Susan Riley | January 2021

Using the Arts to Discuss Difficult Topics

On January 6, 2021, the world watched as the United States Capitol Building was breached. And within hours, teachers everywhere were wondering, “how do I even begin to address this with my students?”.

Social media groups and feeds were flooded with educators asking each other questions, seeking resources, and offering ideas for engaging students in conversations that both explored the historical nature of the event and addressed the trauma that occurred from seeing this unfold in real-time. For better or worse, we can all access information visually, aurally, and in print within seconds. And in a moment like this, educators knew children were watching.

But let’s be honest: this isn’t the first time we educators have needed to address traumatic situations with our students. In just my 20 years in education, we’ve had to talk about Columbine, 9/11, Sandy Hook, the contentious 2016 election, and many others. And while this latest event has stirred yet another conversation about how best to tackle difficult conversations in the classroom, it won’t be the last.

Using the Arts as a Prompt

One of the main areas to consider has always been how to teach about a topic without influencing it with bias. Looking for sources that do not have a political leaning is proving more challenging. However, this is a wonderful opportunity to use the arts. During unfolding events like these, photographs are being taken and shared at a rapid pace. Music is being written to describe our feelings and express a desire for change. Media arts are being used to share artistic expression and distribute the creative expressions people are using to share their interpretations.

As educators, we can use the arts as a primary source to help facilitate conversation, guide students in the difference between opinions and facts, and to process their natural emotional reactions.

Don’t know where to start? Try using photographs of the event as a prompt for discussion. To do this without bias, begin by using the See, Think, Wonder artful thinking routine and possibly moving to the iNotice3 strategy.

Start by providing students with an image from the event. A great place to find images that you can embed into a slideshow for students is Getty Images. Here’s a quick sample of what an embedded slideshow looks like:
Embed from Getty Images

Ask them to quietly look at the whole image and to write down everything they see. Then, ask them to write down what they are thinking about the image. Finally, ask them to write down any questions or wonderings they have about the image.

Once they have these 3 items written down, discuss each component. Have students share what they are seeing, thinking, and wondering aloud and use these as a way to facilitate a discussion about the image source itself. This doesn’t have to become a commentary about whether the situation was right or wrong. Instead, this is simply a way to begin to process what they are seeing.

Our brains process so much visual information constantly, it’s hard to keep up or to know what we’re actually seeing, thinking, and feeling. This process of using the arts as a prompt can help students slow down and begin to think critically.

Analyze Photographs and Research

This article from The Atlantic provided a powerful example for educators on how to use a photograph for research. In the article, it shows a single photograph and then proceeds to explore the two portraits hanging in the background. The author provides background of the individuals in the portraits, and offers a thesis for why the photograph captures a culmination of the civil issues still being discussed today.

As educators, this breakdown can help us understand how to both present this kind of photograph with our students, as well as have them work on their own research projects surrounding larger themes of civil discourse, rights and responsibilities of citizens, and how history impacts the future.

For example, students could each be assigned a photograph from an event and asked to conduct research on the elements within it. The setting, context, supporting details, and main idea are all important here and can be found visually. Students can analyze these components, explore how they fit together within the image, and then create a written opinion piece about the photograph using these details as supporting evidence.

Using the Arts for Expression

Creativity is the fingerprint of the human spirit. We often make sense of the world through creating. So providing a way for students to express what they are thinking and feeling is critical for their understanding. Offering opportunities for students to explore what they are seeing and turning that into a piece of music, a piece of art, a dance, or an acting experience can be helpful.

Here are some ways students can express themselves through the arts:

  • Create song lyrics describing their thoughts about what they are seeing/feeling.
  • Create a song mashup using Garageband or Audacity. Find different songs that have been previously recorded and splice small sections of them together to create a new song.
  • Collage photographs, maps, or other images together to create a visual time capsule.
  • Develop a piece of collaborative choreography that creates a timeline of the event you’ve selected. If you’re in virtual school, each student can film their choreography and then in a virtual group, piece it together in WeVideo to create a single choreographed dance.

Leveraging Supporting Resources

As with anything, the arts don’t live alone. Connecting artistic opportunities to process and express interpretations of current events should happen in combination with learning key content, such as the difference between opinion vs. fact, historical information, and social-emotional competencies. Here are some additional resources that may be helpful:

  • iCivics is an excellent site. Their resource for the Capitol Riots offers a lot of excellent information for teachers.
  • Reuters Graphics provides a set of graphics and supporting documents that students can use for research on a variety of topics.
  • The Smithsonian Open Access site offers open access images, remixes of music, 3D artwork with data points, and illustrations students can explore.

Teaching controversial topics and having difficult conversations is always a challenge and can make us feel uncomfortable as educators. But it can also be one of the most meaningful things we do for our students. Providing a safe, judgment-free space for students to explore information and express their thoughts and feelings is key to their growth as 21st-century citizens. The arts play a vital role in that process and can unlock the power for change in the next generation.

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan