Amanda Koonlaba | February 2019

The Diversity Knowledge Gap

As an arts educator, I’ve always had to seek out a lot of my own professional development opportunities.  I’ve had to finance those opportunities by applying through my district, or seeking outside funding. I understand this is a position that many of us find ourselves in. But I always like to note that I have been fortunate to work for a district that is incredibly supportive of my endeavors.

Diversity was one area of my practice that was difficult to address through professional development as a new teacher.  I call that the diversity knowledge gap. There used to be a huge hole in resources and professional development opportunities around the issue of diversity for arts educators.

Fortunately, today that has changed, and there are a lot more resources available for arts educators on the subject. In fact, you should check out the listings available from EducationCloset on varying populations of students!

The Diversity Toolkit and Some Key Understandings

I’ve been honored to be elected to attend the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly twice in my career. It is very humbling when your peers elect you to represent them as a member of such a large, policy-making body. This experience helped me become a better educator as well because I was able to see the decision-making processes behind the policies of the National Education Association (NEA). In particular, the policies that focus on diversity and equity.

The NEA has a wonderful Diversity Toolkit that can be accessed online. It was developed as a direct result of a position on diversity that was adopted at a Representative Assembly.  As a result of my experience at the Representative Assembly, I realized I had a lot of work to do to become more intentional in that area of arts education!

Here are some key points on diversity that I learned through my experience and as a result of reading and reflecting on the Diversity Toolkit:

  1. Diversity is multi-dimensional but is about how we are alike and different as human beings.
  2. Acceptance of diversity is critical to meeting the needs of ALL students.
  3. A diverse society benefits everyone.
  4. Fully embracing diversity leads to social justice which can be defined asa vision of a society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.

How the Key Understandings Play Out in Classrooms

Diversity is Multi-dimensional.

The first key understanding notes that diversity is multi-dimensional. These dimensions include, but are not necessarily limited to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, and immigration status. I started my work in this area of my classroom by being much more intentional about the artists that I chose to showcase to my students.

I grew up learning almost exclusively about male, Western artists. After reflecting on the Diversity Toolkit, I realized I was teaching about those same artists even though our student body was much more diverse. So, I’ve developed a list of diverse visual artists to share with you. (Just keep in mind the list is obviously not comprehensive or final!) I’m always adding to it, and I encourage you to do the same.

Visual Artist List

Leonardo Drew: installations with materials that have been weathered, oxidized, etc.

Theora Hamblett: paintings focus on childhood memories of growing up in the South

Ai Weiwei: sculptures and photographs with social justice and political overtones

Yto Barrada: work explores the peculiarities of Tangier, Morocco

Alexia Webster: “conflict art,” known for setting up portrait studios in refugee camps

Dorothea Lange: known for photographing migrant workers during the Dust Bowl

Jean-Michel Basquiat: variety of artwork that focuses on dichotomies such as wealth and poverty

Faith Ringgold: known for her storytelling quilts

Kehinde Wiley: painted the official portraits of the Obamas for the National Portrait Gallery

Romare Bearden: mixed media work depicts the black American experience

Jacob Lawrence: known for creating modernist depictions of everyday life and The Migration Series

Carrie Mae Weems: contemporary photographer with a vast body of work

Frida Kahlo: very well-known painter famous of introspective and feminist works

Sofonisba Anguissola: Renaissance painter known for portraits of children

Ethel Carrick: Impressionist with works that rival Claude Monet’s

Alice Bailly: Cubist painter with works that rival Picasso, Cezanne, and Mondrian

Natalia Goncharova: Avant-Garde works that make brilliant use of bold colors and patterns

Tarsila do Amaral: student of Fernand Leger with works that border on the surreal while making use of bright colors, bold shapes, and simplified subject matter

Maria Primachenko: known for Ukranian folk works

Maria Martinez: known for clay pots in the Pueblo tradition

Acceptance of Diversity is Critical

The second key understanding evokes a sense of community building in the classroom. I’ve written about some strategies for building community before. Team Challenges are a favorite of mine.

However, a recent Creatively Connected Classroom podcast episode really hit home for me on this one. Holly Bess Kincaid was the guest on this particular podcast and she talked about creating an environment of mutual learning. She states, “No matter where you are, it’s creating a safe space for students to feel like they can use their visual voice and they can share things and use their artwork to be an outlet for a lot of things that… I think it’s a matter of being open and honest with students, and getting to know them, allowing them time to share… it’s giving them that chance to really find success in sharing who they are and where they come from… It’s a mutual learning environment.”

This plays out in the arts classroom as we develop that community and mutual respect for each other as human beings. As we do that, we not only accept diversity, we value it and model that for others, too.

A Diverse Society Benefits Everyone

The third key understanding is about learning from each other. We do have much to learn from the people who share similar life situations and backgrounds as us, but that learning and the experiences can be doubly enriching when we interact with others that we don’t have as much in common with.

I follow a blog called Teaching Traveling where the question about the importance of diversity was posed. I love the answer given, and I keep the simple message near to me at all times as I work with students and teachers: Diversity matters because “being inclusive is the right thing to do.” Almost every religion or spiritual and faith-based belief system in the world has a teaching about treating others the way we’d like to be treated. In the field of education, we can take that one step further by acknowledging and embracing the research that tells us diversity leads to innovation. (Thanks Harvard!).

Fully Embracing Diversity Leads to Social Justice

The fourth key understanding also touches on that notion of doing the right thing by others. We want to live in a society where there are no groups of oppressed people. Where everyone is safe and secure. Where all human beings have access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So then we must embrace the diversity of the many human beings that inhabit the planet with us.

This also plays out in our classrooms as we set expectations for our students that are fair, beneficial, and just. Think about things like how you ensure all students are able to access their creativity regardless of ability. Also, as educators, we seek opportunities to impact policies outside of our classrooms that benefit all students and equity across all of our schools. Think about things like advocating for all schools to have highly-qualified arts teachers and for all students to have access to an array of arts classes.

Closing the Gap

I’ve touched on a pretty wide variety of ways diversity impacts our practice as arts educators in this piece. I’m elated that it is certainly easier to find resources for educators these days on the issues within the realm of diversity in education. I encourage you (as I encourage myself) to read as much as you can on the topic. The Diversity Toolkit is an amazing place to start.

I hope the four key understandings I developed to guide my practice are helpful in closing your own diversity knowledge gap. I am sure you will have more ideas to share, and I am so eager to learn from you! Please be sure to keep in touch and leave comments on this post. Let’s keep working to close this gap together!

About the Author

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed. S. is an educator and educational consultant with over 12 years of experience teaching both visual art and regular education. Her career has been driven by the power of the arts to reach all learners. She is a published author and frequent speaker/presenter at education conferences. Amanda was named the Elementary Art Teacher of the Year for the state of Mississippi in 2016 and received the Arts Integration Service Award from the Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative (Mississippi Arts Commission) in 2015. She holds an Elementary and Middle Childhood Art certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. As a coach for The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, Amanda is on a mission to ensure every student in America has access to a high-quality arts-based education. She blogs at