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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

The Human Mosaic Project

An art project that began in New York and later spread throughout the world helps students learn tolerance through collaboration.
When I began teaching in East Harlem, an inner-city neighborhood in New York, the local population was almost completely Puerto Rican. Although it was a tough neighborhood, it was a stable and unified one. Over the next 15 years, I noticed that a wide variety of students from other ethnic groups were moving into the neighborhood. Eventually friction between the various groups created a level of disharmony that made teaching nearly impossible.
Comparing notes with my colleagues, I learned that they were having the same experience. There did not seem to be much of a solution, short of resorting to the traditional repressive techniques of threat and punishment, which seemed to me to be contrary to everything I was trying to accomplish in the classroom. I began to look around my district for a program that would enable me to help my students get past prejudice and confrontation and that would help me maintain an effective learning environment. I found nothing that seemed appropriate or effective; so out of desperation, I decided to create my own program.

From Idea to Reality

My idea began to take shape in 1989 during New York City's mayoral election when the city was inundated with campaign rhetoric. One of the more memorable statements was made by David Dinkins, who later won that campaign. He described New York as a “gorgeous mosaic of humanity,” with the many different ethnic groups in the city as the “tiles” of this mosaic. He explained that the beauty of the mosaic as a whole outshines any of its individual components.
As an art teacher I was very taken with the imagery evoked by this language. I sensed that if I could get my students to see their neighbors in this light, a lot of the conflict taking place in school would be eliminated. I decided to have my students transform “the human mosaic” idea into a physical reality.

Making the Mosaic

Participation in The Human Mosaic Project begins with a series of classroom discussions. Students think about and list the different ethnic groups they share their world with—those they have known, and those they haven't. Next, we introduce the concept of the mosaic as a model for understanding and appreciating the family of man. Through the mosaic, students see a way in which the differences of ethnic groups can be acknowledged and celebrated along with the human qualities common to all people.
The heart of the project involves the creation of art. Students are given a blank “tile” (white tagboard cut two inches square) and are instructed to draw a person on it. They may draw themselves, a person they share their neighborhood with, or one they have never met but would like to. The project is designed so that artistic talent on the part of either the teacher or the student is not an issue. No special materials or facilities are needed, just pencils, markers, white glue, and tagboard—keeping the cost of the project to just a few dollars per class. Students may create as many tiles as they wish, and they usually choose to produce at least half a dozen.
The format of The Human Mosaic Project is modular to support an ever widening field of student collaboration. The finished tiles are glued on to a large sheet of cardboard that holds approximately 250 tiles. Just as the two-inch portrait tiles fit together to form panels, the panels also fit together to form larger groupings of portraits—joining together the work of many students to form a united, harmonious work of art.
The project was so successful that my colleagues asked me to help them implement it in their classes. Encouraged by this response, I began to spread the idea, its plans and materials, throughout the huge New York City school system. In creating a simple series of activities that addressed a pressing need in an effective way, I had stumbled upon a project that had a very strong appeal to teachers. With help from various professional organizations, I eventually shared The Human Mosaic Project with thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of students throughout many parts of the United States. As of this writing, teachers and students in more than a dozen foreign countries have joined the project as well.

The Impact of the Mosaic

As the project grows, the work of students from different classes, districts, states, and even different countries combines to form an ever-expanding, monolithic work. The project offers students the chance to collaborate on something important with others with whom they would ordinarily never come in contact. The significance of this linkage makes a big impression on youngsters as does the experience of having a voice in the world and knowing that people hear it. The power of this voice is discovered at public exhibitions of the mosaic.
The project has been exhibited in such places as the gallery of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington, D. C., the New York State Museum in Albany, The American Fine Arts Society, and the Manhattan Children's Museum, both in New York City. The exhibition at the Children's Museum was a particularly powerful one. It filled three complete galleries with a continuous panel of two-inch portraits—extending from floor to ceiling and representing the work of more than 70,000 students. For more than six months, both students and adults walked into a environment of student-made artwork expressing unity through diversity. Unprepared for such a dramatic demonstration of the power of unity, many visitors were visibly moved and returned time and time again to show the project to family and friends.
Through their work on this project, I saw great improvements in intergroup relations among my own students. The interest of my colleagues tells me they sense its value and relevance for their schools and communities as well. I am encouraged by the results of this experiment. It involves so many of the things we have come to look for in contemporary education: student collaboration, authentic activities and products, multicultural content, interdisciplinary connections, and high motivation. The Human Mosaic Project provides a format for all of this, but remains something much more than the mere sum of these parts. The project provides a single focused purpose—the creation of something exciting and beautiful through which young people transform themselves from passive learners about their world to active shapers of its future.

Mark Gura has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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