Saturday, January 24, 2009

New Work

So this is what I've been up to the last two weeks, or at least some part of it. I've been putting things together. I've been painting and pasting and playing around. I've been, well, having fun. I think it helps that I don't really have much of a sense of what I'm doing, I'm just trying stuff out and seeing what happens. Maybe sooner or later I'll start to set standards for myself that I will prove to be unable to live up to. But right now, it's all good.

More in the works. And no, I haven't forgotten about the education posts. There's more of those on the way too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Forgetting Myself

"In art the self becomes self-forgetful" - Flannery O'Connor

When I graduated from college as a philosophy major, I found myself, by a process too complex and frankly weird to explain right now, as a Teacher Corps intern in Hawaii. Teacher Corps was one of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, and under its auspices I was working as an elementary school teacher while simultaneously getting my master's degree in education from the University of Hawaii. The best course that I wound up taking in that program, and in many ways the best course I have ever taken at any time, was an elementary arts methods course taught by Dr. Alex Pickens.

None of the people in my class were artists, and none of us were really yet educators. But the course was driven by the assumption that some of us might find ourselves asked to teach art in an elementary classroom, and so Dr. Pickens walked us through a series of units on printmaking, on clay, on making papier mache masks, on guache painting using pigments made from different colors of earth, and so on. His method, which I was only later to discover was the method at the heart of all good teaching, was to break each unit down into constituent parts that were essentially impossible to screw up too badly, even for a bunch of artistic zeroes like ourselves. For example our first clay assignment was to roll out the clay with a rolling pin, cut the rolled clay into a tile shape, and then create light and shadow on the surface of the tile by pressing on it with our fingers. Well, hey, even I could do that. From there he went to showing us how to pound out air bubbles so our pieces would not explode in the kiln, and how to use slip (a mixture of clay and water) to join pieces of clay together. One of our first "major" assignments was, using what we had learned to this point, to make a three dimensional piece which would not explode in the kiln. Well, it turned out I could do that too. Several classes later, when he came in, gave us each a hunk of clay,  and told us to make a human figure, I was by that time confident enough to figure that if he thought we were ready, we must be ready, so I set to work.

What happened next was something of a mystery to me. I lost all track of time. I lost all sense of where I was. I became totally absorbed in the figure I was making. When I finally finished the piece, every one was gone. The two-hour class had ended an hour ago. Dr. Pickens was in the back room cleaning up, and probably because he was too polite a man to tell me to put away my work and go home, already. But I'll tell you what, that human figure was the first piece of artwork I ever completed that was clearly beyond my capabilities and expectations. It was a sort of gift. It was given to me to make that piece. I have it on the shelf in my office to this day.

The reason I bring this up: for reasons that I am not quite sure I understand, I've found myself having the impulse to paint. We happened to have some acrylics and some brushes lying around from when my son was in high school, and I was reading The Gift which got me thinking about art again, and I'd been spending some time in the local galleries, and the next thing I knew I was down at the art store laying in supplies and slapping paint on canvas.

I don't have any pretensions. I don't really have any idea what I'm doing. I'm just fooling around, trying to figure out what I need to learn as I go along. I didn't start out to do a sequence of collages, but that, it turns out, is what I have done, perhaps because I don't have the drawing skill yet to simply start cranking out landscapes. But I have a friend who does really interesting collages, and so as I began to work on the surface of the canvas I guess I was primed to start thinking about what else might go on there besides the paint. The first one was the odd-looking thing in the previous post, and the next two are reproduced at the top and bottom of this one.

I'm noticing three things. First of all, it's a hell of a lot of fun. I find myself thinking about what I'm going to do next while I'm doing other things, like eating lunch or walking to meetings at work. Second, I find myself seeing everything differently. I was having a conversation with Susie Anderson at Gallery at Ward Center the other day and she was describing how not long after getting back into painting after a number of years in which she hadn't painted, she was driving in her car on a wet street and suddenly she could see the colors again. I don't think I can see them yet, but I am definitely seeing everything in sharper focus. I remember back when I was living in Massachusetts and working during the summers by helping a close friend who was a carpenter with various remodeling jobs. I remember that if we had been doing siding, suddenly every house I passed I was noticing the siding. It's been a little like that the last week or so. I'm noticing more about what's in front of my face. Third, I'm amazed at how time just melts away when I'm working on something that interests me. Tonight I started at 5:30 and it was close to eight when I finished up, and the only reason I even stopped was that I had promised myself to get out to the gym tonight.

So that's where I am tonight, at the intersection of art and writing and education, waiting to see what comes next.

Thursday, January 8, 2009



I. The Gathering

First color, in its groundedness, this one and that, tones
in tune, then text, howl gargle gargle howl, spun into what
might be sky. Then gauze to billow in counterpoint, fishnet
frieze. The choir, waiting for their cue. Stela, and a nickel
moon over lava flats. Such blood, such fire. Hot glue. Titanium
clumps drift like clouds, whitecaps: one, two, three, four, five.

