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.

Creativity Begins at Home

Yeah, that's right, we wear costumes to the RenFair

At the recent Creativity Summit in Tulsa this month my kids and I joined a breakout session where we could share our ideas on the question: “How can our schools continue to produce creative young people in a climate of reduced support for education, especially in the arts?”  I made a short video and both of my kids answered with a piece of poetry.  My daughter’s piece, titled A Sense of Urgency has to do with the reason kids feel misunderstood in the current system.  My son’s piece is a reworked poem titled Wasteland. He approaches the idea from a more absurdist perspective because, as he says, the current thinking about education is absurd.  Both kids are award-winning writers and I love being able to get a glimpse into their heads.  Enjoy!

A Sense of Urgency

Perhaps I just don’t comprehend the issues.

I am a member of a generation

That has become lost in the whirrs of

Machinery, internet porn, and WoW

We are members of Generation Tech

And we do not write on legal pads anymore

We write exclusively with the help of

The Grand Masters:

Microsoft, Apple, Dell and Windows

Words that all mean one thing:

Freedom.

Our own brand of freedom.

On the internet, we are who we want to be,

We can be any gender, any age, any sexual orientation

And in that sense, we are the

Most creative generation

But perhaps I don’t understand the issues

The older generation is trying to impart to us

“A SENSE OF URGENCY”

Because apparently our cities are dying

And apparently it’s our fault

Damn kids with AC and TV and LOL

Kids that won’t go outside when it’s hot

Who prefer the internet to sports

We plug headphones into our ears

Drink Mountain Dew

And stare at the shimmering, lovely screen

Our fingers whispering over the keys

Like mice

And you could practically smell the cooling fan burning,

The processors are so fast

The older generations are trying to tell us

“Stop! Now! Before it’s too late!”

But don’t they know it’s already too late?

That there’s nothing to be done to save us?

The older generations will look at us

And shake their heads, slowly and sadly,

And stare out the windows at our coffee shops

And our sidewalks, crawling with the misshapen mass

Of Generation Tech,

And they will feel sorry for us

That we cannot kick a can across the street and feel the joy in that

BUT

We will feel sorry for them as well.

Because they are trapped dreaming of old worlds

Worlds that are long dead

And we are here, on the information superhighway,

Creating the new

Wasteland

One blustery day,

We decided to build a wasteland.

So we put on our toolbelts and fastened our knapsacks

And set forth to make a difference.

First we had to rid ourselves of the buildings

We didn’t bother to check if anyone was inside

This was too important to worry about casualties

“Why must we lay waste to these places?” one man asked.

“We lay waste to make waste,” I responded

“Or have you no ambition?”

We waltzed through the destruction

To see what had yet to be born anew

Taking a pair of curtains, we tore apart the fabric of time and space

We found an extinguisher and doused the fires of love

We turned a dinner plate and cooked a feast of dead ideas

All to make way four our glorious wasteland

That was to be our paradise

“Is there no food or water?” a woman asked

“We shall feed on the fruits of our labor,” I responded

“And our thirst shall be quenched by the sweat of our work

Or have you no motivation?”

We took food out of cans

We took milk out of cartons

We took files out of file cabinets

It was becoming difficult to work

We could not see through all of the light

The only solution, then, was to destroy the sun

“A rocket?” one man asked

“Too obvious”

“A cannon?”

“Too cliché”

“Perhaps a monster”

“Where do you propose we find a monster?

The lawyers are all dead and the math teachers are too distracted”

Little Billy climbed on top of a recently built pile of rubble

He placed his index finger and thumb an inch apart

So that the sun fit perfectly

He plucked it from the sky and buried it in the dirt

Surrounded in darkness, we could see as clearly as ever

Again we set to work, building as much waste as we could

We tore and shredded and smashed and crushed

When all was done, I listened

I could hear no voices

No children laughing, no men arguing, no women gossiping

Who knows what happened to them?

