Empowering Change Through Art

The campaign for artful resistance

By Morna Mcdermott

As upper-middle-class and private school students continue to enjoy and learn from a range of artistic opportunities in school, many children going to schools in low-income neighborhoods are denied creative experiences in lieu of more test preparation. Making art—being a creative person—is becoming a luxury of the elite rather than a human necessity for all. But the arts are a tool we can use to reclaim what is being stolen.

The Campaign for Artful Resistance (CAR) is a national, web-based program to involve schools and communities in using the arts as a way to speak truth to power about education reform. CAR was organized by Save Our Schools, a national grassroots organization that advocates for equitable and meaningful education (saveourschoolsmarch.org). We initially promoted the CAR initiative through social media, email listservs, and word of mouth—inviting teachers, parents, artists, and students to participate by hosting a CAR event in their own community, or by submitting their own works of art. Then we created an online gallery to showcase the paintings, collages, videos, poems, and other work that we received.

The diverse perspectives in the CAR gallery reveal the painful and destructive effects of the elimination of creative teaching and the arts from our schools. Unlike the more elitist museum conceptions of Art, which determine whose work has “value” and whose does not, the CAR initiative reminds us that everyone is an artist. Not everyone who writes poetry is a poet laureate, and not everyone who paints needs an MFA. In all cultures, the arts remind us who we are, challenge our thinking, honor our stories, and must serve as an expressive language system available to everyone. Through the arts, marginalized voices and perspectives ignored by current education policy can be seen and heard.

CAR continues to collect more art. We hope that education activists/advocates will share images, poems, songs, and videos as part of their own local organizing efforts, and raise the following question: What is it you love about school that you have lost because of high-stakes testing, school closings, budget cuts, curriculum losses, teachers, firings, and other educational catastrophes?

Here are a few samples of work created for or shared as part of the CAR campaign. These and many others are available at our online National Gallery of Artful Resistance. For more information: saveourschoolsmarch.org/get-involved/the-campaign-for-artful-resistance/artful-resistance-gallery).


Imagine, by Christine Peloquin. Acrylics, charcoal, fabric, and paper collage on wood panel.

Imagine was created by a parent, Christine Peloquin. She explains:

The boy is my oldest son, taken from a photo when he was 6 years old. I believe that imagining possibilities leads to creativity and that creativity leads to living a life of fulfillment and joy. . . . My hope is that schools and, most importantly, the politicians who run the school system realize the importance of creativity in learning and that how kids learn, not just what they learn, is crucial.

Relentless Reform

Relentless, by high school student Ashley Saunders. Tempera paint and colored pencil.

An art teacher in Florida asked her students to do an assignment that reflected how they felt about standardized testing in schools. Ashley Saunders’ response is an image of a student body being strangled by the acronyms for the many tests that students are required to complete.

Outside the Testing Boxes

Outside the Testing Boxes, by Conor McNulty. Magic marker and graph paper.

In the summer of 2011, while I was working on an arts-based project at a conference, my 6-year-old son sat patiently alongside me and the other participants, working diligently for three hours on his own picture. I asked him, “What is your picture about?” He replied: “Kids refusing to be boxed in by tests, Mommy. See?”

Unmasking Test Oppression

Childhood Masked by Lauren Cohen, students, and parents. Papier mâché, photography, digital design, and student poetry.

Fifth-grade teacher Lauren Cohen found a window of opportunity to transform a negative experience into a moment of empowerment. To prepare for the state tests, her 5th-grade class had to work through practice test books made of newsprint. Cohen explains what happened next:

Since they were writing in these books, they were consumable items, and one of my students asked, “After the tests, can we tear these up?” Another student had the idea to use them for an art project. As a class, we decided to make papier m‰chŽ masks. Children made the masks alongside their parents on a “Family Friday.” We chose to keep the masks unpainted. We were hoping that the print on them would be visible so someone could see that they came from test-prep books. The children wrote poetry about the tests, and I overlaid excerpts from each child’s poem over his or her photograph. In my view, the project conveys the dehumanizing nature of standardized tests but, really, the children’s perspectives are most important.

Morna McDermott (Contact Me) is associate professor of education at Towson University in Baltimore Maryland and a founding organizer of United Opt Out. She recently published The Left-Handed Curriculum: Creativity for Empowering Teachers.