Art as Resistance, Part 1

This high school English teacher in the Dominican Republic wanted to combine her students’ knowledge with action. The resulting project did just that.


Editor’s note: This blog is the first in a two-part series exploring how Pitts’ high school English students used art to take action against social injustices in their communities. Find the second part here.

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up. – James Baldwin

I’m from Ohio, but I teach high school English literature at an international school in the Dominican Republic. As I returned for my second year in this role, I was both overwhelmed and excited when thinking about how to get my students to read their worlds more critically. Too often, I feel burdened by the disparities that plague this unbelievably beautiful island. While it boasts undeniable beauty and charm, the Dominican Republic is simultaneously affected by self-denial and rejection, educational and economic disparity, sexism, colorism and racism. I needed to do something that would allow my students to “get it.” I wanted to give them the tools and a sense of agency that would allow them to be effective change agents—so I began with that end in mind.

As a lover of the performing arts, I chose to focus on the idea of “art as resistance.” I wanted the classroom to be a platform for difficult—but necessary—discussions and critical thinking. So I developed essential questions for the school year that would foster social awareness and promote action: How can art, specifically literature, be used as resistance? How can knowledge be used to resist, oppress or free?   

I focused heavily on these essential questions during the first two units of study because of the selected readings’ critiques of society and positions on humanity. My ninth-graders studied Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night. My 10th-graders studied Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, followed by Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

As a culminating assignment, I asked students to design a project around a social injustice in the Dominican Republic and to express resistance to this issue using the arts. To engage the school and community in this necessary dialogue, we decided to display the projects in an event entitled “Art as Resistance.”

Getting Students to Think Critically About Community Issues 

Although the idea made total sense in my mind, I noticed that students were having trouble thinking about the issues that plagued their communities. For some, examining topics like poverty and homelessness came easily, but others were completely baffled.

Last year, my 10th-graders conducted youth participatory action research and were well acquainted with discussing and researching social issues in their communities, as well as finding tangible solutions to begin addressing them. Getting my ninth-graders to buy into the “arts as resistance” project and event idea proved to be much more difficult. They had no previous exposure to discussing such heavy and sensitive topics. So, after dividing the class into small groups, I posed a scenario to them:

You have been selected to serve on a committee where your job is to identify the problem areas/social issues in your country/society and devise solutions to address said issues. After you have brainstormed a list of topics, you will discuss these issues AND begin devising solutions to address them.

One of the major questions that circulated after reading the scenario was, “What are social issues?” I began by breaking down the words social and society, which opened the door to understanding. This lesson worked incredibly well. Students began to give voice to social issues, such as gender inequality, racism, social stratification, domestic violence, poverty and homelessness, to name a few.

Models of “Art as Resistance”

Over the next two lessons, we explored the meaning of “art as resistance.” Students studied how artists resist, advocate for or speak out against social problems through photography, painting, music, theatre and poetry. One such example was a lyrical analysis of Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” which discusses the pressures placed on girls to conform to society’s standards of beauty.

At the conclusion of this two-day lesson, I explained to students that the next few weeks would be dedicated to completing “art as resistance” projects that would be presented during the event. I instructed them to choose a social issue that they were passionate about, as well as an art form they were good at. Over the next few weeks, they would work to send a message about their social issue using their chosen art form.

When I assigned this project and introduced the idea of an event, I knew that some powerful work and dialogue would emerge, but I had not anticipated the magnitude of the impact.

Be on the lookout for a deep look at that impact in Part 2!

Pitts, a native of Columbus, Ohio, teaches ninth- and 10th-grade English literature at an international school in the Dominican Republic. 

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