Making art together is important. It can bring us joy and support us in grief. For some of us, art might be the reason we’re here. But beyond that, by coming together around art, we come to understand and accept each other a little more. After all, art is our inside - outside. The invisible made visible. And in sharing ourselves, our communities grow stronger. I love the bumper sticker quote, which I can only find attributed to either Rosabeth Moss Kanter or Glenn Hilke, stating that, “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.” I suspect that bringing different people together might just be the best possible way to make our world into the one our children deserve.
Culture and community have been recurring topics of my recent classes. A few weeks ago, I engaged my students in a Task Party, originally created by contemporary artist Oliver Herring. It’s an exciting improvisational artmaking experience. As students entered, they were asked to invent a task for another student in the class to complete, write it on a slip of paper, and drop it in a box. They then pick a task at random from the box. They can take as long or as little as they want to complete their task anyway they see fit. Afterwards, students may return to select another task and repeat. As for our materials, a few students and I were able to provide a suitable quantity of recyclables and assorted collections of household-type items. From these, students constructed vehicles, games, towers, gifts, decorations, clothing, and even a few performances, including one student who pretended to be a fish for the entire time and another student that became quite a convincing lion prowling our classroom and startling unsuspecting classmates. One of my favorite creations was a tutu fashioned from strips of plastic bags which reminded me of Degas’ Little Dancer which I shared with the class afterwards.
The first time I experienced a Task Party myself was at the 2016 NAEA Convention in NYC, where I was able to work with Oliver Herring himself. It was a huge ballroom filled with people happily interacting and making and expressing themselves. Despite how busy he was, he was extremely friendly and generous and chatted with me a bit about the event. He was more interested in my take - which is the sign of a natural teacher I think. “This is life,” I told him. “We’re exploring the world around us and ways of being and making something together.” He bowed graciously. After everything was cleaned up, a group of high school students from NYC challenged a group of high students from Provo, Utah to a game of baseball in the ballroom with a leftover tinfoil ball and tubes. It was a spontaneous, beautiful, hopeful moment I was fortunate to catch.
After my class task party, I reviewed my students responses, nearly every one of them mentioned connections with fun, spontaneity, creativity and/or socializing. Almost unanimously, they shared with me that the experience was like nothing they had experienced before. Good. That’s what we’re going for in this course. Also, the vast majority seemed to really enjoy themselves after struggling with a little anxiety, indecision, and ‘maker’s block’ and overcoming their resistance. I was proud of them. Only a few, however, seemed to recognize the possible connection to community in how we navigated and shared space and time, temporarily creating something egalitarian with shared decisions and consequences. I frequently asked students to consider how the experience might relate to “community” in my feedback as a friendly challenge to take their thinking to the next level. The next time a class has a task party, I’ll be sure to center community more explicitly for our post-discussion.
The following week, we revisited Big Ideas. In my last post, I wrote about some of the challenges my students and I experienced as I first introduced the Big Idea method of lesson planning to the class. I had spoken to my mentor and “sister-by-another-mister” Melanie Davenport, who helped me realize how, while I had thought of my content very matter-of-factly, that for my classroom, the introduction of this new way of doing things represented something of a culture clash. For some of my students, this was a significant departure from the way they thought about lesson planning. It had been a little more like oil and water for a few than peanut butter and jelly like I might’ve hoped. But that wasn’t the end of the world since struggle can be important to learning. My suspicion was somewhat validated later when a student explained to me she had been taught to always begin with a standard. But from my perspective, if you’re doing anything worth doing in the classroom, there is a standard for it - so what excites YOU?!
After our review, we transitioned to a discussion of “authenticity.” I believe students should value authenticity in creating their lesson plans. It can mean many different things, but for me, an art-integrated lesson is authentic when students are doing things that artists actually do or at least looking at the artwork they have created. This way, students are learning from actual practitioners involved in the field of visual art. If I was teaching medicine, I would want my students learning from doctors - not the amateur medic down the street 9 out of 10 times. I’m hoping more lessons will follow my lead this semester as this discipline-based / T.A.B. foundation was something I found lacking last semester. But a lesson can also be authentic when students are doing things that they want to do, making choices, and engaging meaningfully in creativity and artmaking. In that way, the learning is natural rather than forced or contrived and the students are being AND expressing themselves.
