Biographical Community Portraits in Words and Visuals

Students at Powhatan High School combined Art and English to create multimedia biographical portraits of members of their community. In the 2022-2023 school year, seniors in two classes at Powhatan High School worked together to interview special guests such as coaches, specialists, and the superintendent. Then, they applied the creative art and creative writing processes to capture not just their likeness, but their core life experiences. This project exemplified several of the core aspects of an integrated project:

  • Collaborative
  • Cross-Curricular
  • Creative
  • Community-Focused

Collaborative: Greater Involvement, Greater Impact

This project encouraged teachers, students, and community members to all work together. Project planning was a team effort between Jill Ward, Art teacher at Powhatan HS and Joan Oates Institute (JOI) 2022 attendee, and Melissa Nelson, English teacher at Powhatan HS. They also worked with Don Belt, University of Richmond journalism professor, former National Geographic editor, and JOI instructor, as their community expert.

At the summer institute, Ward engaged in experiential workshops on visual, performing, and literary arts, and digital tools, with teaching artists and community experts. She collaborated with educator colleagues from around the region to practice integrated teaching strategies that she could bring back to the classroom.

Jill Ward and other participants designed sketchbooks on the first day of JOI.

Ward worked with local MC BlackLiq to harness self-expression through writing and rapping.

During the 2022-2023 school year, Belt visited students twice to discuss the Out of Eden Walk, slow journalism, and interview techniques. Ward coordinated with several classes in her school and guests from the community during the fall semester. Seniors from Art 4 and English 12 classes worked together in small groups to prepare questions and interview community members.

Don Belt coached students on the concept of Slow Journalism.

Cross-Curricular: More Meaningful Outcomes

Approaching the interviews and portraits from two disciplines deepened learning for students in both classes. They conducted the interviews in mixed groups. However, both classes were able to practice the English and Art skills of listening, asking questions, researching, working in small groups, and revising and preparing a final work for exhibition. Although students across subjects did not collaborate on their final pieces, the results were very complimentary when showcased side-by-side at the division-wide Youth Art Month Show, demonstrating that all students were able to agree upon and highlight the important points from their subjects’ lives. They mastered the assignment of capturing not just what subjects looked like or their role within Powhatan County, but “who they are.”

Students interview Powhatan County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Beth Teigen.

Creative: Student-Driven Learning

The Art 4 students studied how portrait artists’ visual styles often reflected the lives of the artists and subjects, and choices were made to evoke specific emotions. Then, they created portraits to represent what they learned about their interview subject in their medium of choice. This allowed students to make choices of visual elements such as texture, composition, and value, based on what they learned about their subject. In English 12, students worked on writing a narrative biography of their subject. They applied listening, planning, revising, and editing skills, and made choices within the creative process with word choice, tone, vocabulary, etc. Both classes worked through their processes for weeks.

Art 4 students working on their portraits.

Community-Focused: Beyond the Classroom

This projected helped students become closer to members of the greater Powhatan County Public Schools community. Many of the interview subjects work behind the scenes at various levels of the local education system, and students do not interact with them on a regular basis. However, the focus of interview questions extended beyond the ins-and-outs of their day jobs to personality, background, family, values, life lessons, and passions. The exhibit opening was held at the division Central Office for the general public, providing students with a chance to connect with the greater community.

Dr. Teigen with her finished portraits at the Youth Art Month Show.

This project was supported by an R.E.B. Foundation Award.

Partners in the Arts (PIA) has supported over 200 innovative, interdisciplinary projects in Richmond area schools. The PIA consortium supports both educator professional development and in-school project implementation through the Joan Oates Institute for Integrated Learning.

Alison Travis is the Program Coordinator for Partners in the Arts at the University of Richmond. She has spent ten years working in and with public schools to support integrated, innovative teaching and improve outcomes for all students.

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