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Lower School's Heather Rigney Talks Grade 4 Social Justice Tapestries

This is a guest blog post by Lower School Art Teacher Heather Rigney

Fourth grade had been studying the art of Mexico and I wanted to introduce the students to a contemporary female artist. Through Instagram, I stumbled upon the textile art of  Victoria Villasana. I felt her colorful tapestry work, woven over existing photographs, told stories that would enrich my students’ artistic and intellectual experience. Villasana states that she is a textile artist, interested in cultures & human spirit, looking at how cultures connect to each other in a fragmented, post-digital world.

An introduction to Victoria Villasana

Students were given a fact sheet that I made (featured below) as a jumping off point for inspiration. We discussed what we read and saw, then asked questions about what we wanted to learn more about.

What is a social justice cause?

Our next step was to discuss social justice issues. I gave a brief overview of what a social justice cause could be and told students to think about what was important to them. We discussed that politics would not be a part of this and, if we disagreed with someone out in the big wide world, we would not wish anyone any harm. I then told the group to call out any causes that struck a nerve with them and wrote each topic on the board. Students were also instructed to abstain from personal stories. Here is the list they came up with:

After the list was generated, I went through each cause and gave a brief, non-biased, age-appropriate overview of what I knew about each topic and again, barring any story-sharing, asked if there was a need for clarification.

That night, I sent this list and an explanation of the project to each of the Grade 4 parents. I told them that I would be selecting two photographs for each topic because sending Grade 4 students on Google searches armed with the search word "Gun Violence" would not be in anyone’s best interest. To my great relief, all of the parents that I heard from were excited and supportive of the project.

What diversity, equity, and inclusion really looks like

The next time we met as a class, Grade 4 students were given an array of photographs to choose from. Because Villasana features strong women she admires, I also provided students with the option of female icons. Images of Michelle Obama and Oprah—a few of the class favs—were then additionally provided as options. However, one student wanted to honor her mother’s Laotian heritage and was discouraged to realize that Asian American female role models frequently hail from either Japan, Korea, or China. Southeast Asian American females of note are not as easy to come by. We looked and looked but had a lot of empty searches.

My discussion with this particular student sparked another conversation with the school librarian, Meagan Lenihan. Both Meagan and I made it our mini-mission to ensure that the library had books that represented this particular population and several new books were ordered.

The art-making process

The next goal that students tackled was three-fold: choose a powerful message, glean inspiration from Aztec-inspired textile examples, and sew yarn into a paper photograph. We found the last task to be the most daunting and students were quickly given the option of gluing yarn rather than attempting to sew and, as a result, sadly ripping the paper. Soon, bragging rights were garnered by those students who chose to sew rather than glue as the glue-users sent praises to the drudging seamstresses.

The project wrapped up once students evaluated themselves on a self-evaluation worksheet that I provided to assess the level of understanding and knowledge gained by the students for each of their learning goals. The work was also featured on my K-5 Lincoln Visual Arts Instagram account where, much to the fourth-graders' intense joy, Victoria Villasana herself commented on the work.