From Legos to littleBits

Ayah Bdeir at TED: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach
How does approaching a complex problem with the mind of a child elicit fresh, creative, accessible new things?  Ayah Bdeir, an artist/engineer looked at Legos and was inspired to consider transistors in a new way.  I have often told my students that art is a unique expression of a universal idea.  This broadens the concept of art significantly.  If we want to inspire creative thinking, we must be willing to encourage and celebrate differentness and its contribution to the creative process.  Diversity, a buzzword for racial and gender integration, takes on powerful meaning in the world of art and education.  Diversity is a necessity for artists.  But children who are different often feel at odds with a system that rewards sameness.  I look at a classroom full of middle school kids and I sometimes wonder if teaching them how to work to a standard is one way to let them off the hook.  Kids do the minimum required rather than push for greater understanding, deeper knowledge, and personal best skill development.  Once a student recognizes the objectives of the academic game, he or she is free to play at any level.  If good grades are the goal, many savvy learners do what is required to get to the goal, but no more.  For those not interested in the game, playing at academics is boring, annoying, or off the radar.  For those who have been trained to believe their grades have some connection to an individual’s character quality, the game of school can produce paralyzing anxiety.

How do we, as educators, provide the assessments kids want without attaching them to a child’s self-worth?  This non-judgmental assessment feature is no fantasy.  Children who play video games live in a world of action assessment.  When a character dies on a video screen as a result of a lack of skill or knowledge, there is rarely a response like some I have seen in school when children do poorly on tests.  The gamer’s reaction to a lack of skill is to get better at the game whether through repetition, research, or online cheats (don’t be fooled by the name; cheats have their own learning curve).  When the expectations for schoolwork reach beyond skill building and touch the sensitive nerves around a student’s developing sense of self, there is room for reassessment of our assessment tools.

Rather than push for homogeny, we could reward new ways of thinking.  The weird girl who thinks differently will be included at lunch because the school’s environment embraces and rewards her contributions.  The weird boy who daydreams will be lured into conversations to mine his mind for unique ideas that cause an upward spiral of abstract thought in the classroom.  We have a role to play as teachers in creating an environment where divergence is no longer frowned upon but encouraged.  In fact, we now know it is this divergent thinking that creates great ideas such as Legos and littleBits.  It’s about time we stop rewarding imitation.  Let’s celebrate the weird kids and give everyone permission to reveal his or her diversity.

Ernie Kovacs and TV Art

Ernie Kovacs
Image by geminicollisionworks via Flickr

I first learned of Ernie Kovacs on a random stop in 1984 when I stumbled into the New York Radio and Television Museum.  I was dumbfounded when I learned I could view old Kinescopes of shows I had never even heard of.  A docent recommended an Ernie Kovacs kinescope and I was hooked.  I spent a couple of hours looking at rare footage and falling in love with his childlike spirit and risk-taking comedy.   As an arts teacher I am constantly in search of ways to show my students what artistic expression can be.  Ernie Kovacs used the medium of television the way Picasso used brush and canvas or Julie Taymor uses the stage.  Unfortunately, for Kovacs, his legacy is only just now being heralded with a release of a retrospective by Shout! Factory.  He was a clear creative genius at a time when his talent found a voice in a brand new medium of expression.  His ideas and the medium were new.  Everything about his art was difficult to assess as there was no precedent for what he was doing.  This lack of a grade or measuring stick made it possible for Kovacs to play as a child would play.  It was a gift to television and comedy in general that he  create fearlessly.  Some ideas failed, others were before their time and still others kept his fans tuning in and his fan base growing.  To this day there are numerous iterations and flat-out copies of his work.   His comedy is as fresh and funny as it was when he was competing with Uncle Milty, Jack Benny, Steve Allen and Danny Thomas for laughs.  Television comedy is an art form that doesn’t garner a great deal of respect.  But if you are interested in seeing the work of a true artist regardless of the art form, consider giving Ernie Kovacs your attention.

NPR Story on the release of the new Ernie Kovacs anthology

Arts Education Advocates Speak Out

A block of marble reveals a secret

I am sharing some insights by a few profound thinkers on the subject of arts education.  I hope you will find these ideas though-provoking.  Please let me know what you think.  If you have a quote that should be included, share it in your comment.

The Disappearing Arts

“In America, we do not reserve arts education for privileged students or the elite. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students anywhere except at school. President Obama recalls that when he was a child ‘you always had an art teacher and a music teacher. Even in the poorest school districts everyone had access to music and other arts.’

Today, sadly, that is no longer the case.”

– U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, April 9, 2010

 

The Integrated Arts

“The arts in the schools do not, cannot, and should not exist in isolation.  They necessarily must operate in the framework of general education.  When they are part of the curriculum of American schools – and this cannot be taken for granted – inevitably they are there because they give students an indispensable educational dimension… The arts are affiliated with the schools’ important responsibility to pass on civilization.”

