The Art of SEL, Episode 2: Self-Awareness

In the second episode of The Art of SEL, Jonathan explores the importance of self-awareness. Self-awareness is–as Jonathan’s students understand it–noticing what is happening in and around you, so that you can make a choice. The art room is full of opportunities for self-awareness, and those opportunities guide the discussion today. Jonathan is joined by Laura Naar and Geo Rutherford, the founders of the Why You Matter Initiative to discuss their work and its effect on schools and communities.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Jonathan: Our families may influence the type of adults we’ll become, for better or for worse. I grew up with two loving parents who are also artists. Everyone assumed from day one, that I would go into the family business of art making, and I resisted. Oh, did I resist. I wanted to be my own individual and not have someone else tell me who I was going to be. Yet, try as I might to go down my own path. The arts community is where I felt most at home. I enrolled in undergrad with options, but was leaning towards art education, but it was during a field experience that everything seemed to click. The students were actively engaged. I felt creative and needed, and I felt well, alive.

I remember at the end of the day, getting into my ’93 blue Saturn, whose name was Stella, and driving away from that high school. I had this giant smile on my face, I felt electrified. I knew I was destined to be an art teacher, this is who I was. And it wasn’t because anyone else said I was an artist, it’s because I knew it and believed this truth about myself. My experience had prompted my own self-awareness. Hi, I’m Jonathan Juravich. And today we’ll be exploring self-awareness on this episode of The Art of SEL. Today, we’ll be investigating the competency of self-awareness. But what is self-awareness? A working definition based off of one from the Collaborative for Academic and Social, Emotional Learning or CASEL for short is that, “Self-awareness is the ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values, and how they influence behavior.”

I have a more student-friendly definition of awareness that I use with my own students, it’s a noticing of what is happening in and around you, so that you can make a choice. This noticing is critical as it fuels our next steps, our futures, or even just how we’re going to react to hearing our names 14 million times in a 50-minute art class period. The art room is full of opportunities for self-awareness. A self-portrait experience can engage students to actively reflect on their likeness and what it is that makes them unique. A student may discover which art materials they feel successful using and which ones they know they need more experience with, or that drawing hands is challenging and lots of practice is necessary to get it right. See, if we take time to sit and reflect, self-awareness is the cornerstone to our work as art teachers.

Laura Naar and Geo Rutherford were both art teachers at Chelsea High School in Chelsea, Michigan, when they dreamed up the Why You Matter initiative. Geo has since become an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, but stays actively engaged in the work she began with Laura, the two shared about the spark that drove them to focus on student self-awareness and the importance of discussing self-worth. Laura and Geo, thank you for joining me. Can you two share with me, using a descriptive word, how you’re feeling right now?

Laura: Excited.

Geo: I’m a little buzzy.

Jonathan: Ooh.

Geo: I’m buzzing. My body is buzzing.

Jonathan: Tell me about that. Why?

Geo: I think sometimes I’m very much a go, go, go, go person. I just am going all the time. And sometimes when I have to sit still, I feel it in my body, I can’t believe I’m sitting still. So yeah, that’s how I feel right now.

Jonathan: I get that. And I appreciate your description because now I will use that as I’m describing how I’m feeling. Well, I’m excited that we’re all excited. A couple of years ago, I met the two of you, whenever you gave a presentation on the Why You Matter campaign, and I mean, I remember being moved. I fell in love with the entire project while I listened into the two of you talk. But can you briefly describe what the Why You Matter project is?

Laura: Sure. The Why You Matter project is a public art campaign that focuses on helping kids become more self aware, speak their truths, build self worth, and connect the school community together in a positive way.

Jonathan: And so, what inspired the two of you to begin a project like that? The three of us are art teachers and I think that wasn’t about a type of art making. So what inspired the two of you to begin this journey?

Geo: Five years ago, we had lost three students. And when we came back in the fall, there was an attitude of just pushing forward and moving past and putting it under the rug, which I respect that because it’s really difficult. And the school as a whole, the teachers are trying to do their jobs, the administration is trying to do their jobs. It’s not easy to just expect some kind of magic to fix everything. So we came together and basically discussed what our role could be. We saw that students were struggling. We saw that there wasn’t a school-wide anything that was occurring. And so we decided, as art teachers, what can we do? What can our role in this be? How can we use our skills and our strengths to respond? Because we’re not trying fix anyone or, we didn’t see it like that. We saw it as using our skill base.

