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Curriculum Project: Welcome to the Dinner Party

sara.gladwin's picture


Medium-security women’s prison in North Philadelphia. Class attendance ranges from around 8-15 women, once a week, for an hour and a half. Classroom has a chalkboard, and three long, rectangular tables and chairs.



I chose Judy Chicago’s 1979 art exhibit “The Dinner Party” as the centerpiece of this unit because it is rich with teaching/learning possibility. It is my hope that each class will honor intersectionality by providing the necessary space to critically acknowledge the complexities of art, feminism, history, and self-discovery. It is my belief that classrooms inside the walls of prisons must be spaces of multi-layered transformation. The physical room itself should mirror this principle… By asking students to think critically about themselves and others, we also ask them to transform their perceptions and daily assumptions… to think critically is to think differently. There must be a sense of possibility; there must be a sense that learning is happening at each moment.

Practically, this unit serves to develop students’ writing/reading skills, knowledge of art and history, and critical thinking skills. Having a dually practical and imaginative lesson is important anywhere, but especially within the context of teaching to an incarcerated population. While the value of teaching practical skills hardly justified in these settings, enrichment of the imagination seems to remain reserved for more elite groups of people… providing this space for the imagination to grow feels necessary to any curriculum that intends to embody radical pedagogy/ deconstructing the systematic ways in which certain groups are oppressed and continuously not given access to particular kinds of knowledge. I want it to be recognized that learning to engage with Imagination is a form of knowledge in of itself. As I am constantly navigating my own learning, writing this curriculum brought up many questions that I would like to acknowledge, such as: How do I create space in the classroom to also approach the controversies surrounding the piece without lecturing about it? How do I facilitate critical consciousness? How do I work to create a more equal learning experience within a system that is inherently based in inequality?

Since student attendance within a prison is unpredictable for a variety of institutional factors and there is no ultimate guarantee that the same students would be able to attend a series of lessons, I’ve designed three consecutive lessons that take into account an inevitably rotating group of students. For example, in beginning the second class, I would have students who came to the previous lesson give new students a brief description of our last class, or I would focus discussion about readings given in a previous class around one particular paragraph in order to give all students an entry point into conversation. While I feel that ultimately, this project is unfinished, I hope that it provides a kind of “entry point” into my thinking about curriculum design, as well as a sense that curriculum itself should remain open to transformation.


Lesson One: Welcome to the Dinner Party



Scan and print individual plates from the dinner party. Each plate should also be accompanied by a place card setting with the name of the woman the plate was designed for, as well as a small description of who the person was and their particular influence on history. You should also prepare one copy of each plate/description to be set out on the table in your classroom, and then at least fifteen extra stapled copies for women to take with them after class has ended.



Arrange the three tables in a triangular shape in the center of the room. Place the previously printed plates at each chair around the table.


I. Introduction:

Before anything else, go around the triangle and have everyone introduce themselves. The first part of the lesson should focus introducing Judy Chicago’s 1979 art piece The Dinner Party. Each student will be seated in front of a different place setting. Explanation and background of the Dinner Party should answer the following questions: What and why was the Dinner Party created? What makes this a “feminist” piece of art? What is feminism? What are some of the past and current commentaries/ critiques of this piece, both feminist/not feminist? Included in the teacher research materials is a documentary and a book that both provide helpful information about the piece to share in the background you give to the students.

Choose several individual plates to highlight and talk about Chicago’s process of creation. Give an explanation of who each person was and discuss their representation by Chicago on the table.

Give each student a short period of time to read the background for their place setting a free write on why that particular woman was given a place at the table. Encourage them to write notes about what they notice in each bio… what information is given? What information is excluded that you might want to know? Does the plate seem to reflect the person it was created for?


II. Discussion

Following the background of the artwork, facilitate a discussion about representation. How are these women represented? How do we represent others? How do we represent ourselves? What problems or contradictions do you notice about Chicago’s representation of women/feminism?


