Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lesson Design I

Last week a colleague gave the members of the curriculum committee at my school a document to read, written by one of the World's Foremost Authorities which was an attempt on his part to discuss what we are talking about when we talk about curriculum. While I duly read the document, and liked some of the points it made, it seemed to me to miss many of what I would take to be the more salient points to made about curriculum, and so, I thought I'd have a go at it myself, on the theory that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing yourself. Obviously this is a largish topic, and it may very well take more than one or two posts to do it justice. But I'm gonna give it a shot, a little bit at a time, and see if I can say anything that holds together. So here goes.

I. Some observations about structure.

Curriculum, broadly considered, consists of at least three things: what you and your students do before class, what you do during class, and what you do after class or between classes.

Before class the teacher, and presumably the students as well, need to put some thought into both what the content of the course is going to consist of on any given day, and the process by which that content is going to considered. I'm not going to say too much about curriculum content here, for two reasons: first, because it varies so much from course to course and subject to subject that the sheer infinitude of possibilities would make it unlikely that I would ever get a proper start, much less get finished, with what I want to try to work through here; and second, because frankly, as those of you who have been following Throughlines over the years will be unsurprised to hear, content doesn't interest me that much. Never has, probably never will. What interests me is process. I'm going to try to resist the temptation to go on a big long digression about why that is so. Maybe later.

So let's think a little about process as it pertains to lesson planning. For sake of discussion, I'm going to assume that the lesson we are talking about is a one-hour lesson in a course that meets four or five times a week over the course of a semester. Given that assumption, there are a host of process questions that are worth considering as you go about designing a particular lesson. Among them:

  1. Where are the students now, and where would you like them to be?
  2. What is it that you are going to ask the students to do during the class?
  3. What's the connection between this lesson, yesterday's lesson, and tomorrow's lesson? How does what we are doing today build on what we did yesterday or set up what we will be doing tomorrow?
  4. How many chunks or modules do you plan to divide the hour into?
  5. What is your role as teacher going to be during the hour?
  6. What role(s) will the students be asked to play? Where during the course of this lesson do individual students get to be who they are and say what they have to say? Will they be working individually? in pairs? in small groups? in a single large group?
  7. How will you accommodate different learning styles? Is there a visual component? An aural component? A social component? A writing component? A hands-on component? A reflective component?
  8. What is going to happen today that is the same as what happened yesterday? What's going to happen today that is different than anything that's ever happened before? For the students? For you?
  9. Is there a technology component to the lesson? If so, why? If not, why not?
  10. Is there a reflective or metacognitive aspect to the lesson? If so, why? If not, why not?
  11. Is there an ethical or spiritual component to the lesson? If so, etc.
  12. What is the likelihood that the students are going to be able to make a connection between this lesson and anything that they might actually care about? What can you do to increase that likelihood?
  13. What will the homework be? What purpose will the homework serve? For you? For the students? How long do you expect them to work on it? How soon will you get it back to them? Will that be soon enough for them to be able to apply whatever feedback you have given them to the next assignment?
  14. What is it you want the students to take away from this lesson?
  15. How will you determine whether or not they have done so? What options will the students have in demonstrating what they have learned?
  16. What choices will the students be allowed/encouraged to make during the lesson?
  17. What input have the students had into the process by which you will come up with answers to any of these questions?
  18. What's the connection between what your students are doing today and what students are doing in other sections of the same course taught by other teachers? What input have they had into the process?

Okay, so that's not a complete list, but you get the idea. Lesson design is a complex topic, and the choices you make as a teacher are significant even when you are not aware that you are making them. Developing an awareness of the pedagogical issues involved in lesson design is hard. Maintaining that awareness is harder. Given the realities of day-to-day teaching, it's easy to just fall into a pattern, set up a one-size-fits-all frame and stay with it. But good lesson design is flexible, multifaceted, interconnected, collaborative, and attentive to the immediate needs of the students.

I'm going to stop here for tonight and let those questions rattle around in my head for a while. If you think I've missed any, feel free to add.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Natura Morte

I. I first encountered the art of William Bailey around 15 years ago when I chanced upon Mark Strand's Dark Harbor, a book of poems which took its title - and some of its stylistic obsessions - from the Bailey painting on the cover, Dark Harbor III. A great many of Bailey's enigmatic paintings are essentially renderings or arrangements of the same or very similar vessels: vases, pitchers, bowls, pots and pans. Taken as a group and studied in the context of one another, the paintings create a kind of alternative universe, a narrowly delimited but internally consistent world of color and light and shadow. The constraints in subject matter, palette, and technique have the effect of making even very subtle variations seem fraught with significance. In the same way that humans moving from group to group are often inclined to "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," the various objects in Bailey's paintings seem to take on personalities that vary according to the company in which they are placed.

