Luis-Genaro Garcia, PhD, is an artist and high school art teacher in South Central Los Angeles. Dr. Garcia has a PhD in education at Claremont Graduate University. His work uses the CRT tenet of experiential knowledge. He uses his experiences growing up in a single parent household and schooling experiences to challenge traditional approaches to art education.
Rather than teaching students how to improve their artistic skills and abilities, a meaningful art education should teach students to use the arts as forms of resistance to current institutional barriers that exist in working class environments.
Resistance is a form of negotiation directed towards the hegemony that exists in schools. Luis’s use of art as a form of negotiation to challenge the limitations faced by urban youth is a form of resistance he, with his students, negotiates to push against and challenge the existing hegemony and social hierarchies.
We, the authors of this text, take this space in our manuscript to focus on Dr. Garcia and his work as an artist-educator as an example that teacher candidates and others may find useful in considering a practical application of critical education in an actual classroom with students. Luis’ classroom is an example of what critical education looks likes at a grassroots level. It is an example of what we, as teacher educators and teacher candidates, talk about in education foundation courses at both universities and other educational spaces. Dr. Garcia’s classroom serves as evidence that a critically informed approach to teaching and learning is not some type of “pie in the sky” ivory tower idea that is unrealistic for actual teachers with “real” students. Rather, Dr. Garcia’s classroom illustrates that a critically oriented form of education that is grounded in and relevant to students and their lives and communities can and, in some cases, is being implemented by educators.
We thus use the narrative1 shared by Dr. Garcia to introduce and explore the possibilities provide by and through art and a connection to students’ lives and communities toward more equitable forms of living, learning, and developing as individuals and groups. Often, in the teacher preparation courses we – the authors of this text, teach we hear from students that the practices of critical education will not work in schools. Our teacher education students frequently tell us that there is too much of a disconnect from the reality of schooling and what is being taught in Schools of Education such as a culturally relevant, critical form of teaching and learning.
This section provides evidence supporting a counter to that argument that education relevant to students and critically oriented is not practice or possible. The work that Dr. Garcia is doing in his classroom with students is real and, accordingly, if teacher candidates put in the effort to create their own teaching practices and perspectives toward culturally relevant, equitable education, they too can have these same real experiences.
As we – the authors and the artist, define it, the teaching-and-learning cycle is cultural work; it is a way of thinking about and thus approaching life and its many domains including education. It is not a technocratic, rational, objective, and mechanistic process or procedure. We already have a plethora of narrow curricula, scripted pedagogies, and standardized assessments that are proven failures despite the good intentions that may have produced them (Hayes, Juarez, & Cross, 2012; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Quijada Cerecer, Alvarez Guiterrez & Rios, 2010). In the paragraphs below, we introduce the artist-educator Luis-Genro Garcia. Dr. Garcia then discusses how he developed and implements a critical form of education grounded in art and based on his students’ life experiences.
Dr. Luis Garcia
I am in my eleventh-year teaching. I think my cultural background has developed me, and helped me to grow as an educator. Because as an art educator, I started with, ‘we’re going to learn patterns,’ ‘we’re going to learn, design methods’ right.
But, the reality of it, I realized, is that none of this is helping students. None of this is going to resolve the social and economic inequities faced by my students. So, little by little I just started developing a unique art method. I developed my approach to art where I was introducing students to systematic and socioeconomic processes that limit working class families from accessing resources.
So, through the arts, I introduced them to how the social structure works, living in a capitalistic society, how labor and housing policies have targeted people of color, and the impact of environmental racism. I do this all through the arts. And so it’s not just, ‘oh, we’re learning about the arts,’ we’re learning about how our environment works, specifically for people of color, and it’s done through the arts right. That way – an actual benefit is students learning through the arts when it’s connected to where they live and how, how that environment works. You know, get them to navigate through or around the limited environments that they live in. I didn’t start taking my students out into the community to do art projects until after I received my Masters degree in public arts.
At that time, when I finished by degree, we were already doing projects in the classroom. However, after being exposed to different public art projects and to public art, it occurred to me that we need to do public art projects where it counts for them, with regard to students and doing arts projects in their own communities.’
My activist experience was started when partners of mine introduced me to Paulo Freire’s (1970) text entitled Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They told me that I need to read this book especially if you’re going to be working with urban youth. And that’s when I also read the Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels, 1848) and looked at how the social structure works, that is, how social hierarchy works, and how it related to some of my experiences.
I really did not start being politically active until my third or fourth year. But I was already thinking some of these things like social structure as an artist as well. I think that that’s a very unique position of being artist/educator.
I started doing that around 2009 when I begin to get involved in demonstrations, citizen engagement introducing students to talking and expressing topics that were hitting them at home. These topics include immigration issues, gentrification, and the school-to-prison pipeline. And so, now that I’m completing my doctoral studies – I’m able to bring even more theoretical concepts together. Where I am using critical education methods to bring the arts to students in working class and underfunded art programs.
I don’t get any flack from my school administrators. They see that I do have a revolutionary approach to education, and they see how students respond to it. They see that I do connect them to the classroom. It’s my way of really making a difference in my community and thinking about the learning experiences of the students. Bottom line I try to empower students through art.
For example, taking these empty lots that have been left ever since the ‘92 riots. We say this. OKAY, what can we do for the best of the community? Right now, my students are working with the Trust of Republic Lands to developing that avenue of networks. It’s not necessarily their project, but the murals they make are part of the class.
Creative Resistance in My Classroom
By situating resistance within the educative realm of daily visual experiences, students, and teachers can begin to meaningfully assess, interpret, and attend to the social, political, psychological, and cultural struggles that occur within the multiple sites of the everyday. (Darts, 2004, p. 318)
I define creative resistance as more of an action rather than a theory. Creative Resistance is; any creative forms of expression that contests or challenges systematic-oppressive; structures, actions, misconceptions, stereotypes, political agendas, or inequalities that diminish the development of a group of people or community through fine or performing art productions. I have introduced the idea of arts-based critical pedagogy with urban youth. During a recent service learning project my students and I used culturally relevant art instruction in a way that incorporated the historical and cultural experiences of socio-economically challenged students, while linking them to civic participation. I think this type of project can open opportunities for students to challenge the limitations they encounter in urban schools and communities. (Garcia, 2012, 2015)
As I see it, after completing an art course where the curriculum focused on the environments and experiences of the immediate neighborhood through concepts of social justice were able to reflect on issues of gentrification and a broken school system based on their understandings and the implications of living in a socio-economically challenged area. I saw several of my students develop a richer political awareness and the influences it had in understanding their circumstances and why it was difficult for them to navigate their academic endeavors.
The idea, to develop student awareness, to develop student confidence and really having invest with their own persons and voicing out their own opinions, because the first day of class is always … okay, let’s look at this art period and tell me what you think? They don’t want to answer because they think it’s wrong. I told them sometimes, I tell them, “Look man, that’s your opinion; it’s not right or wrong. An opinion is what you think and the problem is that you’ve been told that tree is green. You’ve been told that when you paint the sky it’s probably blue. No. It doesn’t. Little by little your imagination is deteriorating because teachers tell you what to do. So, you’re just used to being told what to do. In my class, your opinion is what you need to do. So, I tell them why, because you guys need to be proactive about what you think and that’s the start of being opinionated; that’s the start of making changes; that’s the start of thinking about certain situations. But, my teaching philosophy is how I can teach students … and teaching students to look at their environment and improving it through the arts.