Authenticity is especially important as some students consider exploring different cultures with their students through art-integration. Whether or not you believe that cultural appropriation is a problem or not, I think any educator can agree that it is a disservice to students when teachers misrepresent or stereotype other cultures, intentionally or not. We have a responsibility to the truth as teachers. Those interested in exploring other cultures should do so with humility, as if they are entering the home of a stranger for the first time. Do not speak for people that you know little to nothing about. Speak for yourself instead. Does this mean I want my students to avoid the artwork of other cultures? Of course not! But, as an authority figure in the classroom and in the interest of intellectual honesty, it is dishonest at worst and ignorant at best to present some problematic lesson you found on the internet as if it accurately represents a group of people in anyway without doing some serious research and questioning. Don’t believe everything you read - it’s the internet for the love of gravy!!
I wholeheartedly believe teachers can teach what they do not know. We can’t know everything and studying a topic the night before your lesson does not make you an authority persay. Many might say they teach themselves first and then teach their students, but why not just learn together? Bu humble. Model curiosity and instead make that the focus. Become a community where power is shared, not centralized. Be respectful and responsible, again, as if you had were in a stranger’s home. Whenever possible, include the voices of the actual people of that community, in person or simply through video, audio or text. Invite members of that community to speak for themselves and invite your students to learn from everyone instead of only what you think about the world.
As a member of the teaching community and someone who works with aspiring teachers, I value authenticity and am practicing embracing vulnerability. I created this blog to be more transparent and make me more vulnerable. Because we must be ourselves or our students will sniff us out as phonies in a heartbeat. Teaching helps me be my best self. But I had no idea that a national tragedy would call upon me to respond with all of the authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty I could muster for the sake of my students.
On the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2018, 17 students and teachers were shot dead at Stoneman Douglas High School in Lakeland, Florida by a gunman with a semi-automatic rifle. I went to high school about 45 minutes away from there. According to conservative estimates, this was the fifth school shooting in 2018. That’s almost one incident per week. So far. This was only a few days ago. And every school and learning community in the country has been hurt in some way as a result.
When I first heard the news, I wanted to throw up. I cried. Over the next few days, I cried several times each day. Maybe I too had become desensitized to the continuous stream of mass shootings in America and it was all finally coming to a head. This seemed like something more than empathy and a loose connection to the area for me. I wasn’t expecting to react as strongly as I was. And in re-reading that sentence - how could we let things get to this point where I would say I either should’ve expected such an event or not felt so strongly? I was sick to my stomach, a little out of it, and heartbroken for those children that would no longer graduate and go on to live the rest of their promising lives. Those teachers that gave their lives to protect their students.
I couldn’t go on as usual and pretend that every teacher and every student in this country had not just been stabbed through the heart. I couldn’t process our shared grief alone. If I was experiencing such difficult emotions, then I guessed that some of my students may feel the same. Or worse. They might be asking themselves, why am I going into this field? Do I really want to become a teacher? Sure - we all had those moments. But most of us weren’t worried that we might die doing the job we love. It is most often our hearts - our love of children, the world, and learning - that bring us to this profession. That our children might be the price of our national inaction - of our shared failure to come together and make a difference again and again is appalling.
As future teachers, the real world won't stop at my students' classroom doors. And it can't stop at mine either. So I decided to change my plans. I decided to improvise. We would talk and share and make art together. And maybe, just maybe, that will make a small difference. And that’s what we did.
Asked them to check-in with themselves and try to find out how they were feeling. I told them we would be improvising and getting real and if at any point they found that our conversation was too much, they could step outside or leave at any time if that was what they needed. Then I began to open up. “I feel awful,” I said. I told them why. I feel heartbroken and angry at the same time. I described the pit in my gut, the weight on my chest, and the nausea in my stomach.
I don’t know how to talk about this,” I said, “but we’re going to talk about it anyway. I’m not a counselor. I’m not qualified. But that’s okay. And you won’t be either. And there may come a time, if it hasn’t already, that you will have to talk to your children about things they should never have to think about. But we can still do some good.”
I reminded them of the counseling services at school and the contact information I include prominently in our course syllabus. Counseling is for everyone and you don’t need to feel a certain way to see a counselor. While sometimes it takes time to find a good match, as with anything. I wanted to de-stigmatize mental health services, so I shared that in my early thirties, a cognitive psychologist helped me acquire tools that have helped me become a little bit healthier. I’ll always be grateful.
I also told them about last semester. The best friend of a student in my class had been wounded in the Las Vegas Massacre. Is that horrific event fading from our memory already? Back then, I began class by mentioning the event, telling the students about the counseling services, and after a brief period of time moving on with the scheduled lesson. Why didn’t I change my plans then? What did I think was more important? I feel a little ashamed. But tonight was going to be different.
