Thursday, September 22, 2011

Is Silence Golden? Responding to Controversial Topics in the Early Adolescent Art Room Kelly Steinlage Abstract

Is Silence Golden?   Responding to Controversial Topics in the Early Adolescent Art Room
Kelly Steinlage


No one can avoid controversial issues, especially in classrooms.   The news is peppered with teachers being fired allegedly for speaking freely. I certainly don’t want to fear losing my job, and it is of the utmost importance to me to make sure everyone is comfortable and safe in my classroom. However, I desire to embrace the potential of art to be perspective changing, and use it to open people’s minds.
Previous researchers share benefits of having discussions about controversial topics, or even detriments of ignoring them (Wright, 1991; Tatum, 1997; Check, 2001; Walker, 2001; Chung, 2007).  Researchers have also pointed out that sometimes censorship is an issue (Blair, 1996; Tatum, 1997). It is easy to imagine that it can be difficult to facilitate discussions on controversial topics in class, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that sometimes parents and community members will have strong reactions.  A handful of researchers have even given some advice for teachers who have decided not to avoid controversial topics in their classrooms (Wright, 1991; Blair, 1996).
“Controversy” means something different to everyone.  This fissure of viewpoints makes conversation about these topics uncomfortable. In different schools or communities, the challenges will change. Within a class of students, the definition of controversy differs
In this pilot study, I am interested in examining what practicing art teachers report about addressing controversial subjects with early adolescent students. Having a more thorough understanding of what teachers describe as their experience when trying to tackle these challenging topics in the classroom would be beneficial to anyone trying to make their teaching relevant to students’ lives.  
In pursuit of this goal, I have conducted an observation, two interviews, and attended a diversity seminar. Meredith Soto, a Kindergarten through fifth grade teacher in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania allowed me to interview her and observe her fifth-grade class on the day she presented a potentially controversial lesson. I also interviewed Terry Barrett by telephone. Barrett has nineteen years experience as an art critic in an education setting with the Ohio Arts Council, and has written extensively about art criticism in school settings. And finally, I attended the seminar “Can We Talk? Teaching about Diversity at Diversity University,” focused on talking about race related issues in the classroom at Temple University’s office of Teaching and Learning. While compiling my notes on all three research opportunities, I coded them into categories, themes that were seen throughout: characteristics of classroom environment and conversation guidelines, resulting issues, and classroom vs. teacher diversity.

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