Intent. Design. Creative Process. Teachers as artists of school change. #ASI2012 #MICON12


Last week and the week before, I communed with artists and designers. They invited me into their galleries and studios. At the time, I thought I was attending educational conferences – first Lovett’s American Studies Institute and then The Martin Institute’s 2012 Summer Conference. However, after watching and studying “John Hockenberry: We are all designers,” and after listening to NPR’s TED Radio Hour on “The Creative Process,” I realize that I communed with artists and designers at these phantasmagoria .

In the large-group sessions, I explored galleries of thinking – both from the featured speaker who held stage at that moment and from the co-participants “thinking and designing out loud” on Twitter (#ASI2012 & #MICON12). Through tweets, we talked about art and artists…designs and designers. During the break-out sessions, I literally traversed the museum of art and design in education as I chose to saunter past some works of art so that I could stop and peruse in-depth a particular frame and painting – like Bob Dillon’s “Picture This: How Images Impact the Momentum of Change.”

Our INTENT as educators and teachers is to design moments and experiences, while capitalizing on relationship and curiosity, that light fires in learners’ hearts and minds. We INTEND to stir emotions and motivations, not by filling vessels, but by lighting passions. We paint and sculpt. “We who cut mere stone must always be envisioning cathedrals.” Our lesson plans are blue prints and schematics. Our classes unfolding are jazz riffs and improvisations that can never be experienced again as they were played that day and period.

We are artists and designers.

And we are crowd sourcing. We are gathering as tribes to share our designs and our sketches and our framed pieces. For we intend to change the world – one student at a time, if need be. Our INTENT is to compare palettes and prototypes and to borrow from the masters and apprentices who gather around our conference fires to tell stories and share tales.

Please don’t think me dramatic or histrionic. I believe what I have written above, especially upon re-reading. I am moved by the artists and designers with whom I co-designed and co-created at Lovett and Presbyterian Day School. I see our paints mixing and intermingling as we contemplate and prepare for Teaching for Tomorrow and Connecting Across Disciplines.

Such is why I fear the silo-ing of subjects, disciplines, and departments. What if we don’t design with INTENT so that the colors might mix and re-mix? For we do not teach subjects. We teach people. And our people deserve the richness of infinite colors – mixed and complex.

What do you see as the INTENT of schools and teaching in the next decade and century? “What is school for?” Are you designing and creating such that our works are beautiful pieces of art WHO can inspire the world in the years to come?

Discipline and creativity must synergize, and we should check our INTENT so that we know we are using our limitations to enlighten that which can be possible next (from Abigail Washburn in the TED Radio Hour linked above).

What do you do?

I teach.

Oh, what do you teach?

I teach children.

No, I mean what do you teach?

I teach the curious to paint and design in this world with grand INTENTIONS.

Oh, so you teach art?

Yes, and math, and history, and science, and English, and… I use all the paints because my canvas deserves the infinite possibilities, and I refuse to limit what could be possible. I teach children and adults and learners of all ages. I teach people, and I learn from them far more than I could ever teach them. For they, too, are artists and designers. And I will not steal their dreams.

And what do you do?

Cathedrals, Dr. Pajares, and Leonardo da Vinci

We who cut mere stone must always be envisioning cathedrals.

Dr. Frank Pajares, an educational psychologist and professor of education at Emory University, and my greatest adult mentor, used the quote above as one of his four foundations of teaching and learning. I wish he were still alive for many reasons. This week, I am re-reading Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work, and I think Dr. P would have loved Michalko’s metaphor of the cathedral – I wish Dr. P and I could discuss it.

Before you go to school, your mind is like a cathedral with a long central hall where information enters and intermingles and combines with other information without distinction. Education changes that. Education changes the cathedral of your mind into a long hall with doors on the sides that lead to private rooms segregated from the main assembly.

When information enters the hall, it’s recognized, labeled, boxed, and then sent to one of the private rooms and trapped inside. One room is labeled “biology,” one room is labeled “electronics,” one room is labeled “business,” one room is for religion, one is for agriculture, one is for math, and so on. We’re taught that, when we need ideas or solutions, we should go to the appropriate room and find the appropriate box and search inside. (8-9)

We hear this segregated-room thinking when we hear someone ask, “What do you teach?” More often than not, people answer with a subject title, grade level, or discipline. What if we answered with a human-centered response? How would that eventually change how we see ourselves? It makes my hair on the back of my neck standup when I hear someone say, “Oh, I this is math class. We don’t write in here, and you’ll have to ask your English teacher that question.” And, I bristle even more at comments that dismiss we adults knowing something because of the subject on which we concentrate – “This next question is for all the history teachers…”

Michalko goes on later in the chapter to explain a piece of why Leonardo da Vinci is considered the greatest genius in all history. He did not overly segregate his thinking. Michalko’s attributes this partly to the fact that da Vinci was not allowed to attend university – his mind was allowed to remain in Cathedral state, rather than roomed and boxed. Children’s minds are often the same…until we school them into thinking, “Oh, that’s math… and that’s English… and that’s history.” Then, after formal schooling, we seem to begin the process of re-integrating our thinking – opening the doors of the roomed hallway to re-intermingle the ideas in a cathedral-like space (or coffeehouse-like space according to Steven Johnson).

