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Reaching Between the Lines

An art contest helps students imagine the lives of runaway slaves.
Reaching Between the Lines

Initially, the idea for using such potentially loaded advertisements for an art contest met some resistance from Philipsburg Manor's African American Advisory Board, a community board whose insight and input has been essential to program development at the museum. One member voiced strong concerns about the kind of work that might be created. She feared that students who did not take the contest seriously might submit images that desecrated the memory of the individuals described in the ads. With the board's concerns in mind, we designed the contest logistics so that Philipsburg Manor staff would work closely with the schools and teachers involved. The contest guidelines stipulated that students identify a mentor teacher with whom they would discuss the essay and the ads.

The mentor would also offer guidance during the creative process. These safeguards prevented the submission of any thoughtless or intentionally offensive pieces of work.

After attempting to reach out to teachers at eight high schools, Philips-burg Manor was able to identify two teachers at area high schools who were eager to participate. Ann deMartin is an art teacher at Ossining High School, a 1,250-student high school with a diverse student body (43 percent white, 35 percent Hispanic, 17 percent African-American, and 6 percent American Indian/Asian). Brett Bowden is a history teacher from the 470-student Croton-Harmon High School. The high school is more than 90 percent white and draws from diverse socioeconomic groups.

Both teachers understood this project's potential to integrate the disciplines of art, history, and English in a manner that would have meaning and relevance for the students. Bowden introduced the contest at the tail end of a classroom simulation about slavery. Bowden says his students "had given considerable thought to slavery, which they considered to be a southern phenomenon." He says the project helped his students understand the notion that slavery was a northern issue as well. Bowden coordinated his efforts with two art teachers and distributed materials to any student he thought might be interested in art. After initial discussions, the students worked mainly on their own, with Bowden offering support as needed. The resulting artwork "blew me away," Bowden says.

DeMartin took a slightly different approach. As an art teacher, her goal was to have students' "drawings gain strength in message, media, and creativity." She took her students to an exhibition of artist Jim Dine, a contemporary artist known in part for his expressive interpretation of images, at a local museum, hoping to show "the power of color, contrast, and scale to create dynamic effects on the page." DeMartin read the advertisements aloud to her students and discussed the images that came to mind. Because this was one of the central projects for the term in her class, she provided constructive feedback and guidance to the students throughout the term.

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