Beyond Cool Garb

T-shirt literacy and social justice education for diverse adolescent learners.

Graphic T-shirts have always had a special place in my life. One of my favorite pieces of clothing in my closet is an old “Schoolhouse Rock!” T-shirt. The shirt features the old PBS television show’s classic logo along with some of the show’s memorable characters, such as the train conductor of the “Conjunction Junction” and iconic “Bill” standing on the steps of Congress.

Although the image has faded and certain parts of the shirt have become paper-thin, the shirt remains a personal treasure. The shirt not only represents one of my favorite series, but also advocates for enhancing students’ knowledge of academic content through arts integration; it serves as a visual reminder that learning can be engaging and is a unique conversation starter.

Rajni Shankar-Brown wears one of her favorite graphic T-shirts as she works with students who design their own.

Similarly, I treasure T-shirts that build awareness of and support humanitarian issues. My “cause T-shirts” remind me that graphic T-shirts are more than cool garb, but can actually contribute to positive social change.

People have worn T-shirts since the 19th century, but in recent years graphic T-shirts have increasingly become a medium for self-expression and conversation, particularly for young adolescents. Whether through social activism, iconic portraits, retro memory-stirring designs, or current representations of ideas in pop culture, words and images on graphic T-shirts embody 21st century literacy in a global context.

This article will illuminate what I refer to as “T-shirt literacy” and provide information about a project originally created for middle level students. The article will also demonstrate how T-shirt literacy can be an effective approach for promoting multiliteracies and social justice education among diverse adolescent learners.

Preparing Middle Level Students for the 21st Century

Graphic T-shirt designs created by students.

Young adolescents are growing up in a rapidly changing, global society. Curriculum and instructional practices need to provide students with opportunities to develop 21st century skills and utilize creativity while meeting the many challenges faced by adolescent learners in an ever-changing landscape.

During my first year of teaching middle grades English language arts, I quickly realized the importance of engaging learners in projects that were relevant to their lives, nurtured creativity, and provided opportunities to apply knowledge and develop global skills.

In an effort to design a multiliteracies project for diverse young adolescent learners, I designed a 21st century multidimensional project that spans content areas, which I termed, “T-shirt literacy.” The project has continued to evolve over the years.

Today, as a social justice teacher educator, I continue to facilitate this project in the classroom in teacher preparation courses and professional development workshops.

Supporting Diverse Learners

Although the nation continues to become increasingly diverse, research findings demonstrate that the current U.S. public school system presents many barriers for minority students. This opportunity gap begins in elementary school and drastically widens in middle level schools.

Dominant cultural values and dispositions are often perpetuated through curriculum and instructional practices in public schools. Research findings by many prominent education scholars—including Apple, Nieto, and Spring—demonstrate how schooling in the United States, through its biased ideologies and structures, serves to maintain hegemony. There is an urgent need to address the needs of diverse, socially marginalized students in classrooms across the country.

It is vital to provide middle level students with opportunities to collaborate and express themselves through creative mediums, including technological tools. This T-shirt Literacy Project can engage diverse learners and encourage collaboration and creativity. Moreover, this project actively promotes social justice by empowering students to find and use their “voice” to positively impact their communities.

T-shirt Literacy Project

Graphic T-shirt designs created by students.

The T-shirt Literacy Project includes an eight-phase process, which can easily be altered to meet the needs of students. Educators are encouraged to review the following guidelines and adapt them accordingly.

T-Shirt Literacy steps:

  1. Discuss literacy and the influence of language in both words and images.
  2. Share graphic T-shirts and the many roles of graphic design in society.
  3. Brainstorm relevant social issues and formulate compelling questions that aim to advance equity and justice.
  4. Research topics related to your question.
  5. Develop ideas for advocacy T-shirts based on findings (a minimum of three ideas are recommended) and select one design idea to further develop.
  6. Critically self- and peer-evaluate T-shirt designs, and revise accordingly.
  7. Create your design.
  8. Celebrate learning by sharing T-shirts in multiple formats.

Useful Tips

Teachers may need to adapt the third phase of the process to best meet students’ needs in different content areas. For example, a math teacher may ask students to brainstorm geometric terms and concepts after completing a geometry unit. Similarly, a science teacher may want to have students address specific environmental issues.

For the fifth phase, students might find a T-shirt design template or draw their own T-shirt. Encourage students to create many designs and play with words and images as well as the juxtaposition of words and images.

Providing students with multiple artistic mediums during the fifth phase is important. In addition to providing students with graphite pencils, crayons, colored pencils, oil pastels, paints, ink pens, felt-tip markers, other materials such as magazines, scissors, and glue are also useful for those who may prefer to collage their designs.

With the availability of various technological tools such as Photoshop and its variants, phase seven is a wonderful extension of basic T-shirt literacy. Phase seven enables students to develop important technological and collaborative skills.

The eighth phase—public sharing—is a vital part of this teaching and learning process. Involve students in the planning process for the public sharing of their T-shirts, and encourage them to take leadership during the planning and implementation of the culminating activity. Students appreciate having an authentic audience and it makes the project even more meaningful. Three ways we have shared our completed T-shirts that have proved successful include:

  1. Hanging T-shirts on a clothesline in the classroom, in the school, or in the community.
  2. Coordinating a “T-shirt Literacy Showcase” at the school or in the community. We invited family, friends, administrators, teachers, staff, students in other classes or grade levels, and members in the community to view our work.
  3. Collectively sharing the digital T-shirt designs using a digital presentation application (e.g., Prezi, VCASMO, or Haiku Deck). Consider sharing the digital compositions in different publication venues and platforms such as on the class or school’s website or Facebook account.

It is critical to provide students with opportunities to engage in intellectual discourse about their beliefs and to provide assignments with authentic audiences, extending beyond their classmates or the teacher.

Conclusion and a Graphic Invitation

Graphic T-shirt designs created by students.

Participating in T-shirt literacy experiences provides students opportunities to take ownership of their learning. Furthermore, it is an effective way to illuminate 21st century literacy and promote social justice education while reinforcing and enriching academic content.

T-shirt literacy also serves as an effective medium for civic engagement and artistic expression for young adolescents. In addition to sparking conversations and memories, graphic T-shirts can shed light on identity, beliefs, and agency.

Graphic T-shirts can be an invaluable teaching and learning approach for diverse middle school learners, making graphic T-shirts much more than cool garb!