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Connecting with the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

Finding Your Voice

Drawing on themes of conflict and genocide that eighth-graders are studying in their World Cultures class, four arts teachers organize an interdisciplinary unit that encourages students to use their artwork as a form of protest.



FAIR School
(Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School)


Crystal, MN




Visual Art
Language Arts
Social Studies


Students explore ideas of conflict and protest through original artwork.

The Integrated Instruction

Rachael Hoffman-Dachelet, Visual Art Teacher
The important concept tying this interdisciplinary arts unit together is protest, though we’re calling it “Finding Your Voice.” I asked the students to think about how art can be used to change society. I had given this assignment before, and the surprising thing is how much deeper and more emotionally significant the art is now that the students have studied genocide in their World Cultures class.

Cathryn Peterson, Language Arts Teacher
In World Cultures we spend about ten weeks studying conflict, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. We focus on the idea of culture throughout the entire year, and we try to focus on teaching kids about that in terms of history, art, literature, and their own personal experiences with the world.

Robert Prater, Social Studies Teacher
In eighth grade, the students technically have an English and social studies class separately, but we teach them together all year as World Cultures. With this unit we want them to see that conflict, war, and genocide were once the norms in society, and that people accepted it. Now we look at it differently and try to move the world to better places. And students have an important voice in that.

Stephanie Johnson, Dance Teacher
The information that’s taking place downstairs in their World Cultures class follows them upstairs to the dance studio naturally. Some of the discussions down there get really heated, and I know that they really like to have a place to put that, in dance class or music class. The assignment in dance was for the students to find something that gets their goat, something that gets their blood boiling.

Melissa Brunkan, Music Teacher
We experimented with compositions in dance and in music and saw where there were commonalities between them. One of the joint works is based on anger and starvation – the students have used ideas that they feel passionate about! It’s interesting to see their ideas come together.

Adam Hegg, Theatre Teacher
I selected a piece for the eighth-graders based on the genocide unit. It’s called I Never Saw Another Butterfly, and it’s about the children at a concentration camp and what they did in order to survive. The students are realizing what life was like for these people and they’re putting real life experiences behind what they’re learning about in their World Cultures class.

Watching the Video

Before You Watch
Respond to the following questions.

  • What is “voice” in art, in literature, in politics, in history? Does the idea of “voice” appear in your own subject area? How?
  • How, in your classroom or your community, do you create an environment in which the expression of individual voice is nurtured and encouraged?
  • How might the arts enrich a study about voice and protest?


Watch the Program

As you watch, notice how the arts are used to help students understand abstract ideas such as voice, conflict, and protest. Write down ways that the different art forms influence and shape ideas.


Reflect on the Program

How did the arts help students understand the notions of conflict, protest, and voice?

  • Did the arts help students express themselves, or come to deeper understandings, in ways they might not have been able to do otherwise? How?
  • Some students find it difficult to express their ideas and emotions through the arts. How is this challenge addressed in the program? How might you handle this issue in your classroom?
  • What prior understandings about art and personal expression do you think the students in this program might have had that allowed them to be successful in this unit?

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice

  • Is student voice and individual expression something that is valued at your school or in your classroom? How?
  • How do you typically treat controversial issues in your classroom? How might the arts make the exploration of these issues easier – or conversely, more difficult?
  • How do you assess student understanding of abstract issues such as voice, protest, and conflict?


Adaptations / Extensions to Consider

Scale it back: Study one artistic form of protest or resistance, such as protest songs, posters, cartoons, movies, or artwork.

Focus your study: Instead of many issues and means of expression, study one historical period or issue through protest art.

Connect to today: Concentrate on a current or local issue of conflict. Have students express their opinions though one or more art forms.

