When teaching in an art classroom with younger kids, maintaining a positive and inclusive environment can be tricky. Children can spend a large portion of their time growing up in mainstream settings, which can affect their values and expression. The art classroom should do everything in its power to offer and encourage alternatives to dominant ideologies. How can a teacher provide an inclusive environment that allows safe creativity for marginalized experiences? That allows students of all walks of life to explore and express creativity in ways that feel healthy and natural, without tokenizing?
I am going to articulate a few of the ways I set up and run my elementary classroom to support inclusivity. These are by no means exhaustive or the only ways to do these things. I am always learning and exploring. My method is deliberate but passive, meant to build and encourage a space that doesn't domineer my students, but makes an effort to see inclusivity as the natural way the world is.
Set 'Em Up for Success
Comic books. We are lucky to be in an age when finding age-appropriate comics that have a diverse cast of characters are readily available. I look for comic books that show a diverse range of characters and experiences, especially anything starring women and girls of color. I do not make a big deal out of it to my students; these are simply the comics that I am providing. I have found there is no pushback from my white male students -- if a student loves masculine white male superheroes, they often have access to those stories in other places. The exclusion of these stories in my classroom only sets up an environment that centers characters of different experience, and broadens my students' ideas for what a comic book story can be.
Classroom "rules." At the beginning of my comics classes, we establish a few rules to guide the rest of our time together. Setting up expectations lets students make good decisions from the get-go, rather than doing something "wrong." My favorite rule is no copyrighted characters. This is a rule I got from fellow educator Walker Mettling. By removing the students' immediate idea, which often replicates the dominant ideology (Batman or Superman), the student begins to think about their own stories and what is personally inspiring.
Pass no judgment. Without fail, in every class I have, a boy will choose a pink cover for his sketchbook. I say yes and give him the pink. I allow these moments to go by positively, and don't point them out as unusual or exciting. They aren't. I want these moments to feel natural. On the flip side, I do not force boys to choose a color other than blue, or girls to choose something other than pink. My students can choose any color they want without fear of judgment.
Options and ideas. I have an activity where my students create characters for their comics, but first we create a character as a class. When we are creating this class character, students will raise their hands and answer questions about the character, such as height, weight, home, etc. When we have this discussion, I use as inclusive language as possible, using she/her pronouns, non-ableist or classist language, etc. This way, when students are given time to come up with their own characters, they are creating in an already established inclusive space. Again, in most cases, I will never tell a student that they are wrong. I just want to create a space where every answer is the right answer, including answers that may be more marginalized.
Bad Words. "Fat" is a word that comes up often in my classroom. Younger children, especially children among the ages 5 - 7, can choose words like "fat" to try to be funny. Humor is a learned trait, that children pick up on, because it brings joy to the people that they are talking to. I believe using stereotypical language such as "fat" as an attempt for humor is learned; from the media, from adults in their lives, from the dominant culture. Because of this, in most of my cases, the intent of the child is non-malicious. Therefore, I address the use of the word in class, and explain why it may not be the right word to use for their intent.
Questions to ask yourself when addressing the situation:
When is it harmful? A word like "fat" or "gay" is not inherently harmful. Comic book characters can be described using these words in a positive light. Ask yourself if the language your student is using is meant to be a descriptive phrasing, or if it was unfortunately used in a way that could cause harm.
When is it malicious? I don't shy away from asking a child to talk to me when I feel a word is being used to purposely harm someone. Words such as "retarded" come to mind for this. I will privately sit down with a child and share with them how that word can make me feel, and how it can make others feel. I try to impart that the harm is bigger than us, that it's perpetuating an attitude that's extremely hurtful. I do everything I can to not make a child feel bad, but to let them know that they should offer an apology, and that they should not use that word again.
How can a conversation be had without shaming a child? Ask if a word is being used in a way that is meant to be funny, and then ask your student if that is their intent. Describe why their use of the word can be harmful. Allow your student the opportunity to choose another word. I have found great success in this technique, if done without extreme emotion; if I tell a student calmly that "fat" does not equate to be being a funny attribute, and that that can hurt people, students often choose another descriptive word without feeling upset. The goal is to not upset children or to shame them, but to have a learning moment, and then move on.
Conclusion. It is worth it to do the work to set up a classroom that allows children a fruitful and inclusive creative environment. These are just a few tips and tricks that I have developed over the years for the elementary classroom. Rather than tokenizing marginalized experiences, my aim is to embrace them, and allow my students to feel comfortable while exploring their art and the world of comic books, which is huge, diverse, and fantastic.