Art workshop: pushing kids to understand slavery

The eighth-graders seemed to enjoy an art workshop I led recently at the Bellevue Big Picture School. Many of them put in a great deal of care to create backgrounds for their paper dolls, incorporating pictures of their relatives in Civil War-era clothing. With that in mind…

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…I told them to hand their work to the student on their left — and let that classmate rip up all but a two-inch square of their collages.

The project was part of the students’ examination of American slavery in the novel Copper Sun. I wanted the kids to think more about non-physical abuses of power and control. It’s easy for them to empathize with the indentured and enslaved characters who barely have a scrap to call their own. That’s one thing.

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It’s quite another thing to see yourself as the bad guy in the story: the one causing harm to another for fun and profit.

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This is why I wanted each student to witness their work being destroyed, and also to rip up someone else’s collage. Some students rebelled at first, but eventually gave in, giggling uncomfortably as they tore paper.

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I also wanted them to think about institutional racism, which the students already witness in their own lives, perhaps at an art museum. I pointed out that museums are not neutral spaces; the organization decides which art is worth exhibiting, and that usually means lots of work by white men. So after the kids used the paper scraps in a final collage piece, I had them create “wall text” that prioritized the student-artist’s imaginary owner, and compared the work to an iconic artist.

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There’s a possibility I might teach this class again next year, but don’t tell this year’s seventh-graders. I want them to be surprised.