Visual arts as a lever for social justice education: labor studies in the high school art curriculum

Sosin, A. A., Bekkala, E., Pepper-Senello, M. (2010). Visual arts as a lever for social justice education: labor studies in the high school art curriculum. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 6(1), 1-23.

Abstract:

Two researchers and one teacher-researcher collaborated on an action research project aimed at exploring more effective ways to improve content knowledge about labor equality, dignity of work, the power of collective action, and principles of economic fairness addressing literacy skills within a visual art classroom. A classroom of 56 high school students from low socioeconomic and diverse backgrounds in Bronx, NY participated in an introductory cross-disciplinary visual art curriculum that included artwork about social issues relating to labor. Researchers documented the impact of the course on students’ understanding of the power of art for social commentary while meeting NY State Learning Standards in visual arts.

Key Findings:

Students learned about social studies topics including the history of the labor movement, the Great Depression and Cesar Chavez’ movement for worker equity. This curriculum not only expanded participants’ knowledge of history, but also introduced them to new vocabulary. The researchers found that students engaged with the history and connected it to their own life experiences. The arts curriculum introduced students to the ways in which artists portray social through the use of specific materials and techniques to portray historical events. Understanding the potential for art to convey meaning, students developed their own art and meaning drawn from the vocabulary and visual art techniques learned that specifically related to their own lives.

Significance of the Findings:

Results from this study indicate that by learning about social labor issues through the visual arts, students were eager to connect in-school learning to their own personal lives as a way of navigating or negotiating their cultural values. The action research project outcomes indicate the value of incorporating labor studies content into the visual art curriculum as an effective method to meet visual arts standards and promote social justice awareness among students.

Methodology:

Two university researchers and one teacher-researcher designed an action research project to design a visual arts curriculum for a required introductory high school art class that addressed themes of social issues relating to labor. Three sections totaling 56 students from an urban comprehensive high school in the Bronx, New York participated in the curriculum. Demographically, the students were from middle to low socioeconomic backgrounds and from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. The curriculum was written to meet New York State visual arts standards.

Data sources included observations of teachers in professional development, observations of student learning in classroom activities, a survey of student attitudes and knowledge of labor unions, a questionnaire of students’ work experiences and/or knowledge of parental work, artworks produced by students as a classroom assignment, teacher-researcher’s field notes and reflective journal, lesson plans, and researcher reflections. All data was collected, coded and analyzed for themes using a grounded theory approach.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers recognized the limits of generalizability to their action research based case study that relied on qualitative data only, however they note that if the study intervention was repeated with other diverse groups, the validity and reliability of the results would increase.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Can a rubric be created that measures students’ artwork based on their intellectual, emotional and developmental growth in addition to the art skills and techniques?

How can themes and history of the labor union be used to work with adolescents in navigating issues of social class?