Making Space for Students’ Voices

This post is one I’m super excited to share. This unit is one of my favorites for about a million reasons – students are comfortable in the room and beginning to make some great choices; students are shown some powerful videos and images; students find an issue they are interested in and DO something about it; and on and on. I am excited to share this because I’ve worked hard on scaffolding the experiences for kids – I’ve done this unit in some iteration since I started teaching high school and I think that this year’s version is the best yet.

This unit is our Social Issues Unit – the goal is to create a piece responding to a social issue that engages the viewer – either through interaction, shock, or intrigue.

We start out with an intense day or two (depending on the length of the class) of watching some videos and looking at artists. The day looks like this: we start by watching Islamophobia Killed My Brother and then respond on a post it to the question

Have you ever felt you’ve been judged for something you cannot control? How did it make you feel?


And then we look at a few of Ai Wei Wei’s pieces – discussing how he is a contemporary artist and what issues he responds to.

Students take a few notes in response to Ai Wei Wei’s work and then we watch  The First Day I Realized I was Black and respond on a post it to the question

Have you ever really thought about how it might feel in another person’s skin, gender, religion? What might be different about your life?

Then we look at Hank Willis Thomas’ work and Kara Walker’s work.

Again students take notes about their responses to the artists’ work. Then we watch  Donovan Livingston’s HGSE Commencement Speech and respond on a post it to the question

How has your schooling experience affected your life? Describe both the positive and the negative.


We then look at Shepard Fairey’s work and discuss his connections to their lives (they love his apparel from Obey).

Then we watch Why I’m Loud as Hell and respond to the question on a post it

Is your voice heard? How do you ensure it is heard in the community? In the school? In your family?

Then we look at Candy Chang’s public interactive work and take some notes in response.

And then the introductory day is complete. It’s an intense day (or two) but kids are engaged.


The next day we dive into how artists engage the viewer – we look at tons of artwork by the artists we already looked at and others. We use a How do artists engage viewers  Graphic Organizer to find the strategies artists use to engage the viewer and we share our top three answers for each type on a class padlet. (This is a new addition this year and will occur tomorrow for many classes, so there will definitely be a part two to this post!). This takes some work so it will take the entire class period.

The following day we dive into what a social issue, what are social issues. Some classes are going to use a new website (to me) called to share out social issues as a class while other classes will use the post it/poster method. Once we’ve sort of exhausted our social issue sharing muscle, students will complete a social issue think sheet before we have a restorative circle on which social issues affect our lives.

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Students will the next day get an overview on the assignment. The expectation is that they do some research – something so far I’ve scaffolded completely for them. I have again by creating Symbaloo Board where students have to check out two resources from. 

This is not at all a comprehensive social issue research – but it’s the stuff I’ve been wanting to share with kids in a quiet way. There are podcasts from Revisionist History;  tedtalk videos from artists who work with social issues; websites from the artists and videos from other artists; there are articles about education and systemic racism. The idea for me is to provide some jumping off points for students.

Then they have to find at least one other resource. We are going to discuss how to research appropriately and how to find good resources. Students will have to take notes on their research and their resource. Social Issue Research sheet is how they will record their findings and how they will use the information they find. Research is meaningless unless it sends you in a new direction or it’s something usable.

Then!! Students can begin planning their pieces – using social issue planning sheet. They can work collaboratively or alone, they can make almost anything BUT they MUST engage the viewer. The social issue rubric clearly shows that engagement is the goal. It must be thought out and planned in order for it to be successful. And that’s the part I didn’t do so well scaffolding in last year.

So far, in beginning this with 3 of my classes, students have been more obviously engaged and excited. Responses like, “that video was lit” and “today was the best day in this class” have demonstrated to me that the order of videos and the intensity of the introduction has worked. I may need to revisit the videos later on in order to keep the engagement high.

Over the past two years when I have done this assignment, students have made a variety of pieces engaging in social issues they are drawn to. Everything from legalization of marijuana, transgender rights, black lives matter, and gun violence has been a jumping point for students.

I hear you, I do… what does your administration say? They are really supportive. I send them a preemptive email with all my planning in it. I invite them into the classroom to be a part of anything they want – and they come.

These pieces and the unit become powerful catalysts for students to discover that art is more than just making pretty pictures – that their voices and their messages are a necessary part of this world and art is just one method for them to be heard.

How do you incorporate social issues into your classroom? How do you ensure that students feel safe enough to share and create?  

Here’s the Social Issues Overview powerpoint I’m using for this unit – I will add a few more slides in as the unit goes along but the basic introduction is here for you to use!

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