By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — Art students at Kenmore East High School completed a professional-looking portrait this month, and while doing so, got a current events lesson, too.
Every January, Matt SaGurney’s classes completes a painting of a famous, inspiring individual. Last year, it was Martin Luther King, the previous year, John Lennon for the 40th anniversary of his death.
“Although most of the students thought Lennon was Harry Potter,” SaGurney joked. “Since there are two people in history with those round glasses.”
This time around, SaGurney chose an inspiring teen from today’s news headlines — Malala Yousufzai, the fifteen-year-old Pakistani who was shot in the head by the Taliban for fighting for education rights for girls.
“Once we came up with the option of her, it seemed like an obvious choice,” SaGurney said. “She is the same age as them, but they are in a completely different situation.”
Students separated parts of the painting into grids, completing their own sections and then assembled them to create the full portrait of Malala’s face.
“We learned different brush strokes, and all these different techniques to make it look really good,” freshman Ryan Trudell said.
In addition to the artistic skills, students learned a great deal about human rights abuses from across the world — as many of the 70 students who worked on the portrait didn’t know about Malala before the project.
Students said they realized how lucky and blessed they were just to go to school.
“She’s our age, and all she was trying to do was make it so they could go to school ... and she’s been doing it since she was 10,” Emilee Johnson, one of the students who worked on the project said. “She doesn’t have the rights we do.”
The students also took the project a step further, taking it as an opportunity to educate the rest of the school on what happened to Malala.
“We’ve had such a great dialogue with the school’s population,” SaGurney said. “My classes figured out that they could communicate ideas with art.”
SaGurney’s classes put up posters and told Malala’s stories over the announcements, but he said the easiest way of communication was through Facebook and Twitter, and he offered students extra credit if they linked to Malala’s story using social media.
“It was different, because as teachers, we are always telling kids to put their phones away,” SaGurney said. “But this time, I said, OK, I’ll give you extra credit if you spread the word ... and it worked. It was the fastest way to do it.”
The nine by nine portrait, which took two weeks to complete, is displayed prominently on a school wall and is easily seen through stairway doors.
Next to the painting is a quote from Malala: “I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I am afraid of no one.”
Across from the painting are students’ letters to Malala, which SaGurney said he will send to her soon. SaGurney and his students are hoping they will hear back from her.
One letter reads: “I think that taking a bullet and the head and still surviving is a miracle...You are obviously doing something right if people are trying to kill you for speaking up.”Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150