Collaborating to Strengthen Community

Our project is focused on encouraging our students to recognize the deep empathy that resides within each of them in order to improve social emotional interactions and strengthen both student–student and student–teacher relationships in our school. Our students are the two 6th grade homerooms, with 32 students in each class, at Skinner North, a selective enrollment classical school in Chicago. Projects were cross-curricular with components in art, social studies, literacy, and advisory, and were investigated through applied contemporary art and inquiry-based civics problems.


  • Students will recognize the feelings and perspectives of others.
  • Students will recognize individual and group similarities and differences.
  • Students will contribute to the well-being of one’s school and community.
  • Students will understand the work of the artist and the connection to social-engagement and activism of the artist and community.

Guiding Questions

  • How do others feel in various situations?
  • How can a change in the behavior of one side of a disagreement affect the other side?
  • How might someone who is being bullied feel?
  • What are the basic rights of all individuals?
  • How can a lack of understanding of social and cultural differences contribute to intolerance? - How does this make individuals feel?
  • What are the needs and issues at our school? How can we contribute to improving our community? What role do we have in the well-being of our community?
  • What is the work of an artist?
  • How can an artist influence social engagement and change?

Documentation + Assessment Strategies

The project was documented through artwork, photography, slideshows, posters, and video. The project was assessed through teacher observation, student reflection, an end-of-project exit slip, and student feedback.

Learning Activities

Students have art class 1 hour per week, and the project was 15 weeks long. The art component of the project was completed during this time. Background knowledge, discussion, cross-curricular connections, and reflection took place during Language Arts, Advisory, and Social Studies.

Individual identity and group identity
Explore personal identity through “List Building” book. How do we self-identify and where do those identities overlap? How are we similar and different (identity, feelings, perspectives)? How can we contribute to the well-being of the group? The collective is strongest when we celebrate each person’s strengths and individuality while also keeping in mind the idea of the good of the group.

Working together to create and explore
Introduction to Takashi Murakami to prepare for field trip through MCA video. Focus on the collaboration of the artists that work with Murakami to create the scale of work. Students work collaboratively to create a piece of artwork inspired by Takashi Murakami’s imagery.

What is socially engaged art? How can this contribute to the well-being of our community?
Introduce qualities of socially engaged art through the video “Social Practice Art: Engaging Community Through Art” from KQED. Discuss qualities. Student groups brainstorm ideas to engage their community through a socially engaged art project. They prepare sketches and a proposal and present to the class.

Examples of student ideas:

  • Stop bullying, be kind, recognize the effect of hate.
  • What is amazing at Skinner North? What needs to be improved?
  • Would you judge me? Appearance and acceptance
  • Privacy within technology
  • Global warming, political issues, equality
  • Anti-Gun Violence
  • CPS funding/what are our priorities?
  • Improve bathrooms

Work together to improve our community
In the art room:
“Student groups chose a topic of importance to the group and created a socially engaged art project. Students created a project proposal that was presented to the art teacher. I asked guiding questions to push students to finalize a decision within their plan. Each group then assigned roles to group members and created their project. My role was as advisor, to further their ideas and guide students instead of dictating what students should do. Students worked on their projects for 6 class periods, with some groups choosing to work during other free times. Completed projects were presented to the class, and groups chose how to engage the school community and display the projects.”

Reflecting on Projects
Students were supported in reaching the goals of their individual project ideas with structures from Lois Hetland’s ideas regarding “Teaching for Artistic Behavior.”

Completed project examples:

Group 1 – Global Destruction: What can we do? How do we feel?
This group wrote developmentally appropriate questions to engage teachers, administrators, and students in all grade levels about political issues including pollution, climate change, and violence. They videotaped the interviews and edited to create a video that would be shown to students in grades 4–8 during advisory time, with discussion and reflection after viewing.

Group 2 – Gun Violence
This group created a collage of newspaper articles, images, and headlines to ask questions about gun violence in our society and the community’s thoughts and feelings about gun violence. The class community then created individual collages in response to the group collage. The completed work was then displayed in the middle school hallway for a larger community to engage with and respond to.

Group 3 – Bullying
This group researched reasons and types of bullying and created a slideshow to present to the class community. They identified social groups within the class and questioned similarities and differences among classmates, discussing how understanding and inclusion can strengthen the class community. They shared viral bullying videos that resonated with the group. Three members of the group also asked students from all grade levels to draw and write about experiences with bullying and hopeful messages to stop bullying. They created a large heart and circle anti-symbol that is hanging in a common space at school for community members to add these drawings and messages.

Group 4 – Would You Judge Me?
This group questioned the judgement of appearance and how we treat each other. They created a poster with an exaggerated drawing of a person to attract the attention of students in the middle school hallway. The poster has a speech bubble that prompts students through questions to examine their own prejudice based on appearance. Viewers then add responses to the poster with post-it notes to interact with the artwork.

Group 5 – Respect Our Community: Keep the Bathroom Clean
This group felt strongly about an issue that has concerned all members of our community: students, teachers, custodians, and administrators. There has been a lack of respect in the boy’s bathrooms and they are often unclean. Students discussed how to persuade the student body to change their behavior in the bathroom. (How can a change in behavior of one side of a conflict affect the other side? What are the needs and issues at our school? How can we contribute to improving our community? What role do we have in the well-being of our community?) They decided to create a video demonstrating the problems they identified in the bathroom and illustrating an example of the improvement they would hope to see. They also designed and drew signage to hang throughout the school to promote responsible behavior in the bathroom.

