It Takes a Child to Raise a Village

Installation view, Chicago Works: Amanda Williams, MCA Chicago, July 18–December 31, 2017.

In a collaboration between a 2nd Grade classroom teacher and the visual art teacher at Schubert Elementary, 2nd graders led discussions and studio projects where they explored the idea of making their life experiences feel safer and more protected, using the imaginary device of the ‘alter ego,’ inspired by the work of Takashi Murakami, which students investigated in person at the MCA. The children of the 2nd grade were so inspired by the empowerment they felt from developing ‘alter egos’ that they were motivated to teach the kindergartners what they learned during this project.

Installation view, Chicago Works: Amanda Williams, MCA Chicago, Jul 18–Dec 31, 2017.


  • Students learn that they have characteristics that they can strengthen and change.
  • Students take part in discourse that creates change in themselves and others.
  • Students understand characteristics and uses of contemporary art imagery.

Guiding Questions

  • What makes a space safe for you?
  • How do you make others feel safe?
  • What parts of yourself can you change to make a place safer?

Documentation + Assessment Strategies

Students use photographs and writing to capture the progress of their work. Students have assigned Chromebooks and learned that they can take selfies (without permission). They use the Chromebooks to make snapshots and clips of their puppet shows for self-evaluation. Letters from students in other classes addressed to the alter egos serve as additional assessment of how effective their performances have been.

Learning Activities

Our social science curriculum focuses on social emotional learning. We read stories and take part in group activities to help students learn how to resolve conflicts on their own. The second grade social emotional program focuses on understanding one’s feelings — controlling them and learning how to express one’s emotions appropriately. Students expressed that many of their conflicts occurred during recess and lunch — events that involved more socializing and that were supposed to be fun. They also talked about conflicts they had in the past, and how they were working on being a better version of themselves this year.

Field Trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art
Prior to the field trip, the art teacher showed both classes of 2nd graders a limited amount of Murakami’s work to build their excitement so they would ‘buy in’ to the project as it was introduced. The visual was treated as a text and the students were asked “What do you see?”, “What does this artwork make you feel?”. Students were able to ask questions of the teacher and each other. The art teacher also introduced them to rules for proper museum behavior (no touching the art, staying together, being polite to other visitors by being quiet, etc.).

On the trip to the MCA, students were engaged with the exhibits through an artist-led tour that deepened their knowledge and appreciation of the work. In addition to viewing Murakami’s work, students were taken throughout the rest of the works on display and able to compare and contrast the work of our artist versus the others in the museum, with a particular emphasis on the work of Amanda Williams.

After returning to school, both groups of students met with the art teacher separately. In guided discussion, children talked about what they had observed and learned on their trip. They were asked “What was something that surprised you about Murakami’s art?”, “What stood out to you?”, “You were able to see a lot more of Murakami’s work today, did that change what you think about the artist and their art? Why is that?”, “What was your favorite things you saw and why?”, “Does seeing art in person feel different than pictures of it in class?”, and “Why do you think the artists made what they made?”. This led to the final question, “Why would an artist make a self-portrait that doesn’t look like them? Why would you make yourself look or be different?”. When the talk wound down, students decompressed by making a drawing based on their favorite artwork they’d seen that day.

Alter Egos through Murakami
The classroom teacher introduces the concept of ‘alter ego’ by leading a discussion about the work of Takashi Murakami and his alter ego DOB, sharing ideas about why someone would create an alter ego. Students and teacher together define alter ego as “someone who makes the world safer.” The teacher creates a list of students’ ideas of qualities they can strengthen that would help make the classroom, or anywhere they go, a safer place.

Understanding Community
In addition to listening to and reading stories about community during language arts and social science blocks to understand the meaning of community, the classroom teacher leads a dialogue inviting students to collaborate on their own definition of community. Students conclude that the classroom is a community, and that any space that has people can be a community as well.