II. The Gift

Somebody's life story, maybe mine. Elements in aggregate.
Sopranos seem innocent enough, but we know, they know,
it's only a matter of time. First encounters matter, because
now we have a story (I have a poem). They don't make
stencils like they used to, which raises more questions,
not that anyone cares. Thrice again to make up nine. Peace.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

On Education (Four): Process

I recently got back from visiting my son and his family in Bermuda. While I was there I was asked to meet the board of trustees and some of the parents of one of the Bermuda elementary schools, who wanted to know how I felt about competency testing in general and NCLB in particular. As I considered what I might want to say about that issue, I found myself working backward toward more the centrally held philosophical principles which have informed my ideas about education even from the start of my career and continue to do so today. One of those philosophical principles is the Taoist concept of wu-wei, which translates roughly as "non-action," or sometimes "emptiness." The student, or the sage, or the teacher, who wishes to be in harmony with the Tao must first learn that there are times when it is best to do nothing, so that the Tao can take its course. I think the same is true, to some degree, in the classroom. One of my early mentors, the writer and writing teacher Donald Murray, used to say  "I try to underteach so my students can overlearn." He saw it as his job to create an environment in his classroom which gave students room to explore on their own. His motto as a teacher might well have been, "Don't just do something. Stand there."

I've argued in previous posts for the value of creating classroom environments which are 1) process-oriented, 2) project-based, and 3) student-centered. My lament about standards-based education, as it is generally being implemented, is that it is none of these things. The stakes are too high. If I am a teacher and I know that I have 90 hours in a semester with a particular class, and that the students' success, and my own, is going to be evaluated primarily on the basis of a content-based test, that pushes everything else they, or I, might want to do right off the table. We can't take time to talk about and restructure our processes. We can't afford to "waste time" on projects that may or may not be relevant to what's going to be on the test. What individual students might choose to do or not to do to demonstrate what they are learning or have learned is not up for negotiation.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to assessment, and I'm not opposed to direct instruction when direct instruction is called for. The image I am carrying in my head for the "balance" that I spoke about in my last post is that of an accordian player. There's a dual dynamic in accordian playing: in and out; opening up and closing down. A well-designed instructional program should have, in my judgement, a similar dynamic: spaces for exploration (opening up), other spaces for direct instruction in skills or content related to that exploration (closing down). Then opening up again, and so on.

I've just finished reading Lewis Hyde's The Gift, (referenced in a previous post ) which is one of the most thoughtful and erudite - and beautifully written - books of our era. It's primary area of exporation has to do with the differences between gift-based cultures and commodity-based cultures. (Digression: one of his side points has to do with why it is that practioners in gift-oriented professions — like teaching — are not paid well within a commodity-oriented culture. He says, for example, "...there are labors that do not pay because they, or the ends to which they are directed, require built-in constraints on profiteering, exploitation, and — more subtly — the application of comparative value with which the market is by nature at ease." (138) But that's a discussion for another post, perhaps.)

Anyway, at one point in the book, during his analysis of the thinking and writing of Ezra Pound, he winds up talking about the role of willpower in the artistic endeavor:

There are at least two phases in the completion of a work of art, one in which the will is suspended and another in which it is active. The suspension is primary. It is when the will is slack that we feel moved or we are struck by an event, intuition, or image. The materia must begin to flow before it can be worked... (289)

That strikes me as being true to my own experience as a writer, and, more to the point, to my experience as a teacher. First we must find the materia. That is a process that is not fostered by, and is often actually inhibited by, the imposition of willpower. The materia must make its own appearance. Once it has appeared, or arisen, or arrived, then the will — and the critical facilities responsible for shaping and sequencing and re-presenting the materia — can take over.

Earlier in the book, talking about Whitman, Hyde says that the process of creation can be compared to the in and out movement of the breath itself:

These gestures — the inhalation and the exhalation, the reception and the bestowal — are the structuring elements of the poem, the passive and active phases of the gifted state... In sympathy, the poet receives (inhales, absorbs) the embodied presences of creation into the self; in pride, he asserts (exhales, emanates) his being out toward others. As with any respiration, this activity keeps him alive... (222-3)

As with any respiration, this activity keeps him alive. In like manner, a classroom which provides room for students to breathe, which allows them both to absorb and to emanate, provides a context not just for respiration but for inspiration.

What we are talking about here, of course, is process. I have not said a word about content here, about what subject we might be teaching or what is going to be on the final assessment. I'm trying to articulate the process dynamics that make sense to me as a teacher. And I'd like to spell out the implication of all this, which is that while it is all and good that I as a writer and you as a reader, presumably interested in education, if you've read this far, might be able to discuss our process intuitions and concerns deep into the night, it is not enough. It's not enough unless the students learn to think about process issues as well. It's easy enough for us as teachers to set up our classrooms in such a way that all the students need to do is jump through a given set of hoops. But if we set up our classrooms that way, how will the students ever learn how to manage — and to measure — their own thinking, their own learning, their own progress? Imagine a class - any subject, it doesn't matter - in which students are given the opportunity (and, yes, the time, the time, the time) to ask themselves "What have we done? Where are we now? What's are the options at this point? Where are we trying to get to? How might we get there? And, once we get there, how will we be able to document the process?

That's what I'm talkin' about.