Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Connecting What Has Been Separated

A colleague recently sent me a link to a short audio file on which Jeanette Winterston talks about the importance of art, even in (especially in) times of trouble. I checked online to see if there was a text version of the speech, and, being unable to find one, I transcribed it myself. Here's her argument:

People sometimes ask me if I think that art is a luxury, of course I don’t think that, but then they ask me to justify art sometimes, especially in the light of the recent atrocities in the world, terrorism and bombing. “What can I do about that?” they say, “Doesn’t this prove that art is really a luxury, a peacetime activity.”

I’ve been thinking about that, and I do have a response, and this is it. Again, it’s part of a larger piece, but it’s something that is worth thinking about, I believe.

We have to make a distinction between the acute crisis, of the terrorist attack, an acute crisis that needs medicine and emergency help, and the chronic crisis that lies underneath it. When the crisis is acute, the media rushes in, politicians gather, news programs and documentaries are everywhere, and it would seem absurd to talk about art in such circumstances. But when the acute crisis is past, and the people who have been hurt and wounded and shocked and disillusioned are looking for hope, are looking for vision, are looking past the platitudes of politicians, then art can speak. And it is to this chronic crisis, this underlying problem in our lives, that art can speak.

We urgently need to change the way that we manage our world, our corporate culture, our international relations, our treatment of the natural world and its eco-systems. We know we cannot go on living as we do, and yet we go on living as we do. Books, paintings, music, theatre, are there to prompt us to think differently, and to see life differently. And when we free up our imaginative life, we are free to imagine a very different kind of world, and that is what is needed, and we’ve never needed it more urgently.

In a world economy that depends on separations, art asks us to make connections. President Bush pretends that emissions in the U.S.A. have nothing to do with drought in Africa, that McDonalds’ hamburgers have nothing to do with deforestation, that a U.S citizen using 88 times more resources than a citizen in Bangladesh has nothing to do with environmental depletion and third world poverty.

So how can reading a poem or looking at a painting or going to the theatre possibly help us to see things differently, or do anything about the things that we see differently? Connection is not just about connecting the obvious. It is about connecting things that are not immediately obvious, and this is what art does. Some people make a mistake, and think that if art is going to be relevant it has to be directly political, that its subject matter is everything. That is to miss the point. It’s not a question of subject matter, it’s not a question of what art is about, but what art is, by its very nature what art is. A work of art — books, theatre, pictures, whatever — isn’t just about something, it is something, and the something that it is connects what has been separated.

Think of a work of art that has meant something to you. Now, let it rest in your mind for a moment. You will become aware that one of the things it did was to make a join, to bring things together, to allow your own mind to re-form in a different way. Sometimes we say, “I’ve never thought of it like that,” or “I never felt like that,” or “That made sense of my experience,” or “That made me laugh, that made me cry.” These emotions, these understandings, these realizations occur when what was split off is brought back together. Art’s business is to take all kinds of disparate elements and fuse them into new wholes. This is not an imposition; art is not colonialism. It is a revelation, a sense of things appearing as they are.

Don’t mistake me. I don’t believe in a static objective reality that is out there. I believe in shifting, changing patterns of energy; the shifting, changing patterns of energy that we’ve begun to apprehend in nature and in the very molecules and atoms and DNA of our bodies. Nothing is solid; nothing is fixed. But this movement, this energy, is not chaos. Science is just beginning to unravel the patterns and shifts and connections that seemed so impossible and implausible. But art intuitively understands these patterns and shifts and connections, because that is exactly how art functions too. And I believe that one of the reasons we go back and back to art, why we don’t give up on it, why people go on making it and wanting it, is because through art, we recognize life’s intrinsic quality, that everything is connected.

Sure Shot

Monday, May 25, 2009

Plus One (Deep Purple)

This is the piece I'm working on now. I don't know if it's done yet. It's come a long way from where it began. The surprising part of the process came from an idea I stole from a woman called Mary Todd Beam who has several very useful books on art technique published by North Light. One idea she suggests is to use contact paper on the surface of your painting and then lift it at some point to reveal the negative space. I had started with a large panel (the painting is 24" x24") with a gloss white surface I had painted over with black gesson. Then I cut a large circle of contact paper, laid it down on the panel, and painted over it, mostly in browns and greens. I was actually thinking about letting it stay there, but I was at a workshop on Saturday and my teacher was encouraging me to see what would happen if I peeled it off. What I had not anticipated was that in so doing I would also peel off most of the black gesso, which (unsurprisingly, in retrospect) stuck to the surface of the contact paper rather than the smooth white surface of the panel. That left me with a large white circular space with black flecks on the panel, and a circular black plastic with white flecks in my hand. So I just glued the contact paper back down, wrong side up, and found myself looking at this rather startling celestial presence. I began adding collage elements with torn and cut paper, but there was still a pretty glaring contrast between the circular shape and the rest of the elements in the picture. So I stopped working on it, but kept turning it over in my mind.

