Moving Hearts, Nurturing Citizens: A Talk with "Miss Michele"

by Chrissy Bevens, IHE M.Ed. graduate
Chrissy works part-time for the city's parks and recreation department in Corvallis, Oregon, and writes part-time.

(Note: This is part two of a two-part look at Robert Shetterly and the impact of his work. Part one was an interview with Shetterly.)

Michele Hemenway has been a full-time classroom teacher for 25 years. More recently her work life has changed. For the last seven years she has collaborated with Robert Shetterly, an artist living more than 1200 miles away. Shetterly paints portraits of both historical and contemporary changemakers, for his ongoing project, Americans Who Tell the Truth. He began his paintings for personal reasons, not expecting others to even notice his work. But the project has grown into an educational phenomenon. Teachers all over the country have incorporated the portraits into their lesson plans and young people have been inspired by the portraits to take positive action in their community.

That has a lot to do with Michele Hemenway.

She found the paintings even before Shetterly’s 2005 book, Americans Who Tell the Truth, was published. Like other teachers encountering the work at this earlier stage, she saw the educational value of the paintings. But while many educators expressed interest in a curriculum related to the project, Hemenway actually created one.

At the time, she was teaching eighth grade U.S. History. Hemenway describes her reaction to the portraits and what happened next:

"What struck me was this was the perfect way to communicate with students … that somebody would take the time and have the interest in our country’s history, enough so to create portraits of people who really meant something to him. Then we explored a little bit about why he was doing what he was doing. That’s how the whole relationship began.

I wrote to Rob and said, ‘This is a perfect way to teach, to use your work to teach about these people’s lives.' … [H]e wrote me back within minutes and said, ‘There’s a book that’s about to be published in a couple of months. We’re looking for somebody to write something like what you’re doing, just a small curriculum piece to put up on the website when the book comes out. Would you be interested in writing about what you’re doing? It sounds wonderful.’ …We’ve been working together ever since.

But their collaboration has not resulted in that "small curriculum piece." Instead, the project’s website now houses a robust education section, with resources, student testimonials, and a blog -- in addition to the curriculum. The curriculum includes suggestions for addressing multiple special issues, such as environmental justice, hate, violence, and genocide. The site is intended, according to Hemenway, as an “ongoing forum.” Shetterly has called Hemenway “The whole educational wing of the project.” But her students call her “Miss Michele.”

In Louisville, Kentucky, where Hemenway lives, she has worked at Breckinridge/Franklin Elementary School with the same group of students for the last two years. These kids are specially chosen from various classrooms to work with Hemenway. What brings them this good fortune? It’s not a matter of luck; these are the students who, in one way or another, struggle the most in their regular classrooms. But, for them, their work with “Miss Michele” is different. Hemenway explains:

"My kids are always in trouble, but we noticed they would come to school on the days when I’d be teaching. ... [One student would] read anything that had to do with Eve Ensler’s portrait –- anything -- but she wouldn’t pick up a spelling book in class."

But there were even bigger surprises for Hemenway:

"I always knew they could learn about history differently, or learn about different issues like environmental justice or any number of things. … But I didn’t know, going into it, the kind of profound personal change that could happen for kids. [I didn’t know] that they could really see their own lives differently."

This profound effect seems to occur on multiple levels. The influence on the students can be seen in both their emerging public lives as well as in their often troubled private lives.

Hemenway used the portraits to get the kids thinking about their own experiences, about action and citizenship. Students worked in small groups, studying the paintings and the actions of the people they portray. Then students considered their own lives and what change they would like to achieve or influence. The projects that grew out of these first steps varied greatly, ranging from cleaning up a neighborhood dumping area to redesigning the American flag.

In every case, though, the kids addressed the issues practically and methodically. The kids’ engagement in the process resulted in such high quality projects that a partnering non-profit agency facilitated a meeting with Louisville Metro Government. (Jennifer Ratoff, through her agency, SYNAPSE, had provided funding and other support to enhance and help make possible the second year of Hemenway’s work with these students.) Each student prepared a report and presented their issue and their vision for change to the Deputy Mayor, Mr. William Summers IV.

Summers wrote a letter to each student indicating how their issue would be addressed. In every case, according to Hemenway, “something was impacted because of their project.” In the case of the neighborhood dumping ground, the area was cleaned up within days! This one result alone amazed and excited the kids. After that, Hemenway reports, nothing could hold them back: “That was it; they were off and running.” In fact, as these students were about to finish elementary school, they informed Hemenway that they’d like her to follow them to middle school. They want to keep working with the portraits.

These students’ minds have been expanded and enlivened by the early and successful development of their role as citizens. But their hearts, too, have been greatly moved. In the curriculum section of the project’s website, Hemenway explains that the effect on students can greatly exceed planned outcomes:

"What I hadn’t realized, was that each student would fall in a kind of love with one of the individuals. In one girl’s case, the voice from the past would inspire inner change in her troubled life. To hear her speak Chief Joseph’s words calling for an end to fighting, knowing of the violence in her own family, I could not help but feel that much more than her understanding of relations with Native Americans had been altered. Indeed, like the rest of us, she would never be the same."

This student’s testimonial is included on the project’s website:

“… you could tell that I was really emotionally touched by Chief Joseph, well, emotionally and mentally, you could tell by my speech to tell my dad and brother: we will fight no more. My friends were getting into a fight and I used his quote that I used in my speech and now they are going to Rob’s [Shetterly’s] website.
~ Megan Drybrough

Hemenway’s student refers to part of Chief Joseph’s famous surrender speech:

"Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

A different truth is spoken in the quote that Shetterly incorporated into the portrait:

"I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please."

Hemenway’s words nicely connect the magnetism, the wonder and the ultimate simplicity that characterizes the work she shares with Shetterly (and now with many others):

"We long ago stopped the point of being able to take one step at a time and really take what comes in and thoughtfully consider it and then move to the next step. … People come to us with ideas and we say ‘Yeah, go do that!'

... Rob just let me pursue this and pursue this and pursue this. Every time we see what happens we just keep plugging along and saying ‘Wow, we didn’t know that could happen.’

... I just remind people, ‘I’m a teacher.’ And this is what teachers do. That’s what makes them wonderful."

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