Social Justice Through Art

It’s September 2018. I’ve met all my new ninth-grade students, I’ve touched base with them about their summer reading, and we’ve celebrated the start of a new year on Boston Harbor that first Friday back. I associate this time of year with questions whether it’s about the course, about the lunch menu or when our first essay will be due. This year, the most oft-repeated question was, “When are we reading The Hate U Give?”

Sadly, I had a disappointing answer for them (especially since the movie was scheduled to come out the next month): Sometime in January, I said. I tried to offer solace with the fact that we’d be starting off the year instead by studying Hamilton. They were still disappointed.

Few books I’ve assigned in my career have gotten kids reading and talking as much as Thomas’s seminal text. Over the four weeks we spent reading it, we had some of the most nuanced, honest, perceptive conversations on race in America that I’ve ever been witness to among a group of students. Credit entirely goes to Thomas here, who created a text that helped render these conversations so powerful. In many ways, she was truly the primary teacher in the room.

Part of what made this unit so inspiring was the students’ response to the notion that art can serve as social justice. We kicked off a project on this topic by visiting a very well-timed exhibit in Dana Hall’s Art Gallery featuring female artists who used their medium of choice to represent/give voice to issues that have plagued and continue to plague minorities in this country. (For images from or more information on this amazing exhibit, feel free to contact Visual Arts Department Head Michael Frassinelli). Inspired by these women, we went back to the classroom and thought of how music, photography and the visual arts could be used for our own purposes. For further inspiration, we listened and reacted to the song “Glory” by John Legend and Common; we looked at the photography of Sebastien Hidalgo who captured the gentrification of his community of Pilsen, a suburb of Chicago; and we scrolled through the internet to view home-made posters carried at marches for women and Black Lives Matter. Then we embarked on our own creations. Students were assigned the task of either writing an original song, photographing their neighborhood, or designing two posters on a specific theme relating to social justice. They were asked to accompany their piece(s) with an artist statement explaining their purpose and inspiration. I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

student art

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Six students wrote original song lyrics and three of those six went as far as to compose original music. One song counted its way through the recent racially motivated tragedies of the deaths of young black men; another looked at all the shapes and forms homophobia takes; another reflected on the conversations she has had with her parents about being black in America and the precautions she needs to take that her white peers do not; and yet another examined the myth of the “model minority” and its impact on her life here in the States.  I had two photographers, one who took empowering pictures of what it means to be a woman here on the Dana campus and another who went back to her neighborhood in East Boston to capture the beauty of her community and the ways in which gentrification has changed it for the worse. I also received many thought-provoking posters advocating issues from transgender rights to Black Lives Matter; from misconceptions towards disability and the gender gap that exists between men and women. One of my favorite posters addressed the rights of adoptees from outside of the United States and the way they are often treated and misunderstood by Americans.

At the moment, the only thing lacking was an audience. But now here you are, reading this post, and listening to what Ms. Gayton’s Literature & Composition I classes have to say. Thank you for your open eyes and open ears. And if you ever want to join the conversation, come on by to room 114!

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About Meg Gayton

Meg Gayton is an Upper School English teacher at Dana Hall School. She joined the School in 2017.

4 Replies to “Social Justice Through Art”

  1. Meg,
    Your commitment to fostering honest, authentic conversations rooted in important texts is outstanding. Thank you for sharing your expertise and your perspective with our community!

  2. Meg, these posters are wonderful! And yes, Thomas’s book is extraordinary; I was so impressed by the students’ thoughtfulness and passion for justice as we discussed it.

  3. Meg,
    All the credit shouldn’t go to Thomas here! You built on class conversations with this exciting project, eliciting even more thoughtfulness and creativity from your students. You offered your students options, and they rose to the challenge, expressing their ideas about social justice in a wonderful array of genres. I also love how you incorporated a visit to Dana Hall’s art gallery to see the recent and exciting show Not Just Us: Speaking Up for Social Justice. Thank you for bringing some of that art magic downstairs to the English Department.

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