After I got home. I started thinking about night sky and pulled out a tube of dioxazine purple that's been sitting in my drawer forever and I began doing thin washes of purple and working back into it with orange and blue and purple watercolor pencils, wetting them down, glazing them over, and doing it again. The whole process brought me back into that intermediate zone between abstraction and landscape. I don't know if it's done yet. I like the deepening effect of the multiple layers of thin color, and I think maybe it needs one more area of focus, one more surprise. But this is where it's at now.

Further Explorations

I'm settling into something of a rhythm with the artwork I'm doing. I've set up a workspace in the guest bedroom, and I'm still playing around in the zone between collage and representational art, using acrylics, watercolors, cut and torn paper, photographs, and illustrations. Recently, inspired by the work I see every day on the terrific web site Urbansketchers, which publishes new drawings daily from sketchers all all over the world, I've been doing a lot more sketching as well.

Here's a selection of work I completed two or three weeks ago. Got four or five more I'm working on now.

Lesson Design III - Willingham

This year I've been subscribing to an interesting and valuable resource called The Marshall Memo. Each week I get an email with an attachment which contains wrapups of current articles selected by Kim Marshall on educational topics. A recent edition of The Marshall Memo featured a couple of very interesting articles by Daniel Willingham, one of which is called "Why Students Don't Like School." I don't agree with everything that Willingham has to say — for one thing, he's death on the very same process orientation I've argued for in many posts — but he's definitely a thought-provoking writer with an interesting angle of vision. Reading the article led me to his book of the same name, which I've been enjoying.

Each of the chapters in his book is phrased as a question. In Chapter 3, entitled "Why Do Students Remember Everything That's on Television and Forget Everything I Say?" Willingham develops a deceptively simple argument, which he summarizes at the end of the chapter as follows:

If we agree that background knowledge is important [a central point of one of his earlier chapters], then we must think carefully about how students acquire that background knowledge — that is, how learning works. Learning is influenced by many factors, but one factor trumps the others: students remember what they think about. That principle highlights the importance of getting students to think about the right thing at the right time. We usually want students to understand what things mean, which sets the agenda for the lesson plan. How can we ensure that students think about meaning?

Willingham follows this summary with a listing of "Implications for the Classroom," which actually winds up reading like a set of guidelines for lesson design. Since that's what I've been considering in several of my last posts, I'd like to proceed by reproducing his list, but with my own commentary.

Review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about.

Willingham has concerns about a lot of project-oriented learning, on the plausible grounds that students who are doing projects are likely to spend more time thinking about the process ("How do I make this Powerpoint slide spin into view?" vs content ("What are the implications of Gertrude's marriage to Claudius?"). He argues that well-designed activities get the students to think about the core concepts of the discipline, not the process skills, or perhaps more accurately, moreso than the process skills.

Think carefully about attention grabbers.

This injunction is actually a followup to the first. All teachers are at times tempted to do oddball things to get student's attention. If you show up for a lecture on Ancient Rome wearing a toga, you're going to get attention, all right, but while you are delivering the lecture are the students thinking about Ancient Rome, or are they thinking about you and whether you are wearing pants under that toga? It's going to make a difference in what they retain.

Use discovery learning with care.

For similar reasons. Willingham: "Discovery learning has much to recommend it, especially wehn it comes to the level of student engagement. If students have a strong voice in deciding which problems they want to work on, they will likely be engaged in the problems they select, and will likely think deeply about the material, with attendant benefits. An important downside, however, is that what students think about is much less predictable."

Design assignments so that students will unavoidably think about meaning.

Willingham's example is that if in a unit on the Underground Railroad you ask students to bake biscuits, they're going to spend more time thinking about flour and milk than about the experience of the runaway slaves. It might be better to ask students to think about the question of how the runaway slaves got food, and then try to find out the answers.

Don't be afraid to use mnemonics.

