There is always one.
One student who pushes back against anything new. Another one who just wants to “do school” and get it over with. Still another one who has no interest in my beloved ELA content.
Short of calling in my friend’s herding dog, how can I engage those students who want to go their own ways?
I believe the best way to engage students in through story. Not necessarily writing fiction, but living and sharing their own personal stories through the literature we read, the current events we address, and the multiple modes we employ.
Every student has a unique story, and the ELA classroom is the ideal laboratory for exploring identity as it is revealed by story and how that connects to the greater world, both present and past. It’s why I love teaching Frankenstein. The opportunity to connect science, ethics, and philosophy captures almost every student. Their opinions come from their own backgrounds, and the deeper we get into the book, the more they begin to see that literature has teeth and allows multiple interpretations. (I’m thinking I may put Waiting for Barbarians with Frankenstein for my AP class. Ask the question: who are the real barbarians and who is the true monster? That could be fun.)
Over the next few months I intend to ponder the power of story and how to tell each one. Language and story are inter-related, but how does one influence the other? What is the best way to herd wayward students into the fold of critical thinking and effective communication?
The story shall unfold.
Deanna DeBrine Mascle introduced me to e new form of poetry: Tanka. It is a Japanese tradition, much like Haiku, but slightly longer. Instead of Haiku’s 5,7,5 syllable pattern Tanka contains 5,7,5,7,7 syllable lines. Thematically, Tanka is like Haiku: nature, emotion, and love. I’ve always struggled with Haiku, but this form seems more approachable to me, perhaps because it is longer. I don’t know for sure, but my Intro to Comp students will play with this form during our poetry unit next Spring.
May I go back to the beach, now?
I tried to create an image that reflects my concept of reading to art to writing. I have one unit in my World Lit course that covers Eastern philosophy based on a book, Watching the Tree by Adeleine Yen Mah. I tend to stay true to Socratic dialogue in my classes, so my lessons are based on questions. This particular book lends itself to an art project, and I introduced students to the art of altered books. I cover the first chapters, but then I set students free to explore the rest. They choose a chapter and take themselves on a systematic journey to discover and share the lessons they learn. The final projects are often brilliant and imaginative, even from students who didn’t consider themselves at all artistic before the project began. Although they complain, at the end of the year, most students consider this their favorite unit of the year.
As a mixed media artist, I was able to participate in Reversing Vandalism, a project with the San Francisco Public Library after a number of books were vandalized. Instead of throwing the books away, the library chose to send the destroyed property to artists around the world who transformed the books into art for display. That experience inspired me to incorporate altered books into my teaching of high school students.
Systems. What exactly are they, how do they work, and how do they affect learning? This week’s #clmooc make revolves around systems from behavior to mechanics, and to transit. Any kind of “regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” qualifies. As I scrolled through my Feedly links, I came across this article: How Learning Artistic Skills Alters the Brain. Being an educator who strongly believes in the connection between creativity and cognition, I made a point to flag this one for further reading. The article describes the findings of a study published in NeuroImage, a science journal dedicated to studying brain function. Leaving the article behind, I went directly to the paper to see just how studying art can transform cognitive systems even for those who do not consider themselves innately artistic.
The authors recognize that the mental systems used by artists to create differ from other modes of communication. A complicating factor is the very nature of art’s definition: there are as many motivations and techniques and genres as there are artists. The researchers limited themselves to “representational, two-dimensional visual depictions created from observation” (Schlegal, Folgelson, Li, Lu, Kohler, Riley, Tse, Meng, 2014). They also focused on three primary areas: creative cognition, visual perception, and perception-to-action.
