Arts Education in the Age of Trump

Yessica Martinez '16, PP55 Fellow at Coalition for Hispanic Family Services in NYC.
Yessica Martinez ’15, PP55 Fellow at Coalition for Hispanic Family Services in NYC.

Yessica Martinez ’15 was born in Medellin, Colombia and migrated to Queens, NY when she was 10 years old. She graduated from Princeton’s departments of Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. Her creative thesis was a book of poems on borders and migration inspired by her experiences as an undocumented migrant and her travels along the US-Mexico border. Here she shares a glimpse of her job as an arts and literacy teacher with the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services which allows her to continue developing her skills as an artist and educator. She is considering an MFA in creative writing and/or a Ph.D. in Spanish literature.

The most challenging and rewarding aspect of my fellowship thus far has been my work as a teaching artist. I lead classes for our after-school Arts and Literacy program working with children from second to fifth grade on a six-week rotation basis. As a teaching artist, I develop a project based curriculum leading up to a final presentation for parents and families. I teach creative writing while also incorporating other artistic disciplines. The curriculum requires coming up with innovative project ideas every six weeks. So far, my classes have created an imaginative newspaper titled Queens Loco News, a survival guide for a new classmate arriving from outer space, and a neighborhood mapping project resulting in a collective poem exploring the memories of our neighborhood.

The goal of our program is to increase literacy in the broadest sense of the word, encouraging students’ ability to read, listen and speak in a critical and fluent manner. My personal goal as a teaching artist is to increase students’ critical thinking skills by presenting them with topics and questions that are relevant to them while also addressing what is at stake for them as members of this society.

Students from Coalition for Hispanic Family Services at Zumbathon 2016 (Source:

I identify very much with my students because I am also a resident of Corona, Queens, having migrated here thirteen years ago. Many of the students are immigrants or children of immigrants and the majority are ESL students or bilingual Spanish speakers.

I create lesson plans that address societal, political and economic issues to help my students understand their relationship to these problems and also their power to change them. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, addressing these questions is also a way of inspiring hope.

Many of my students, especially the younger ones, see Donald Trump as a larger than life figure with all the power in the world. I have had several heart-wrenching conversations about the harm students fear he will cause their families. Many students are children of undocumented immigrants and some have already been separated from their mothers and fathers because of deportation.

They were very much attuned to the rhetoric used during the election and the idea of “the wall” with all its symbolic power, has made them very fearful. In all these conversations, I have first tried to make them aware that even if someone has power and wants to utilize it to harm them, there are multiple ways in which that can be averted, from using our system of checks and balances to mobilizing power in numbers.

Although there are many times I would rather skip over these conversations because of how difficult they are, I have found the need to center them because our classroom is one of the only spaces students have to process their ideas. I often use literature to open up these discussions. On Martin Luther King Day for example, I conducted a story circle with students ages six to ten using the illustrated book Heart and Soul. The book traces in multiple chapters the history of African Americans in this country. We read a chapter on slavery and one on segregation and the civil rights movement. Throughout that reading, I asked questions such as “How do you think slaves fought against slavery throughout those years?” “Why do you think it was important for slave owners to keep slaves from learning to read and write?” “Why was it possible for Europeans to enslave Africans?” “What do you think it felt like to be kidnapped and taken from one’s land?” I wanted students to think about the multiple forms of resistance that have existed throughout history while also considering the way in which power functions. The book also does a great job of humanizing the history of slavery.

When we read the chapter on segregation, I asked students to consider whether there are any existing laws today that they think are unjust. Students were quick to point out immigration laws and Trump’s plan to build a wall. One student also shared that their parents were undocumented. When students voiced that they felt immigration laws were racists, I asked them to give me an explanation of how they thought racism was evident. They answered that they thought this was true because Trump often spoke of immigration by targeting Hispanics and Mexicans in particular. Although we often hit on controversial topics, I made sure that students backed up their ideas using examples and knowledge they had already gathered. We also discussed the chapter on the civil rights movement as a model for thinking about how we may similarly push back against policies that we find unjust. On the question of whether Dr. King’s dream had come true, students agreed that it had, but only in part. One student, a fifth grader, impressed me when she cited a recent study about the implicit prejudice of pre-school teachers toward their black students. Others cited examples of having heard racists jokes made towards their friends. Some pointed to Donald Trump and others talked about police killings.

Although these are difficult conversations, I don’t shy away from them and I try to lead them by asking questions and avoiding shock. At times, I am heartbroken discussing how our society is failing them, but most often I am amazed by their depth, insight, perceptiveness and ability for reflection. Even at such a young age, they have a wealth of knowledge and a unique perspective that must be heard and valued. I feel I do my best as a teacher when I learn more from them than they do from me.

There is a quote that very much inspires my work which reads: “So many years of education yet no one taught us how to love ourselves and why it is so important.” I see my job in the classroom—within the after school setting and the freedom it affords me—as filling this educational gap. As such, I teach students as much about their self-worth as I do about the issues that affect their lives. So when a student tells me her mother is undocumented, in the context of a conversation about Trump, I affirm that being undocumented doesn’t make her a bad person and we discuss as a class why it is people choose to migrate. I encourage them to celebrate their identity, rooted in the places they come from, and to believe in their capacity to think deeply about the world. A great example of this is the “I am poem” activity in which I ask students to think of who they are in relations to the smells, sights, and sounds of their everyday life. Here are some of their poems.

I am not vanilla, I am chocolate
I am tracks because when the metro north goes fast it is fire
I am not green I’m an alien
I am a house but I’m a building
I am plants, trees, grass but I am summer
I am Ecuador because I am from Ecuador
I am a writer but I am a reader
I am light but I am the sun
By Bryan B

I am music – jazz – blues
I am school – p.s 92 – p.s 127
I am a tree
I am a cake
I am brown and wood
I am “because I said so”
I am my mom’s brownies
I am a fence around our school
I am the sunset

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