Relationship Building

Working With Difficult Topics (Ep. 265)

As students continue to process and work through a difficult year, we should find ways to promote students’ exploration of emotions, feelings, and personal experiences through their art. In today’s episode, Janani Nathan joins Tim to discuss how she helps students create more authentic and meaningful work, including how she navigates difficult topics and guides hard conversations in the art room. 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. This school year has been incredibly difficult for so many reasons, and we don’t need to litigate those reasons here, but I think that there’s so many things that everyone is dealing with, so many things running through our students’ heads. And I think a big part of what we can and should be doing right now is helping our students translate those thoughts, those ideas into their artwork. Okay, but how do we do that? We all know that it can be difficult, pushing kids to create meaningful work is incredibly difficult. And I think part of that is we don’t make the space to talk about those topics, to talk about those things. To put it briefly, difficult conversations are difficult to have. However, I think it’s vital that we make space for our students in our classroom to fully explore ideas, to create difficult work, to address meaningful topics in their artwork.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about today on the podcast. My guest is going to be Janani Nathan. Janani has incredible ideas. She does great things with her students. You may have seen her in PRO. Maybe you’ve seen her at the last couple of NOW conferences, but no matter where you’ve seen her, or if you’re hearing her for the first time today, I will guess that you have been, or you will be impressed with a lot of what she has to say. So, she has a new PRO Pack that just came out that’s all about helping students make meaningful work about challenging topics. And we’re going to chat about that today. We’re going to talk about how to support your students as they take on those challenging topics.

Like I said, the art room needs to be a space that kids can explore. They can work with ideas, ask questions, share their work. And in order to do that, they need to be comfortable. They need to be in a space that is welcoming for them, and a space that is welcoming to exploration and ideas and conversations and sharing. So, let me bring on Janani, and we can discuss how teachers can create that type of space.

And Janani is joining us now. How are you?

Janani: I’m doing all right. This year has just been, I don’t know, like every day feels like such an accomplishment to get through. So, I’m feeling really good at the end of the day I got through it.

Tim: That is very fair, a good way to look at it. So, I appreciate the positive spin. So, I guess welcome to the podcast for the first time, which feels a little bit crazy, because you and I have worked together on so many different things, but for people who don’t know you or haven’t seen you before, or listened to you, can you just give us a quick introduction about who you are, where you teach, whatever you want to tell us about yourself?

Janani: Yeah. My name is Janani Nathan. I am a high school teacher in Chicago, Illinois. I teach in a public school here, and I teach graphic design, AP 2D Design and drawing and painting classes. And this year, we’ve been virtual right up until a couple of weeks ago. So, it’s been a journey, but yeah, I’m really excited to do this. I’m always shocked at how many different types of ways Art of Education supports teachers. And this is just like a lovely new way that I didn’t even know about. I’m excited to be on the podcast.

Tim: When I asked you to come on the podcast, I didn’t realize that you’re also doing Instagram Live last week. So, you have just kind of been everywhere, which I think is exciting, because I love just about everything you do. Along with Instagram Live, though you also have a new PRO Pack that just came out, and you’re now here on the podcast, like you said, it’s a lot, but overall, along with the teaching, how are you feeling right now? Because I guess, when I’m hearing from teachers, I hear that a lot are burnt out, a lot or feeling kind of excited, because they’re finally getting students back in person. And a lot are also feeling excited, because we can kind of see the finish line for the school year. So, I guess, long way of me asking, how are you doing with everything?

Janani: Yeah. Oh my gosh. It feels like a combination of everything that you just mentioned. I think because we’ve started hybrid learning, it just feels like every day I’m learning so many new things about the way that I should be teaching now, that it almost feels like how I did at the beginning of the pandemic where every single day felt very… There was a new emotion that overcame me every day, and I’m feeling that right now too. So, it feels like the days are long, which I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But at the same time, like you said, school’s almost over and I am at once so excited for this year, we’re done and to have a break, but also I really want to make sure that my students feel ready to not have the structure and support of school, even if it’s virtual over the summer. I think it’s going to be hard, but I’m excited because I see hope at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic. So yeah, I’m hopeful.

Tim: Yeah. That’s a really good thing. I think just being able to hold onto that hope is beneficial for us, but also for our students too. If that gets reflected in your teaching and in the discussions you’re having in the classroom, I think that can go a really long way. Okay. Now, I wanted to ask you, I mentioned earlier, PRO Pack that just came out on Saturday. It’s all about sort of dealing with difficult topics, how students can take on challenging topics and kind of turn those into meaningful work. And it’s already three days into this, like really popular. So, can you talk a little bit about just the topics that you covered in some of the things that you go through in that pack?

Janani: Yeah. So, a lot of the things that I was talking about was around how to structure your classroom towards the beginning of the year to really slowly develop trust between you and your students who might be a group of dozens of strangers in front of you, and how to make sure they feel safe when they’re being vulnerable with you. And I think that can be really hard for teenagers.

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Janani: And I think it can be really hard, because when once young people are 12 to 18 years old, they’re just now figuring out their identity. And it largely in the development process of that too. So-

Tim: Yeah.