I thought I would find the section on creative cognition interesting, and I did, but in a way that mostly validated what I had already learned or figured out. My favorite line actually made me grin, “…the many emerging findings about both artists and creative cognition more generally have shown that creativity is a complex rather than monolithic process…” (Schelgal, et al, 441). I suppose some people who aren’t artistic assumed that creativity comes naturally, and artistic expression is as easy as breathing. Not so much. One of the reasons I stress creativity and art projects in my ELA classrooms it that, in my experience, having to approach a text from an abstract point of view requires students to analyze differently. I’ve noticed in my 20+ years in the classroom that writing clarity improves after an art project, possibly because thinking as an artist forces students to articulate precisely what they mean, rather than throw words on a page and assume everyone “gets” it because of the jargon employed. That may be something worth studying further.
What really fascinated me about this study was the MRIs taken before, during,and after the exercises undertaken by the subjects. The final results suggested that the brains of those subjects who had previous art training actually reorganized neural activity. “Interestingly, the art students in our study also improved in measures of creative thinking, specifically in their ability to think divergently, model systems and processes, and use imagery” (Schegal, et al 448). The primary location in the brain affected was the pre-frontal cortex, which also controls long term goals, planning, imagining potential outcomes, behavioral planning, short term memory, and volitional action (Tanji & Hoshi, 2008). What the researchers determined was that the human brain is flexible and able to change or reorganize through training in art. In as short a time span of three months, art training can improve cognition and the ability to think creatively, and not just learn the techniques involved (Schlegal, et al 449).
So, as systems go, it appears that art, and the systems employed to create it, may, in fact, benefit all kinds of learning. The practice of line and shape may actually influence learning at a cognitive level, affording students the ability to “think outside the box” in a variety of subjects and make connections between texts, content, and “real” life. That’s pretty exciting stuff!
Schlegal, A., Alexander, P., Fogelson, S.V., Li, X., Lu, Z., Kohler, P.J., Riley, E., Tse, P.U., Meng, M. (2014, November 15). The artist emerges: Visual art learning alters neural structure and function. NeuroImage, 105 (2015), 440-451. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811914009318#. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.11.014.
Tanji, J., Hoshi, E. (2008, January 1). Role of the lateral prefontal cortex in executive behavior control. Physiological Reviews, 88 (1) 37-57. Retrieved from:http://physrev.physiology.org/content/88/1/37. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00014.2007.
So, I re(MEdia)ted my last post in to a video. I also altered the title because of some of the choices I made along the way. I thought it might be fun to create a video of my Photoshop Elements (PSE) process. I went back to the saved files and did a number of screenshots in order to have a real story of the process. Some of the screen shots are just of the image I was working with, but I also wanted viewers to see the layers involved, and the only way to do that was to take a screenshot of the whole desktop. Doing that meant viewers could also see other windows open: email, Twitter, and a recipe for cold brewed coffee, depending on where I was in the project. I considered editing those out, but I thought they added a peek at the rest of who I am, so it revealed a little more about me than the PSE project alone.
This was my first attempt using Movie Maker and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was! The hardest part was selecting music. I really wanted part of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I didn’t want to buy it. Movie Maker has a link to both Creative Commons and Public Domain music, and I was able to find another Mendelssohn piece I liked. It had the lightness of the fairy dances in Midsummer, but it was free.
It was really fun and I learned a new technique and managed to take a simple photo of a favorite flower to a number of different iterations. I am certain my students will be delighted when I assign them the opportunity to do the same.
I love hydrangeas. When I visited Savannah at the beginning of June, I took dozens of pictures from every angle and of every color I could find. It made sense to begin this project, RE(MEDIA)TE, with a personal photo of something I love.
Why hydrangeas? I think it is because they can change with the acidity (or aluminum) in the soil. High pH leads to pink blossoms, while a lower pH produces blue blooms. The whole range of color, from rich red to deep purple is all dependent on the acid in the soil. The plant adapts to the changes in the soil, and a plant that is naturally pink can be made blue by manipulating the circumstances of the growing environment.
