve talked a little bit about … Maybe we’ve squashed some student’s ideas or we stirred them out of an idea that was a little bit too risqué. What are some different ways that censorship happens? There’s probably the worse case where a student is nearly done with an artwork and a teacher comes in and just, “No,” and rips it all up. Then there’s probably more subtle ways. What different ways can you think of like censorship happening in an art room?

Ian : I’ll give you a great example I think of a censorship that happened that probably was totally accidental. We had a student who’s a senior. I think he was a senior student. He did a self-portrait, a very large self-portrait of himself basically picking his nose. Picking his nose wasn’t the problem but he was using his middle finger to pick his nose. The principal came and was like, “That kid is flipping the bird.” That’s not what he was doing. He was picking his nose.

It was hanging outside the media center. This was an area where artwork … Sometimes it fell down because the doors would open and the wind would blow it down. The principal said, “I want that piece taken down.” They took the piece down and they put it in the media center. The media center teacher came in and saw it laying down and thought it had fallen down from the wind. She went and put it back up. The principal was so mad because he thought that we had put it back up against his wishes. It was just a total accident. It was one of these things where it’s being censored. He wasn’t trying to make a middle finger up. he was just trying to pick his nose which maybe that could have been inappropriate, too, but it was accidental censorship, if you will.

Andrew: I do this thing and sometimes I think like … I don’t know. I guess it’s my compromise because I want students to feel like that they can express complicated ideas, heavy ideas. I also like that my kids have food on the table and that I have a job. My compromise has always been like, “You can make that.” Then I’m always a little more hush-hush about not putting it up in the hallway. I won’t put it on Instagram. I won’t submit it into scholastic art shows because I’m just like there’s something about me that doesn’t feel quite right. What’s your sense of that? Am I censoring or is that just like a good compromise for a tough situation?

Ian : Yes. I think that it’s an interesting way … I’ve done that myself. I let the student do it but I know I’m not going to be able to hang it up. I’ll have another example. I had a student who did a great piece. It was canvas. It had words all over the canvas and all in red, large word, some of them small. In the corner was a girl cowering. It was all these words like slut. Can I say slut on TV?

Andrew: Yeah, for sure.

Ian : One of the words was slut. It was basically how they were shaming. The illustration was showing that this girl was being shamed for all these things. It was a powerful piece. It was really well-done. This is a good student. She wasn’t trying to cause trouble or anything, but she felt very strongly about this topic. We wanted to submit it into an art show that was taking place in Downtown Apex at the time. They rejected the piece because they said, “Well, we have families that come in. We just feel like the words on it … There’s going to be kids there and they’re going to see it.” They actually censored her piece, but I submitted it anyway. I thought they should have shown it. That was probably the worse word that was on it but you get the idea.

Andrew: Right. I don’t know all the details of this story. There’s a difference between censorship and then just like, “We didn’t feel this was right.” You know what I mean? Especially if it’s almost more of a competition or an honor to have your work up. A business or an institution can just say, “This artwork isn’t for us but thank you for submitting it.” Maybe that’s a polite way to say that censorship is happening. It’s such a sticky situation because you think about artwork that’s so charged, then coming out of a public school and taxpayer money. You could really get people up in arms.

Let’s say, if we do have to censor and we do tell a kid, “I don’t think you should be doing that. I’m definitely not going to show it. It didn’t pass the grandma test.” Do you feel like we’ve missed out on an opportunity to let a student wrestle with big ideas?

Ian : There’s a difference between if we’re not allowing the student to make the art or if they’re just not allowed to show the art in a particular form. I think the censorship on our part happens when we don’t allow them to make the art that they feel strongly about making. We don’t want them just sitting there making pictures of puppies, and palm trees, or something like that unless that’s really what they want to do. We could censor things back so far that it just becomes, okay, we’re just going to do little happy pictures of these little happy trees and never tackle any tough topics. That’s not what art is about. Real art is about taking on really tough topics.

