Artists of Color and Social Movements at Dyett High School

 In Curriculum Examples, The CAPE Blog

Honoring Black History Month, we are sharing a very special project that was led by performance artist Teju Adesida, CPS teacher Talisa English-Harris, and ACRE artist Zach Nicol. This past summer, Dyett High School students explored activism and movement, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protest. The project was multidimensional and interdisciplinary, where the students wrote lyrics, drew, and performed while learning more about activists from the 1960’s and 70’s.

Nina Simone student lyric project.

Initially, students were asked the following question: How have artists of color engaged in social/political/artistic movements? How can we use art to respond to issues affecting people and our world?

The project started with an open discussion about what art students are creating during the pandemic. As the project progressed the conversation shifted to explore the life and work of artists like Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne, Etta James, and Nina Simone. 

As Ms. English-Harris explained, “The project started to take shape with a discussion around researching artists, what genre should be the focus, and the structure of the class. We decided to start each class with music to listen to, reflect and create. We agreed to do a deep dive into an artist each week and end each day with a ‘word’ representing the day.”

Student Lela Parks drawing.

The first artists that the students listened to were Faith Ringgold and Aretha Franklin. As part of their assignment, they also created jamboards, or a collage, with pictures of Aretha Franklin. Some students even decided to perform their favorite Aretha Franklin lyrics.

Aretha Franklin student collaboration.

To further engage families in the discussion, students interviewed their parents or guardians to determine which artist they would like to focus on during the parent-choice week of the program. And it was through this collaboration and connection of music that the class was also able to discuss the life and work of Lena Horne and Etta James.

Lena Horne student collaboration.

Etta Jame student collaboration.

Ms. English-Harris shared that the “unit on Nina Simone evolved into a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. We listened to Nina Simone’s music, watched a documentary, examined lyrics, and had a lyric writing workshop.”

Nina Simone student lyric project.

When asked the reaction and response to this project, ACRE artist Zach Nicol shared that,“By nature of the artists chosen, we spent a good deal of time juxtaposing the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the present day BLM movement, talking about what tactics artists used then versus what artists use now. I heard the students light up in discussion as we connected the artists’ work to issues that mattered to them: cultural appropriation, hair discrimination and beauty standards, colorism, freedom, #SayHerName, feminism. In the final weeks of the summer, students swayed into a conversation around physical movements and dance as a protest. They looked at Dr. Shamell Bell’s work on Street Dance Activism, talked about the power of social dances and choreography as a metaphor for movement building.”

Check out the Valentine’s (LOVE) paintings post, where students and parents at New Sullivan Elementary celebrate their LOVE for each other by creating their own heart paintings for the guardian/family member they love.

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