Last week, Lovett’s American Studies Institute (#ASI2012) reminded us that “we who cut mere stone must always be envisioning cathedrals.” Dr. P would have loved the walk down that long, integrated, intermingling central hall. I think he would have loved considering that “the revolution” may return us to building cathedrals instead of apartment complexes…to thinking more like Leonardo.

Michalko, Michael. Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2011. Print.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Lovett’s 2012 American Studies Institute #ASI2012

Are we Americans currently living through revolutions in art, politics, music, journalism, economics, and education (just to name a few)? What is the nature of a revolution? Are there common characteristics and traits among revolutions? Are we teaching our students about the foundations and aspects of revolutions in American history and around the world?

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” breathed rhythmically as the theme of this year’s American Studies Institute at The Lovett School in Atlanta, GA. As participants gathered on Thursday morning, June 7, Gil Scott-Heron’s poetic stoker was playing on an audio loop (lyrics). Then, after brief opening remarks from conference organizers, a Lovett senior recited the piece in a beautiful and surprisingly personal reading.

Over the course of nearly two days, through hour-long lectures from a variety of speakers, we were exposed to select individual’s perceptions of what we have experienced, and are experiencing, in the way of revolutions in American art, music, politics, economics, journalism, and education. Normally, I am not too keen on “sit-n-get” instruction for an entire conference, and I have grown disenchanted with this pedagogy as a primary means of schooling. I find it ironic that progressive educators talk of revolutionizing education by subjecting conference attendees to quintessential, industrial-age methodology. Nevertheless, Lovett’s #ASI2012 organizers made this lecture format work, at least for me. I was drawn in, turned on, and engaged deeply.

To try to summarize all that I thought and learned would prove impossible and short-selling of the event. My recap would do as much justice to #ASI2012 as a family slide show would do of a week together exploring some European city. Snapshots often fall short of deep, meaningful experiences. However, a few interesting themes did emerge for me, and I want to open the door to exploring these more fully in future thinking and posting:

  1. As explained by Dr. Cobb in the opening lecture, revolutions are rarely instantaneous. Rather revolutions are incremental. Moreover, revolutions rarely, if ever, sweep away all that was there before. I am curious how this theory and view relates to Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.
  2. People seem to believe that many current-day revolutions involve the democratization of previously elite-controlled activity and removal of gatekeepers. For instance, through technology now, individuals who used to be resigned to the role of “consumer” may now also contribute as “producers” – through music production, like on Garage Band; through journalistic contribution, like on Twitter or long-post blogs; through video creation, like on iMovie and YouTube. I am curious how this ties into thinking such as that exposed on NPR’s TED Radio Hour featuring the Power of Crowds.
  3. Related to #2, there was a theme of curiosity about revolutionary veracity and integrity when just about anyone can remix, touch-up, or enhance a recording, image, or piece or writing. Interestingly, I got the sense that folks did not question Cindy Sherman’s creativity as presented by Jordan Clark, but they did wonder about a musical artist remixing a set of tracks on a piece of music as teetering on the edges of honesty (as presented by Stutz Wimmer).
  4. As Dr. Cobb and Patrick Hastings and Jay Bonner expressed in separate talks in different ways, revolutions are often returns to things of the past. Jay Bonner expressed it with elegant articulation about the meaning of “revolution” as something turning, revolving, and cycling through phases. This built on earlier foundations laid by Hastings as he compared Outkast to Homer and demonstrated the historically appreciated literary forms of poetry in more modern rap, hip hop, and slam poetry. I am curious how all of this cyclical, incremental, return-to-the-past nature of revolution makes revolution different from and similar to evolution.
  5. As Mary Louise Kelly detailed in her case-study approach to revolutions in media and journalism, revolution often involves searching for truth, discovering where facts and opinions merge and diverge, and improving evolving iterations. And, of course, real-life truth seeking and iterative prototyping naturally involves failure and learning from mistakes – something we need to explore much more purposefully in school proper.

I am not yet the writer to do any necessary justice to the closing presentations, but I will try to shine a spotlight on the brilliance of how Lovett closed the #ASI2012. In the penultimate session, participants walked through an art installation by Lovett students who had completed the school’s American Studies program. Through a combination of visual-and-audio mixed media, the Lovett artists invited us into their expressions of American Studies that could not be captured by mere essays or stereotypical reports in English or history.

In the final session, Asheville School highlighted integrated studies as a revolution in education by showcasing the work of nine faculty and administrators, many of whom work in teaching pairs in such courses as American Studies, European Studies, and Ancient Studies. In a brilliant Prezi visualizing the cyclical, turning, RPMs nature of “revolution,” the major-league Asheville School team demonstrated how lines artificially erected between the disciplines need to be re-blurred, permeated, and blown up so that school might model the integrated nature of the real world in which we live. Like Lovett’s art installation, Asheville utilized dance, art, and music to create the threads that could weave together English, history, science, politics, economics, etc.

What genius for Lovett to save its own student installation and Asheville School for the finale – to migrate from hour-long lectures on possible content and current events in American Studies to the already-being-done examples of how these two schools are implementing revolution in the too-often siloed nature of American schooling. For any naysayers, they could see, “Oh, that’s what it could look like, sound like, smell like, and taste like.”

May more of us go and do likewise…may we “revolutionize” schooling by making it more like learning and education, in which content and skills are integrated and mixed in true-to-life human-ness of exploration, truth-seeking, discovery, artistic expression, and problem solving.