Jonathan: And then what was born from that was the first project you did, which involved photographs of everybody in the building. Can you talk about, just briefly about what that process was and what the end project was?

Laura: Geo had this idea of a campaign, something we could do, posters, just like I have this idea of someone standing there holding a board saying something important, like why they matter, we were working through that and I said, “Yeah, but if we take a photo of one, we have to take a photo of all of them.” Because every single student was hurting in our school, every staff member, but there was no way to get counseling to every kid. There was no way to get crisis intervention for every kid. So we decided that we were going to do, we were going to take a picture of every single student and staff member in the building. We were going to ask them, why do you matter? That was the one thing with the students that we lost, we talked about, what’s one thing we could have asked them. And it was, do you know why you matter? Do you know why you’re important in this world? Do you know why you’re important to us? And so we decided to ask everybody.

So we bullied our way past our principal, who we actually physically intimidated in the hallway, it was pretty amazing. Legally cool. We just caught him, we we’re like, yeah-

Jonathan: Of course.

Laura: “Hey just so you know, we are going to run this project we’re going to take a photo of every single student staff in this building and we’re going to do it.” And he was like, “Okay.” And he’s our biggest fan, he’s the best administrator. But we worked with the English department and they came up with a lesson plan in their classes to really talk about, to write essays and have conversations. And it was really that idea of having this big conversation around difficult topics and a safe place to do it. And so English was one of those really great places where they had every single kid and they could really talk about it. So the photos and the reason we did photos is that I’m a photography teacher, so that worked out well, I do have that skill set and my students are really good photographers. So once they had these conversations in class, they would come down as a class and they would get their photos taken and it was pretty amazing. The whole school was on board. We got a lot of buy-in and it just became a big, beautiful project.

Jonathan: Yeah. Which resulted in the whole school being filled with these photos of everybody. Right?

Geo: Yeah. It’s interesting because we didn’t necessarily, we didn’t know where it was going to go. Because think about the timeline for this. We made the decision in September, October, we applied for a grant, our local grant, to get some money. And we got our team of students together and it was all while also being teachers. I was in charge of homecoming, Mrs. Naar is a mom, we’re doing this all on the side. And luckily I had this, because it’s high school art, I had a schedule that allowed for some flexibility with my advanced students, they were mostly just working. So I would be able to get them to help me with stuff. We just were able to motivate and get our kids involved. And I always tell people that with this project, I never took a picture. I never edited a picture. I never printed a picture. I never touched the pictures. That wasn’t what my role was, the students did it, they did everything. They were completely involved. They were completely invested. They were engaged and excited and it was their project. And I was just there to help them make it happen.

And while it was maybe our idea, it really wasn’t our project. It was a student-run initiative to try and get the school involved in something school-wide that wasn’t something that was just like a pep rally or something. It wasn’t just some goofy thing, it was more of a project. And it’s really funny because putting the pictures up, I think me and Naar expected to take them down within a month. We expected students to draw on them. They’re just posters, they’re 11 by 17 posters. We had zero expectations, but then a week went by and they were fine. And then two weeks went by and they were fine. And by four months in, we had just left them up for the rest of the school year. And that’s something that was unexpected on our part. We weren’t really aware of how much they changed the fabric of the school, because I mean, just like any high school, the walls are white and gray and okay, there’s a couple of orange ones-

Laura: It’s only in our room.

Geo: The art room is orange, orange art room. And they changed the way the school felt. And because of the way we set them up, we put them up as a gallery, so it was meant to be a walkthrough. It was a snake that would lead you through the whole school. And that meant that all day, every day, students would be walking past this snake of their peers, this wall gallery of their peers, with their peers statements. And I think that what’s funny is during the first opening, there’s that big celebration. But I think one of the things was the perseverance of it. It’s just there, it’s part of your school, it’s present. These images are with you every day of your peers that are experiencing things that are very similar to you, or they have their personal meanings and personal truths that stand very much with your own.

Jonathan: This is beautiful because you empowered students to not only consider who they were, their role in this project, to take it on. Because I think so many art teachers are like another big project, because they’re imagining all of the weight of the whole thing upon them. But I mean, it’s like you had creative accomplices to be able to pull off something that, I mean really changed the fabric of your school.

Geo: Definitely. I think that that year was especially special [inaudible 00:12:42]. It was poignant because of how passionate that group was about the project. And they really took ownership over it and they really were excited about it. And that’s hard to artificially nurture in students. They have to, especially high school kids, they have to be personally invested in something to feel like it was worthy of their time and energy.

