Creative High School Inquiry Project: Art in My Neighbourhood

For a few hours a day, I am fortunate enough to work with some lovely high school students from China who are completing their Ontario diploma requirements. About a month ago, I was trying to think of a fun inquiry project they could complete. It needed to be flexible, creative, and meaningful. We had discussed community art initiatives, social justice art, and controversial art forms a lot throughout the unit. With the importance of community in mind, I decided I would task them with a community art assignment, where they would show me what life was like in their neighbourhood. Many of them were excited to “show me around”. I was equally as excited to get a glimpse into what life was like for them in different parts of China.

The scope of the neighbourhood art project was as follows:

  • Brainstorm adjectives that match the place you live in; decide on a few that best describe life in your neighbourhood
  • Choose places to photograph, sketch, paint, or draw that show what life is like in your neighbourhood
  • Consider the time of day, space, textures, and colours in your artwork
  • Present at least 10 artworks in any format you like. Include a description of each artwork that explains what the art is showing to the viewer, and perhaps why you chose to include it in your presentation


How Stories are Told 

Before the students were given this assignment, we spent some time exploring how artists tell stories through their art. We looked at how stories were expressed in the past, and how storytelling through the arts has evolved. Examining cave art, religious art, sculpture, and architecture helped the students understand the various ways in which civilizations have historically communicated meaning and stories. Eventually, we landed on modern storytelling and explored how subjects like photojournalism and advertising have become vessels for telling stories. For example, we investigated why car ads rarely show us the features of the cars they’re trying to sell us, and instead try to sell us a lifestyle. The students were able to explain why car companies rely on narratives and telling stories about the lives people could have if they bought a particular car.

We also looked at the ways in which artists use journalism as a way to record the narratives of people around the world. We explored how themes of struggle, conflict, resilience, hope, and determination can be captured honestly and ethically. Utilizing the inquiry process, we examined several photos and talked about the relevancy of the photos, what current issues they tackled, and whether or not they were objective. The students learned how to look for context clues, make informed guesses as to the theme or story the picture was suggesting. In addition, they were able to explain the types of conversations that might occur after viewing specific photos.

Cultural Literacy

An important component of our neighbourhood art inquiry was discussing the concept of cultural literacy, which means being able to understand the traditions, regular activities, and history of a group of people from a given culture. Furthermore, it means being able to engage with these things in cultural spaces, such as museums, galleries, performances, and so forth.

Being culturally literate can help students understand, relate to, and interact with people from diverse backgrounds. It is particularly helpful if they are part of the dominant culture. Seeing, hearing, and learning about how other people live can make students more culturally sensitive and aware of the world around them. Other benefits include:

  • a reduction in prejudice and inequality based on culture
  • an increase in the value placed on diversity and difference
  • increased participation in social and community practices
  • an increase in empathy towards groups that have experienced cultural discrimination

Types of Neighbourhood Art

In a few lessons, we explored the different types of neighbourhood art that exist; these include community murals, painted rock gardens, mosaics, temporary installations, and graffiti. We also learned about the benefits of neighbourhood art:

  • building a sense of belonging and allowing neighbours to get to know one another
  • reflecting the identities, experiences, and stories of a neighbourhood
  • creating unique opportunities for residents and artists
  • encouraging community interaction and participation
  • beautifying or enhancing public spaces
  • renovating impoverished neighbourhoods into beautiful pieces of art
  • creating places of cheerfulness and life
  • supporting the local community economically
  • boosting the mental health of residents who live in that area

Students explored some examples of neighbourhood art, including Fusterlandia, Randyland, Blender Lane, Shoreditch, and works by Alice Pasquini, Jadore Tong, Apitatan, and Banksy.

You can download a PDF of the various impacts that art can have on a community here. (This chart has been adapted from various similar charts circulating online, they are not my personal ideas!)


Urban Sketching

One method I encouraged my students to participate in was urban sketching. It is defined as the act of drawing or painting on location in the cities, towns, villages, or communities that one lives in or travels to. Through urban sketching, much like impressionism, the artist attempts to capture a story or moment in time. The students were encouraged to sketch what was going on in their communities, outside their apartments, or in their backyard. It could be as exciting as a fireworks display, or as mundane as the wind blowing wind chimes.

With urban sketching, the students were encouraged to capture what was going on around them. The goal was simply to capture a moment in time in a unique way to show what life was like in their neighbourhood. I explained that their edges didn’t have to be neat and perfect, and their artwork could have a rustic, unfinished quality. They could use any medium they wanted, as long as they were going out and drawing what they saw.

Some great resources for using urban sketching can be found here:


I also wanted to give students the option of using photography as another medium. Using photography was an easy option, as all of the students had a phone capable of taking fairly high-quality photos. A few students were avid photographers with fancy equipment, so they were thrilled with being able to use this medium. I tasked them to try to convey the story of their community through their photos and to make the viewer feel like they were there too.

I encouraged students to think about the power of images. Again, we explored a few provocative and controversial images, and talked about the rawness of a photo and how it can be used to convey a realistic interpretation of daily life. I emphasized the fact that the photos students took should not be filtered or heavily edited, but rather that they should show everyday life in a normal sense.

Prior to letting the students loose, I spent a bit of time discussing the difference between images with figures in them and landscape images. Photos with figures have the potential to narrate literally, and therefore are easier to understand. On the other hand, photos that display natural features only tend to require more interpretation. These types of photos tend to be more subtle, ambiguous, and open-ended than photos with figures. We explored how landscape photos can communicate stories – on a natural level, a personal level, and a metaphorical level.


How I Graded My Students

My students had plenty of guidance for this assignment. The requirement was simple: create a story of what life is like in your neighbourhood. They needed to include at least 10 artworks (a mix of indoor and outdoor) that tells the story of their neighbourhood. I encouraged them to sketch or take photos of buildings, houses, structures, statues, rooms and objects, weather, and outdoor spaces. Students focused on the three adjectives they chose to describe their neighbourhood and endeavoured to make their art a reflection of that.

Here is an example of the rubric they followed:

Download the FREE full assignment handout using this link.

What do you think of this idea?

Have you tried an inquiry activity like this in your classroom?

Do you have any suggestions for improving this inquiry?

Let me know in the comments, or join the conversation on Instagram!

Related Reading:

How to Build Amazing Models Using a Local Area Inquiry

Creative Art Project: Stop-Motion Animation Project

Using Inquiry to Teach Social Justice in the Classroom

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