Our 5th Graders will be visiting the High Museum of Art next Wednesday, and one of the featured exhibits this season is the art Atlanta-based African American painter Hale Woodruff, who in 1938 painted a series of murals for Talladega College, one of the first black colleges in the US.
Three of Woodruff’s murals at Talladega memorialize the 1839 Amistad uprising, in which captured Africans from Sierra Leone mutinied against their captors, eventually taking their case to court (defended by John Adams). Ultimately, these would-be slaves won their freedom in what is often considered the first civil rights court case in US history. Against the backdrop of Jim Crow laws and segregation of the 1930s US, Woodruff’s art makes a powerful statement.
Keeping this in mind, I worked with the 5th grade teachers to plan an activity in the library where students could engage with some other examples of artwork that makes a political statement.
To prepare for the activity, I collected a variety of artwork for students to explore, including paintings, a quilt, graffiti, street murals, posters, poetry, and song lyrics created in the last century. Since 5th grade has been learning about segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, all the artwork we looked at was created to advocate for civil rights, and most of the artists were people of color.
When 5th grade visited the library last week, we started by exploring Hale Woodruff’s murals. Then the students divided into pairs to look at one piece of artwork and answer some open-ended questions: What do you think the artist or author was trying to say? What details stand out? How does this artwork relate to the time period when it was made? How does the artwork make you feel?
At the end of the session, since each pair of students had looked at a different piece of artwork, I projected all the pieces of art on the SMART Board and had each pair of kids share their impressions with the whole group.
During this activity, I did share some historical context and background information about the artists with students as they worked. However, I didn’t share my opinions about the art with students, because I wanted the kids to make their own interpretations and reach their own conclusions.
I’m going to let the outcome of this activity speak for itself by sharing with you the art that the students looked at along with transcripts of some of their comments. The reactions you’re about to read are students’ exact words. Besides combining reactions from the three classes, the only changes I made were grammatical edits.