Exploring modern slavery: a teacher’s perspective

Art teacher Clifton Rooney reflects on the TY slavery mural as an extracurricular project, following on from the recent blog post written by three of the student artists on 21st March.

Exploring global contemporary slavery has been a hugely beneficial process for both me as an educator and for my students as learners.

It would be unfair of me to define my role in this process as an educator and that of my students as learners: we all shared these roles in a mutual unravelling of the available material; books, web based and video. We discussed, presented, drew, debated, wrote, listened, designed, painted, responded . . . all together. It really has been a meeting of interested minds where we approached the material together with amazement and horror.

I have to acknowledge that each year, when I work with a group of students on a social justice project I am amazed at the integrity and commitment of the youth with which I am working. As a society, we are forever stereotyping young people as disinterested in big world issues and global politics. I don’t hesitate to say that this is totally incorrect.

In our recent exploration of contemporary slavery, a cohort of about 20 students committed to meeting once a week after school for at least an hour to discuss these issues. The students then designed and painted a mural in response to what they discovered. Following on from this they planned a workshop to present their work to their peers and parents about these issues.

At the centre of the workshops, before anything else, was enthusiasm, idealism and the energy brought by the students for taking on tough issues. For any project such as this one to be successful it requires educators giving young people the space to challenge, and be challenged by the world around them.

Active workshops were a great tool to explore the history of the global slave trade, the causes of contemporary slavery, it’s more common forms, our own responsibility in relation to slavery, human rights and slavery, global development and potential solutions to these problems. You don’t have to be an expert to have an opinion about any one of these topics. The workshops were also in interesting space to explore pedagogical methodologies.

No one came to the sessions to off-load information: debates, discussions and disputes set the scene for lively learning.

We discuss and respond. We all have a voice at these meetings. If we are to use these educational opportunities to create a better world, I believe the only way to do so is by all of us modelling positive behaviours towards each other; respect, tolerance, empathy, compassion, democracy, justice. . . . the beauty is that we have no curriculum to follow, none of the usual constraints of the syllabus; we are free agents. We are all there voluntarily to try to make sense of our world and to argue for solutions in what we find.

Photograph of the finished mural by the students

Using art in the process is a wonderful addition to the explorations as it gives structure to the thoughts of the students. The creation of a mural is a large and undeniable statement by the group – together in unity. The time used to create the mural is also a great opportunity for the students to discuss in more detail some of the issues which may have impacted upon them during the learning.

In fact, the very act of making a mural is a hugely time consuming process. This process is recognized by others and sparks interest:

“If somebody has gone to the effort of creating this big painting, maybe they have something important to say”.

Learning to actively promote what we believe in and challenge what we don’t accept has become a huge part of what we do. We spend a lot of time together working on how to speak about the issues, how to educate others using pedagogical methodologies. In some ways, this is the most rewarding part for me. I love to see students confidently speaking to the world in their own words about issues which are important to them. Young people have so many valuable things to say and it is our responsibility to work with them to enable them to do so.

Above all, our explorations are about empathy. We learn to have empathy for those who suffer. Development education projects allow us to focus on one issue and explore what kind of injustices cause that suffering and what value questions are evoked by it. Do we value others as equal to ourselves? If so, then the development of everyone’s (not just mine in Ireland!) existence to an equal plateau is a logical extension. If we do not care, then it is not. This is a personal question people should ask themselves, daily.

If we are to prepare young people to actively engage in their community and do a better job than we are doing, then my job is done.

Some general tips for developing art-based projects for your class

  • Develop your own library of resources and strategies. This can be made up of teaching tools (such as Paul Ginnis’s wonderful handbook, The Teacher’s Toolkit, 2002) as well as useful non-governmental website pages and teacher aids. What’s in date? What’s official Ireland’s position on this topic? (check the Irish Aid website for the government’s view)
  • Read a good book about whatever you’re exploring
  • Use questions and resource based learning as much as possible with open questioning the norm
  • Develop your own style – be ready to throw away the books and work to support a collegial environment
  • Make sure to have fun!

Preparation and research: jump right in!

1. Learn about the issue by reading up all about it. I take what I find most interesting and paraphrase that info into potential learning scenarios.

2. Keep all of the relevant info in a folder for the year so the students can dip into it as necessary.

3. Loosely structure a series of learning situations. Use some of the material sourced as a springboard to begin learning

4. Throw away the road map! When we start discussing, students bring huge value to the table and the direction we take can be very different to that expected. That’s the beauty – we try to keep a structure in a loose way but allow for maximum student input and research. Remember – it is not exciting for a student to sit and be told something about something, it is however exciting for a student to discover something about something and to respond to and present that something.

