By Charlotte Borgen, Primary SDC Teacher at F. G. Joyner Elementary

On October 11th, the halls of Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School were transformed into a vibrant, colorful art gallery. Every inch of wall space held a student-created self-portrait in the style of a famous artist. Mothers, fathers, siblings, and grandparents streamed through the front door in droves, stopping to admire the work and talk to their children about the process of creating their masterpieces. Everywhere you turned, a student was shouting “Look at my art!” or explaining their inspiration to friends and family. Parents stopped to write “Artist-Grams,” to be delivered to classrooms later in the week, for their children telling them how proud they were. Outside, families posed for their own portraits taken by a professional photographer. It was our school’s first art show, and our first event as a Turnaround Arts: California partner school, and it all started at the Turnaround Arts Summer Leadership Retreat.  

photo by Elaine Lee Photography
photo by Elaine Lee Photography

Every session during our packed week in Virginia was amazing, but the one that really inspired and stuck with me was “Exploring Portraiture in the Classroom and School-wide.” During this session, led in part by Briana Zavadil White from the National Portrait Gallery, we learned about the Elements of Portrayal by studying multiple depictions of Rosa Parks and Pocahontas, as well as other portraits from the gallery’s extensive collection. The discussions of each portrait were deep and engaging and led to critical thinking about both the artist and the subject. I was immediately inspired to integrate the study of portraits into my instruction.  

Following the presentation by the National Portrait Gallery, the team from Avenal Elementary School presented on the portrait event that they hosted last year. I was truly blown away by the photos and description of this event. From the beautiful student artwork, to the crowds of families packed into the auditorium-turned-gallery, I knew right away that this was something that I wanted to bring to Joyner. I was struck by the fact that each portrait is a celebration of its sitter’s unique identity, which is exactly what we try to do as teachers at the start of the school year. We work hard to build our students up and get to know them, while also teaching them to value themselves. For that reason, we decided that each student would start the school year by creating a self-portrait to be on display at our first art show. We put the date on the calendar during the week of the retreat and committed ourselves to hosting our own portrait event in the fall!


We kicked off the project with a professional development session in which teachers learned the Elements of Portrayal and studied the same portraits used at the summer retreat. Then, each grade-level was assigned an artist to study for inspiration. I selected artists based on the developmental level of the students. Pre-K and Kindergarten students studied Todd Parr (author and illustrator of It’s Okay to be Different and The Feelings Book), 1st grade focused on Matisse cut-outs, 2nd grade on Paul Klee, 3rd grade on Faith Ringgold’s beautiful story quilts, 4th grade on Frida Kahlo, and 5th grade on Amadeo Modigliani. Each grade-level received a variety of pictures and books to help them get to know their artist, along with a collection of lesson plans inspired by their artists.


First, teachers created a “Criteria for Success” for each artist. For example, “Your Kahlo-Inspired Self-Portrait Includes: 1) a face with reasonable proportions; 2) a unique, personal identifying feature, i.e. moles, freckles, or glasses; 3) a background representing or symbolizing at least three items from your culture, history, background, or what is important to you; and 4) colors and images completely cover the canvas.” After this, teachers had the opportunity to create their own artist-inspired self-portraits. By doing this, teachers were able to test out ideas to see what worked and what did not work — they also had a lot of fun and created beautiful pieces of art to bring back to their classrooms! Finally, each grade-level created a mini-unit of five lessons:

  1. Immersion: Students learn about the artist and are exposed to their body of work. Students also learn about self-portraits and the Elements of Portrayal.
  2. Practice: Students learn the skills needed for the project. They get acquainted with the materials. They begin drafting. Students should learn the correct proportions of a face.
  3. Masterpiece: Students create their artist-inspired self-portraits! This lesson will take more than one day.
  4. Artist Statement: Students write a description of their project. This will vary greatly from grade-to-grade.
  5. Gallery Walk: Students share their art. This may include critique.


During the weeks when every student in the school was working on a self-portrait, you could feel excitement and creativity in the air. Kids were talking about their art and artists, showing each other what they had done, and feeling a sense of community knowing that they were part of a school-wide project. The teachers reported that students loved using new materials, trying new techniques, and learning how to create realistic self-portraits. They took pride in the work that they created, and this was amplified by seeing their self-portraits hanging on the beautiful displays that teachers created.

photo by Elaine Lee Photography
photo by Elaine Lee Photography

In order to make the Family Portrait Night a success, there were a few key things that we needed. First, we needed teacher buy-in. We are lucky to be part of a committed, passionate staff. The teachers embraced the project from the start and really took ownership over it. I believe that the students were enthusiastic because the teachers were. Next, we recruited parent volunteers. Hanging hundreds of student portraits and setting up the event would not have been possible without the help of our amazing parent volunteers. Finally, we needed our families to show up! We built-in incentives including refreshments, a raffle, and family portrait photographers. Additionally, we advertised with multiple fliers, phone calls home, banners, and student-created invitations. We tried to get the students excited about the art show so that they would want to bring their parents.

photos by Elaine Lee Photography
photos by Elaine Lee Photography

When I think back on this event, I remember the students reading their artist statements to their parents proudly and posing for pictures next to their self-portraits. I think of the multi-generational family pictures captured by the photographers. I hear a student telling his mom that Modigliani is famous for his long-necked portraits and another describing Frida Kahlo’s use of symbols. Most of all, I think of the positive energy that filled the beautiful gallery space. I am looking forward to continuing our journey as a Turnaround Arts: California partner school and finding more ways to celebrate our young artists and their families.

A special thank you to our full staff and our Arts Leadership Team including Dr. Long, Melanie Edmond, Cathryn Deering, Angelica Navarro, Aurora Guzman, Veronica Amis, Kayla Kim, Karsina Gaither, Diana Chea, Jessica Kang, Shirley Ransom, Kelly Tabata, Liz Martin, and Raquel Williams for bringing this inspiring event to life!

photo by Elaine Lee Photography
photo by Elaine Lee Photography

This event was recently featured on 89.3 KPCC!