I care not

As long as I have my wasteland, I am happy

With my wasteland built, I lay down for my eternal slumber

I do not know how long I was asleep

Millennia, years, months, days, perhaps seconds

Perhaps I had gone back in time

What woke me up was more of that distracting light

Muttering angrily, I looked up

In the spot where Little Billy had buried the sun, a star tree had grown

Each star on each branch was emitting the most obnoxious light I had ever seen

I got up to cut it down, but then I saw something

I saw what was left of my wasteland

Instead of rubble, there were buildings

Instead of destruction, there was construction

Instead of remains there were beginnings

I wept silently to myself

They had destroyed it

They had destroyed my beautiful wasteland with society

The fools had no idea

I collected myself and began to travel

There was a thriving place nearby

The perfect place to build a ghost town

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

Part 4 (of 4) Reconceptualizing Education

Chemical structure of Penicillin G
Image via Wikipedia

This series could go on indefinitely but I thought I should wrap up this segment on reconceptualizing education with an idea.  Reconceptualizing isn’t just about innovating.  It’s about how and why we innovate.  So, instead of featuring an education innovator from the national stage, today I want to acknowledge the innovation of teachers a little closer to home.  Last night I attended what we refer to at my school as School Out of Doors or SOOD for short.  For my team, it was a chance to take 70 7th grade students into the wilderness with tents and sleeping bags and create something memorable for the class of 2016.  But we live in the only state about which Will Rogers famously said, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait five minutes.”  With sudden thunderstorms, threats of baseball-sized hail and an eerie tornado warning, we spent our School Out of Doors INdoors.  While sirens were blaring outside, we gathered the kids into a cinderblock hallway near the gym and sat them on the floor with all their belongings.  The amazing part to me is due to the calm and positive response of the teachers, all the students behaved as though this was an expected part of the weekend.  They played cards, sat and talked with friends, read books and seemed genuinely happy to be in a hot, dark, smelly, cramped hallway with 70 of their closest friends.  When it became clear there would be no night hike, cooking over a flame, or outdoor games, the 7th grade teachers sprang into action.  Okay, maybe we didn’t spring, but we all had a trick or two up our sleeves.  The Dean set up a projector and sound system to show a movie on the gym wall to rival any drive in.  Parents brought in pizzas, the 7th grade teachers helped the students create an indoor campsite complete with tents and flashlight games.  In the morning, they supervised the breakdown of the campsite treating it as they would any clean up they would have to manage in the woods.  This morning we took our students to the school’s courtyard where they made pancakes on camping stoves and ate off tin plates.  There were buckets of suds outside the library where the kids washed their dishes and after eating they broke down the cook sites.  It may not sound wildly innovative but in light of the circumstances the teachers were creative, innovative, encouraging and modeling a critical skill; flexibility.

As teachers and parents we often get caught up in the outcomes game.  If the outcomes don’t match our expectations, there is disappointment and frustration.  We too often pass this culture of inconvenience to our kids.  What would it take to change the mindset that has us become irritable when things don’t go as planned?  If we could make that important adjustment and teach our kids that a change in plans doesn’t have to be negative, we would create a generation of curious and motivated innovators.  I’m all for making plans and following through, but if change is necessary or a better idea reveals itself, shouldn’t we be vigilant and prepared to shift gears?

Smart Dust, now used as a tool in destroying tumors, was a graduate student’s ruined homework.  At USC, Jamie Link accidentally blew up a silicon chip.  Because she was vigilant, she discovered properties in the detritus that made her famous in medical circles providing a previously unknown cure.  The Popsicle, invented by Frank Epperson, was a result of a mess left outside when Epperson was 11 years old.  He left a drink with a stir stick on his front porch.  The cold night left him with a frozen treat on a stick the next morning.  He patented the dessert two decades later much to the relief of kids everywhere with sore throats.  In 1928, Alexander Fleming‘s experiment with bacteria was ruined, or so he thought, when mold showed up in the Petri dish.  His vigilance allowed him to see where bacteria were avoiding the mold.  This led him to a discovery that has saved millions of lives.  Penicillin was the first antibiotic and his flexibility and open mind allowed him to create something exponentially better than what he had initially intended.