Community Wherever We Go
The classroom teacher leads a discussion where children create a list of safe places such as home, school, and church, and a list of the characteristics of a safe place. The teacher asks: “What makes these places safe?”. Students conclude that it is the people in those places that made us feel safe. Thus, children decide to create their own alter egos to make every place a safer place.

Sketching Alter Ego
The art teacher offers students art supplies and invites them to create portraits of their own personal alter ego. Special emphasis is placed on originality to prevent them copying another artist’s work like a hero from a cartoon. They describe their alter ego’s ‘superpower’ in writing. Their definition of a ‘superpower’ is a power that anyone could have that would make a place safer or more peaceful.

Generating the Medium
The classroom teacher asks children how to represent their alter ego. She collects a list of responses and materials, and the class settles on wanting to make an educational puppet show to share how alter egos can help others.

Making the Puppets
The art teacher invites students to use cardstock, 90-lb paper, and mark-making materials to each create a puppet representing their personal alter ego. Completed puppets were attached to large popsicle sticks.

Puppet Show
Students go to the kindergarten classroom to perform their puppet show and teach about alter egos. During the puppet shows, students introduce how and why they created alter egos. They use the puppets to perform skits demonstrating how their personal alter egos help others in different settings. Students assist the kindergarteners in sketching their own personal alter ego and creating a puppet to represent it. Students make plans to visit additional rooms.


  • Paper: blank / loose leaf / construction / cardstock
  • Paint, paint brushes
  • Crayons
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Laminating pouches
  • Hot glue and glue gun (teacher use only)

MCA Connections

Students visited the MCA and viewed the Takashi Murakami and Amanda Williams exhibitions, which became a catalyst for discussion about how ideas and messages could be represented in different ways.

Neida Cruz + Maria Kline

Schubert Elementary

About Neida Cruz

Neida Cruz grew up in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. She received a BA in mathematics at Northwestern University and worked as an actuary before deciding to delve into education. She received her MEd in Instructional Leadership at UIC and her MA in Reading at Northeastern Illinois University. During her graduate coursework, Neida worked with UIC’s Project FLAME, providing literacy training and support to Latino parents for their children’s literacy development. She has been teaching in Chicago Public Schools as a Bilingual/ESL teacher for 10 years. She also taught English in the Dominican Republic for 6 years.

Neida Reflects on the Project

I went into this project with high expectations and a plan as to how the project would unfold. I was not too sure about what the final product would look like, as I felt my ideas might be limited because I do not have a strong art background. What surprised me the most is that the best ideas came from my students — second grade students! They reminded me how the simplest ideas could form into the most creative ones, especially when there is passion behind it — and boy, were they passionate! We often think of young students as being quite egocentric. I was so moved to see how they managed to really take charge of the project and bounce ideas off each other, which required careful listening as well as speaking. And their greatest pride did not come from their product, but instead came from their desire to teach. This entire experience reminded me that we are all teachers regardless of age and background, and every space can become a safe learning place.

About Maria Kline

Maria is a Chicago transplant who grew up in the suburbs. After graduating from Western Illinois University, she worked in the South Shore neighborhood as an art teacher for five years while also serving as the Lead Art Liaison and running after-school programming for her K-8 school. Since moving to her current school three years ago, she has enjoyed the high energy of her K-5 students. After school, she wanders home to enjoy time with her husband and sidekicks, two bunnies and a fussy old cat.

Maria Reflects on the Project

I wasn't sure how this project would unfold but I was excited to see it happen. In the beginning I had no idea how much the project would naturally tie into my partner's social studies curriculum, or how much of the content the students would create outside of anything she and I had conceived; it was amazing to see this bloom in unexpected ways. In addition to the group of students I share with Neida, I was also bringing the project (on a smaller scale) into my additional class of second graders. It ended up impacting both classes in lovely but different ways. One thing that still amazes me is that months after they were introduced to this, they're not ‘over’ it. Recently I introduced the students to a new artist whose work focuses on spreading positivity, and the students instantly launched into sharing these fantastic connections they came up with between the new artist's message and their alter egos' superpowers.