There are some skills and concepts (multiplication, the distributive property) that you need to have in memory in order to be able to think well about the task at hand. If there's no other way to do it than through memorization, it makes sense to give kids memorizing tools.

Try organizing a lesson plan around the conflict.

I'm reminded of a presentation I saw at NAIS last year by Brian Greene, in which he argued that you can teach any scientific concept more effectively if you like it to story. The example that he used, and that framed his whole talk, was to explain string theory as the latest chapter in a long-standing argument between those physicists who see the universe as being made up of stuff, matter, as opposed to those who see it being made up of events, energy. String theory is a way of resolving the conflict by saying that it's made up, at the sub-sub-atomic level, of both, in the form of vibrating strings. I'm not sure if I have the exact terms of the debate framed correctly, but the point was that the lesson was framed around a conflict, a story.

Willingham argues in this same section agains the notion that one of our goals as teachers is to "make it relevant to the students":

"If I'm continually trying to build bridges between students' daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don't have much to do with me... Student interests should not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas."

As I said at the start, there's a lot here that one might choose to argue about. But I am pleased that Willingham has chosen to join the conversation.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Monday, May 4, 2009

Lesson Design II - The Logic of Sequencing

As a followup to my last post, I'd like to re-present a lightly revised version of piece I put together several years ago, before Throughlines existed.  The argument I made at that time is that the art of teaching resides not just in the design of lessons, but in their sequencing. A poorly-designed sequence will give the students the sense that this happens and then that happens and then something else happens, with no apparent logic or connection. In a well-designed lesson sequence, students will know - or at least be given reason to believe - that there is a logic to what they are doing and why they are doing it. Even if they don’t completely understand the logic while they are engaged in the sequence, if they sense a connection, then each part of the sequence strengthens the other. For example, if students come to know that a group discussion activity is usually a rehearsal for a writing assignment to be given later, they often pay a different kind of attention to what is being said in the group than if their sense is that there will be no followup.

The logic of any particular sequence is inevitably shaped by the assumptions and intuitions of the teacher, which may in turn by shaped by any number of factors including (but not limited to) the teacher’s personality, previous teaching experiences as a student, previous experience as a teacher, and goals for the course, as well as such external factors as departmental or parental expectations, community demographics, and so on. More important yet are the needs of the students and the interactive dynamics of each particular class.

Some grounding assumptions for what follows:

• The most important goals of education are not content goals but process goals. You don’t judge how well-educated people are by what they remember. You judge them by what they know how to do, and how well they do it. As B. F. Skinner says, “Education is what’s left over after you’ve forgotten what you’ve learned.”

• My students don’t need to know what I think. They need to learn how to articulate what they think. A corollary assertion is that direct instruction - that is, lecturing - is the most efficient and least effective method of instruction.

• Students are inherently interested in themselves and in one another. Activities and assignments which are linked to their interest in one another are more likely to go over well.

• Students learn in lots of different ways. Some learn visually, some learn interactively, some learn by talking, some learn by writing. Too much of any one mode of instruction or interaction in a classroom is deadening.

• Ideas don’t appear of out a vacuum. The “aha!” moment doesn’t just happen. (Well, perhaps once in a great while it does, but it’s not the norm.) Ideas emerge from sustained thought, dialogue, and interaction. Some students know how to ask good questions and brainstorm answers. Many do not. All can benefit from regular practice in the process.

• Writing is not simply or most importantly a vehicle for conveying thought. It is also a perhaps the single most powerful for generating thought. Students need to be given lots of practice in learning how to use this tool effectively.

Here, then, is a hypothetical - but not atypical - sequence of events set in a high school English classroom. It assumes that the students have come to class having completed a common reading:

1) At the start of class ask each student write down two relevant, significant questions about the reading.

2) Students share the questions they have written with a partner (or, depending on class size and time available, two partners) and discuss. "Are they the same? Are they different? How? Between them they should agree on one question to share with the class.

3) One student from each pair of partners goes to the board and writes the question.

4) Give the students three minutes to scan the list of questions and decide individually which ones are in their judgment most significant and most relevant. (This is how the class will decide the order in which we will address the questions in class discussion - most significant questions first.)

5) Poll the class. Each student is allowed to vote twice. Write each question on the board; students who have voted for that question raise their hands. Record the votes.

