This study explores the connection between the self-esteems and self-portraits of African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian children, ages 6-8, living in Southern Appalachia. This study’s hypothesis was that African American and Hispanic children would display lower levels of pictorial self-worth than their Caucasian counterparts. In order to test this hypothesis, the researcher taught a modified concept development lesson and instructed participants to create a self-portrait using typical school media. The hypothesis was not supported. However, a number of non-generalizable phenomena came to light as a result of this study. Specifically that females display a higher level of self-esteem than males. In addition, females are more likely to use stick figures, hats, cutaways, and cultural icons. Inversely, males are more likely to utilize geometric formations. This study also found that left-handed individuals are more likely to use language in their drawings. Finally, the study found that a majority of students are able to correctly identify their race.
Hometown: Maryville, Tenn.
Major: Child Development with Teacher Licensure
Senior Study Title: “Man in the Mirror: A Study On How Self-Portraits Reflect Self-Esteem”
Advisor: Dr. Alesia Orren
While doing research for a final project presentation for a tile making class during her junior year, Cherese Cobb '13 came across a portrait of a young, African-American boy from Montclair, N.J. His portrait had a single, unusual characteristic that drew her in: he had white circles around his eyes.
“I wondered if this was purposeful. Did the boy feel inferior because of his race?” Cobb said, explaining that the boy might have drawn the white circles because he felt self-conscious about his own race. “It could mean that he associates ‘seeing’ or ‘judgment’ with Caucasian individuals. On the other hand, he might have thought that glazing around his eyes would mess them up or smear them.”
She then read a study that asserted that 91 percent of African-American children living in the North had high levels of pictorial self-esteem. She thought the percentage would be substantially lower in the South, due to lingering racial tensions, so she decided to explore the topic in her Senior Study.
The goal of her study was to discover whether children of color had lower levels of pictorial self-esteem than their Caucasian counterparts. She focused her study on a Title I elementary school in East Tennessee, which has a relatively small African-American population, so she decided to also include Hispanic children in her group of study.
In order to test her hypothesis, Cobb taught a modified concept development lesson and instructed 19 first- and second-grade participants (11 females and eight males) to create a self-portrait using typical school media.
After completing the study, Cobb determined that her hypothesis that African-American and Hispanic children had lower levels of pictorial self-esteem was not supported. However, a number of “non-generalizable phenomena” came to light as a result of the study:
- Females display a higher level of self-esteem than males.
- Females’ self-portraits, in general, tended to be more relationship-based and “prosocial” (positive actions that benefit others), utilizing abstract terms such as love, justice and peace. Females also used six times as many peace symbols as their male counter parts.
- Males used less “prosocial” pictorial devices and tended to focus on their own thoughts and feelings.
- Three-quarters of the males’ drawings tended to be depressive, focusing on peer torment, ominous feelings, sickness and blood.
- Females were more likely to use adult-taught stick figures, hats, cutaways and cultural icons. Inversely, males were more likely to utilize geometric formations.
- Left-handed females are more likely to use language in their drawings.
- A majority of students are able to correctly identify their race.
Cobb said the study was a challenge. She only had one African-American child in her study, which rendered her original hypothesis null and void. Additionally, she lost over 75 percent of participants when requiring a parent-signed informed consent form.
Dr. Alesia Orren, associate professor of education and Cobb’s Senior Study advisor, said she was impressed with Cobb’s study, particularly the way she executed the study.
“It was gratifying to watch Cherese grapple with messy data – data that generated more questions than provided clean answers,” Orren said. “One of the ideas I hope all students at Maryville College embrace during their tenure here as undergraduates is the idea that rarely do we find answers to our pursuit of knowledge wrapped neatly in a box with a bow on top. I enjoyed watching Cherese work through the challenges of navigating the gray areas as she discovered that research, much like life, evolves, deviates, fails to give us the answers we thought we wanted, but often provides us answers to important questions we didn't know we had.”
Although Orren was already familiar with research around self-esteem, she was much less familiar with the pedagogy and instructional strategies related to art as a discipline.
“As a result of Cherese's research, I know much more about what self-portraiture reveals about student self perception,” Orren said.
Cobb, who is completing her student teaching this semester, hopes to find a teaching job in the Blount and Knox County area. In the future, she would also like to pursue a master’s degree and doctorate degree in education, and she would like to create and implement a character education program for her master’s thesis.
“In implementing my Senior Study, I discovered that art has its place in the classroom,” Cobb said. “Self-portraits are a medium in which teachers can learn about their students. Self-portraits also allow for a safe, open discussion about students’ fears and hopes. The knowledge gleaned about students from their self-portraits can also be used in instructional differentiation, grouping and in selecting instructional strategies.”