Teaching justice through the arts

Overhead photo of a person folding paper with a roll of tape and scissors nearby

When Courtnie Wolfgang first got her teaching license and stepped into a classroom in rural Georgia, she realized just how much she had to learn. She was teaching at a Title I school—meaning at least 40% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch—and many lived below the poverty line. Wolfgang had no budget for art education.

“It was a shock to me,” she says. “That was one of the first times I saw—not abstractly—that resourcing is different depending on your community. And I have to find a way to make this work because I accepted this position and I don’t have materials for my students, but also, these students don’t deserve less than the students five miles down the road who have funding. That was my first motivating experiences that made me become a really active advocate for public education funding and parity.”

Wolfgang spent five years teaching in public school. Each year, she says, introduced her to more students, which helped her develop a more empathetic response to a variety of learners. She began researching justice-oriented pedagogies, with a particular focus on the experiences of students of color and LGBTQIA+ students.

This is the lens she now brings when teaching students in the Art Education program at VCUarts.

Courtnie Wolfgang

Wolfgang begins by encouraging students to approach their learning with open eyes and an open heart, and a willingness to look back at fond memories with a critical eye. She teaches them about the voices that have been underrepresented in conversations about pedagogy and underserved in the classroom.

Wolfgang weaves in lessons about curriculum violence: how education systems were designed to support white men and boys with means, and today’s models perpetuate those traditions often at the expense of women, queer people, people of color, and people living in poverty. For example, she explains, the standards for good behavior and academic performance—from kindergarten through graduate school—are rooted in white middle class values.

Then, she starts to provide a framework for art education that assumes students have different learning styles and varied access to information and materials. She layers in the socio-political factors that influence how people learn about the arts, and how the experiences of faculty and staff members trickle down to students.

“What I’m trying to help them do,” she says, “is shift philosophically from ‘This is how to do this thing, these are the important people, this is what good students look like, and this is what good art looks like.’ None of those things are actually true; we just feel like they are.”

Wolfgang’s students had a chance to see the same inequities she witnessed in rural Georgia when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the U.S., shuttering schools and forcing an instant pivot to online, remote instruction. Some of her Art Education students were assigned to schools where every student had a Chromebook and could quickly switch to digital art and share photos of their work from home. Others were working in schools where families don’t have WiFi at home.

“It’s a tough lesson to learn,” she says, “but it’s an important lesson.”

Wolfgang says teaching culturally sustaining teaching practices isn’t just about undoing the misinformation her students learned, and creating a more equitable learning environment. She believes this approach is also the key to bringing more students of all backgrounds into the arts and into education.

“I’m hoping that this kind of work has a ripple effect,” Wolfgang says. “I want all students to be able to see themselves in the teachers who were standing in front of them at some point in their academic career, and to hopefully see more than one person.”

“Maybe we have a lot of white women in our program right now, but they go into classrooms with a more thoughtful approach to making visible artists who are not white, and demonstrating how we value a non-white Western way of thinking. Maybe their body is not a body that looks like their students, but the students see themselves in the content in those classes, and the teaching practices value different kinds of learning and experiences. Maybe that shifts who sees themselves as an artist or an art educator, and we start to turn that tide.”

Many of the ideologies Wolfgang teaches in the classroom and cites in this article come directly from BIPOC and QTPOC scholars.