III. Writing: “Dear Judy Chicago…”

When I first started to design this curriculum unit, I was struck not only by the beauty and importance of Chicago’s piece, but by how problematic many of it’s features appeared to be. Unplanned, I began to express some of my frustration at the artwork by writing a letter to Judy Chicago… at this point, I would read my letter to the class.


Leave about 15 minutes for the class to draft their own letters to Judy Chicago. After writing, ask everyone to underline their favorite sentence (s) / phrase (s) and to share those as we move around the triangle.


IV. Homework

Representing ourselves: Throughout the week, use your composition book to write in as much detail, about yourself as possible. Observe the little, daily actions you do with a critical eye, interrogating more deeply into why you might make certain decisions or choices. For example, think about whether you a messy or a clean person. If you are a messy person, what kind of motivation do you need/forces you to clean? If you are a cleaner human being, why do you think that is? Who taught you to clean? How do you clean? When I clean, I always pick up my clothes and towels first. However, I know people who make their bed first, because it is easy and visually satisfying, therefore, they get an immediate sense of progress. For them, this serves as a motivation to continue cleaning/guarantee that if they do nothing else, at least their bed is made. The simple decision, to make their bed first, could speak volumes about the kind of person they are. For me, I leave it until the very end. I think of it as the cherry on top, the variable that perfects a now clean room. Another example would be to look at the way you arrange food on your plate at mealtimes. Do you like everything to be separate and not touching? Why? Is there someone else in your life that taught you to eat this way? How do you hold your spoon when you eat soup? How do you sit while you are eating? Do you sit up straight, and bring the food all the way to your mouth, or do you hunch over the food, leaning into every bite? My mom used to complain that I eat like a construction worker, grasping the handle of the fork in my fist and shoveling like nobody’s business. Unlady-like, she called it. Indignant, I would always retort back, “I find your comment insulting to construction workers.” Later, upon thinking back, I would find this brief, seemingly meaningless interaction capable of richly describing the intersection between my parents being raised with differing socio-economic statuses. Being a stronger replication of my father in most areas other then the gender I identify with, I ate like him, inhaling my food as though if I didn’t, it would disappear. Though this was not true for me growing up, this was a reality for my father, growing up with very little money and a multitude of mouths to feed. My mother, however, found this behavior appalling and unsightly, as table manners remained fundamentally important as a basic middle/upper class value.

Finally, think about the way you dress. As everyone you are speaking to is dressed in the same prison attire, this question is not necessarily about what you wear, but how you wear it. Do you tuck your shirt in? How many times do you roll your socks? What kind of shoes do you wear, and why? How do you like to present your hair?


These are just some examples about how I might prompt students to think about going about their writing for the following week…


Lesson Two: Setting a Table of Our Own



*Markers/colored pencils/crayons

*20 plain white paper plates


Set Up: Have the room mirror the set up from last week.


I. Introductions: Going around the triangle, have each student give their name, and one thing they learned about themselves from journaling this past week. For new students, ask them to share one thing about themselves that someone else might not know.


II. Reintroducing the Dinner Party

Ask students who attended the previous class to describe/explain the dinner party.

Choose several individual pieces to highlight. Be sure to choose different pieces from the week before, but again, talking about the process of creation and what it means to represent a life through art.


III. Designing a Template

Have each student pair up. They will be conducting short interviews of one another with the intention of later designing a plate for their partner. Provide a list of questions that students could use to learn more about one another’s lives, but emphasize that they are not bound to this list and should make an effort to construct their own questions. I’ve included a brief set of example questions that you might think about providing students along with this activity. Make sure to note that the purpose of the interview will be to later design a “template” and questions should be centered not just on discovery of another person but on what influence they feel their life has had on others. Students should use the interview question sheet provided to take notes about their partner’s answers. Encourage friends to work together, since this is a project

Leave about 10-15 minutes for the interview process, but inform your students that they can begin designing their plates either during the interview or whenever the interviewing process feels complete. Make sure to note that they do not need any artistic experience for this project, and that no one is judging their abilities. This part of the drawing will be done in pencil/pen, and encourage them to think about making their designs similar to a page in a coloring book, as the next activity will be to present the plate design to their partner, who will then color in their own plate.