Then I told them a story - my story. The story of a child that grew up in extreme circumstances and was part of an invisible population - namely students that are homeless and live in terrible circumstances with a dysfunctional family, in my case fueled largely by mental illness, alcohol, and shame. I told them how I had been emotionally, psychologically, and physically abused for years starting when I was 8 years old. I was held back a year simply because I wasn’t allowed to go to school for most of the year. By the time I was 12, I was an unsocialized, severely obese, unhygienic child with dirty clothes. I was a pariah, isolated at school, a mysterious but obvious target of ridicule and isolation by teachers and classmates, and completely on my own at home, trapped by the delusions of a mentally ill parent. For a long time, my shared belief that those delusions were true also imprisoned me. I was lonely, sad, confused, and above all, full of rage.
I had touched the darkness as a child. I admitted to having fantasized about my own death many times back then. How vividly I imagined everyone in my school lamenting my avoidable death. They would finally regret having ever been mean to me or excluding me I thought. I admitted how, during a particularly low point, I had fantasized about getting back at all my classmates that had hurt me by transforming into a giant robot and gunning them all down in cold-blooded revenge. Add to that I was being told that these people were my enemies and out to get me. I didn’t care who I hurt because I was hurting so badly I couldn’t feel that human connection. But eventually, I came out the other side, damaged but unbroken. No one should ever have to know those feeling I felt as a child. Those feelings are something I will have to carry with my the rest of my life. And every time another horrific shootings occur in this country, I’m back in that time of my life again, reliving all those terrible memories.
I consider myself lucky. I can’t say why or how I survived all that. Part nature, part nurture, and a lot of luck I assume. “But for a slight twist of fate,” I told my students, “I could easily have ended up in prison - or dead.” But a huge part of what helped me survive, I believe, was art. When I was younger, I escaped to my drawing. I constructed an elaborate comic book universe complete with storylines and characters, drawing and redrawing them over and over. And I gradually improved. As I got older and took charge of more and more of my life, I learned that the world could be different than I had been told. It was then that my art became a connection to others - a way of reaching out. Would you believe that by seventh grade, in the same class I described above, that I gave everyone in the class their own drawing just to thank them for being my classmates? And again in eighth grade. Art was there to help me when no one else was.
I told my students how later in high school, the first drawings I made that I considered “Art” were created one summer as I tried to process feelings resulting from an incident with a broken door, a bloody bed sheet, and a fist reeking of alcohol from another family member. I can’t remember ever being angrier in my life than I was that night. I wanted to steal a car; drive it into a tree; die; or end up in jail. I wanted to overdose (even though I’d never had a drug). I wanted to do anything I could to get back at my attacker by hurting myself. But I was isolated yet again. This time on a mountain with nothing around for miles. Instead of going for a knife, I picked up color pencils. I made art that showed the emotions that I could not articulate in words nor share with anyone.
Art, I believe can save lives. And art just doesn’t help us survive, it can help us thrive, as it enables us to process life and the world around us, even when we experience emotions to which we can’t give names or describe. I believe art brings us together and that being together is perhaps the best, most powerful thing we can do. So, for the rest of class, we painted and doodled and spent time together.
My students seem okay for the most part. But they shared several heartbreaking stories. Paranoia. Fear. Sadness. During lockdown drills, how as a student teacher, having to explain to kindergarteners why they have to pretend to hide from a bad man that has come to hurt them. My generation never experienced anything this. “This generation is resilient,” I tell them, “and don’t let any of these other generations disrespect you, because this is their mess - my mess - and we didn’t clean it up. But we have to try.” Through our sharing we became closer. Only a few spoke publicly, but everyone listened deeply. Everyone in our community was heard.
I’ve done the best I can do. That’s all any teacher can expect from themself. I was honest with my students. And I hopefully gave them an example of what to do when they do not know what to do. And moreso, maybe I gave them some hope. That, like in my life, it’s possible to turn things around. We’re not destined for an endless string of tragedies. I showed them that we can be damaged, but that doesn’t mean we have to be broken. And maybe they’ll remember that art can help us make meaning out of senselessness and bring a little order to what may sometimes seem like overwhelming chaos. That in art, whatever art is for any of us, we can find connection, strength, and healing.
I still want to cry. My eyes are welling up as I write these words. But we can either present ourselves to our students as products or processes. For their sake, I think they need to see the process, because we are all learning to live together in this world and they need to see that we all are in the same boat. We are all trying our best to figure out this thing called life. We can create and we can destroy. Our world can be a task party.
Thank you for reading. To all my teachers - readers, friends, colleagues, and those I may never know - keep being the kind, strong, brave, authentic, vulnerable beautiful creatures I know you are. We need each other more now than ever. And to everyone, take care of each other. Because that will make the world the one we want to live in and the one our students deserve. I believe we can make that world a reality. But only together.
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where future classroom teachers learn about visual art-integration. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while also experimenting with a hybrid in-person / online curriculum.