Third graders become artists, historians, and curators for Black History Month
A collaborative project in the third grade is inviting students to rethink art history as they use the work of Black artists as a fresh lens to view American history. In a group effort, the third grade teachers—Marlease Bushnell, Deborah Davis, Erin McCarthy, Jessica Palumbo, Seung-Hee Park, and Zack Ruelas—have introduced students to a wide range of creative Black changemakers while emphasizing these artists’ legacies of Black joy and Black excellence.
Bushnell started these conversations with her class by reading Milo’s Museum, by Hyde Park author and recent Lab guest speaker Zetta Elliott. In the book, a young girl named Milo is disheartened to see a lack of Black representation at her local museum and is inspired to create her own museum instead. Through the book, Bushnell’s class learned the importance of what is featured in museums, and how collections are overt displays of what society “esteems as valuable and beautiful,” says Bushnell. Palumbo described similar conversations in her class, where students were able "to unpack some of the larger concepts of power, representation, activism in art, stereotypes, and racism, and systemic racism.” After discussing why representation in the arts was important to them, Bushnell’s students even created their own museum, with each class member bringing in items they felt a connection to, including one heirloom that spoke to their family background.
Next, the third graders learned about a plethora of Black artists throughout history, from multimedia artist and Flyboy creator Hebru Brantley to ceramicist and former Lab teacher Marva Jolly. “The children identified that Gordon Parks used his camera as a weapon to point out the injustice of segregation,” says Paulmbo, “and used his tool to break down stereotypes and show the humanity in all of his subjects. Kara Walker utilizes stereotypical images to make the viewer feel uncomfortable and confront difficult topics like slavery, that we often prefer to not examine. Derrick Adams, Margaret Burroughs, and Jordan Casteel often make art about Black Joy and capture family moments, celebrations, and everyday people living life, while Alma Thomas chose to focus on the beauty and joy in the world ‘rather than man’s inhumanity to man’ in her work.”
Students formed into teams for each artist and proposed an art project that would reflect that artist’s chosen medium. For art teacher Allison Beaulieu, it was important to give students this freedom to choose their medium and organize their teams, as it helped them develop their own agency. The resulting paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and more will be displayed outside of Blaine 202 and in the first-floor hallways, so the students can share their work with the greater Lab community.
The project draws from the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who wrote about how young readers use books as both “mirrors” to see themselves in the world and “windows” to observe the experiences of others. “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us,” writes Bishop, “and in the reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” Bishop also described how children of color often are denied this humanizing experience of seeing themselves in works of art. By sharing the artwork of these great Black artists as both mirrors and windows, Bushnell hopes that this project has reinforced to all students, and particularly students of color, that “their stories matter.”
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