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  • Carol Swartout Klein

Teachers are using "Painting for Peace in Ferguson" in art, social justice, social studies

With more and more tragic news stories seemingly every day, many parents may want to shelter their children and some schools ask teachers not to discuss these events. But children are not immune to the media covering or adults discussing the latest in gun violence/school shootings, bullying, hate, racial divides, sexual harassment and more. This reality becomes inescapable when schools practice “active shooter” drills. As teachers across the country struggle with ways to help children and youth understand today’s social climate, one resource educators, librarians, and parents continue to use is the award-winning children’s book, Painting for Peace in Ferguson.

Children can become more upset and confused if unable to talk about and learn about events. By not talking about a tragedy, adults are not giving children an opportunity to express themselves or a process to release their emotions and thoughts. Studies have shown that students who were given opportunities to participate in activities about crises recovered better.

To understand Painting for Peace in Ferguson, its message, and how it can help, it’s important to know about the Painting for Peace movement which started after the riots erupted along the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri in response to the Michael Brown verdict. Hundreds of people came out to help by painting messages of hope, unity and peace on the boarded-up windows on businesses in order to bring some beauty and reassurance to this devastated community. All of us face crises whether in our families, schools, or communities. The message of Painting for Peace in Ferguson is that how we react to a crisis is essential. The book shows that children, or truly anyone, already has the power or tools to help others.

By showing how a community came together during a time of crisis, the book’s message continues to be a relevant tool for teachers to use in classroom art projects, current events and civic studies. It is listed in the NNSTOY 2017 Social Justice Book List and in the ILA’s Teacher’s Choice 2016 Reading List. It is also listed in the School Library Journal’s Why Did it Happen? and Beyond the Headlines articles.

The Vicki Soto Memorial Fund selected Painting for Peace in Ferguson to be one of five books chosen annually to be shared with 3,000 students in 200 classrooms in the Stratford, CT area in mid-2018. The fund selects and shares books which they feel promote love, kindness, acceptance and self-worth. The memorial fund was to set up to honor and continue the literacy legacy that Miss Soto shared with her students since her work was cut short when she tragically lost her life at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

How some teachers have used Painting for Peace in Ferguson in classrooms:

Grade school teachers at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. used the book in a #DearYoungPerson project with third graders when writing postcards to young students in Charlottesville. The teachers used the book as a segue into a conversation about using art and images to help people feel better. Before designing the cards, they asked such questions as: “What images and messages could we send them through our postcards to help them heal? What images and messages of peace could we send them? How can we communicate that love is more powerful than hate?”

In Illinois, Oregon Elementary School’s art teacher Jordan DeWilde has used the book to create collaborative art projects about diversity and inclusion for his students and encouraged other teachers he knows to do the same. He reads the story to his students, “keeping the focus on love and respect.” He believes that classrooms can present students with facts in an objective way and give them the opportunity to form their own feelings and opinions using the book as a base.

In St. Louis, the fifth-grade social studies teacher at New City School has taught about Ferguson and subsequent movements since 2014 and includes the book’s author, Carol Swartout Klein and the book in compelling ways each year. The teacher at New City School has written on “Teaching Ferguson” for other educators as well.

At the end of the 2018-19 school year in Stratford, CT, Second Hill Lane Elementary School (part of the Vicki Soto Memorial Fund book donation mentioned above) hosted a family literacy night that incorporated collaging or painting canvases for a mural based on the paint for peace theme. After the region restructured its school districts this literacy and community-building event was important as it gave parents a way to come together and get to know each other and the school staff better through this activity.

painting for peace teaching social justice

A Common Core teaching curriculum for grades K-2 and 3-5 has been created for Painting for Peace in Ferguson and the book’s website lists other teaching resources as well.

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