6) Tell the students that at the beginning of class tomorrow they will have a written quiz in which they will be asked to write a clear, precise, plausible answer to one of the questions listed on the board. The question will be chosen at random from among the top three (or four, or five) vote-getters. The class discussion about to take place will be a chance to brainstorm answers, share ideas, think through the possibilities.

7) The remainder of the class is a Harkness discussion in which the teacher does not take part. Students work through the questions, sharing ideas, considering possible answers, looking for passages in the text that might be relevant to those answers.

8) At the end of class, tell the students that if they need any additional information or need to think through the questions further, they can do that work on their own for homework. They have to be prepared to answer any of the questions, but they will actually be asked to answer only one. They don’t just don't know which one.

Day Two:

9) At the beginning of the class, roll a four- or five-sided die to see which question they will answer. (Any other form of randomization would work as well: pulling numbers out of a hat, drawing from a deck of cards, whatever.)

10) Students take the quiz, writing out the answer to the question in class. If economy and precision are currently on your agenda, you might give each student a file card and ask them to limit their answer to what can fit on one side of the file card. This technique has the side effect of making step 17 (below) a little easier.)  Collect the responses and put them aside.

11) Ask the class to return to the text and approach it from another point of view. (One way to do this is to ask them to consider the possibility that while everything they have said so far is true, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Their task is now to consider how to get to the heart of the matter.) Students work in groups of four for ten minutes to come up with an action plan for their group: what process can the group design that will allow them to go deeper?

12) The groups share their plans orally.

13) The groups now have five minutes to decide whether to use their original plan, borrow one from another group, or come up with a new plan that combines features of both.

14) The remaining fifteen or twenty minutes of class the students try out their plan: they try to arrive at a deeper understanding of the text using the process they have selected.

15) Homework assignment: "Write a reflection paper in which you discuss your group’s work today: what your group did, what conclusions you came to in the group, whether the process satisfied you personally, why or why not, anything that in retrospect you would do differently if you were starting this process over."

Day Three:

16) Collect the homework, and hand out a sheet on which are printed four of the answers to yesterday’s quiz. (In the interests of objectivity and anonymity, it might be a good idea to type these up using selections from another class, and without names on them.)

17) Students must read the four sample responses and rank order them in terms of their overall effectiveness. "Which one is, in your judgment, the best answer? The second best, and so on?"

18) Students then meet in small groups and compare rankings. "Tell which one you picked as best, and explain what you see in the piece that you like. See if the others in your group agree. Then see if your group can agree on the number one choice. In five minutes I will ask your group to report. If you agree, tell which one you have picked and why. If you disagree, report on the nature of your disagreement."

19) Debrief: Ask for reports from each group and collate the results, listing on the board various individual criteria as they emerge.

20) There is now a list of criteria or standards for this assignment on the board. Ask the students to scan the board and decide on which two of the indicated criteria are most relevant and significant. They get to vote twice. Once the exercise is completed, each criterion has a certain number of votes. Number the list in order of votes. Ask the students to write the prioritized list in their notebooks.

21) Lots of ways to go at this point. One would be to hand back their first drafts ungraded, ask them to re-draft the answers in the light of the new criteria, and finish them for homework. Let them know that you're going to grade them using the rubric generated in class.

22) Remember those reflection papers you collected (Step 16)? How might you use those to set up a new sequence of activities for the next reading?

This three-day cycle of activities makes an attempt to integrate reading, writing, thinking, and speaking in ways which are interconnected and self-reinforcing. There is also, by design, a range of interactive modes: small groups, large groups, teacher direction, teacher distance. (Notice there is no direct teacher-delivered instruction about content anywhere in the sequence. The students are doing the heavy lifting.)

There's nothing magical about this particular set of moves; the point is that it's a threaded sequence. Each of the small group discussions, for example, leads to another step in the overall process, at the end of which there’s an assignment which gives the students a chance to demonstrate that they can produce a response that meets the criteria they themselves have established. Sustained engagement in the process is self-rewarding. Students who have followed the whole process attentively should have a very good sense of what is expected, and the grades which will ultimately arise out of the process should be satisfying both to the students and to the teacher. In fact, the grade becomes at least in part a means of verifying or authenticating the process understandings the students have been working to master. Notice that I have said nothing about the content of the reading. It doesn’t matter. Whatever content is at issue will be covered in some depth as a result of the design of the process: having the students ask good questions, brainstorm through the answers, articulate their ideas, set standards of excellence, and then revise their writing with those standards in mind.