The forty-five numbered poems in Strands book are configured and deployed with similar constraints. Each is sequnce of triplet stanzas, ranging in length from two to eight. Not only are the structural elements similar, but there are recurring words and phrases and images that appear and reappear later, different for being seen in different company, in different light:

"...the wind screams at the moon's blank face..." (II)
"The dogs howl at the moon, and the moon flees..." (V)
"If dawn breaks the heart, the moon is a horror..." (VIII)
"These are bad times. Idiots have stolen the moonlight." (XXIX)
"We stand under the hollow moon and hear/No praising harp strings..." (XXXIV)

Strand encourages us by his repetitions to listen for echoes and overtones, to consider the implications of the re-placement of images. We are expected to notice, and to ask questions about, the logic of the juxtapositions. Bailey's pictures encourage us to do the same. In the picture below, for example, the collection of six objects - salt cellar, candle holder, cup, bowl, container, and funnel - keep my eye moving and my mind asking questions. The family resemblances make the urge to anthropomorphize irresistible. Is the candle holder proud of his height? The bowl seems to be the center of gravity here, the largest and most substantial piece, around which the others gather. Is it an emblem of smugness? Of stabililty? of substance? The rough, earth-colored container hides in the back, close-mouthed, keeping its own counsel. The cup seems dainty and perhaps overdressed. A flirt. The funnel keeps his distance, but is connected by placement and color to his cousins. The salt cellar, on the other hand, stands apart. By choice? Or is he, with his sleek surface and his metal hat and his funny smell, just a little too weird for the rest of them?

II. This winter I was spending a lot of time leafing though art magazines and came to recognize and respond, at some reptilian level in my brain, to Georgio Morandi's similarly obsessive paintings of vessels. Morandi is less literal than Bailey, but no less focused.

His arrangements of elemental shapes pulse between the two dimensions of the planar surface and the implied three-dimensionality of the objects depicted. The slightly abstracted, irregular, out-of-focus quality of many of his paintings encourages me to look less hard at the individuals and more at the group, the way the shapes - rectangles, ovals, rods, and cones - and speak to one another. And again, the constraints of the palette push subtleties forward: that blue, that red, would both be lost in a brighter, louder world. His pictures are composed, understated, calming.

III. All of which is by way of providing a context for the current direction of my own work, such as it is. These two artists got me thinking about the logic of still life, and about the ways in which the narrowing of one's line of vision offers the chance for unanticipated, interesting significances to emerge. I find myself in the middle of a series of pencil-and-ink drawings that obviously owe more than a little to their antecedents, but which are also opening up new territory for me. Here's the one I did last night.

I like these guys. They're each a little different, but they've got a lot in common. They're a lot like us.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Thousand Words

1. When I first arrived at my school eleven years ago, one of my early mentors was a woman who for a variety of complicated reasons decided to leave the school. Once she was no longer teaching, she started a small business making cards with calligraphic images on them. Recently, she made the decision to go back to teaching and asked me to write her a recommendation. About two weeks ago, I got a card from her telling me she had accepted a teaching job in a school in Africa. The character depicted on the card is “wa,” which means “balance.”

2. Until recently I had never heard of Joseph Cornell, who managed during the middle part of the 20th century to create an impressive body of beautiful and highly idiosyncratic work, much of which was assemblage in the form of boxes. Following his lead, I’ve begun visiting the local Goodwill Store periodically to see what’s around that might be interesting or useful. Last week I found a thin rectangular hinged mahogany box of the kind that steak knife sets come in. I brought it home with the idea that I might eventually try to put together a Cornell-type box. I started by removing the black velveteen contact paper lining the inside of the top of the box. It tore out in one piece, and I was pleasantly surprised by the texture and pattern of the glued surface on the back of the contact paper, and decided I’d use it here.

3. When I am painting I often need to unload excess paint from a brush, and so I often use a sheet of heavy paper as a repository of the leftover paint. That way, each time I clean out a brush, I’m contributing to the ongoing development of a kind of loosely abstract paint collage. I often find later that I can use strips or random shapes from that paper in other pieces I’m working on, which makes for a sort of hidden thread of connection leading from one piece to the next. The circular cutout from the black-and-white portion of this rectangle wound in another piece, which, as it happens, turned out to be a very busy, muddy, frustrating piece to work on (see below).

4. One the second floor our local art store there is a rack of handmade papers that come in large sheets in various colors. This particular paper, which I found last month, is rough-textured, heavy paper, black on one side and a rich blood red on the other. It holds up well when you soak it with water, which makes it ideal for collage, because the soaked paper will lie flat on the panel and adhere well.

5. Another panel from the knife box, this time from the bottom of the box.

6. A very small piece of patterned paper, blue with a gold filigree pattern, from the same rack as the red paper above, but from a more recent trip to the art store.

