By Kari Giordano
The killing of George Floyd sent a shockwave of energy throughout the United States, spurring an overdue uprising that rallied to the cause of racial justice. While many took to the streets to protest despite the looming pandemic, my colleagues and I took action in the way we best knew – through education. The Racism and Anti-Racism project was born out of a desire to bring the Black Lives Matter conversation to the pupils living in the small towns of our rural district. Sheffield (where I live and work) in Massachusetts, a town with 95% white residents, has not been immune to the effects of systemic racism in America. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement taking center stage, racism reared its ugly head when a pupil posted inappropriate imagery on social media, using the hashtag #whitelivesmattermore. While incidents such as this one happen infrequently, it was clear that letting this moment pass without drawing students into the conversation would not only be a missed opportunity, but would be downright irresponsible.
I conceived of the project after learning from administration that summer enrichment, encompassing all academic areas, would be sent home to pupils to offset the negative toll of remote learning due to Covid19. I had been listening to many podcasts in my own quarantine and this reignited my appreciation for good storytelling.
One in particular, the Pulitzer-winning episode of “This American Life” made me realize how real narratives and storytelling shine through the noise of social media and can have a profound awakening of our empathy. The episode told the stories of asylum seekers and their experiences at US “refugee camps”. It is a prime example of how media can be used to share the stories of our contemporary human experience and how we can use these stories to build compassion and inspire change. I decided that our population of pupils, who have very little experience with diversity, would benefit from hearing contemporary stories of racism apart from those that their limited social media feeds provide them.
The assignment requires pupils to seek out personal accounts of racism in writing, audio, or video. They are then tasked with creating an illustration of those narratives. In collaboration with a variety of teachers and the school librarian, the assignment includes a wide number of resources to teach the students about racism throughout history and in society today. Pupils are encouraged to realize their illustrated stories through a creative medium of their choice, including sculpture, graphic design, painting, poetry, video, animation, etc. In addition to this flexibility, the project was designed to meet the interest levels of a large variety of learners, offering them multiple creative tracks to respond and react to the material. The goal being that, by taking part in the telling of these vital stories, the pupils internalise the issue in a way they wouldn’t otherwise, cultivating their understanding and empathy for those who have suffered racism. To further this impact, the works will be shared online, bringing these stories to life for many in their community that wouldn’t normally seek them out.
After the project was put together, it was decided that limiting participation to pupils would be a missed opportunity. The project was opened up to all residents within the school’s towns, with the hope that a multi-generational collaboration would take place. Come September, when school resumes, my hope is that the creative work and stories illustrated will become a part of a long-lasting collection that will have inspired empathy and promoted change in the community and nation.
Kari Giordano teaches art, design, and photography to grades 7-12 at Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Kari was a 2019 UK Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching fellow with the Moray House School of Education and Sport studying rural arts education and how practical, place-based projects can connect rural students with their local communities in an age where urbanization has a profound impact on rural districts. She received her Bachelor of Fine Art from State University of New York at New Paltz and her Master of Art in Teaching from Rhode Island School of Design. Beyond her teaching duties, Kari serves as the K-12 Arts Curriculum Leader as well as advisor to numerous school organizations. Additional awards and honors include the prestigious James C. Kapteyn Award for Excellence in Teaching, Berkshire Community College’s 40 Under 40 Award, and State University of New York at New Paltz’s 40 Under 40 Award. Outside of education, Kari owns and operates a freelance graphic design and photography studio. She lives and works in Berkshire County, Massachusetts with her husband and two young sons.