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The writing on the wall

Walk into a bathroom at Godwin Heights Middle School on any given school day, and you’re likely to find eighth-graders Shyla Beattie and Jimmie Floyd writing on the walls. It’s OK though: Principal Bradley Tarrance and art teacher Kim Urbanski are behind it 100 percent.

The multi-faceted, student-created wall art project began this year. Conceived during a discussion on social justice, it’s part art education, part school beautification, part graffiti-deterrent, and now very much a passion project for involved students.

“The goal is to just spread positivity and give kids a voice,” said Urbanski, “because it’s their space.”

Art teacher Kim Urbanski led students in creating the bathroom murals

Art and Activism

If you’ve met Tarrance, you know that equity and racial inequality in America are topics he doesn’t shy away from. While discussing these with the school’s Student Leadership Committee, one student mentioned the similarities between schools and prison, from stark concrete block walls to metal detectors. This prompted Tarrance to think about simple ways to shift that paradigm while leveraging the strengths of the school community. Tarrance and the students decided on a school beautification project.

At the same time, he noticed graffiti in the bathrooms, and the ongoing response — covering it up  — wasn’t terribly effective at stopping it. Inspired by the a California professor who had a revolutionary response to vandalism on his office door, Tarrance gave the green light to Urbanski to let students cover those walls with art and positivity.

“We know in urban settings, murals don’t usually get covered up or tagged. Let’s just embrace writing on the walls,” said Tarrance. “All it took was saying that to our art teacher Mrs. Urbanski, and she took off running with it.”

Eighth-graders Kylee Davenport, foreground, and Brooklynn James work on a mural in the girls’ bathroom at Godwin Heights MIddle School

Back to Basics

Urbanski started with simple lessons on line and color — basic elements of art. She showed her students a YouTube video about an artist who had transformed a public bathroom with a mural using only lines. Students worked in teams to come up with ideas to beautify their bathrooms. They created prototypes on paper before getting to work. The hardest part was blending all their ideas to create something beautiful, said Urbanski. Plenty of teamwork was required.

“The coolest thing about art is students finally get a voice. In this world, where they feel like they don’t have a lot of control — especially this age group –having a voice to create and to express feelings and in such a positive manner — I am all for it,” said Urbanski.

Once the class portion of the project was finished, many of Urbanski’s students continued working on the murals and even recruited friends who are not in the class to help.

“They are staying after school, they are coming in during lunch. It’s blossomed to more than just an art project,” said Urbanski. “Two students stayed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on a half day. That’s how passionate a lot of the kids are about this.”

Eighth-grader Jimmie Floyd works on a mural in the boys’ bathroom

Shyla says she feels proud to have her work displayed. She and her friends love coming up with new ideas for the walls, discussing them over lunch and after school and bringing those ideas to Urbanski, who helps them figure out how best to make it happen.

Jimmie said that the art is transforming the whole feel of the spaces.

“It makes students more comfortable to walk into,” he said.

Tarrance noticed another positive side-effect of the bathroom artwork, which he calls an “organically kid-owned project.”

“It’s cleaner,” he said of the bathrooms. “Kids aren’t taking their paper towels and throwing them on the floor anymore.”


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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting.


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