5. A lesson plan is a vital fall back to allow structure when necessary, but you have to allow those energetic and vibrant debates to flow when they start!

6. Make space for independent research. It is amazing what students will discover online too when you give them some time. I have learned so much from students who do their own research. I remember one student sitting at a computer analysing road maps of a country on Google Earth to try to assess whether the development of rural infrastructure might affect slavery in that country! Wow! The definite correlation between the two wasn’t that important. Talk about lateral and creative thinking. That’s what I love to see!

7. Think of categories. Once we’ve learned as much as we can about an issue, we then sit down and find images and words which best represent our feelings/response to the issue. We broadly categorise these images and then discuss which word/image best represents that category.

Designing the mural

8. We use Adobe Photoshop to create a mural design but you could do so by creating a collage of images, phrases and photos, photocopy this to a transparency and project (old school!). This can take a bit of work but is well worth the effort. Or, alternatively…

While we use Adobe Photoshop to create complex collage work for our murals prior to projecting and painting them, it is possible to create large scale painted graphic work with minimal resources and artistic experience. See this 2 step guide for using MS Word in creating art-based projects to plan your project (you don’t need to be a computer whiz to do it!)

9. Let the students do it! This year I decided to give the lads carte blanche and use school computers and software to design the mural in its totality. We had teams of TY students quietly designing away as I taught my other classes. They were all creating alternative design solutions. Again, wow! I was blown away. They were teaching me things about using complex design software – and I am a trained designer! Young people are endlessly inventive: they find ways to learn and do things which I never could. This ingenuity should be harnessed more often. Young people have much to offer to the learning environment!


10. Write articles and personal responses to what they have learned like the one posted on this blog by three of the students that worked on the slavery mural. This is a way for students to get active about the issues. Some students prepare speeches, learning exercises to present to peers or make Powerpoint presentations.

11. Let students use their own talents and skill sets. In the past, one student was a radio DJ on an Irish radio station. He presented a whole program in Irish about Animal Rights. He then continued to produce an audio piece to accompany a visual arts performance using his own skill set. Another student wrote an article and went on to find his own publication outlet.

On preparing the learning environment

TY is a vital space for students to explore issues and themes outside of the curriculum. It is also a vital space for teachers to explore areas of personal interest. Much of our day is formed rigidly or loosely by external considerations. TY is a time when this does not need to be the case. However, you will notice that these workshops are outside of school time. I don’t want them to become just another class. I want the students to commit to the projects and to take ownership. If students come of their own free will, there is a different feel to the workshops.

Our explorations have of course many cross curricular links – Morality – religion, public speaking and speech writing, essay writing – English, Globalisation – Geography, World history – history, project work – many subjects, the use of raw materials – science, painting and drawing/ visual communications – art, of course numeracy and literacy are also inherent components of what we explore; statistics, percentages, ratios, language, meaning. . . teaching to read the word and the world!

On teaching

Don’t just focus on methodologies and adopting a ‘teacher knows best’ role. Cultivating an attitude of deep respect for your students is vital for active learning: respect everyone’s opinions and adopt a real desire for students to succeed.

Remember, these projects are probably not going to change the world, but one of these students might. If we help to build an awareness of and empathy for world development issues and scaffold it with confidence (i.e. an ability to research and respond in a way appropriate to their means) then we are supporting our future caretakers to build a society for justice and equality everywhere.

On the school community

The school management have a huge role in supporting your project from start to finish. Having school management supports in place creates a safe environment for teachers to try out new projects. If a teacher fails or makes a mistake, it is vital that the school management supports that teacher in much the same way that a teacher must support their students. Work with the year coordinator (in my case TY coordinator) to organize time and resources to deliver your project across class periods and other subject areas.

Secure another colleague to share the work with! Team teaching in schools is still a rarity and it is something which I have found to be hugely beneficial.

The support of our school community has been particularly important in producing the work that we have done over the past year. Our principal, Gerry Duffy and deputy principal, Pat Gregory have been hugely enthusiastic and supportive. Mark Tansey, the TY co-ordinator has does everything in his capacity and more to assist our explorations. My colleague, Elaine Brennan has been an enormous contributor to the project with incredibly creative ideas and a real passion for social justice. My colleague, Beulah Jay Donohue has contributed in an enormous way over the past number of years with an amazing understanding of teaching methodologies, morality and equality.