People have a harder time adapting to change. Many shrivel up when things get hard, while others refuse to bloom at all unless conditions are just right. What if we, as educators, can teach our students how to “remediate” their responses to the challenges they face in life, whether or not it is academic. Certainly no one can predict how the future will unfold, and it is rare to live very long without some unexpected change. What if we can use our classrooms as adaptive spaces, where students can find their identities and understand that flexibility will keep them moving forward when the hard times come? In fact, it is the challenges that make us more beautiful, even though the outcome is nothing we could have anticipated. Like hydrangeas, the acid/alkaline balance of life’s circumstantial soil does change us. If we can anticipate that change, perhaps we can welcome it and appreciate its loveliness. And if we can pass that message to our students, perhaps we reach beyond our content area to real-world learning.
My re(media)tion began with a photo. Good photos require an attention to aperture and shutter speed, light and shadow, as well as composition. As I changed media and took to colored pencils, I had to consider shape and color in different ways. Shapes were something that photography captured for me. The image as colored pencil drawing is not realistic. That is a decision I made as a creator, based largely on my skill set.
There are other artists whose techniques create drawings that rival photography in detail and accuracy. Neither is better than the other; it’s a decision each artist makes in order to capture the image in his/her mind. Or it is a decision based on constraints of technical ability or available tools.
Once I was satisfied with my drawing, I scanned it in order to re(media)ate to a form I am comfortable with and that I enjoy tremendously. I find digital art such a freeing form. I am a pretty good photographer and a mediocre sketch artist, but Photoshop Elements lets my imagination run free without the hindrances of a lack of ability or training.
This is an important consideration for our students. Some will be gifted writers. Other will excel in various art forms or physical accomplishments. When we consider re(media)tion, we must consider that each student will come with his own set of abilities and challenges. When we meet students at their comfort levels first, we are then able to guide them to new ideas, new experiences, and walk them through the art of becoming. They may only identify as athletes or an artists or a mathematicians, but we can teach them to embrace new ways of expression and in the process, help them develop a new skill.
I used a variety of digital techniques to manipulate my original image. I started by scanning the colored pencil drawing so I could pull it into Photoshop Elements (PSE). Someday I’d like to move up to the whole Creative Suite, but for now, PSE does everything I need. And what it doesn’t do, I can usually figure out a way around it. That’s another good life lesson for our students. Sometimes the way you think you’re going to accomplish something requires a change of plans and some creative rigging. Back to techniques. I used several art filters: high pass, watercolor, darken image, and a few others. I changed blending modes and ended up with a nice foundation. Then I added some textures, mostly my own creations, but one from a company call Design Cuts that has some really fun effects, textures, and overlays.
That was artistic enough, but fantasy/imagination is an important part of remix. I have a former student who is a ballerina and my favorite model. I had wanted to do a fairy themed set of digital art pieces, and I knew she would be game to play along. We ended up doing a whole series of photos that I am currently turning into Elemental Sprites: Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. It’s great fun for me, and she loves the end result.
I remembered one of the photos from the shoot taken in an outdoor location that allowed me to easily extract her. I added some wings from Deviant Art (once I changed the colors to work with my theme.) Then it was a matter of placing her in a place that made sense. And isn’t that also true of life? If we are haphazard with where we place our trust or our skills, we may find ourselves in precarious places. We must think through life’s decisions, and the sooner we can help our students see that, the better prepared they will be for a world where they are in control of all their decisions.
I finally added a quote to finish the piece. I looked for the source, but couldn’t find it. Still, it fit the scheme of the artwork, so different from the original photo, yet still totally me. I think that’s one message of re(media)tion: freedom in creation expands the mind and allows the self to continue on a journey of becoming.
Along the lines of the #clmooc “untroduction”, KQED posited a unique way for students to self-identify through a #donow project. Not only does it deal with identity, but it can also introduce the ideas of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism.
Select an everyday object or material as your personal symbol. What object or material did you choose, and what might it signify about you?