Additional Resources

Selected Unit Materials

Conflict and Courage — 8th-Grade World Cultures Unit: A detailed unit outline including topics, timeline, objectives, themes, activities, resources, and assessment (PDF)

Finding Your Voice — 8th-Grade Art Unit: A unit overview including objectives, pre-teaching, and detailed unit activities (PDF)


Print Resources

Bowell, Pamela, & Heap, Brian S. Planning Process Drama. London: David Fulton Publisher, 2001. ISBN: 1853467197

Neelands, Jonothan, & Goode, Tony. Structuring Drama Work, (2nd edition). Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0521787297

O’Neill, Cecily. Drama Worlds: A Framework for Process Drama. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995. ISBN: 0435086715

Perkins, David. The Intelligent Eye: Learning To Think by Looking at Art.New York: J Paul Getty Museum Publications. 1994. ISBN: 089236274X

Volavkova, Hana. I Never Saw Another Butterfly. New York: Schocken Books, 1994. ISBN: 0805210156

Southeast Center for Education in the Arts. (1998). “On Being A Prisoner: Drama Explorations in Confinement.” In Transcendent Voices: The Work of Artists in Isolation. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Southeast Center for Education in the Arts. (1998). “Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time.” In Transcendent Voices: The Work of Artists in Isolation.The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Southeast Center for Education in the Arts. (1998). “Confinement in the U.S.: One Artist’s Experience – Minidoka No. 3 (Diary).” In Transcendent Voices: The Work of Artists in Isolation. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.


Audio Recordings

Various Artists., Reagon, Bernice Johnson (Compiler). (1994). Wade in the Water: African-American Sacred Music Traditions [CDs and educator’s guide]. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. ASIN: B000001DJE

Various Artists. Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs. (1992). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. ASIN: B000001DHL

Web Sites

American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library
A gateway to rich primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
America’s national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history

The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies – University of Minnesota
Direct access and referrals to materials such as slides, film, video, and audio-tapes for use in Holocaust and genocide education

Read • Write • Think – The Peace Journey: Using Process Drama in the Classroom
A motivating unit using process drama that engages students in writing for both imaginative and functional purposes

Samuel Bak – The Pucker Gallery
Information about the artist and his work

About the School

FAIR School, Crystal, Minn.

The Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource (FAIR) School is a grades four-to-eight magnet school located in Crystal, Minn. that provides intercultural learning opportunities to 558 students from Minneapolis and the surrounding suburban school districts. The mission of FAIR School is tri-fold: intercultural learning, fine arts performance, and academic excellence.

FAIR School was created by the West Metro Educational Program (WMEP), a voluntary consortium of 10 urban and suburban school districts in the Minneapolis metropolitan area that was formed in 1989 to cooperatively address integration issues. WMEP’s mission is to promote student success and community acceptance of differences by providing opportunities for students, families, and staff from diverse backgrounds to learn from and with each other.

Student admission for FAIR School is based on an enrollment lottery held in each district. While there is no formal audition, it is important that students enjoy some level of success and interest in at least one area of the fine arts. Fine arts offerings include dance, vocal and instrumental music, theatre, visual art, and media arts.

School information compiled from the FAIR School Web site:

Q&A With Teachers

Cathryn Peterson in classCathryn Peterson, 8th-Grade Language Arts

What is the overall progression of the eighth grade World Cultures curriculum, and where does the unit on genocide/ethnic cleansing fit?

The genocide/ethnic cleansing unit is the third unit of study in the World Cultures class. Our first unit covers social rules and norms of a culture (universal themes of culture, unwritten rules, and so on). We use Romeo and Juliet as a tool to teach these ideas and we focus heavily on theatre.

The second unit of study takes the students into Aboriginal cultures. We focus on the components of culture – religion, food, tradition, government, and so on. Students begin to analyze what makes up a culture and understand how cultures are similar and different. Students complete a major project where they design a model of a house.

The third unit is the genocide/ethnic cleansing unit. We look at cultures in conflict and what happens during a conflict. Students write a major research paper and use visual and written art to discover more about conflict.

The fourth and final unit focuses on how cultures reconcile after a conflict. We look closely at the continent of Africa. We read the autobiography Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane and we take a first-hand look at apartheid. We look at the changes in South Africa and what is still happening today. In addition, we look at other countries in Africa, the conflicts, traditions, and artwork. We try to find time to make some masks modeled after traditional African art forms.