Janani: … they have to be trustful with themselves to go through that process, let alone who trustful with me. So, a lot of PRO Pack just goes through how to start that conversation with yourself, and show vulnerability to your students, starting with yourself so that they can know a little bit more about you. And they can know that you won’t be judgmental of them as they are exploring their identity in the classroom. I went over some writing exercises for some personal exploration for students, and also some exercises in making sure that students don’t feel forced to start difficult conversations if they’re not ready for that yet too.

Tim: Right. Okay. So, let me ask you this though, because I don’t know, I feel like I have always done well as far as creating a safe space for my students, where they feel comfortable, they feel willing to discuss, but I think the hangup with me is maybe just the personal vulnerability. For me, as a teacher, especially when I was a young teacher, it was really hard for me to show vulnerability. It was really hard to kind of deal with those difficult topics. So, why do you think that is? Why do you think having conversations about difficult topics is so difficult for teachers?

Janani: Well, that’s a really good question. So, the school that I’m teaching at is the first public school I’ve ever taught at ever. And my very first day, I sat next to another teacher and I was just like, “Hey, this is my first day. What can you tell me?” And that teacher was just like, “Never look to your students as friends.” Or I don’t remember the exact word she said, but it was something along the lines of not putting yourselves on the same level as students. And it just did not sit well with me, because at that time I was fresh out of college, so I myself felt like a kid along with them.

Tim: Right.

Janani: And it felt like she was talking down to me as a person too. So, I feel like vulnerability can never come from a place when a young person feels like you do not take them seriously as a human being. And I don’t think that means that I have to be best friends with all my students, but I do think that means that I want students to know that I take them seriously, and that I take their ideas seriously. And a big part of that is also not allowing them… I don’t want to trust them with my deepest, darkest secrets.

Tim: Right. Right.

Janani: … what I mean by vulnerability. But more like, when I’m not sure of the answer to a question that they have, being like, “I have no idea. Let’s Google that together,” or allowing students to teach me something, which was a huge thing I went through my first year teaching, because I was assigned to teach a graphic design class, and I had never touched Photoshop a month before teaching that class.

So, I was learning from students constantly. And I think if I had gone into that classroom with the mindset of like, “I am the teacher, I need to know everything and I need to know more than all of these young people.” Then I would have never learned as much, my students would have never learned as much, and they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing vulnerable, personal artwork with me. And so, I think it’s really hard, because the idea of a teacher is like, “Oh, this is an adult that lives in the classroom all the time and has an identity outside of being teacher.”

But I think as an art teacher, it’s almost easier to break that stereotype, because so much of art is personal and sharing your life experience. And yeah, I’ve just found that to be so vital in the classroom. Another way is when I make a mistake in the classroom, I find it really important to apologize and own up to that mistake, whatever it was . . .

Tim: Yeah. Yeah.

Janani: … with a particular student or with the whole class, I think that also shows some vulnerability that I don’t remember my own teachers doing very often.

Tim: Well, and I think, like you said, that’s a good way for us to… I don’t know, differentiate ourselves as our teachers. We have the chance to get to know our students a little bit better to connect with them in different ways than a lot of the other subject teachers are able to do. And I think a lot of what you talked about is really important as far as reciprocity and taking students seriously, and some of those lessons took me a long time to learn as a teacher, but I think the sooner you can get there and realize you don’t have to exert power over students all the time. And the more you treat them as adults, the more you take them seriously, the easier it is to build those relationships, and kind of dive into that. So, I think that’s good.

So, I also wanted to ask you to just… You have a lot of ideas that are good about building relationships, getting those conversations started, but I wanted to ask you too, are there strategies that you have to help your students open up or get conversations started? I know you talked about writing, and just a little bit about personal exploration, how do you make it more comfortable for everybody in the classroom to just say what they need to say?

Janani: Yeah. So, I tend to start every big conceptual project with some sort of writing activity that’s personal. So, I try to make it a point to say that I’m not going to parse through their words, if they’re not comfortable with that. I have one project in particular that was really tied to friendships and just relationships with the people around them. And so the questions I was asking were way more personal than I might’ve been comfortable sharing with my own teachers, so I had them put their worksheets into a little envelope, and turn them in. And I was just grading it on completion, so I wasn’t looking through it, I was looking through a diary, because that’s really what it felt like. But I think it’s really helpful to start off with writing because I think the hardest thing about art is taking an idea and turning it into words, and then turning that into images, that translation of an idea is really tough for a lot my students.

And sometimes students will have an incredibly deep meaningful concept that they’re really ambitious about an art project for, but then it’s really tough. There’s like a hurdle to make that expressed visually in a way where the audience can look at it and know exactly what the meaning is, or get what the artist wanted them to get out of it. And I think that taking it step by step and starting off with writing is really, really helpful. And it kind of takes the pressure off of it a little bit, because I try to frame my questions, like it is really just journaling for themselves and not they’re completing a worksheet. And so when students are writing, it’s kind of just… I hope it’s stream of consciousness. I think journaling is a good way for students to put their thoughts into words, and trust themselves with their own ideas.

