Pedagogy of Empowerment

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Cheryl Pope, Community Is Built On Empathy, 2016, installation at Kenyon College Athletic Center, Gambier, Ohio. Courtesy of the artist.

Cheryl Pope has a background in fashion design and boxing, a unique combination of skills and interests that has informed her career as a contemporary artist. Pope’s multidisciplinary artworks fuse elements of her multifaceted identity together through a materials based process that addresses social and emotional themes and issues. Her work also embodies principles and methods of collaborative learning, where diverse groups of people cooperate in activities that broaden their sense of self, communal, and civic relationships.

A major topic within Pope’s work is the role of the individual and the collective within communities. She often works with young artists and students across Chicago, Illinois to explore, discover, and express how race, gender, class, history, power, and place affect the identity of a community at large.

Pope portrays communities as being an amalgamation of identities, with a foundation of unique multicultural perspectives that reveal strength through diversity. Her work has poignant and positive sociocultural overtones, which emphasize the importance of exhibiting empathy towards one another. One of Pope’s large scale installations that profoundly addresses this is Community Is Built On Empathy (2016), which was initially installed in the gymnasium at the Kenyon College Athletic Center in Gambier, Ohio. The installation consists of several banners –such as the ones you would see in a school gym or sporting arena to announce specific performance accolades– adorned with personal declarations. Hanging above and around the gymnasium floor, these banners are reminders of what it means to display value for yourself and others. The banners were created during the spring 2016 Semester at Kenyon College when Pope collaborated with two social science professors and their classes.  The students in the two professor’s classes prompted anonymous personal statements from Kenyon college students and alongside Pope, they selected twenty of them to be made into banners.

Examples of specific texts include “I’m not good at being vulnerable,” “I am learning,” and “I wish I did more.” These phrases signify largely archetypal ideas about self perception. They are statements that have likely crossed our minds at one time or another. Whether we are open about these thoughts or not, these private and intimate notions shape the way we perceive ourselves and others. Sometimes we feel good about ourselves, while other times we have low self-esteem and feel largely negative about the condition of things. If we all want to live our best lives, we need to establish a strong sense of community by showing that we are aware and engaged in strengthening and embracing our personal and collective self-worth. That is the crux of Pope’s installation.

The fact that Pope’s artwork, Community Is Built On Empathy, was both realized and exhibited within an educational setting is a testament to the idea schools should create and maintain an environment that supports equity, equality, social justice, and good well-being. Schools are communities made up of diverse groups of students and faculty members, each with their own unique experiences and backgrounds. As a result, it is a school’s fundamental duty to champion, recognize, and reflect the diversity and uniqueness that is both implied and explicit within the school community.

Schools should enable and empower students’ and educators’ best traits, while prompting them to be understanding, compassionate, and patient with others. No one should feel disempowered or ashamed of who they are. The systemic perpetration of self-deception is a dangerous and dehumanizing practice, which leads to self and interpersonal discord. The whole framework of passing and failing within systems of education needs to be refocused in order to allow for students to make bold and positive discoveries about themselves and the world around them. Collectively addressing our vulnerability, weaknesses, and self-worth, as well as celebrating our strengths and diversity, is the scaffolding and the pulse of a vibrant and liberated community.

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Artful Assessment: Depicting the Problem, Visualizing the Solutions

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Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Education is intrinsically an art form in practice. There is no single way to instruct, teach, or learn. As discussed in the previous post, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to the way students learn and the way educators should teach and instruct in the classroom. Traditionally, schools have focused on quantitative analysis of the student body to structure curriculums and plan lessons that will ensure students meet the educational requirements determined by a governing authority such as the state or federal government. This highly impersonal method of assessment relies on standardized tests, which treats students more like research subjects than actual human beings. “Teaching to the test” limits students’ autonomy to ask big questions and explore a wide range of relevant topics. Instead, students are subjected to repetition of pre-determined information and isolated skills, which limits their ability to think outside of the box and develop creative problem solving abilities. In short, the amount of student choice and personal relevance within the subject matter being taught is far more important than the amount of students who can pass a uniform test.