Laura: When you look at kids you see every day, but you see them in black and white and they’re staring right at you. And if you think about the high school environment, there are kids that really like to identify with different groups or clubs. I am a football player, I am in theater, I am in music, I am in robotics. These are the things that define me. I have a club, I have a place, I get all A’s. There’s a lot of kids that don’t feel like they have a club or have a place and when you have a black and white photo of them with just their words and their face, all of that goes away. You’re not a jock, you’re not a musician, you’re not a 4.0, you are just another teenager going through the same thing as everybody else.

And so it’s very powerful. It breaks down all these barriers that we really see kids build up in high school. And I think that was part of the power of it. And I think that’s why there was so much buy-in from really the entire school community. And it felt good for kids that were on the outskirts to be part of something and to feel seen and heard and loved.

Geo: The first thought I had with that as well was the fact that some students didn’t take it seriously because it’s 900 kids. Of course, some of them goofed off, we had one girl who wrote, I have cool hair and she did have cool hair. She had red hair, but we know that she wrote that because she didn’t want to take the project seriously, but we photo-shopped it so that her cool red hair actually showed through the black and white photograph. She was the only one of everyone who had that red hair. But I think for her, our hope was that maybe she didn’t personally take it seriously in the moment, but while she’s walking along and looking at everyone else’s photos, her answer, the real one, the one that’s deep down, the one that really meant something to her is shining back at her through the photographs that she sees. Where someone says, I’m a sister or a mother. Well actually, how many of those kids said, I’m a mother, no one, but there was other faculties that said that, I’m a daughter.

Laura: I think that was my exact one.

Geo: Yeah, that was Naar’s example. Or my friends are why I’m here or why I matter, or my role in my community or kids look up to me, all of those, there were a lot of honest, very heartfelt and very poignant answers. And the kids who didn’t take it seriously were surrounded by that, by the fact that there were these really special answers that they connected with. So that as well. It didn’t matter as much whether they personally took it seriously because in the end, everything was treated equally, no matter how special the answer was or how goofy, it was, it still was up there with everyone else’s, everybody was part of it. And it created a nice feedback along the wall where you’d go from a really super serious answer to a fun one.

We had so many boys that once they figured this out, they thought it was really funny where they would say, “Because I am matter,” because everything is matter, so that was a goofy one that caught on. And so there was at least six or seven of those that were out there. And they were a little bit more of a funny reflection on the question. And it went right along next to the ones that were really purposeful and heartfelt. So they all fit together into this larger picture, just the way that they do as a school without realizing it.

Jonathan: Just hearing the two of you talk about kids and their self-awareness, the kids that are ready to take on that self-awareness and who am I truly? And then the people that are like, nah, I’m going to make a joke or I’m going to do a canned response. And I think there’s so many misconceptions about teenagers and their confidence and their awareness of who they are. And what are your thoughts on how self-aware kids really are?

Laura: So I think, when we started this, one of the things that we really noticed is that, that question, why do you matter? Is very complex. To us, we might have multiple answers. Well, I’m a mom, I’m a sister, I’m awesome, there’s just so many that’s us because we’ve aged and we’ve become confident people in who we are. We’ve lived through a lot of things. These are kids who are definitely not that far in life experiences and the experiences that they’re dealing with are very external. So their self-awareness comes from things outside of themselves. They’re very aware of what someone said about them on social media. They’re very aware of what they craft to put on social media. They’re very aware of what GPA they get. They can tell you their GPA at our school to the thousandth decimal, they’ll be like, “I have a 3.7892 and half. And I just need to get three more points on whatever test to get an A. And we’re like, “Wait, what?”

But if you ask them why are you important in this world? Why do you matter? They’re just, it’s like their mind is blown and they don’t know where to start. And so that’s been, I think one of the biggest challenges is trying to get them more aware of their own strengths, their own characteristics that make them special and important. And it really all comes out of conversations that they have in their classrooms with their teachers about this. It comes out of the SEL lessons that we provide with the teachers to work through. It really does help, but it is hard for them to stop and think from the inside out instead of the outside in.

Jonathan: As we’re going through the process of self-awareness, I think about all of the celebrations, people that are like, yes, this is who I am, or I do have cool hair things like that. But there’s also a lot of challenges that might arise too, as we unearth who we are. I mean, depending on the day, if you were to ask me why I matter, I, as an adult art teacher, I’m going to have a very different answer. So I think, and I wonder, were there red flags that came up for either you or for teachers that are having these conversations with kids and then what do you do with those red flags?