When each group seems to have wrapped up most of their design, ask the students to regroup in their pairings. When presenting the plate to their partners, ask the students to describe the design to their partner and as well as giving them an idea of why the plate is designed in this particular way. After each person has described their design, have them exchange plates so that they may add color to their own plate.


At the end of class, collect each plate. This is important to remember, as you will be using them for the upcoming class.


Homework: I’m envisioning that the homework for this week would be assigning some reading/artwork done by some of the women featured at the Dinner Table... for example, written works by Sojourner Truth, Virginia Woolf, Christine de Pisan, along with some artwork by Georgia O’Keeffe, and a couple retellings of mythology that feature the goddesses of earlier plates. Ask students to use the photocopies and biographies provided earlier to compare the actual woman with the plate that was created for them. You should have extra copies of the plates if anyone is missing this packet.


Lesson Three: Back to the Beginning



*Scan and Print the tapestries created by Judy Chicago positioned on the walls of her exhibit.

*Markers/colored pencils/crayons

*Extra plain white paper plates


Set Up: This week, when you set up the plates, include each plate that was designed in the previous week. Hang the tapestries that have been printed on the walls of the classroom, in the order originally created by Chicago.

IMPORTANT! For students who attend this class but where unable to make a plate in the previous week, remember to give them a plate template/interview questions at the end of class. Have them complete this assignment solo/for homework, this way they will be able to participate in the current class but not feel completely left out of the artwork.


I. Introductions

Ask if anyone had been in attendance for both classes and could give a description of what happened. Discussing the readings will also be important for connecting to earlier classes… use this to reopen the discussion about representation and talking further about whether or not each woman was well represented at the table. Choose a couple quotes from each assigned reading to feature in class discussion, as this will serve as a way to engage students that may have not done the reading/ been in the earlier classes.


Reimagining The Dinner Party as our own… For this class, rather then selecting plates from Chicago’s piece, ask students to present their pieces (this can be optional) and to go into detail about their creation.


Move into discussion about the poem written into the tapestries on the walls of the exhibit-> have students take a couple minutes to walk around the room, looking at each tapestry and contemplating why Chicago created them for the piece.


Recite Judy Chicago’s poem out loud as a class.

“And She Gathered All before her, And she made for them a Sign to See, And lo They saw a Vision, From this Day forth, Like to Like in all things, And then all that divided them merged. And then Everywhere was Eden Once again.”


II. Discussion: What do you think Chicago’s poem means? Why is it written in this way? Does it remind you of any particular writing style (biblical/genesis/creation style)? Why would she reference Eden? What does this say about Chicago’s intention in creating this piece.


III. Writing our poem

As part of continuing discussion about representation, move into discussing with students how we might introduce our own plates. Work together as a class to create a poem that “sets” the scene for your classtable…


IV. As a final wrap up, read the poem all together as a class.


V. Homework

For this week, I would have students think about writing their own biographies to accompany their plates… for students who have not yet created a plate, provide materials for part of this activity and have them think about how they would represent themselves/ have them partner up to represent each other.


Teacher Resource Materials:


Chicago, Judy, Frances Borzello, and Jane F. Gerhard. The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History. N.p.: Monacelli, 2014. Print.



The Dinner Party: A Tour of the Exhibition. Dir. Kate Amend. Perf. Judy Chicago. Through the Flower, 2002. DVD.



Chicago, Judy. "The Judy Chicago Art Education Collection." The Judy Chicago Art Education Collection. The Pennsylvania State University, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.