Art and Students of Poverty

“Most public school students now living in poverty” declares the January 17 Washington Post article. This landmark comes as no great surprise to our public school teachers, but the fact remains that schools have a greater need than ever to provide for students of low income families. What is the role of art education in supporting these students?

Our Monsters by Stefanie Weiss, art teacher
Our Monsters by Stefanie Weiss, art teacher

Some might quickly go to an idea the article points out, students of low income families “are less frequently exposed to enriching activities.” But the arts are not just enrichment, they are central to being human, and as such can serve to satisfy some of the most basic needs of our “majority-poor student population.”

Let me acknowledge that this report is based on the number of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Some have been quick to point out that this does not necessary equate to being “in poverty” (see here). While this new majority might not all be truly poverty stricken, we need to ensure that all of our students, whatever their family income level, first have their most basic needs met.

The prominent example in the article describes teacher Sonya Romero-Smith who first considers whether her students have eaten and are clean at the start of the school day. This may be an extreme example to some, but this is the right place to begin.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a mainstay in educational psychology, illustrates the needs that motivate human behavior.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

For teachers, this simple pyramid diagram means that students must have their basic needs met, those represented by the bottom of the pyramid, before they can learn. In fact, the higher order thinking, problem solving, and even (art teachers) creativity that we so often strive for in quality instruction fall into the pinnacle of the pyramid, self-actualization.

The teacher in the Washington Post article was seeing to the physiological needs of her students, the very bottom of the pyramid. Physiological needs include food, water, warmth, and rest. After these are considered, we must ensure that students feel safe. You can imagine the importance of teachers and schools to establish a safe place for students. Teacher-student relationships and school culture can also go a long way to help students feel a sense of belonging — to a class or school community.

Once these needs are met, students are ready to develop self-esteem, confidence, respect of others, and respect by others. If we can achieve this (in this brief and over simplified description) we are about ready to learn, be creative, and solve problems.

Well, now it is starting to feel a little overwhelming!

What I would like to propose, however, is that art instruction is not something that can only be reached at the pinnacle of the pyramid after all other needs have been met. Rather, I believe it can be a vehicle to provide for needs much lower on Maslow’s pyramid.

Like any teacher, an art teacher can create a safe and welcoming environment where students can feel a part of a class or community, but art has the capacity to take this much further. Some of the ways art teachers create a safe environment are discussed in a post called Artroom Collaboration. Check it out for more, and look at this list of ways art meets different levels of needs.

  • Art teachers make physical safety a high priority with a range of tools and materials in the classroom
  • Discussing art in the artroom is a necessity and students are taught to respond to artworks in respectful and constructive ways.
  • Respectful discussion of artwork and practice giving and receiving feedback leads to students feeling safe to take risks.
  • This emotional safety leads to a strong sense of community.
  • Learning about and making art often leads to a strong sense of belonging to a community of artists.
  • The long history of art as an integral part of human culture can help students feel a part of something much larger than just a school or classroom.
  • Quality art instruction allows students to communicate their own ideas, gives the student voice, and through this a sense of efficacy.
  • Quality art instruction includes consideration for the audience which builds empathy and understanding.

Many of these ideas reach across levels of Maslow’s Pyramid, effectively allowing for differentiation to meet the needs of all students. A well managed art critique, for example, can serve at a low need level to provide a sense of safety for one child, while at the same time serving the esteem level by developing greater understanding and respect among participants, and at the self-actualization level by allowing students to think creatively and critically.

These are just a few ideas. If you have other thoughts on the ways art provides for the needs of all students, I would love to hear about it.

If you would like to read more about how Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs impacts students, I found this information from Educational Psychology Interactive to be very informative.

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2 thoughts on “Art and Students of Poverty”

  1. I really liked your take on things and I agree, ART should be part of the foundation of a solid education, not just the “take it or leave it” topping. Afterall, art is so much more than 3 little letters. It’s all around us and it anchors our history in the mundane activities of life as well as the major world events. How can people think that creativity is absent in the activites that humans participate in to obtain the basic needs in life? Did we not create the tools for agriculture when we grew tired of hunting and gathering? Did we create beautiful pottery to store food? One could argue that creativity is at the very heart of all things. I would also add that a child who learns self esteem through art and creativity, will discover self actualization without a lot of help.

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