Creating Uniquely American Stories 

How art in SAAM’s collection amplifies student voices

October 31, 2023

 

A group of students taking a selfie in front of a projected screen.
Spoken-word poet Joseph Green takes a photo with students from SAAM's "Creating American Stories" project.

Excitement and nervous chatter resonated through the museum’s McEvoy Auditorium one Thursday evening earlier in the year, as a large crowd of middle school students, teachers, and families waited for the event to begin. The lights dimmed, some high-volume cheering for their favorite teachers and school teams ricocheted across the room, and the stage filled with resonant voices as 24 students from three D.C. schools read their creative writing inspired by SAAM artworks. For the eighteenth year, the culminating festivities for our annual “Creating American Stories” student program had begun!

Each year, a new cohort of middle school students learn with SAAM through this engaging program which combines art and historical analysis, visual literacy, content research, creative writing, communication and oratory skills. This year, 448 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth- graders from Alice Deal Middle School, Ida B. Wells Middle School, and Capital City Public Charter School participated.

Students began the program with school visits from Elizabeth Dale-Deines, SAAM’s Head of Teaching & Learning, who manages “Creating American Stories” with generous funding support from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. Classroom sessions introducing students to the process of “reading” an artwork were followed by visits to SAAM galleries for thematic tours, deep looking at works of art, and writing exercises.

I am fortunate to be part of a collaboration that encourages learners to stretch and strengthen themselves, in community. Seeing their faces as they listened to each other and studied the artworks in the galleries was huge! 

Elizabeth Dale-Deines

Back at school, students selected an artwork from their museum experience as a prompt, and teachers worked with them to produce original creative writing inspired by art. Students grappled with questions like: What can art teach us about doing the right thing, even when it's difficult? How can we read history through multiple lenses? How are people and places connected? How can art express cultural identity?

The museum then gathered all their writings together, designed and published digital books to showcase their thoughts, and then the culminating student showcase and reception was hosted at SAAM. Students were coached in their creative writing presentations by spoken-word artist Joseph Green who had them standing proud on the stage—no hiding behind that massive Smithsonian podium! Green served as the master of ceremonies himself, teaching students to take center stage to ensure their voices would shine. One team presented in Spanish, and Green shared a poem to close out the evening.

Students gather on stage at SAAM for the program celebrating "Creating American Stories."

Students gather on stage at SAAM for the program celebrating "Creating American Stories."

Following the showcase, attendees had special after-hours access to SAAM galleries and enjoyed a reception in our glass-covered Kogod Courtyard. With refreshments catered by D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit and social enterprise that combats hunger and poverty through job training and job creation, many attendees commented on an evening filled with learning and social impact. One parent noted “I feel inspired by what I saw, the youth and their ideas here tonight,” while a proud grandparent shared that “these young people gave me hope for our future.”

Each student reader received the gift of a book for their bravery in mounting those stage steps and addressing a large audience of peers, parents and educators. One attendee commented on the students’ poise in front of a large, live audience: “I want to applaud the courage of these kids to get up on that stage and be so articulate. They were so amazing. The depth of their understanding of current issues and relating that and their experience to art. Incredible!”

We are proud to amplify these young voices as they engage with contemporary issues and ideas inspired by art. Since 2004, 7,685 students have created their own American stories at SAAM. Myles Bell, a student who participated in the program in 2019, tapped into his own power through the oratory experience. “Delivering my speech on the stage was, in one word, empowering. It was my chance to show how I felt and just let my emotions flow freely. No one was lecturing me or giving me instructions. It was just plain, raw, speaking from the heart. It allowed my poem to come alive and, hopefully, give others the same effect the painting had on me.”

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