-from Strong Arts, Strong Schools by Charles Fowler
1996 Oxford University Press

 

The Arts Equation

“Education minus art? Such an equation equals schooling that fails to value ingenuity and innovation. The word art, derived from an ancient Indo-European root that means “to fit together,” suggests as much. Art is about fitting things together: words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs.

It is both a form of serious play governed by rules and techniques that can be acquired through rigorous study, and a realm of freedom where the mind and body are mobilized to address complex questions — questions that, sometimes, only art itself can answer: What is meaningful or beautiful? Why does something move us? How can I get you to see what I see? Why does symmetry provide a sense of pleasure?”

-Jeffrey T. Schnapp is director of the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, a prominent cultural historian of the 20th century, and a frequent curator of art exhibitions in Europe and the United States.

 

The Squandered Arts

“All kids have tremendous talents and we squander them pretty ruthlessly… We (educators) stigmatize mistakes… We are educating people out of their creative capacities… We don’t grow into creativity, we are educated out of it.”

-Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources.

 

The Teaching Arts

“Learning to think within the affordances and constraints of the material is one of the things that the arts teach… we can look at the arts as tasks which develop the mind because of the kinds of thinking that they evoke, practice and develop… What we need in American education is not for the arts to look more like the academics… but for the academics to look more like the arts.”

-Elliot W. Eisner, Lee Jacks Professor of Education and professor of art at Stanford University, speaking in September 2006 on “What Do the Arts Teach?”

Art is Everywhere!

The Seth Thomas Clock Company-manufactured clo...
Image via Wikipedia

Art is everywhere.  It is in everything we use, see or express.  The art we experience is the art created by millions of people who express creativity through design.  These are people who move beyond traditional models of art.  They have all been practicing artists.  Because of their commitment, training and creativity, we are so immersed in the arts we aren’t even aware of it.  We respond to the arts as a fish responds to water.  We rarely acknowledge its existence.  When we do, we speak of music, visual art or theater as if they are things we must create in order for our children to have an “arts experience”.   Kids are no more cognitively aware of their arts immersion than the adults.  Let me give an example: When I wake up, I often hear music on my radio.  This is an obvious arts experience.  But when I trudge to my bathroom I am immersed in design.  My toilet, mirror, sink, the colors on my bathroom walls, the shape of my toothbrush may be based on utilitarian notions, but there is an artistic design element to everything I use.  Even if everything were gray and made of steel, someone would find a way to insert a level of personal expression into a utilitarian product.  This ubiquitousness of artistic expression is not limited to design.  According to Mr. Webster something is theatrical if it “has the qualities of a staged presentation”.  If I attend church or synagogue or mosque or even a Buddhist temple, there is theater just as there are players in a courtroom, classroom or sports arena.  We call these events by different names but the term ‘live theater’ applies.  Dance is also an area of self expression that shows up everywhere from the traffic circle to the crowded hallways of Grand Central Station.  Many of our driving patterns are choreographed as are the flight patterns around an airport.  It is our perception or lack of it that makes artistic expression seem scarce.  Let’s return to my modern morning ritual.  At some point I will dress in clothing designed by an artist.  It won’t matter if I bought it at a thrift store or WalMart or Saks Fifth Avenue.  Before it could be made, it had to be sketched.  The design was then rendered through an artistic process.  Trial and error revealed a useful, aesthetically pleasing garment.  Fabrics and details were selected which were also designed by artists in those fields.  After all this creativity a piece of clothing appeared. The same goes for my coffee and creamer and anything that didn’t come directly from the earth.  The coffee maker I use is different in design from my brother’s coffee maker, or my sister’s, or my parents’.  If there is no need for art outside the areas designated for expression, why is there a need for differently designed appliances?  Business leaders understand the appeal of design.  They spend billions of dollars on designers and artists every year to create products that appeal to our cultural and aesthetic sensibilities.  If there is no need for art outside of its designated areas, there is no reason for design.

There has never been a time in history when art was not being created.  There are numberless examples of profound works of art emerging from dark periods of human history.  This includes the great Jewish artists of the Holocaust, Byzantine art following the fall of the Roman Empire, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the photography of the Great Depression and Dustbowl period.  Even the balladeers, bards and brilliant thinkers of the dark ages whose work is lost to us set the stage for the European Renaissance that followed.  The indispensable and urgent human need to express has been with us since cave paintings and dances ’round the fire.  After I finish writing this blog post, I will grab my beautifully composed leather bag and place in it my aesthetically pleasing computer full of music and media files.  I will walk outside my house that was designed by an architect who was  an artist in the field of building design.  I will press a button on the elegantly fashioned car key that opens the door of my goldenrod minivan.  There will not be a moment in my day when I do not experience another human being’s artistic expression.  This expression is not about talent, it’s about practice.  For everyone who believes it is more important to learn the answers on a test than to learn how to artistically express an idea, it’s time to wake up and smell the artisan coffee.

