Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, students around the globe need access to holistic education practices that address their social-emotional wellbeing and lived experiences. Teachers, families, and students are experiencing social and political crises of racism, white supremacy, and systemic inequities. Current social and political conditions further marginalize and oppress students from racialized minority backgrounds, students from low-income backgrounds, and students with exceptionalities. Researchers have identified the need for national policies and practices that address diversity and new populations such as immigrants, who comprise a skilled global citizenry. (1) We take the position that for education to be fully inclusive, it must feature “pedagogies that value ethnic, racial, and language differences simultaneously and intentionally” and “be committed to disrupting those that have historically pathologized students’ abilities.”(2) Namely, practices that offer emancipation, liberation, and ways to sustain multiple and diverse cultures are necessary to fully include and empower students and teachers to explore and express intersectional identities.
We make a case for how and why arts learning offers innovation in doing just this. In her volume on intersectional identities in visual arts education, Hatton explains: “The intersections and often ‘liminal’ spaces a person may experience being in (Rollock, 2012) often mean indescribable feelings of fluctuating identity, spaces where the ‘I’ is solidly located but not often recognized or is perhaps (3) felt as invisible to others. This intersectional approach, to see the overlapping context in thinking about the self, and self-identity, moves on from concepts of individualized ‘identity thinking.’ It no longer adopts unitary categories of, for example, gender, race, sexuality, class, but rather aims to see our social identities and their performativity as multi-factorial and relational.”
Acknowledging and uplifting student identities through arts practices offer a way forward for education and societies globally and locally through conceptual access points such as the history and cultural contexts of students’ lives. (4)(5) Access as embodied interpretation through orientation to self, others, and spaces highlight its role as much more than a measurable entity and underscore its conceptual dimensions and its relationship to the social and physical environment. (6)
Too often, education systems pathologize students rather than consider and celebrate their assets and values, which further exclude, marginalize, and create larger chasms with those who sit squarely within the margins of schools and societies. (7) Seldom do we consider the dimensions of conceptual access insofar as students’ intersectional identities are honored, nurtured, and promoted as the fundamental lifeline of human engagement and wellbeing. Global education policy over the past decade has emphasized the goal of inclusive education for children with disabilities, among all individuals, extending from childhood to adulthood, through conceptual (attitudes, rights, belief systems) and physical (proximity, geographic location, availability of services/supports) dimensions of access. (8)
We argue for arts — teaching and learning— as an innovative educational approach that supports students’ conceptual and physical access to academic and social-emotional learning. Arts can address key topics in the many futures of education, such as:
- The reimagination of learning spaces,
- The dimensions of social-emotional learning,
- The inclusion of global citizenship in school and university curriculum, and
- Student agency and its role in future-building
Students need to have their social-emotional needs met before they can succeed in any academic context. They need to feel belongingness, safety, and connection. One way that we can support this is by helping children explore and examine their identities with a strengths-based approach. Identity development and acceptance are central to the human experience. It is intersectional, adapted, and negotiated in response to environmental factors. To tackle something so complex and in doing so, we uplift aspects of students’ “selves” that might otherwise go unrecognized or celebrated in the classroom. We can offer music, drawing, drama, poetry, painting, and a variety of art forms to help students and their peers to learn and know self-love and love for each other.
Art can be an embodiment of lived identities. Art can be a demonstration of inclusive practice that supports an asset-based approach to teaching, learning, and development. Arts are a time-honored form of resistance and activism and can be leveraged to empower student voices and encourage students to be agents of change. Arts emphasize the collective over the individual, mirroring this core tenet of culturally sustaining pedagogy. Arts learning offers multiple modes of engagement, representation, action, and expression and has been identified as a universal design for learning practice. (9)(10)
Arts integration in the classroom is also linked to increased cognitive and affective engagement. (11) Engagement begets access, and access begets learning. Arts can be leveraged to foster self-exploration, self-understanding, and community building. Artmaking invites shared voices in decision-making and process, allowing the teacher to step into the role of facilitator with students at the center. These are all key elements of what a culturally sustaining learning environment could look and feel like. In this way, access can be framed as a way that individuals make meaning for themselves in their environment, in which they question their place or orientation, as well as action about the relationships between individuals and social spaces. (12) While arts are not a magical cure-all, they directly benefit students academically and socially, can be claimed as a tool in a culturally responsive and sustaining toolkit, and therefore support key tenets of the many futures of education.
Change-making historian Lerone Bennett Jr. (1928-2018) said, “An educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary or an oppressor.”(13) At this juncture in our global history, we as educators, must be revolutionaries. We have an opportunity to rebuild education systems and see the rubble of a post-Covid landscape as rich soil with which to grow seeds of agency, empathy, and change. Fundamentally, students need from us now what they have always needed: Care. Grace. Attention. Empowerment. We can harness the power of the arts to deliver these to our students, as well as to take steps toward dismantling racist ideas and systemic injustices.