By Heather Lowe, P.S. ARTS Teaching Artist
Martin Luther King, Jr. has become an integral part of every teacher’s curriculum. I like to watch and listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech every year because it rekindles what I believe in and what I hope to see in every child. When fellow P.S. ARTS Teaching Artist Hilary Hahn and I were given the opportunity to contribute our student work to THE DREAM@50 produced by Karz Productions, I was excited to reach beyond what the students already knew about Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted them to find a real connection to their own lives.
We sat in a circle and listened to his speech with the text in our hands. Students underlined certain phrases that were personally significant. The audio was good for this and allowed them to concentrate on the words. We then shared some of our choices with one another and reviewed some of the vocabulary. After the students chose their favorite phrase, we demonstrated different ways to make the words visual. Hilary Hahn brought examples of collages by artist Romare Bearden and I gave the students examples of illustrated words by artist Faith Ringgold. I was really surprised by some of the students’ choices. There were favorites, such as “Let Freedom Ring!” and “We cannot walk alone.”
But some students chose more complex phrases such as “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Their chosen phrase was used to form an outline of a shape of their own choosing. We asked the students to condense this phrase into one powerful word which would go inside the shape along with a collage composition reflecting the words. It could be their own word, a word already in the phrase, or a word relating to the phrase.
THE DREAM@50 Art Contest was for all K-12 students in ten U.S. cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Los Angeles, and San Francisco/Bay Area. Each participating school selected a winner and runner-ups, and the winners were then submitted on-line for the selection of the semifinalists. We were lucky to have six students selected as semifinalists. Their work is now displayed at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park. From the semifinalists, prominent judges selected a winner and two runner-ups for each category (elementary, middle, and high school).
At the ceremony, on January 21st, P.S. ARTS student Ryan Nordberg won first prize for the Elementary School category. Ryan’s submission went through a real transformation. He began the project with less than a lot of enthusiasm. As I said earlier, students learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. every year in elementary school. Ryan felt like he knew everything he ever needed to know. With a little coaxing and some guidance from his classroom teacher, he re-read some of the speech and he began to focus again on the words. His artwork went through some changes and cuttings, and soon it started to take on a life of its own. Ryan was happily inventing again and his drawing and collage ended up being one of the most original compositions in the class. I was so happy he won because I believe Ryan learned a great deal from this experience. He was ecstatic when his name was called because it was such a surprise. We were proud of all our students.
Many of the speakers at the ceremony mentioned that family support is essential in making Martin Luther King’s “dream” a reality. The celebration demonstrated that strength with all of the families was present. It was also a great experience for the elementary students to see work from other schools and work from the older middle and high school students.
Presenters of the awards included Gayle Garner Roski, Franklin Sirmans, Steven D. Lavine and Charmaine Jefferson. Vida Brown, Visual Arts Curator of CAAM, greeted our students with cupcakes at the reception. Mark Bradford and Christopher Knight were also judges of the artwork. In all, it was a wonderful experience and I hope the students took as much away from the day as I did.