The Arts, Not Testing Practice, Improve Test Scores

“We started to treat the arts program like we treat all the other departments that matter in our school.”  That’s what Rose Greco, literacy coach, for  MS 223 in New York City says about the reason for the success of the School Arts Support Initiative (SASI) in her school.  An article in the February 2011 issue of Middle Ground (the National Middle School Association‘s practitioners’ magazine) features a different kind of educational program.  In 2008 the Center for Arts Education launched, “a multiyear research project in four New York City middle schools that provided little or no arts education.” The program began having immediate results.  According to the article, “The impact was apparent in improved student attendance and social behaviors. Results on local and standardized tests showed greater overall proficiency. The culture of each school began to change. Faculty members, administrators, and visiting artists noticed the changes… Attendance has improved dramatically… English Language Arts scores improved despite less time devoted to test preparation… Suspensions declined. Students have also acquired artistic skills that have increased their likelihood of being accepted to arts-focused high schools.”  In this video from MS 223, staff members reveal the reasons they believe the program works:

Gamers are the Fastest Learners

A photograph of Tennis for Two taken in 1958.
Image via Wikipedia

Dr. James Gee has some provocative things to say about the way learning is changing.  This is a trailer for a longer documentary on the subject of gaming and experiential learning.  I am fascinated with the subject as all arts teachers might be.  Arts is experiential by its nature.  You don’t have to play video games to have the experience of learning through experimentation or “leveling up”.  As a result of its ubiquity, gaming happens to be the model used in several studies.  This style of learning happens outside the gaming world all the time and it proves what creative instructors have known all along: social interaction, a positive culture of failure, assessment through “leveling up”, and experimentation all have a hugely favorable impact on learning.  Enjoy the video!

http://www-tc.pbs.org/video/media/swf/PBSPlayer.swf

Watch the full episode. See more Digital Media – New Learners Of The 21st Century.

With Desire, Nearly Anything is Teachable

Bill Evans and Derek Amato have these keys in common

Until 1980 when he died, Bill Evans was one of the most important and influential jazz musicians of the modal style.  I used to pretend to be into jazz in college but only recently (and I’ve been out of college a long time) have I really been able to appreciate the improvisational styles of the 1960’s and early 70’s.  There were a couple of styles from that period that competed for attention and they are referred to as free jazz and modal style.  Evans’ influence is still felt among young composers in the modal style.  Evans seemed really interested in teaching young musicians as well as  allowing them to discover their styles independently.  He also had some things to say about self-teaching after he graduated from college with a teaching degree in 1950.  In a 1966 interview with his brother Harry Evans from the television program, “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”,  he described his growth as a musician, “I don’t consider myself as talented as many people, but in some ways that was an advantage… I didn’t have a great facility immediately and in a way it forced me to build something.”

Compare Evans’ statement to the  fantastic story of the sudden savant, Derek Amato who suffered a brain injury after diving into a swimming pool to catch a football.  Derek recently visited the Mayo Clinic to film a Discovery special concerning his sudden ability to play the piano.  According to Derek, before his accident he had “never even touched a piano.”  In contrast to Bill Evans,  Amato says of his own experience, “I still can’t read music or tell you where the notes are.  All I know is the black keys are flat.  I don’t even know what I’m going to play each time I sit down… but since my accident, the notes just pour out of me.”  Amato can’t seem to stay away from pianos.  From the moment he touched one after his accident he could not stop.  He plays for hours at a time because now his desire is so great.  Although he doesn’t read music, he composes intricate pieces on the fly and plays by ear.  It’s as though what he is experiencing is an end run around the conscious brain to the unconscious mind where style and substance meet.

Bill Evans referred to this as a universal mind.  Evans discussed the need for intense musical study in order to free the mind to go where it can create freely.  “I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal musical mind.  Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people.”

Evans’ theory is similar to what Stephen Nachmanovitch has to say in his book on creativity titled Saving the Cat in one way:  They both believe artists are especially adept at tapping a part of the mind where creativity lies.  Nachmanovitch makes the case that the spark of creativity comes first and can be followed by intense study of the medium, “The important thing is to start someplace, anyplace. Then we can play with, refine, elaborate the original statement until it pleases us. Before the dance of inspiration and perspiration can begin, there must be some raw material, some spark of inciting energy.”  Although both believe in allowing the language of creativity to lead the way, Evans suggests the intense study of technique must precede the creative event while Nachmanovitch believes the creative event must inspire the desire to study artistic technique.  I tend to lean toward Nachmanovitch’s theory but at some point the two, technique and creative expression, begin to tumble downhill one over the other, picking up speed until together the two take flight as one creative event.  Technique informs expression which inspires the artist to hone his technique.

