Teaching with Contemporary Art

Speak About What’s Unspeakable

Painting by Samantha Clowes, Nyack High School, NY 2011

Over the past three days I can’t say I am exactly brimming with confidence as a teacher when it comes to guiding conversation about the massacre that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. Discussing the shooting with my son, who is seven, made me realize what a simultaneously delicate and brutal topic this is.

In the classroom, the situation is no less difficult. Across the country schools have employed a wide range of strategies to help students, teachers and families work through the events of December 14. Many districts have taken an approach of not saying too much about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and simply having support staff available for “students who want to talk”, but I wonder if this is enough when we, as a region and even as a country, are mourning not just the loss of very young children and adults, but also the collective inaction that has ignored twenty one K-12 school shootings in the United States……. since 2000 alone.

While students haven’t been asking about or discussing the tragedy as much as I would have expected, I wonder if it’s “appropriate” or even advisable asking students to visually respond to what they have seen and heard over the past few days? My classroom has been eerily quiet with students simply going about their current assignment. One student even asked for Christmas music yesterday, even though I must admit I am not feeling much like Christmas music lately.

To quote Krzysztof Wodiczko, there is an opportunity here to, “break the code of silence, to open up and speak about what’s unspeakable.” This includes why it’s necessary to own semiautomatic weapons, why jail is often the only option for so many people with mental illness, and perhaps one question that’s getting lost at the moment and may very well resurface as this story unfolds: why America embraces brutal violence, especially in video games.

In the contemporary art classroom, perhaps there is an opening here to deconstruct what’s really behind our love of guns, the obsession with “killing”, and “hunting down” characters in things like video games? Can we make spaces where these things are discussed and responses are shared in order to educate a broader audience that really affects change? Or should we just shut up and wait a few more decades for congress to take on the NRA and the entertainment industry?