Measurable data such as the number of students from a particular socio-cultural or background is important in determining what resources might be needed in the classroom and school in order to provide an equal and equitable learning environment. For example, the number of black students living in New York City that are enrolled in Pre-K (which is free) is negatively disproportionate to the amount of Caucasian students. Another alarming quantitative statistic is that beginning in pre-school, black and hispanic students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students (almost three times more likely…). This is true even when the punishable infraction is the same. These aforementioned quantitative statistics are certainly helpful for encouraging educational activists to resolve the blatant equality and equity gap in schools and ensure that all students have the right to schools with excellent facilities and are treated the same regardless of their ethnic, racial, and economic background. However, when it comes to learning, teaching, and classroom management, it is the qualitative factors such as creativity and mindfulness that should take precedence throughout the educational environment.

Learning is most successful when it is practiced and assessed on a personal level, focused on differentiated instruction, in order for students to develop holistically and for everyone in the classroom (students AND teachers) to be passionate about learning. Of course, this qualitative form of assessment alludes the neat, cookie-cutter evaluations that standardize tests provide. However, just because something is harder to account for statistically doesn’t mean that it isn’t a better method of measuring and assessing students’ learning. When creativity and personalization are key components of teaching, students are better prepared to take on the world at large. Art-centered education provides enormous opportunities to measure students’ personal development and their ability to connect experience and education in a way that promotes life-long learning. The arts teach us to frame the world in the context of our personal and collective experiences. The arts promote empathy, positivity, diversity, and mindfulness among other progressive things. Education isn’t meant to be contained and compartmentalized just as what is considered art is entirely open ended. Creativity teaches us to embrace ambiguity and that is an essential mindset for students to carry with them throughout their lives.

An example of an artwork that combines both quantitative and qualitative assessment in a powerful, thought provoking manner, is How Was School? (2018) by Duneska Suannette. In this installation (currently on view at the JCC in Harlem in an exhibition on American education organized by Art in Flux) of an imagined elementary school classroom, we are initially confronted with the expression “tread lightly” on the door. Upon entering the classroom, the symbolism of this phrase is blatant. Suannette has constructed a both a real and surreal classroom environment for the viewer to carefully explore and engage. The word carefully is not to be taken lightly because the artist has installed bungie “trip wires” in a weblike construct several inches above the floor. This obstacle course, while reminiscent of the laser maze in Mission Impossible or Oceans Twelveis a poignant metaphor for the trials and tribulations that marginalized students (primarily students of color) experience in public schools. The installation features wallpaper made from colorful letter jumbles overlaid with black letters, which spell out stark statistics about the lack of equality and equity for students of color in the education system. While viewers are navigating through the classroom, a looped video is projected onto a wall featuring news stories and behind the scenes school board meetings discussing and debating the uneven treatment of lower-income students in schools.

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Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018.

While I was taking in the poignant messages, I was greeted by the Suannette, who asked me how my day was. We engaged in a conversation about equal and equitable education and what it means to give all students a safe, positive, and creative learning environment. I then focused my attention on the many empowering elements within the installation. For example, the classroom was made up of stations such as a reading area containing a treasure trove of children’s books about intersectionality of identity and multiculturalism, a play area with black dolls, and other uplifting objects and materials that are more inclusive of a diverse student body. It is important for all students to feel represented in their schools, and examples of literature, toys, and art works that express diversity are great ways to inspire empathy, mindfulness, and positive interactions within a heterogeneous educational setting.

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Suannette also set up an interactive activity where participants are asked to fill out a response on a star relating to what they associate Empathy, Being Positive, Mindfulness, and Implicit Bias to mean. This is a powerful form of assessment that prompts our recognition of the problems marginalized students face in schools and the artful and holistic actions we might employ to raise awareness and explore creative solutions for equity and equality in our schools.


You can participate in How Was School? and view other works that relate to educational issues in the exhibition Summer Break at the JCC Harlem (318 West 118th St, between Frederick Douglass Blvd & Manhattan Avenue) through December 2018.