The most important lesson we can learn about innovation is this: If we are vigilant, a change in plans can produce greater results than any outcome we could have imagined.  There are myriad stories of greater-than-expected outcomes in science, math, art, literature and every other academic discipline.  This mindset is what we can teach our kids in an age where knowledge is secondary to creativity.  As one of our greatest thinkers once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Part 3 (of 4) Reconceptualizing Education

This 19 minute TED talk is well worth your time.  I have ADD and I couldn’t find a distraction that could tear me away from this man’s talk!

Charles Leadbetter is an unintentional innovator by virtue of his intense curiosity. His interest in finding out what’s available in the world of education beyond the borders of ‘sanctioned methods’ is one of the most exciting reformist efforts today. Rather than speak about education with a collection of theorists, he is out in the field on a quest. His quest is every bit as important (perhaps more so) as the panel discussions, policy debates and academic lectures. He has discovered the purest form of learning; people hungry for knowledge are using available resources to feed their hunger. What could be any more pure? This ties in with the slide show titled “Shift Happens”http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/33834 created by Karl Fisch which compares India, China and U.S. digital and educational revolutions by the numbers. It’s very provocative and I think it informs the conversation concerning what’s happening in education in rising nations.

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.

Check in every Monday, Wednesday and Friday

Here’s  a very short video for you! I realized that when life gets hectic I am a little slower to post so I came up with a plan: I will post blog entries on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week.  That way, you can check in to see what’s on my education radar.  In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and surfing so you stay up to date on the news about what’s going on in the world of compulsory education, especially as it relates to the arts.  Thanks for reading.  Look for some other exciting changes this week and feel free to let me know what it is you would like to see me discuss on this blog!

Arts Teaches 21st Century Skills

In 2004 The Partnership for 21st Century skills released a document that should have everyone in the world of education jumping through their hatbands.  Although there are some articles touting the efficacy of this bit of research, there isn’t quite the fanfare one would expect for such a project.  I have my theories as to why we might want to ignore a project that turns our current learning model on its ear.  But it is out there.

Cutting edge businesses such as Apple, Blackboard, Intel, Lego, Microsoft, Oracle, Verizon, Cisco and many others are deeply involved in the conversation to raise awareness.  If we pay attention to what progressive business leaders and visionary educators have to say about why, what and how we are teaching rather than how much it costs to prop up the old model, we might see positive, groundbreaking, grassroots social change.  According to Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, (this link is less than a minute and worth your time). “There is no doubt that creating an aligned 21st century education system that prepares students, workers and citizens to triumph in the global skills race is the central economic competitiveness issue for the next decade.”

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills arts map is a simple, colorful, 17 page, brochure-style document that can be used for curriculum development in all areas.  There are four other skills maps and three literacy maps as well as a variety of other resources and valuable information.  Each of the maps comes with a more precise framework definition document.  The entire project looks to the future of knowledge and education.  The emphasis on media literacy,  life skills and technology seems a no-brainer, but we avoid considering the obvious because of economic short-sightedness.

It is no surprise to arts teachers that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has at its core an education model that looks very similar to the one arts educators have been using for decades. It features critical thinking, collaboration and innovation and emphasizes integrated learning.  For some of us, integrated means we made an art project depicting the Lewis & Clark expedition.  But for arts educators we understand the value of integration in our curriculum.  It isn’t necessary to explain to students that “today we are going to learn a math skill” when they enlarge an art project using a grid.  We don’t have to explain integration of physics in our curriculum when demonstrating how the pulley system works to operate the grand curtain at a stage proscenium.  There is no discussion of a history lesson when the choir teacher explains the Baroque period.  It is commonly accepted that all arts teachers are integrative.  It is not otherwise possible to teach an arts class.  I am by no means suggesting that science teachers do not expect to teach some writing skills or that English teachers wouldn’t run across a history lesson.  I am saying that our current model compartmentalizes learning in a way that has no parallel in the real world.

If we are to address widespread resignation, poverty, labor skills deficits, teen suicide, juvenile crime and our economic position in a global market, we must first address the most profound influence on young people outside their families; we must transform our education system.  If we do not, we will see a continued increase in the gap between haves and have-nots, a rising budget deficit, decreased standing in a world market and an eventual slide into 2nd World status.  It is time we got serious about joining the 21st Century.



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