How Merganthaler Vocational Technical High School’s Art Teacher Helps Students Find Their Voice

When Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School (MERVO) art teacher Sia Kyriakakos (2017 Maryland Teacher of the Year) learned that the theme of this year’s 10X10 Exhibit theme was Voice, she knew it would be a great opportunity for her students to showcase their artistic talents.  When her students’ submissions began pouring in, the exhibit’s youth curatorial team noticed that many of the works coming from MERVO were about identity and family- and came in the form of poetry, videos, and visual art.  They saw works that addressed skin color, hair, sexual identity, family dynamics, and coping with loss of a loved one.  Each student’s voice was so unique and powerful, that the curatorial team had to find out more.

So Arts Every Day reached out to Sia (known to her students as “Ms. K”) about her students’ submissions and the kinds of conversations that were happening in the virtual classroom that had lead to such meaningful and impactful works in this year’s 10X10 Exhibit.  What we didn’t expect was to learn about how a single art class could become a journey into self-discovery and a safe space where trust is actively built and where being vulnerable is not seen as a weaknesses but as a strength.  

Some of you might be thinking, “But this is just an art class, right? Shouldn’t students just be learning how to draw or paint?” And that’s where we at Arts Every Day (and just about anyone who has an appreciation for the arts) will tell you that there is so much more that happens in the art classroom than “just learning to draw and paint.”  This is because when Ms. K. begins working with new students, (who only have art class for 3 months– sometimes the only arts exposure they get during their 4 years) she begins with a deep dive into identity.  Art making can be very personal and knowing who we are is integral to the process and the meaning behind each work. That is why she has her students complete a series of “Who Am I?” essay prompts.  As Ms. K emphasizes, “We are products of our childhood.  Who we are growing up molds who we are and who we become.”  Students in her class begin their art class answering questions like: How does family play a role in who you are?  What is your message to the world? What are your goals? “If you don’t set goals, how will you work towards them?”, she asks her class.  ” I need to know where they are coming from so I can help them go where they are going.” 

In addition to exploring the “Who Am I?” prompts in her work with students for the 10X10 exhibit, Ms. K. also invited teaching artist Gayle Danley into her classroom.  Danley, an accomplished poet, offers classroom residencies that show students “how to use slam poetry to access tough emotions and process the world outside and inside.” Ms. K. first introduced her students to Danley back in 2018 as part of Arts Every Day’s Schools Program, which helps fund arts and cultural experiences in Baltimore City classrooms. In sharing of her own personal narrative, Danley creates a safe space for students to share their own stories, and it was through this classroom experience that many of the 10X10 Exhibit submissions were born.  The resulting works gave us poems layered over drawings and photographs, powerful voice recordings, and an incredible insight into the lives of what makes these students so special.  

The fact that the exhibit was virtual this year gave us the opportunity to really open up the restrictions on the type and size of works accepted into the show.  With a theme like Voice it was fitting that students not be limited as to how they wanted to express themselves.  This allowed for Ms. K. to engage her students and teach them art skills while also giving them the freedom (and confidence) to be themselves, to learn to trust one another, and to see art as an opportunity to build monuments to themselves.  

And while the future of the arts within our city and our schools remains a constant source of contention, we can look forward to applying the many lessons that we as an organization have learned over the last year to how we support the arts in our schools.  We eagerly anticipate the day when we will gather again in person to celebrate the talents of our youth and witness them as they gaze up at their very own works and the works of their peers exhibited on gallery walls or fill the room with instrumental and choral music, speak bold words from a stage, and use movement that speaks louder than words.  But, in the meantime, we cannot overlook the crucial roles and significant impact that our arts teachers have in the lives of students across the city.  The future of the arts lies in the creative minds of our youth and the ones fanning those innovative flames sits on the shoulders of our very own arts teachers.  How can we as arts organizations, arts and cultural institutions, and artists support our teachers and students so that more students can be seen, more stories can be shared, and more voices can be heard? If we can use Ms. K’s students as an example, the answer may lie in asking ourselves- “Who Am I?” 

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