And then the next step is to slightly open up that circle of trust, usually to me and small one-on-one discussions around the classroom, I find that really helpful to also… If I notice that a student is not taking their idea seriously or taking their artwork seriously, this is my chance to take their art seriously for them. I teach in a school where it’s very, very academically rigorous, and so students come into art classroom I think not really knowing what to expect, some students will come in assuming that I’ll give them a four-step guide on what exactly to create, and they just have to follow that formula and turn it in. So, sometimes students are a little disarmed when I am asking them to trust their own ideas and stories to make art inspired by themselves. And so yeah, this part gets some more traction in their trust in themselves in their stories, and then slowly opening that up to the people around them, and then putting it into artwork and hopefully getting to share that with the school or the community outside the school too.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. That seems a very good process to put that all together. Now, I know you also love to connect your students with the work of contemporary artists, especially if those artists are exploring the same topics that your students want to explore. So, why do you think it’s so important to have your students see those examples and connect with those artists?

Janani: I think it’s really helpful to see one artist who students may have never heard of before and artists who work in the same community as my students do, because it puts the concept or the prompt that I’m giving them into the context of their own life and the people around them and their environment too. And I also think that when I give a really vague prompt showing specific examples of how one artist might interpret that prompt is really helpful for students to just get out of a cliche mindset, and really dig deeper into their own experiences and make it more individualized and personal.

And I found it to be really, really, really helpful. And I also think that the artists who I was shown when I was growing up in art classes or artists who I see now in museums and galleries, and that’s so cool, it is really cool to walk into a museum and be like, “Hey, I learned about that artist when I was in elementary school, and here it is.” But I also think there’s a beauty in realizing that art exists in so many ways outside of galleries and museums.

Tim: Yes.

Janani: And I think they’re both so important, but when you see artwork that exists and flourishes and tells really important stories that you can analyze outside of a museum, it also makes art a little bit more accessible. So, it’s not like I’m sitting in a classroom and I’m emulating an artwork that exists in a place that I will never reach, but it’s more like, “Oh, I can absolutely do this too. And I can absolutely be incredible at it and find meaning in it that lies outside of big institutions,” which is beautiful.

Tim: Yeah. That’s a really, really good thing. And then I guess before we go, I love to give people takeaways and just things that they can go explore. So, can you name just a couple of contemporary artists that you really like or artists that your students have really responded to?

Janani: Yes. Okay. So, I was trying to find some artists that weren’t too repetitive with the artists that I mentioned in the PRO Pack. So, I have a few artists for you that work with different media. So, one of my favorite artists right now, her name is Rosabel Rosalind Kurth, and I really fell in love with her artwork recently, she just went on a Fulbright trip to Vienna in Austria, and all her painting career, she’s been kind of exploring her own Jewish identity and the idea of femininity. And when she was in Vienna, she was there specifically to research antisemitism, and how it appeared through artwork that’s still kept around the country. And was making artwork, making pieces and paintings that were kind of in response to those pieces that she found during her travels. And they were so beautiful. And they also react to history in a really funny and wonderful and emotional way. And I love talking about her artwork with students, because it brings up so many conversations about stereotypes and self-love and gender. It’s really wonderful.

Tim: That’s awesome.

Janani: And another artist I’ve been looking at a lot lately is Leonard Suryajaya. Also, both of these artists are Chicago-based, so I really like to show them.

Tim: Oh, perfect. Perfect.

Janani: And so recently, Leonard Suryajaya came to the museum of contemporary art in Chicago. And I think he did a residency there, but he definitely like set up this beautiful photography installation for people at the museum to interact with. And he makes these wonderful portraits that focus on immigration and family and the trauma and the community that comes with it. And he has this like series of photographs of his mother, which I like to show to students because it shows like a multitude of his mother’s identities and like how many facets of a person there can be. And I love showing his artwork when I’m doing portraits with students to show how you can convey identity and personality through a portrait. And yeah, I love those two artists.

Tim: That’s awesome. So, cool. All right. Well, thank you so much for giving us a couple artists to look up. We’ll make sure we link to both of them in the show notes and thanks for your time in this awesome conversation. It’s been great to talk to you.

Janani: Thank you so much.

Tim: Thank you to Janani for coming on the podcast. I always love my conversations with her. I feel like what she is doing in her art room is so intelligent and so creative and it works so, so well. The way she supports her students allows them to explore, and even scaffolds those explorations so students can do things at their own pace. Those are all things that we can learn from. And as I said, Janani’s PRO Pack is a spectacular one. It’s called Creating Meaningful Work About Difficult Topics or Challenging Topics. I’m not for sure, but if you go into PRO you will find it. It just came out on Saturday. And in there, not only does Janani dive a lot deeper into a lot of these topics that we discussed today, she has also put together a lot of resources that can help show you and help you show your students how to plan, how to discuss, how to sketch, how to develop that meaningful and thoughtful work about whatever topic they may choose.

So, make sure you check that out. You can also check out Janani’s other PRO Packs as well as the artists that she talked about in our conversation. I will make sure we link to all those things in the show notes, and you will have so many great options to explore, and hopefully that can keep them busy, at least until next week’s episode.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Thank you as always 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.