Laura: So we worked really closely with our counseling department. Before we even started the project we were like, we know that there’s going to be feelings that come up and we need supports for this. So when we had a student that was struggling, if they were having a conversation with their teacher, a friend, if they came down into the booth to get their photo taken and they still couldn’t figure it out, we would talk to them a little bit and then we would refer them to our counseling department. Because if you, after talking, after conversations, if you’re still struggling, you’re showing a lot of emotions about this question, it shows that there’s something deeper going on and there might be supports that we have for you. And so we worked really closely with our counseling department. We still do, and we’ll have them talk to someone.

In that first year, 12 students started receiving services that were not on anyone’s radar. And so that was life-changing for them because they started to get the help that they needed, but they weren’t comfortable telling anyone. So there are red flags. I had a student in the other day who was getting his photo taken and he just, he was very nervous and he just couldn’t do it. And so we have an appointment to meet up again next week and talk about it and then we’ll see where we go from there. But yeah, I think there’s a lot of red flags. What do you think Geo?

Geo: It’s an opportunity for conversation in a way that I don’t think a lot of programming necessarily prioritizes in our schools. And by having any kind of school-wide, in this case, we focused on art, about mental health and thinking about students and their needs in that way, your mental needs, not just your physical needs, not your school needs, but also that extra component. By including that in your school, then you have another pathway to help students or at least start conversations. And we were never out here to solve the world’s problems. The same year that we started this program, there was a Time Magazine about depression and anxiety in our teens, reflecting on exactly the same things that we were concerned about as high school teachers. And I am Mrs. Naar always jokes because I’m a bit of a skeptic, just naturally I’m a little skeptical about stuff.

So I wouldn’t say that our goal was to ever save anyone or to do anything that dramatic. But for me, the opportunity to talk and discuss and be open about this, even if you just say to your friend like, “Oh, well, I had to go take my picture today. Oh yeah, I had to do that in my class last week, what’d you write?” That is an open conversation. Having that conversation come home, having it in your classrooms, having it with your friends. I don’t care if you’re making fun of it, I don’t care, it’s a conversation that you’re opening up. And that was really what this became for me personally, that’s what this became about, was the opportunity to have conversations about mental health, about our students’ alternative needs.

Jonathan: Well, and I think you put it so well as you talking about all of these people that came together to do this project. Because I think a lot of art teachers, when they think of social, emotional learning or a project that’s like this, there’s immediately the wait, I’m not a mental health professional, I’m not a school counselor. But what you’ve shared is, it’s like, yes, we’ve started conversations, but then so has the English teachers, so have the school counselors and you’re all communicating with each other and with the students to be able to support them.

Geo: I think every school should have something like this that feels like a school-wide conversation starter. And I don’t know if there’s a lot of those. I think that there are small pockets that do that. I think that there’s groups that do that. I think every school has something going on that is about this, but our project, one of the main goals was always that it was everybody. We wanted everyone to be involved. And there’s always pushback because they’re teenagers, but in the end, I think that they can reflect back and think, well, our school was, they were trying, they were trying to open that conversation. They were trying to reach us when sometimes we’re unreachable. So that was just a hand, we’re just putting a handout and seeing what happens.

Jonathan: Now, spoiler alert. I did this project after being inspired by you. I did this project with my elementary students from kindergarten to fifth grade, actually that year it was preschool to fifth grade and included adults. And I mean, it was all the things you’d imagine. It was endearing, it was hilarious. I mean, one of the preschool students said, “I like cheese.” But for a preschooler, it was like, okay. I mean, yeah, if a fifth grader did that, I’d be like, come on, let’s work on this again. But I mean, even we had those students that flat out said, I don’t matter. And I can remember how crushing that was because we always considered our school like this beautiful, healthy place where we provided kids opportunities to have discussions like this. But I think that that’s the misconception we have as the adults too, is that we are, I mean, there are kids out there starting at very young ages that aren’t very aware of who they are.

Laura: The cool thing about having a piece of art with your reason why you matter is that even if you don’t believe it a hundred percent, once you memorialize it, you there with that statement, you start to believe it, you see it, you encounter it. You start to soak that in and you start to become what you say you are. So if you say, “I matter, because I’m strong,” even if you’re not believing it that day, you can look at it and it’s ingrained in your brain. And I think that’s one of the powers of art, it’s that visualization is so strong for all of us. And it’s so cool when you walk through and you see your peers and they write something and you remember that, so then you might see them in a class two years later and say, “Whoa, you were the one that said you’re going to cure cancer for your mom. That’s so cool.” So, I mean, I think that it just helps. It just helps build one more area to be strong.

