Fighting for Justice: Student-produced artwork helps ESJ’s legacy live on


Photo by Carter Swart

Two students view artwork at the Harrison Center. The Harrison Center is located downtown Indianapolis and houses the artwork of students from NHS’s ESJ class.

Kenzie Glass and Aubrey Paul

     Two weeks. It’s a number that represents the amount of time left before the end of the school year, and for students, this day tends to bring about a mixed bag of feelings. As students say goodbye to teachers, bid their friends farewell, and clean out the deepest corners of their lockers, the excitement of the summer sun awaits them. 

     However, this end-of-year atmosphere isn’t the only reason why students’ emotions may be running high as they embark on their two-month summer vacation. The first of June also marks the beginning of a temporary hiatus for Noblesville High School’s short-lived Explorations in Social Justice class.

     It’s a move that leaves some students with an empty block on their schedule and upsets many more. 

     The Explorations in Social Justice class (ESJ) is instructed by AP History teacher Stanley Abell. The course was first introduced to NHS four years ago and covers a variety of topics such as sexism, racism, and homophobia during the semester.

     Since the course was first offered, students from all types of backgrounds have emphasized the impact that the class has had on them. Sophomore Lily Ferazzi has experienced the effect of both the class and the teacher firsthand. 

     “ESJ has positively impacted me as an individual by creating an environment where we are open to listen to each other’s opinions without being argumentative,” Ferazzi said.

     This year, Ferazzi has become an integral part of the ESJ course’s final project, an art exhibition that was displayed at the Harrison Center in downtown Indianapolis. The gallery was a collaborative effort, created by both ESJ students and students from Noblesville’s various art courses. 

     “Our project was to find someone who has had a positive impact on our country, and I chose Amanda Gormon,” Ferazzi said.

     Ferazzi’s artwork is now on display at the Harrison Center, along with numerous creations made by her classmates, including fellow ESJ student Lily Bocko.

     “Some people incorporated pictures … [and] some people used important words. Now the drawings are for sale at the art museum,” Bocko said. “I think that it’s super cool for others to be able to see our work.”

     Noblesville art teacher Caroline Hays is proud of the effort students put into their artwork and the message they hope to convey through their creations.

     “We wanted students to explore how art can be used to create positive change within the community,” Hays said. “Learning about each other’s experiences helps us to develop empathy and understanding. By learning from others, [we can] connect and become stronger together.”

     But for ESJ students, the positive impact the class has had on their academic experience reaches far beyond paint brushes and canvases. Bocko emphasizes the importance of discussion-based courses like ESJ and the strong community that has been built from the class.

     “It’s a great learning environment and one of my favorite classes,” Bocko said. “It’s one of those classes where you can have open discussion about what you think and believe without there being any wrong answers. Without a class like that, the community at school will feel really close-minded.”

     However, students are not the only ones who’ve felt changed by the contents of the course. Throughout his four years of teaching the class, Abell has become more aware of the impact ESJ has on students — despite the fact that the class is only in session for 5 months. 

     “I never take it for granted, the impact that I know the class has for students,” Abell said. “It started with me thinking, ‘Oh, this would be something cool to have.’ One semester in, two semesters in, it really dawned on me how important this class was for students.” 

     Senior Jaydi Jones was one of those affected students. She says she still carries the impact of the course with her. 

     “Before this class, I felt as if I wasn’t able to fully ever speak about my own lived experiences, let alone my culture,” Jones said. “This class gave me that safe space, and to this day, I haven’t had another class with that level of impact.”

     Abell views the class as more than just another offering on NHS’s course list. For him, the course is different from many of the others he teaches on a daily basis.

     “The beautiful part about this class is that I always learn more from them than they learn from me,” Abell said. “The basis of the class is trust and creating a safe space for students to be able to be authentic and share their true, unfiltered experiences.”

     Despite his long career as an educator, Abell recognizes that students are not the only ones learning in ESJ. 

     “I have learned tremendously about what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes, particularly in high school, and how painful it can be for some students who are not respected,” Abell said. “Students need a safe space where they can be honest and be who they are.”

     Because the class allows for open discussion among students about current issues, ESJ — and other classes like it nationwide — have become sources of conflict in both school systems and their local communities. However, Abell and his students feel that the class is necessary.

     “I think the content gets misconstrued and politicized. This is a social studies class,” Abell said. “How this differs from United States History, World History, or Economics is that this is looking at issues that exist in our society that make headline news. I feel that it’s important for students to be able to authentically have conversations about current issues, both acute and long-term, that directly impact them.”

     Jones agrees, stressing that the class focuses on appreciating diversity, community, and collaboration rather than politics.

     “Mr. Abell constantly fights for the rights of students in this school, and it is a shame that people cannot recognize that what he is doing is not malicious or hurtful, but allows for students to have a safe space,” Jones said.

     Through teaching the class, Abell hopes to foster new ways of thinking and incorporate a variety of perspectives and opinions into the curriculum.

     “I pride myself on the fact that I don’t want you to think how I think. I want you to think how you think,” he said. “What has been beautiful about this class has been keeping it in a safe place where it can be productive conversation.” 

     According to NHS principal Craig McCaffrey, ESJ is not being offered during the 2023-2024 school year due to low student enrollment. Still, students are upset about this change in the school’s course offerings.

     “I wish this community would stop losing sight of what’s important, which is creating a safe and inclusive environment,” Jones said. “I feel as if we are going back to my middle school days, where I had no [sense of] self identity.”

     Many of the students and educators who have been part of the ESJ community hope for the eventual return of the course and other classes like it. For them, the risk is worth the reward. 

     “This class has the best intentions in mind for students of all colors,” Jones said. “[It] has made such an impact on students’ lives.”