In Amato’s case of sudden savantism, his expression has inspired him to begin to study song structure, music theory and technique.  But his condition allows him to create endless amazing compositions without knowing anything at all about music.  He creates freely without the hindrance of a lack of skill.  For the rest of us though, there seem to be two pathways for creative expression: to have a germ of an idea and pursue it passionately, learning the medium as you go or to imagine a desired outcome and learn the medium necessary to achieve the vision.  Ultimately, it will occur as a holistic experience.  In fact it might be difficult to determine where one approach ends and another begins.  In fact, the immersion in the creative pursuit makes the division unnecessary.  It really doesn’t matter how you do your art when you’re in your element.  The same artist may approach different projects in different ways.  It’s the joy of creation that ultimately informs the effort.  The freedom an artist experiences makes her want to continue to pursue the art.  Although their styles and approaches to music are different, Bill Evans and Derek Amato have in common their creative freedom and desire.  And as a teacher I have learned my most useful tool is a student’s desire.  With desire, nearly anything is teachable.

Honest Fiction

Emily, wearing her Cookie Monster hat, Works on a Story

All culture is based on stories both true and fictional.  No group’s history is without its perspective.  But perspective can be skewed for a variety of reasons.  Skewed or not, the telling should be honest.  As artists, we are taught that our stories don’t have to be factual to be honest.  By honest I mean the moment of creative expression is genuine even if the artist is fictionalizing an event.  Children are the best examples of this honest expression.  They often tell meandering stories with no obvious point.  But they tell their stories with so much passion using the tools available, there is no doubt they are being completely honest in their expression.

Artists have a responsibility to tell stories with childlike honesty.  Artists can use this to powerfully influence whole societies. Their stories can have greater influence than anyone else’s including generals, politicians and scientists.  That is not to say that those fields do not have their fair share of story tellers.  Politicians are especially adept at telling powerful stories that move populations.  People in all fields from medicine to garbage collecting have the potential to contribute to cultural stories.  But of the artist, it is expected.

Storytelling is the primary role of the artist.  Interpreting events and expressing ideas in relation to her environment, exploring other environments, fictional and factual; these are the responsibilities of the artist.  But what is the value of story telling? Story telling provides perspective.  It organizes our jumbled culture into a cohesive whole.  There is an old Norwegian saying (I know because I Googled it), “It is the duty of the present to convey the voices of the past to the ears of the future.”  The ears of the future depend on us to be as honest as we are able to be.

Dave Eggers TED Wish

photo from portfolio.com
Dave Eggers makes a wish

Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and named Best Book of the Year by Time magazine that same year.  This might be enough of an achievement for any writer But Eggers is a writer on a mission.  His books include the 2005 Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers (co-authored with Daniel Moulthrop and Nínive Clements Calegari).

In 2008 Eggers won a TED prize giving him the opportunity to make any wish with the TED community and $100,000 to back it up.  He based his wishon the experience of creating a neighborhood tutoring program in San Francisco, the city he now calls home. His TED prize wish is for more people to follow him into getting involved in local schools.  Utne Reader named him one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World” and his interest in education has led him to become one of the most well-regarded voices in education volunteerism.

One of the many reasons he is able to make a difference with students is his respect for educators.  Of inviting volunteers to work in the public schools, he says, “Always let the teachers lead the way.  They will tell you how to be useful.”   His commitment to learning has not been overshadowed by an arrogant disregard for the work teachers currently do.  On the contrary, he recognizes the challenge teachers face in teaching with greater distractions, more demands, and in many cases, an obligation to teach more than their subject material.  Many teachers are in the position of being educator and parent to kids whose families must work long hours or for kids who must spend long hours at school.

Volunteer mentors have an opportunity to do something teachers may not have the time to do; acknowledge small steps and healthy choices which may go unnoticed in the hectic school world.  Many kids with dreams often fade into the background.  If they are neither troublemakers nor shining stars, they may not have the tools to draw the attention they need to make progress.  Of these students who may lose heart, Eggers says,  “Some of these kids just don’t plain know how good they are, how smart and how much they have to say.  You can tell them.  You can shine that light on them one human interaction at a time.”  For anyone who has ever seen a kid’s eyes light up when an adult says to them, “good job”, it is a memorable reward.  Go, find a school in your neighborhood, and make a difference for the future; volunteer.

To see Eggers’ TED-inspired website, go to:

http://www.onceuponaschool.org/

To see his TED presentation, go to:

http://www.ted.com/talks/dave_eggers_makes_his_ted_prize_wish_once_upon_a_school.html

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