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.
A couple of helpful websites about Altered Books: Altered Book, The Art of Happiness, Go Make Something, Lisa Vollrath, and Tim Holtz
Before anyone panics, altered book are not purposefully destroyed! The Altered Book art form rescues books from the dumpster and upcycles them into masterpieces. It’s a beautiful combination of expression and repurposing what some might consider trash.
There are dozens of web sites and books about Altered Art and how to create it, so my intent here is to simply share how I use it in the classroom.
One of the books I use in my World Lit class is Adeline Yen Mah’s Watching the Tree. I know of schools that use her Chinese Cinderella , but I wanted a book that would illumine the Chinese culture and mind. What better than a book of philosophy as a woman searches for her spirituality? There are too many chapters in the book to teach them all, so I teach–and we discuss–the fundamentals of Tao, I Ching, Buddha, Confucius, Zen, and Silence. Other chapters in the book incorporate elements of these: food as medicine, yin/yang, fung shui, etc. Those are the inspirations for the altered books.
Each student is responsible to read one of the chapters we do not discuss together and create a two page spread in a book destined for the incinerator. The size of the book is unimportant. Students may use any other materials. The goal is to create a symbolic representation of the most important element in the chapter. This, of course, varies, so grading is based solely on thoughtfulness and effort. When the projects are due, students give a short (as in 2-3 minutes) informal presentation about the chapter, their interpretation, and the methods they chose to symbolize it.
Some of the pages are simple, but some students allow their creativity to take over, and the work is spectacular. Some are funny, some profound, and most are ideas I never could have imagined. Unorthodox teaching allows for surprise and growth for both teacher AND student.