7. I don’t like most furniture stores. Too much plastic, too much bad design, too much soul-less, history-less dreck. Not to mention that the salespeople are often off-putting. The exception in my town is C.S. Wo, which imports most of its furniture from China. Some of it is antique, some of it is modern, but all of it is interesting to look at. Going there is as entertaining as going to a museum. The salespeople are helpful when you need them but otherwise give you plenty of room. And did I mention that they have free coffee and chocolate chip cookies? Anyway, every once in a while they hold an open house, and on this particular open house they were offering a free set of year-of-the-ox greeting cards to the first 100 people to show up. We were third in line.

8. My father-in-law got me interested in statehood quarters. This is the quarter from Hawaii. I felt that I needed something to go into the empty circle I had cut out of the paper, and since I had the whole balance thing going, I thought that the Hawaii quarter might serve as the symbol serving to bridge the eastern and western influences in the collage, much as the state itself serves as a middle ground between East and West.

9. The second panel from the bottom of the knife box.

10. There’s a huge stationery discount warehouse downtown which sells washi paper in small color-coordinated packets. The packets are sealed, so there’s a little sheet inside which has thumbnail pictures which show what the patterns are on the paper you’d be getting in the packet. I was looking to balance shapes and colors and sizes of the elements I was putting together here, and this little piece seemed to work just fine.

11. The white rectangle here is a leftover piece from the collage I mentioned before that got too busy. I had been looking at an issue of Artnews and I saw a collage which was basically a sort of two-dimensional architectural assemblage made by arranging white rectangles with dark borders in a latticework over a red background. So I made a bunch of rectangles and laid down a background with the same red paper you see here and began working on something that looked pretty interesting at the start, but then got progressively more fussy and ugly until I basically just painted the whole thing over in white, which made it too simple and not interesting to look at, so then I started adding other elements back in, and went through the whole stupid sequence again and finished with something I don’t even want to look at myself, which is, as I said, why I decided to go simple with this one. This white stripe is my little gesture toward giving embedding in this little creation a little fragment of its prehistory.

A picture, they say, is worth 1000 words. I’m done.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Line Exploring Space

The essence of drawing is the line exploring space.
    - Andy Goldsworthy

We have a discussion about arts integration going on at my school, and one of my colleagues in the art department referred me last week to the Artsedge site, where I ran across the Goldsworthy quotation, which has been ricocheting around in my brain all week, and has found its way into a number of conversations, including one I had with Chris today. We were talking about our sophomore critical thinking course and how it has been evolving, and Chris was saying something to the effect that he found it hard to think about critical thinking without thinking about problem solving, and we started talking about the role of writing in both processes. And I started describing an art workshop I had attended last month where the artist, while he was doing a demonstration painting for us, was talking about the nature of the interactive process in painting. He was saying that each move you make as you draw or paint creates a sort of problem or imbalance or issue that generates the next move, and it is your job as a painter to pay attentiont to what was happening in front of you and work, basically, on one issue at a time. "If it gets too busy, or loses grandeur, or gets picky, as soon as you recognize that, you know what to do with it: find the complementary quality; that'll be the answer." It is, he says, a way of working that is explorational. "The only thing you know in advance is to be true to the process of discovery. You work toward a shift taking place every time you go at the painting."

All of which is equally true, of course, of writing, or at least of writing the way I understand it and have experienced it and have tried to present it to my students. What I am doing right now, as I type, is laying out a line of words that started in one place and is on its way to ending in another, and while I have a general notion of what I want to try to get at here, the particular form that it is taking is emerging right in front of me, with lots of fits and starts and hesitations and reconsiderations that will hopefully not be visible in the final product, but which very much determine the outcome. If the essence of drawing is, as Goldsworthy says, the line exploring space, then so is the essence of writing.

Which is unfortunately NOT the way that writing is most generally taught, and certainly not the way that it is experienced by most students. I've made the argument before in other posts and essays, but I'm returning to it again: Properly understood and properly practiced, writing is an exploration. It's a way of working, a process that requires a sometimes intuitive, sometimes explicitly analytical sensitivity. You write a word, you write another, you hear a rhythm, you replicate it, you find a pattern, you push it, you do one thing, you do another, until you decide to stop and do the next thing, and the next thing, and the next. "Composition," my friend the artist says, "is a progression, a movement. It needs to have a rhythm to it. Each element needs to lead to the next without much delay. The more you delay, the more disconnected you become from the impetus of the work. It's not just design and placement, it's choreography."

I would argue that the challenge for teachers who want kids to learn to write well and think well is to talk with them and demonstrate to them the nature, and the allure, of the explorational process, to point them at an open space, to send them out to explore it, and to listen well, when they get back, to their reports of what happened while they were away.