Andrew: I think that’s really interesting and so on the point. If you look at what kids consume as far as visual culture, it’s littered with sex, drugs, rock and roll, and violence. Do you feel like you try to encourage your students to dig into deep, heavy stuff or does it just happen? Do you really actively try to steer them away from something that’s too loaded?

Ian : I steer them away. No. A better example obviously. Melissa Purtee, who I work with at Apex, tackles really tough topics. Sometimes she’ll let her kids do political topics and topics about abortion and really strong topics without censorship. She pulls it off and I’m impressed. There’s some of those I just wouldn’t go near. I wouldn’t touch them because I just don’t want to … Even with inside the classroom, you could be painting a picture or something, you’re making a political statement. Half the class is going to have the opposite political … Just like America. Half of America is going to have a different political view than you. You’re going to make somebody upset somewhere. You have to censor on the grounds of are you just doing that because you’re just poking fun of that, or are you really trying to make an artistic statement? If you’re really trying to say something, then we can address it. Otherwise, you don’t want the drama in the classroom either. I have to keep some water.

Andrew: That’s really fascinating. That’s interesting. What do you think her secret for success is? Is she just more brave and bold than the two of us are?

Ian : Yes. I think it’s something that she’s passionate about. When she does it, I think she probably talks to them about doing the piece so the piece is made for the right reasons. Then if you can have the whole class doing that and respecting everybody else’s work, you can have someone say, “I’m going to do this piece on, let’s say, abortion, and I’m going to be against abortion.” Then you can have somebody else being like … What’s the difference? I’m pro-life. I’m pro-choice. Then have them both respect each other’s opinion. Then they could both create the art as opposed to, “Well, I’m going to do this piece,” and it’s just out there just to rile everybody up. That’s the difference.

Andrew: Well, that’s really fascinating to think about an art practice or an art experience that could still have people hold onto their opinions but even find some mutual respect or common ground through the art making. That’s really fascinating.

Let me ask you one final question here to wrap up. Maybe this is something that you have to apply to yourself. I almost wonder if you could … For all teachers out there, do you think there’s a good stance for teachers to take on questionable and inappropriate subject matter? Is it like sky is the limit? On the flip side, is it totally banned or is it a good opportunity for us teachers to talk to students about expression and communication and how effective that can be?

Ian : From a teacher’s point of view?

Andrew: Yeah.

Ian : I think the teacher has to be comfortable with it. Different teachers are going to be more comfortable with different things than others are going to be. It can even be more sensitive to the teacher. I think you want to allow some of these things to happen because, like I said, it happens in art. At the same time, you’ve got to make sure that if you’re feeling uncomfortable as a teacher about it, you feel your administration is going to be uncomfortable about it or the parents are going to be upset about it, you still have to remember we’re teaching children. They’re not professional artists that are over the age of 21. At some point, we sometimes need to say, “That might be a little … Is there another way we can do that? Is there another way you could create that piece without going from this angle or something like that?” Work with them.

Andrew: Right, man. Man, so many good answers. Great job. I think this might be our first PG-13 episode with the sex, drugs and rock and roll references.

Ian : Hey, that’s what happen in high schools.

Andrew: Yeah, totally. Well, hey, Ian, thanks for coming on today, man. I really appreciate it.

Ian : Well, thank you for having me.

Andrew: Thanks to Ian so much for being on and sharing some great stories about what could be seen as the tough side of choice when teachers have to step in and say, “No, I don’t think you’re going to do this.” Call it censorship. Call it pushing students to be more sensitive, nuanced and, hopefully, ultimately successful in getting their work to communicate. There are times and we, as art teachers, need to step in and do this but tread lightly. Avoid blanket statements and ultimatums as dealing with difficult and troubling subject matter and ideas in art is actually a great way for students to deal with those issues. Again, I think this keeps coming up. Let students go for it if you’re on the fence. What’s the worse that can happen to you? A stern talking to from your administrator, an upset parent. These are actually moments and opportunities to educate the public about the power that art has to speak truth.

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