Empowering Student Agency Through Art

By Jason Blair, Art Educator in Columbus, Ohio

McGraw Hill
Mar 19 · 7 min read

The most important thing we can do as educators is to create the conditions that empower student agency in our learning spaces. We are not just preparing students for college and career, we are also preparing students to be citizens of the world.

Citizens who will embrace the diverse fabric that is woven through our communities.

Citizens who will stand for what they believe in. Citizens who will seek discomfort so that they may learn and grow from it.

Our world needs citizens who are willing to challenge the status quo.

How might we begin to create the conditions to cultivate student agency in our spaces? This is a question I have been thinking about deeply over the past few years. Having been fortunate enough to work in collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art and Project Zero on the Cultivating Creative and Civic Capacities project, this question has influenced my approach to teaching and learning in many ways. While I don’t have any answers yet, I can share some experiences I have curated for our students in pursuit of cultivating student agency.

The Hidden Emotion Art Gallery (agency for self)

Begin by asking the students to explore the mood meter and think about experiences connected to some of the emotions they see. Ask the students to create small artworks/artifacts to symbolize the emotions behind their selected experiences. Then, ask them to find a space in their homes or school to hide this exhibit. The purpose behind hiding it is that many times we hide the emotions we feel every day. We don’t want to risk showing vulnerability or weakness.

We don’t want to appear arrogant or aloof. This fear of making emotions visible, can hold students back from pursuing their interests, sharing their ideas, making connections, standing for what they believe in and so on.

Once the exhibition is set up and hidden, have the students invite others to the Hidden Emotion gallery opening. Maybe the gallery opening card is a treasure hunt to find the location of the exhibit. The students can begin the opening with an artists statement that explains the emotions behind the work. Providing a space for students to make their emotions visible, can help them gain a deeper understanding of how emotions impact our lives.

The Worry Project (agency for others)

One way to cultivate agency for others is to dive into the Worry project. The purpose of this project is for students to recognize the power of empathy. You can begin this project by asking students to write a worry they have on a post-it note. This can be a worry about school, home, or life in general. They place it on a table. Once all the notes are collected, each student will blindly select a note from the table that is not their own. The student then partners up with the author of the note and conducts an empathy interview.

Spend time helping students think of open-ended questions that can help them gain a better understanding of their partner. This interview is about digging deeper into the worry and gaining a more holistic view of the author and their context. Each student takes turns interviewing the other. They do not need to have the same questions. They should be different as each worry will be different.

Lastly, each student is tasked with creating an artifact that helps address the worry in some way. They can create this artifact using whatever tools, materials, and processes they see fit. This artifact is more symbolic, representing a deeper understanding, empathy, connection and sense of belonging between the interviewer and interviewee.

After several working sessions and when the students have completed the artifacts, the students can have a worry celebration. Each student takes turns presenting their worry work to their partner. They can explain the symbolism behind the work and the thinking that inspired it. This celebration helps students feel heard, seen, and valued. Creating experiences where students help others and apply learning in ways that deepen their connections to each other promotes an agency for others that is purpose-driven and action-oriented.

The Unfair Museum (agency for the world)

To begin this process, spend some time with students investigating what is unfair or inequitable to them, to others, and to the world. They can research this through empathy interviews, observations, the internet, and various other ways. The students could even take a noticing stroll to see what they find in their neighborhood that might be unfair or inequitable in some way.

The purpose of this initial step is to slow down to notice the world and illuminate the cracks where unfairness and inequity typically reside.

Once students have had time to gather research and inspiration, ask the students to narrow their list down to the one they have the most connection to and interest in. Using the Parts, Perspectives, Me routine from Agency by Design, have the students break down their selected unfair or inequitable situation. Asking students to think about the parts that make this situation unfair, the various perspectives on this unfair situation, and lastly, their own personal connection to this unfair and inequitable situation. This process will help the students gain a deeper understanding of the complex and interconnected nature of the identified situation.

The last step in this process is to create a museum space to make these thoughts and ideas visible. The students can create a persuasive artifact to make these unfair and inequitable situations visible for others to see and experience. The purpose of creating a museum is to value each student's voice and empower them to seek unjust and inequitable situations.

Letting students know what they think, feel, and care about is important,and is a powerful condition to cultivate student agency. Students need to feel heard, before they will speak up.

This museum setting is also a way for students to begin to see the power of influence. Seeing how their artifacts create opportunities for dialogue, action, and change. These museums can live and grow throughout the year. They help set the tone that not only will this class be on the lookout for unfair and inequitable situations, but they will also take action to address them.


How might we create a space for students to take action on behalf of themselves, others, and the world for a better today and a brighter tomorrow?

Jason Blair believes the creativity of our children will change the world. As an 18-year veteran art educator, every day he steps into his art studio, he learns from the young, creative geniuses that sit before him. He believes that to empower students to tap into their creative capacities, educators must nurture their own growth as creative agents of change. To inspire creativity in his students, Blair believes the educator must be the classroom creativity whisperer, building a community in which creativity is valued and thinking differently is not just safe, but celebrated. Currently, Jason is co-assistant director on the Project Zero — Cultivating Creative and Civic Capacities project, in collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art, Harvard University and local area educators. He is also the Teacher-Leader-in-Residence with the Columbus Museum of Art. Jason has presented nationally at the Project Zero conference, The Progressive Education Network conference. the National Art Education Association conference, the Ohio Art Education conference and many more. As a creativity consultant, he works with educators across the state, utilizing his practical classroom experiences to help others cultivate the conditions for creativity to grow and thrive. Jason received his MA in art education from The Ohio State University. Currently, he teaches elementary art at Abraham Depp Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio.

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To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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