I had to give this some thought. I am not easily classified (which I like). Many objects have a singular purpose, so that character trait eliminates a fair number of objects. So I thought, “What one thing best summarizes my multiple interests and abilities?” Because I’m always on the go in a multitude of directions, I settled on the wheel as the object that best serves as a personal symbol.
Why the wheel? It is always in motion, often productive, useful in multiple situations, and able to cover vast distances, revealing new vistas at every turn.
I admit it. I get bored easily. I like new adventures and new challenges. What more evidence is needed when I join #clmooc when I should be enjoying a short respite from school between M.Ed. completion and Ph.D commencement? Learning new things keeps my mind busy and gives me new ideas for being even more unorthodox in my pedagogy than I was a year or five or ten years ago. That keeps me fresh and relevant and frankly, effective. No stale lesson plans for me; every corner I turn reveals new ideas to test and tweak.
Always spinning, always thinking, always looking for the next adventure. What better personal symbol than the wheel?
“To sleep, perchance to dream…” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1)
How do dreams reflect identity? How does the unconscious mind become the conscious decisions of daily life or long term plans? Who am I in my dreams and can that become reality if I so desire?
This week’s learning event afforded an opportunity to consider the power of dreams, but also reflect on which dreams are worthy of pursuit.
Dreams release us from all limitations, but also bring our fears to life. Patrick Ness’ book, A Monster Calls, brings to life an old yew tree in the dreams of a boy who must find a way to cope with his dying mother. The fear of monsters parallels the fear of the disease and how it has and will continue to affect his life. As the protagonist faces the dual monsters (the tree and the cancer), he finds himself able to do things he never imagined.
Of course, it is a work of fiction, but in many ways, dreams can help us discern new ways to manage life’s stress because in dreams we are not limited to what is practical. As a teacher, some of the best lessons I’ve ever written have come either in dreams or in that twilight between waking and sleeping. Once the idea is discovered, the analytical daytime mind can begin to work out the logistics of overcoming the limitations of practicality.
Some dreams can take on a real life, as Ryan Neil demonstrates as an American Shokunin. His artistic dreams manifest in Bonsai, where he has learned to balance life and design to create living sculptures that will live for hundreds of years. This is the beauty of art, no matter what the medium. I have some skills with photography and digital manipulation, and if I were to describe an impossible dream, it would include being discovered as an artist and making a living with this kind of creativity. My logical mind, however, sees the limitations (including my inability in sales and marketing), and puts my art into the category of hobbyist.
Still, the creativity of my dreams does find its way into the classroom. I never teach the same lesson twice–even on the same day. Every class has its own personality and requires a unique approach, a certain kind of humor, and a personal touch. I use the analysis to create goals and objectives and outlines, but once class begins, I shape my lessons in much the same way Neil shapes his Bonsai art.
One element of pursuing dreams is the freedom to do so. The arts offer that kind of freedom. Today’s educational system does not. The current obsession with standardized tests, single stream learning, and strict analysis places nearly insurmountable limits on teachers. The standards themselves are not the issue, for the most part. The application of those standards, however, puts many teachers in a bureaucratic maze with only one escape route. This devalues the creative passions of the teacher as well as minimizes the students’ ability to innovate, create, and think beyond multiple choice. What will happen to the dreamers and the visionaries if they are forced to conform to a false norm? Is there a place for the Einsteins and Edisons in our elementary schools today?
Teachers must dream bigger than ever in this day of sameness. We must find new ways to talk about literature and culture and society. We must create new ways to connect content with life in relevant ways all while ensuring our students are able to perform on state test day. It is a challenge that for me has inspired a new dream. While I once dreamed of leaving a legacy in the world of visual art, I now dream of leaving a legacy in adults who, having walked into my world classroom, are not afraid to push back, who value creative problem solving, and who are able to meet ridiculous regulations with style, panache, and enough humor to know that in the long run, life is a better teacher than textbooks anyway.