Building Connections Between Ideas, People, and Communities

Written by Shahara Anderson-Davis

When you hear the term “art education”, what comes to mind? Many people think of students sitting at desks, drawing, painting or making clay pots. But this image is misleading, as it fails to represent the complex thinking and creative making that takes place in the visual art classroom. One of my favorite books, Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, introduces eight “studio habits of mind” that are taught in the art classroom but are also critical to other academic and life contexts: Developing Craft, Observing, Envisioning, Reflecting, Expressing, Exploring, Engaging and Persisting, and Understanding Art Worlds. In other words, learning visual art techniques is only the tip of the art education iceberg. As an art teacher, it is my responsibility to design and implement lessons that encourage students to leave the comfort of their desks, dive below the water’s surface and explore the rest of the iceberg.

Part of exploring the entire iceberg is taking learning outside the classroom and into the community. In D.C., teachers are fortunate to have a myriad of arts and cultural organizations and institutions at their fingertips. However, we often have so much on our plate that the amount of planning it takes to thoughtfully integrate those resources into our lessons can be overwhelming. This summer, I joined a small team of teachers that were selected to develop new curriculum for DCPS Arts. Given my perspective on the type of learning that art education can deliver to students, you can imagine my excitement when I was told that we would be collaborating with community partners throughout this process. Together, we developed units that will make it easier for teachers to engage students in authentic art education through themes and resources that are unique to Washington, D.C. My collaborating partner was Shahara Anderson-Davis, the Communications and Community Engagement Manager for the 11th Street Bridge Park.

To kickstart our writing process, Shahara and I brainstormed connections between the park and projects that I have done with students in the past. We came up with a ton of ideas but one important theme caught our attention: building connections between ideas, people and communities that were previously distant. This theme is what the 11th Street Bridge Park is all about, as two of its major goals are connecting the community to the Anacostia River and reconnecting the neighborhoods of Anacostia / Fairlawn and Capitol Hill / Navy Yard. This theme is also prominent in the art world as art unites people and communities by serving as a tool to communicate ideas, share histories and explore diversity.

Our building connections theme informed the writing of units in the larger “Identity” arc of the DCPS Arts curriculum framework. From a PreK-2nd Grade unit that links community identity to performance art to a 9th-12th Grade unit that challenges students to reflect on their personal travel patterns by creating a work of art that represents a journey to an unfamiliar destination in D.C., our units encourage teachers and students to explore the entire art education iceberg. Whether you are a student, teacher, parent, or community member, I hope our work will inspire you to explore the other icebergs around us and use them as a tool to build connections.

Jesse White is an art teacher at MacFarland Middle School and Roosevelt High School. She plans to pilot the Bridge Park related lesson plans in the 2016-17 calendar year​. Check out her website for project ideas and photos or help support her students by donating to her classroom.