When should student work be censored? Last week Ian Sands and Andrew McCormick talked about this important subject on Art Ed Radio, and their conversation made me reflect on my own teaching.
How should we balance fostering student voice with following a school's expectations for appropriate content? How do we create a classroom climate that celebrates and respects differences?
These are issues I deal with quite a bit, because I teach students to use their own ideas and I value art that makes a point, so I plan and teach projects like Artists Communicate, where I ask my kids to make work about political or social issues that are important to them.
When I work with my kids to make decisions about content I think of it as a series of decisions we make together. I give advice based on my experience but the final decision is up to the student. In my opinion, we don't need to censor as much as inform and support.
It's not everyday you see one of your best students spelling "cunt" with letters cut from magazines, but when this happened I was totally fine with it. Her work was about the relationship that insults and self harm have with each other. When this work was in the planning stages it started with the hand and I asked if she'd considered something in the background. Text was one of the solutions she came up with, and adding it made this piece much more powerful, so I supported her. The challenge came when she wanted to enter in in a show. I was worried that the gallery might reject it. We talked about it and she decided to mat it in a way that cut off part of the text on the edges, making the language still present but more subtle. She decided that lowering the risk of the show rejecting it was worth a bit of editing.
"Mrs. Purtee, I want to make artwork about drugs" was the statement that started this final portfolio collection. I was tempted to "just say no" (ha ha ha), but instead I asked her to tell me more. What we figured out through conversation over a few classes, was that she was inspired by psychedelic artwork, not necessarily drug use. We talked about the counterculture elements of surrealism and about how music in the 1960's referenced drugs in a much more discrete way than the music of today. She ended up with a very strong body of work that avoided trite symbolism. Most importantly she was happy with it.
A few more examples:
Figuring out how to express challenging ideas visually is motivating and challenging at the same time - perfect fodder for the classroom. Conversation is the key when students are making art that could be controversial. When I talk to kids about their work I always try to respect their ideas and help them figure out how to say what they want while understanding the boundaries that are part of being a student.
The other type of conversation that has to take place is with the whole class. From the first day on, I let my students know that my room is a place where ideas and opinions are respected. I model this in how I interact with kids and I remind them when they slip up. For example, when I hear racist or sexist language I always address it in a polite and direct way. I intentionally work to create an atmosphere where it's safe to express ideas. My students rise to the challenge - I remember one instance where there were works in progress at one table about religion, feminism, sexual assault, a pro-life view on abortion and trans rights. Everyone just rolled with it.
I'm an high school art teacher who's really interested in student choice and creating opportunities for self expression. I'm also a writer for The Art of Education and co-author of The Open Art Room.