Planning to Change the World

Every year the good people at the Education for Liberation Network publish Planning to Change the World: A Plan Book for Social Justice Teachers. It is a wonderful, inspiring resource and well worth buying.  This year they included a profile of me and my colleague Melanie Manuel:

Here is the text:

Please introduce yourselves.

I’m Melanie Manuel and I teach Spanish at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. I’m Joshua Block and I teach English and History at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

Describe the work you do with students in creating public art around Philadelphia.

Over the past six years, we’ve worked with students to create several street art pieces on a heavily trafficked street near our school in downtown Philadelphia. The themes varied. Our most recent installation was done with the support of the Inside Out Project. The large, black and white portraits of students are wheat-pasted to the walls of an overpass, along with excerpts, in both Spanish and English, from students’ writing on language, identity and immigration. Prior to this installation, we created a piece inspired by Candy Chan’s “Before I Die” work in New Orleans. This installation was a participatory art piece painted on the wall with chalkboard paint and stencils, where passersby could complete prompts by writing on the wall in Spanish or English. The prompts included: Before I die…, I wish I could…, and I believe… The previous year we worked with students to create a photo exhibit of student portraits portraying a social justice alphabet (inspired by the work of Wendy Ewald.) The large images of students and the alphabet were hung in the windows of our school, facing outwards.

What inspired the public art projects and working together?

Both of us are interested in the ways the arts and social justice can change the learning experiences of our students and the public narrative about urban students and schools. In our work as educators, we find ways to make our students’ learning experiences meaningful, public and empowering. We work to amplify our students’ voices by putting their words out into the world in creative and inspiring ways. We have been working at the same schools for 11 years.

At our current school, we work to create and add to a culture of collaboration and creativity within the community. Although we teach different subjects, we recognized the intersection of the themes we were each exploring in our classes and saw an opportunity to collaborate and work with students to create. Each of us is energized and supported by working together!

What is different about doing this work from what you do in school? How is what you are doing with the art connected to what you do in school?

Our public art installations are not different from what we do in school; they are, in fact, extensions of what happens in our classrooms. The art pieces are the public manifestation of the work we ask our students to do. Both of us design learning experiences for our students that allow them to interrogate their identities, the world around us and their place in that world. The art projects are a way to make the learning and the thinking into public creations that challenge others in our city to think deeply about and examine issues that are part of all of our lives. By putting student work, insights and images out on the walls near a busy city street, the city becomes our audience.

What are some of the specific connections you and your students make between what you do in Spanish or English or History and the public art installations? Can you explain this through one of your projects?

Last school year Josh’s 11th grade English class undertook an inquiry into ideas of Identity and Belonging through novels, essays, poems, films, and numerous discussions about the way identity and belonging are constructed or destroyed. The unit culminated with students writing essays that combined personal experience with outside theory. Simultaneously, Melanie’s Spanish 1 students explored their families’ immigration stories during their unit on family. As a culminating project, they composed songs with lyrics in Spanish that told their families’ stories.

As we were approaching the end of our units, we presented our students with the possibility of a public art project, showing them examples from the Inside Out Project, and solicited their feedback. It was clear that students were interested and that each of our classes was in the process of producing work that could be included in a larger public work.

At this point, we stepped into the role of facilitators and organizers. Some students who have an interest in photography created a schedule to set up photo shoots. Meanwhile we pulled excerpts from student work and solicited funding for larger prints. Later we recruited groups of students to help with installation several days after school, teaching them how make wheat paste on a hotplate in the science lab. At the same time, other students were outside, marking up the wall with tape for the layout.

About two months after presenting the initial idea to the classes, the final product was done: 20 larger than life images of young people from a range of backgrounds up on the wall of a busy street. Underneath were multiple quotes from students, in different languages, about their own experiences of and beliefs about identity and belonging. The success of our project was immediately evident from the responses of students, teachers, and random people who would stop to appreciate the work as they nodded and smiled.

How have young people responded to being engaged in these projects?

They have been incredibly enthusiastic. We’ve facilitated the process and found ways to make sure students are leading the different steps to complete the installations. It is powerful to see students seeing themselves in an installation. The responses of passersby are affirming and appreciative of the students and of work that brings a dingy overpass to life.

What challenges have you faced doing this work?

When we began this work, we struggled with logistics. We didn’t know whom to ask for permission. We weren’t sure how to get entire classes involved in a democratic way. Eventually, more of a process evolved. It turns out that for a random neglected wall under a nasty overpass, you don’t actually need permission! Anything you do to improve the space will be appreciated by the community. Also, we realized that it’s hard to involve entire classes in projects like these, but that students can opt-in for different stages and that the work itself is exciting enough that we are able to motivate a critical mass of students to participate. We’ve been fortunate to have support from the city, our administration, the community at large and members of our school community. Finally, we had to learn to be flexible and kind to each other and to the students.

Teachers are overloaded and there were times when one or the other of us was pulled away to deal with other things. There were also times when students didn’t show up when we expected them. It helped that creating art is a joyful process and creating work that conveys complex ideas about justice was inspiring for all of us.


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