Teach Your Students to Use Art as a Tool for Social Advocacy

We know art is powerful. In fact, of all of the magical possibilities that our profession provides, perhaps the most amazing is that art can unify. It’s a universal language we all speak and it can bridge enormous divides.

Recently, I read a terrific piece on N.P.R. about how UNICEF created a series of animated, short, “Unfairy Tales” to help tell the story of refugee children. You can watch an example below or follow the link to see them all. Warning: these are not happy cartoons. They are heart-wrenching, compelling, animated shorts.

Whether or not you choose to watch, you know art can be a platform for social change because it reaches deep into our souls and speaks a visceral language we all understand.

In this case, UNICEF is hoping that seeing a humanitarian issue like this through the lens of an animator will draw more support for the cause.

Art serving as a tool for social activism or social healing is not new, but as art educators, we need to be reminded of this.

We can – and should – teach students that art can affect global change. But where to start?

student artwork

First, find a compelling example.

Choose an artist and a cause that is age appropriate for the children you teach. For example, I might use Keith Haring or Ai Weiwei with middle or high school students. Share with students the causes the artist is or was passionate about. Using Keith Haring, I might talk about how he addressed hot-button issues like AIDS, racial and income inequality, and nuclear proliferation with imagery that was incredibly relatable but also visually compelling.

Then, challenge your students to take up a cause.

Using the steps below, guide your students through the process of creating powerful works of art.

  1. Ask students to think about what’s important to them.
    Help tease out what they are passionate about by asking guiding questions. Do they have any causes that are already near and dear to them?
  2. Have students research their causes via social media.
    Help students explore the causes they’ve chosen. The Twitter and Facebook accounts for these causes and organizations are great places to start. Remind students that not only trivial things go viral. Seriously inspired and informative messages can go viral too.
  3. Challenge students to create art they will share on social media in honor of their chosen cause.
    As they create, ask students to think about how they can visually represent and support their cause. A discussion about symbolism and metaphor in art would be great here.
  4. Watch as your students are reminded of their power.
    As your students upload their work to social media and see it shared, liked, and retweeted, they will be amazed. They’ll realize that they have the power to affect change and make people take notice.

Note: If you are concerned about negative comments or privacy issues, you can set up a social media exchange through a platform like Edmodo so you can monitor everything. Students could then share outside the platform on their own.

Our students have strong opinions, a unique perspective to share, and an innate sensibility about what moves people to share online. Let’s empower them. Allow our young artists to inspire the social change they believe the world needs.

Do you currently teach a lesson related to social justice issues?

Are you teaching about a certain artist that is/was also an activist? If so, who?

Lee Ten Hoeve

Lee is an energetic PreK - 8th-grade art educator in an urban district. She’s passionate about making art a core subject and employing curiosity to engage learners. 

Related

  • We did an art project last year, Art 1, where students made posters in their choice of medium, to “tell the world” about something important to them. We looked at some 60’s artists, then brainstormed ideas. Problems encountered: students wanted to use the stencils to say something, and that was it. I plan to put all stencils away next year and teach lettering first thing! Also, while most kids’ messages were positive, some wanted to make something against a group, so I had to make a rule that no art should hurt another person or group. This led to discussions about empathy. I did allow pro-gun rights, since that didn’t directly target a person or group, but I felt uneasy about it. Guns do hurt people….. I like your social media idea, and did you know there is something called fakebook, where kids make a fake facebook page? I plan to try that next year. Thanks for the topic.

  • Lee Ten Hoeve

    Hi Kathleen,
    I have used Fakebook and it is a cool resource. I find it interesting that you had students looking to send hurtful messages. Maybe allotting more time at the onset of the lesson to share more positive examples might help. I spent an entire period on that, but I felt it was worth it because the students were very clear that they needed to send positivity through their art. These lessons certainly lead to heavy discussions – like you mentioned gun rights – but I feel that is a positive thing. Strong teachers – like you – can handle it and demonstrate how art can be used as a tool for advocacy. Thanks for sharing Kathleen!