A Day of Learning at Nelson-Atkins

Two weeks ago, the KC Kids Unite team gathered at the renown Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, centralized in downtown Kansas City for the final preparation of launching the project in their classrooms.  Participating teachers of KC Kids Unite attend two professional development workshops prior to beginning the curriculum work with their students.

The primary goals of the April workshop include:

  • Continue strengthening relationships with teacher cohort and among partnerships
  • Take teachers through art literacy activity students will participate in on their field trip to Nelson-Atkins
  • Develop action plans for weeks 2-3 of curriculum
  • Address concerns brought up in January workshop regarding the complexity of topics topics embedded within the curriculum.

Photo Apr 06, 2 58 01 PM

The day began with art viewing in one of the galleries, where we analyzed and discussed the piece, Mound Magician by Radcliffe Bailey.  This piece celebrates the baseball great and Kansas City native, Satchel Paige and his accomplishments during his time in the Negro Leagues.  But, much more than that it immerses artifacts and symbolism representative of the times and conflict facing a nation.  We were lead in a conversation that began broadly with “What do you notice?” and “What do you see?”  As the group offered different ideas and noticings, the conversation ultimately moved into one of depth, connection, pattern, and universal concepts.

After the art discussion, we moved into our own art workshop.  Led by the text, Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, participants were provided patterns and designs from varying cultures along with images of various body parts, to create a quilt square representative of themselves in the world.  This workshop emulated that which students will participate in when they attend the Nelson-Atkins in May with their partnership classrooms.  The student quilt squares will be put together to make an actual paper quilt of their work, just as in Tar Beach, and their work will remain on display throughout the summer.

As we moved into the afternoon, a time dedicated for teachers to plan for the weekly curriculum and activities, we first began by discussing Secrets in a Hat.  Secrets in a Hat is an activity we do at the end of our January Workshop simply asking teachers to anonymously submit concerns or challenges they are facing with the work of this project.  The primary concerns of the group were:

  • I worry about my students being able to handle the mature nature of these lessons/conversations
  • Can I really address racial issues as a white person?
  • I am nervous how the parents will react
  • Are we representative of the students and communities within which we teach?  How will this impact our ability to authentically connect with others from different backgrounds and experiences?

These questions, weighty to be sure, always lead us to the more human version of ourselves because in answering them we attempt to begin to peel back the complex layers of marginalization and inequality.  Halfway through the conversation I’d wished I’d been recording it.  Summarizing it here will never do justice because words on digital paper can never really portray the moments when our most vulnerable and transparent selves look to virtual strangers, saying, “help me do this better.”  Strangers whose trust with one another has really only been established by the fact that we’re all in the same room together, so collectively we understand that equity and voice reign paramount in our beliefs.  Yet it is with this profound knowing, that we enter the abyss.

In the words of Margaret Wheatley,

“We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused.  Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new.  Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lives.  Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing. If we can move through the fear and enter the abyss, we are greatly rewarded.  We rediscover we are creative.” (Turning to One Another, p. 41)

And so we agreed to enter.  Even if we fumbled or said something ignorant or offensive, we entered knowing that we’d be gently redirected, educated.  That if real change is to happen, it starts by knowing our biases and blinders.  It starts by doing the difficult thing we are about to lead our students through, too.

It was through this conversation we determined we are the people capable of facilitating this work, simply by being a presence in the classroom that is open and puts student voices at the forefront.  This is not a project set-up for the teacher to lead.  It’s the student voices that will be heard most prominently, as it should be.  One can only begin the work of advocacy by being educated and speaking truth.  This is that platform for our kids.  It’s their stories that need to be heard.  It’s the brilliance in their ideas that will build a better future.  It is their hands that will work to connect our communities and break down the barriers that divide us.  We remind them of what we remind ourselves,

As you discover what strength you can draw from your community in this world from which it stands apart, look outward as well as inward.  Build bridges instead of walls.

Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor