artistic controversy

Is a cop in a KKK hood artistic expression or crossing the line?

PHOTO: Denver Post via Denver 7
The student's controversial art piece has been taken down.

The controversy that led a Denver tenth-grader to request her drawing of a police officer in a KKK hood pointing a gun at a child of color be removed this week from public display has raised several thorny but perennial questions: Should students be given full artistic freedom? Or are there limits?

And if a student creates something provocative, should it be displayed?

City and school district leaders touched on those topics at a news conference Friday after a private meeting between the student, a sophomore at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy; her parents; Denver Mayor Michael Hancock; Denver Police Chief Robert White; Denver Public Schools Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova and school principal Peter Castillo.

The meeting was organized after Denver police officers raised concerns about the art, which closely resembles the painting “A Tale of Two Hoodies” created by artist Michael D’Antuono after the 2012 shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. The Colorado chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association called the student’s piece “hate art.”

The student art show runs through April 14.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
The student art show runs through April 14.

According to DPS, the student subsequently requested it be removed from the downtown Wellington Webb municipal building where it was displayed. She did not appear at the news conference, and officials said she didn’t want to speak with the press.

But White said that after talking with the teenager — whom Hancock called mature, confident and articulate — he’s sure she wasn’t intimidated into making that decision. He said she expressed in the meeting that she values the police but “there’s a lot of work to be done.”

White said he wasn’t offended by the artwork but was “greatly concerned.” Following several days of student walkouts in December 2014 in protest of police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, White met with DPS students to discuss their views and how to build a healthier relationship between Denver police and the city’s youth.

“The reality of it is there are a lot of people across this country and our community who still portray police officers that way,” he said. “And it is our responsibility to mitigate that portrayal. And that can only be done by having meetings like we had today with this young lady.”

Cordova said the conversation exemplified how art can open a dialogue.

“The idea is that it’s important for our students to understand that if you put a message out into the world, the world does respond,” she said.

Hancock said city officials “don’t want to censor or douse the spirit of the arts.”

“We want to continue to encourage our young people to do their art, to exhibit their art in city buildings,” he continued. “But we as adults have to make sure that we protect them and we make sure the message is honoring to the entire community.”

The student’s piece was part of the annual DPS High School Art Exhibition, which includes paintings, drawings, sculpture and jewelry by DPS students and chosen by a jury that includes community artists. It was hung in the high-ceilinged lobby of the downtown Webb building.

This drawing, titled "Anti-Immigration," is currently on display at the Webb building.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
This drawing, titled “Anti-Immigration,” is currently on display at the Webb building.

And it was not the only boundary-pushing piece. The show, which is on display through April 14, also features a drawing entitled “Anti-Immigration” that depicts a clawed animal with a face resembling Donald Trump chasing Speedy Gonzales through the desert. Another shows a nude figure holding a sign that says “God Hates Fags.” The word “My” has been scrawled above “God” and the word “Hates” has been crossed out and replaced with “Loves.”

Yet another piece has two sides: On one, police officers in black-and-white raise their batons against protesters. On the other, which is in color, white police officers in riot gear stare stony-faced at a black man, his mouth open as if he’s yelling. Its title? “History Repeats Itself.”

DPS doesn’t have a policy restricting the art students can create. Castillo, the Kunsmiller principal, said the school draws the line at vulgarity and profanity.

“Outside of that,” he said, “we embrace most of the creative process with artists.”

In a statement, DPS noted that depictions of weapons are usually prohibited from the High School Art Exhibition. An exception was made in this case, the district said, in part because “the piece was relevant to current events and important topics for students and our society.”

Connie Stewart, a former art teacher who is now an art education professor at the University of Northern Colorado, said teachers shouldn’t be afraid to let students express what’s on their minds. In 2001, shortly after 9/11, Stewart was teaching at an elementary school. She gave the kids rolls of butcher paper, played soft flute music and let them draw.

Their artwork ran the gamut, she said. “I had images of flowers and butterflies and some images of people falling out of windows,” Stewart said. “They needed that outlet.”

But there’s a difference between allowing students to create art that’s meaningful and tolerating art created just for shock value, Stewart and other current and former art teachers said. Educators should endeavor to distinguish between the two, they said.

“You have to, as a teacher, keep things in a context of, ‘Are you using your personal voice? Is this your experience, your truth?’” said Kendra Fleischman, a visual arts teacher at the public Denver School of the Arts who previously taught in Jefferson County.

This piece, titled "History Repeats Itself," is also on display.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
This piece, titled “History Repeats Itself,” is also on display.

“We do see quite a bit of artwork that deals with some pretty tough issues,” she said.

Jay Seller, who taught theater in Adams County for 32 years and is now executive director of the Denver-based Think 360 Arts for Learning, which provides professional development for arts teachers, said the topic of the Kunsmiller student’s piece doesn’t surprise him.

“In the context of Black Lives Matter and current events, it only appears appropriate that that student would feel those images depict the world around her,” he said. “You would never want to deny personal expression. The old saying, ‘Art imitates life’ — that is dead on.”

However, Seller and others said teachers should think carefully and use common sense to determine if and where to display potentially touchy student art.

“They need to consider the community and how the artwork will be viewed by their particular community, and whether or not the artwork would cause more damage than constructive comments,” said Pat Franklin, president of the National Art Education Association and a veteran art teacher and administrator in Virginia public schools.

Said Seller: “Hanging the art in the Webb building where law enforcement agents are going to walk by it and see the depiction? That’s probably pushing some buttons.”

But Fleischman said she thinks it’s unfortunate the piece was removed. “That’s concerning to me because it does send a message to students that, ‘Oh yeah, we want you to protest through your art but if it offends us, we’re still going to take it down,’” she said.

Stewart, who helps train future art teachers, acknowledged that situations such as this one are complex. She said she advises her students that one way to address controversial topics is to have kids respond to the “big ideas” behind them, such as safety, comfort and respect.

“Creativity is nurtured within limits, and every teacher decides what those limits are going to be,” she said, noting that teachers should make sure lessons are age-appropriate.

But she emphasizes that they shouldn’t necessarily shy away from uncomfortable subjects, or from questions that don’t have easy answers.

“My personal opinion is you take the risk,” she said, “because it’s more important for art to mean something than for it to mean nothing.”

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.