Jonathan: Well, and so I’m remembering the year after we did the Why You Matter project here, where we took all of these photographs, they are all over the school. All the teachers at our school just assumed we were going to do it again and they were like, we’re going to do it again. And part of me was like, cool. That was a lot because differently elementary school kids can’t do the editing and stuff. So, yeah. So I was like, “Actually, I was like, No, we’re not going to do the same exact thing again.” And so I know for you that those photographs were the start of something. And since then you’ve done something different or unique or circle back to something each year. Can you share a little bit about what this has turned into for your school?

Laura: So we have the same thing, we had kids coming in and saying, “What are we going to do this year?” And so we were like, “Wait, what? We gave you everything we had last year. What?” And so, I mean, we were spent after that.

Geo: We were so tired.

Laura: But it was interesting because we decided not to do the photographs again and which some schools have done that, but we decided not to do it because we wanted it to really be an authentic, genuine moment. And that’s what our school needed that year. So we decided to ask our kids on our committee, what does our school need this year? And so every year, since then, we sit down and we just take an inventory at the beginning of the year, what are the issues that we’re seeing in our school revolving around community, revolving around mental health, revolving around any kind of need in the student area. And then we come up with a question. Because we like the idea of answering a question, we want you to do the work. We want you to find the answer. So we’re going to give you a question to really dig deep and think about. So that’s how we’ve done it for the last five years. Every year there’s a different question that prompts a new conversation. That takes you to another level of thinking about yourself and becoming more self-aware.

Jonathan: I think about something you said about people’s concern about student mental health. And I mean, quite vulnerably, just before we hopped on and started talking, I actually was responding because we tragically lost a student in our district just this past week. And a teacher reached out saying, “What do we do? What should we do? That’s the question. And I think about all the teachers out there that want to focus on self-awareness and to start a project, like Why You Matter. And that’s what I did. I appointed that teacher immediately to Why You Matter and saying, “We’ve had those conversations here at our school, but they should be happening district-wide they should be happening at the high school, the middle school. And just as a starting point, here you go.” So for teachers that are interested in the work that you’ve done, the work that you’re doing, how do they even get started?

Laura: When we decided to go through this, we decided to document it, because we knew we weren’t the only high school grappling with this. So Geo who is very good at all technology created a Weebly website. We all added to it, it was beautiful, she made it, I’ll let her talk about it. We just knew if it works for us, it could work for other schools. And we wanted this project to be something that was easy to replicate, make it your own, change it up however you want, whatever fits the needs of your school.

Jonathan: Laura and Geo continue to engage students and staff in answering big questions about their individual roles in the world. If you’re interested in learning more about the Why You Matter initiative and the unique projects they have going, please visit I spend a lot of time talking to students and other educators about their emotions and their self-awareness. Can they identify their emotions and why they may be feeling a particular way. If you haven’t checked out the work of Mark Brackett, you should do that right now. Well, actually, after you’re done listening to this podcast episode, but then now. Much of his work focuses on identifying the emotions we’re experiencing using a system called the ruler method. There are so many possibilities to apply his work in different art education contexts. So go check him out. So what now? What do you do with this information?

Well, here are three things to consider. One, we take it for granted that students are self-aware and they need opportunities to practice this awareness. What are you already doing well in the area of self-awareness that you need to stop and celebrate? Two, can you answer the question, why do you matter? Because you do. Take a moment to write out all the reasons you can think about regarding why you matter. And don’t think of this as a self conceded exercise, but a really critically important one. And three, can you identify one lesson or prompt you can alter ever so slightly to get students to focus on their own self-awareness of emotions or experiences? And how am I feeling right now? Hopeful. Hopeful that if we continue to spark critical conversations with our students, that they’ll understand how much they matter to so many people. Self-awareness leads to self-management. I hope you’ll join me next time as we explore this next competency.

This has been The Art of SEL, part of the Art of Education University podcast network. Tim Bogatz is our producer and Amanda Heyn is our executive producer, and all of our episodes are engineered with a cool-headed Amy Juravich. Thank you so much for listening. If you like, what you hear, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you want more information on art and social, emotional learning or anything else art education related, please check out

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.