Art education alumnus Matthew SaGurney, ’96, ’01, recently imparted an important lesson to his students at Kenmore East High School, one that extends beyond the mechanics of making a painting. They learned the power of empathy.
In December, three classes comprised of 75 students created a 9-by-9 foot painting inspired by the courage of an injured girl on the other side of the world.
The assignment was to create a portrait of a hero or influential person. At SaGurney’s suggestion, the students chose Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl whom the Taliban shot on a school bus in October for speaking up for girls’ education. The girl's story shocked and inspired the local high school students, SaGurney said.
“She seemed to them like a modern-day Anne Frank or Rosa Parks,” he said. “What woke them up was that this is still happening. It connected them to that part of the world, and made them more compassionate about the whole project.”
The students worked in teams to create smaller grids on paper that fit together to complete Yousafzai’s portrait, which now hangs in a heavily traveled hallway in the school.
“The idea of showing their artwork in public is one of the most exciting aspects for them,” he said.
Jane Stevenson, a Buffalo State candidate for teacher certification in 2013, worked last fall as a student teacher in SaGurney’s classroom and assisted with the portrait project.
“Our goal was to design an engaging lesson that combined art skills with the portrayal of a compelling true story that would hit home with teenage hearts,” Stevenson said.
Afterward, the students wrote personal letters to Yousufzai, who was recently released from the hospital and is recovering in England with her family. Excerpts include this from Emilee Johnson: “You have done something that a girl your age would never normally do, and that is amazing…. I hope you get what you have been asking for because I say you definitely deserve it.”
And from 17-year-old Bryan Woods: “I could not imagine having been through what you have had to endure, and it’s starting to make me believe that one person can have the ability to change the course of history permanently.”
SaGurney, who has taught at Kenmore East for 16 years, said he feels fortunate to have the job he does, one that allows him to see students progress and develop not just as artists but as people.