School Reception
“The administration was really excited about these works. Our principal said our students were coming up to her in the hall to talk about their projects. The video students made was shown in advisory as well as our administration. It was included in community newsletter, so parents were aware of it. The 7th and 8th graders, after watching my students’ video, said they wanted to do a project like this. Students from different grade levels saw these projects and wanted to have the opportunity to do socially engaged art projects. The interest and excitement of other students pointed to a larger need for this kind of curriculum across subjects, classes, and grade levels.”

Beginning Again, Moving Forward, Strengthening the Collective
Students have developed collaboration skills by working in groups. Now to strengthen the collaboration of the class as a whole, we will explore the color palette work of Amanda Williams and develop a color palette as a class. One of our goals had been to unify this group of kids, so we wanted to create an opportunity to bring them together as a full cohort; let’s mix together again now that we’ve modeled collaboration in small groups; how, now, do we represent our whole class? In Advisory, the class discussed common themes within their socially engaged projects. This common theme will be the stepping-off point for exploring color theory and associations. They will write color poems to connect imagery with their color palette. These colors will represent the group and be used to create a collaborative art mural. The mural and poems will be displayed in school.

Students watched a video of Amanda Williams explaining the Color(ed) Theory project. We discussed how color can have meanings and connotations. I had trays of paint on the tables, half had warm colors and the other half had cool colors. Students walked to the tables that had colors that attracted them and worked together as a group to mix a color that represents the class. They painted the color on a large color swatch poster, named the color, and wrote a description of the color on the “Color Palette Description Form.” This was completed in one class period.

Students looked at the monochromatic wall sculptures of Louise Nevelson. They used wooden shapes, cardboard, and found objects (bottle caps, straws, egg cartons) to create assemblage sculptures. This was completed in one class period.

During the following class period, each group presented their color to the class and talked about the meaning of the color. They remixed the color, and students chose which color they wanted to use to paint their assemblage sculpture.

Discuss our artwork and the creative process. Use a reflection sheet to gather student feedback. Students filled out anonymous survey forms to give feedback on the unit. This data was saved in a spreadsheet. The feedback was positive, with most students enjoying the unit and finding it interesting. The social emotional gains were observable as students continued to work together, discuss social issues, and enthusiastically participate in art class.

Lasting Impact
“In response to the Parkland, FL shooting, 6th grade students organized with their 7th and 8th grade peers to approach the administration to participate in the National School Walkout. Students were going to walk into the middle school hallway and observe 17 minutes of silence. 6th grade students decided to walk out of the building. They were a respectful, engaged group calling attention to an issue that matters to them and has moved them to action. It was inspiring. This project instilled leadership skills in students and a sense of social justice purpose. One student expressed to me the next day that she happened to be close to the stairs when the students moved as a group to walk out. She said she felt nervous but also important, like a leader.”


  • Murakami show catalog
  • Collage
  • Paint
  • Markers
  • ipads
  • Chromebooks
  • Found objects
  • Cardboard

MCA Connections

The Teacher Institute inspired and stretched our teaching practice. The artist talks were thought-provoking and gave us ideas and dialogue to bring back into the classroom. We used the Murakami exhibit during our field trip as an initial spark or hook to excite the students. They were enthusiastic and that enthusiasm carried through the whole semester. The Color(ed) Theory exhibit by Amanda Williams was the inspiration for our color palette mural. Exposing students to the thinking and work of contemporary artists inspired them, and students found connections between these artists and their own lives, communities, and artwork.

Sarah Glynn + Elaine Cox

Skinner North Classical School

About Sarah Glynn

Sarah Glynn teaches K-8 visual arts at Skinner North Classical Elementary in Chicago. This is her second year at Skinner North and her seventh year teaching. Sarah earned a BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Dayton and her teaching certification from North Park University. She structures her art classroom around the ideals of Teaching for Artistic Behavior, where the students are artists responding to their own ideas and interests through the making of art.

Sarah Reflects on the Project

When Elaine and I first began planning this project in the summer, we had an intention of meeting the social emotional needs of this particular group of students. That intention remained at the center of the project as the project changed and evolved due the the input and experience of the students. Many of our plans were put aside or changed in response to the interests and ideas the students brought into the classroom. The students were so excited and invested in their socially-engaged projects that I had to allow them to lead the way and follow the students wherever the projects took us. I had some anxiety about letting go of control and following a completely student-directed plan, but I had to put my trust in the students and their commitment to the project. I was not disappointed. The work the students created was thoughtful and interesting. It was even more inspiring to see the shift in students’ perspectives. They made the connection that they have a place in the world and the community, that they have a voice and can draw attention to issues that are important to them, and that being engaged with the people they come in contact with every day is just as important as trying to engage society at large.

About Elaine Cox

M. Elaine Cox started her teaching career in Chicago Public Schools eighteen years ago. She spent the majority of her career teaching English and reading at Dyett High School. Three years ago she made the switch to 6th grade literacy and social studies at Skinner North Classical School. The focus of her classes is to teach students to use literature and writing to make personal and social connections to the world around them. Ms. Cox has a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Michigan State University and a Master of Education from DePaul University. She achieved National Board Certification in 2008 and is currently going through the recertification process.