What was required in the research paper that students wrote for the genocide unit?

They really had free reign as to what they would like to learn. Many studied a specific instance of genocide, group resistance, or a political artist. Students needed to use 10 -15 different sources, triangulate their research, use quotes, and so on. We get them to focus in on their topic by having them write questions to which they want to know the answers. In addition, the students need to tell a story about what they have learned. This means we want them to take a perspective, include opinion, and choose visuals carefully. We always talk to them about what side of the story they are showing, especially when the subject can be quite sensitive.

What does being at the Fine Arts Integrated Resource School mean for you in your teaching?

I know that everyone views the arts as part of the academics and that people are concerned with the process of learning, not just teaching skills. I find that students are exposed to a wide variety of opinions and are encouraged to really share their thoughts, questions, and ideas. Being so performance-based, students are willing to take risks, show their work, and speak out. I have always loved the arts and have surrounded myself with opportunities for enjoyment. I continually call on my colleagues to help me learn and to find new resources. Being here challenges me to be my best, to think beyond the textbook, and to find meaning in my teaching.

What kinds of growth did you see in your students as a result of their work they did in their arts classes for the Finding Your Voice unit?

The work in the arts classes made them think about what they believed, what they wanted to know, and how they could share it with others. What always amazes me is that when you truly integrate art, you see many students shine in ways that you don’t see in a typical classroom. Some students need an alternative outlet for expression to build their confidence, organize their ideas, and take leadership. In my experience, students can then write or talk about the topic in a clear, concise manner.

Rachael Hoffman-Dachelet meeting with studentRachael Hoffman-Dachelet, Visual Art

When students felt stuck or at a loss for ideas in developing their Finding Your Voice project, how did you help them?

I had very few students who didn’t have any ideas at all. In part, this is because their overall curriculum is so rich and challenging that they are overflowing with ideas. In the past, when I did this unit alone with just the issue-related drawing, I had many students who couldn’t come up with an idea. In part that’s developmental. They simply don’t know enough about the world or have enough personal experiences to have strong feelings about issues.

I look to the kids to help find artists to inspire them, perhaps discussing music they enjoy and teasing issues out of the music, or we page through art books until they are drawn to an image, and then we discuss what it’s about and what the artist might have been thinking.

As an inter-district school and a school that focuses on integrated instruction, how do you deal with standards and standardized tests?

Well, we were named a five-star school on the state report card this year, the only school with our percentage of students receiving free- and reduced-price lunch and our ethnic makeup to get five stars. So we feel we’re doing OK test-wise. In fact, I believe the state commissioner of education is going to come visit our school to find out why we are doing so well.

Interdisciplinary education works. It builds strong associations in students’ minds for the information, which allows for greater recall and retention. Rich, experiential learning fosters strong positive emotional states, which cement information in memory. Interdisciplinary education asks students to engage in inquiry, use skills in meaningful contexts, and remember content because of its relevance. These things support any reasonable state standard.

We see World Cultures teachers Cathryn Peterson and Robert Prater leading an interesting discussion about artwork by Samuel Bak. How do you interact with teachers in ways that help them use artwork in their classroom?

We have the opportunity to be trained as a staff in the Visual Thinking Strategies model, which I feel is one very effective way of approaching art. Cathryn and I regularly e-mail one another about what we are doing, and even if it doesn’t result in a unit or idea at that moment, we at least can reference concepts later if they come up. And we are willing to ask for help from one another.

How does technology fit into what you do?

I use the Internet a lot. I pull images from museum pages and artist statements from galleries and use them to spark discussions with students. I can’t tell you how much easier and faster preparing for a slide lecture is now that I can pull images from the Internet. It beats checking out art books from the library and using an opaque projector or shooting my own slides from books. That ease and speed allow me to teach in a way that is much more timely and responsive to my students’ interests and confusions.