storyline.

“Monticello Rd.” via Piedmont Council for the Arts’ Facebook page.

Every so often, I am fortunate to come across something that seamlessly blends my most passionate pursuits and interests: youth advocacy, education, community engagement, the arts, and Charlottesville.

Allow me to introduce you to the Storyline Project. Their mission is simple:

“Teams of campers and volunteers will use creative inquiry, historical information from local experts, and in-person interviews to make portraits of people from the community, and to explore real and imagined stories about Monticello Road’s past, present, and future.”

This project allows students to make sense of their own histories as well as begin the process of understanding the subjectivity of their experiences through comparison, all while incorporating a hands-on and community-oriented approach.

It is this exact sort of activity that is most needed—and often sorely lacking—in the classroom. By blending their personal narratives and applying those to historical events and the current community, children learn a number of critical lessons pertaining to historical studies, sociology, writing composition (through story formation), geometry and proportion (through drawing figures), as well as how to function as members of society.

Admittedly, this particular project may be a little out-of-reach for many school budgets, but there are a number of elements that could easily translate into our current educational model for very little cost to the school. Consider:

  • Utilizing school grounds, rather than taking a field trip.
  • Obtaining historical information online and allowing another teacher or school official to present the information in order to offer a “new” perspective.
  • Collaborating between classrooms for peer interviews.
  • Using crayon and long sheets of paper (instead of chalk) to create the community “storyline” mural.

Be sure to check out the Piedmont Council for the Arts’ Facebook album to see more photos and offer some kind feedback!

The full mural, via Charlottesville, Virginia’s Facebook page.

lessons from elwood.

Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 classic, “Harvey.”

Upon reflecting on all of my family’s traditions, one stands out above the rest:

On the rainiest of lazy weekend days, the whole brood would pile up on the couch with popcorn, snacks, various knitting projects, and our puppies in order to snuggle and watch Jimmy Stewart play Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.”

Some were, admittedly, a little more distracted than others.

Black and white movies always have a way of making even the dreariest days seem vibrant and full of color, but what set “Harvey” apart as our go-to “family flick” was the way it seamlessly integrated our most cherished values and consolidated them into a single 104-minute film. In particular, one pivotal quote could stand as the motto of our family crest:

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

As I near the end of my college career (less than three short weeks!), I am reminded to pay homage to what helped me to reach this point in my life.

I am brought back to the summer after 4th grade where my mom and I spent an entire day in the IKEA showrooms playing house and pretending we were famous chefs starring in our own cooking show. I remember impromptu art projects, making gluten-free ravioli by hand, cabin vacations, spending countless frustrated hours pouring over and revising college essays together, sipping on mojitos with mint from our garden, talking for hours about everything, embracing innumerable tangents and digressions of conversation, and the entire spectrum of minutiae that comes from being a part of a boldly opinionated, close-knit, loving family.

Mom and I enjoying a gluten-free mustache party after baking.

However, I am also reminded of how this experience is undoubtedly “atypical.” Many of my friends are the byproduct of a highly structured environment, delicately balancing sports, academics, and just the “right” amount of piano lessons to ensure they’re “well-rounded.” This is no sleight: there are obviously many paths to receiving a satisfactory education and every approach is different.

For my particular path, though, this emphasis on play and active learning has been instrumental in broadening the way I see the world. In order to demonstrate the educational significance of what this approach has offered me, I call to a concept expounded upon in Elliot Eisner’s The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Eisner points out that “artistic activity is a form of inquiry that depends on qualitative forms of intelligence (Eisner, p. 232).” The reason for this is simple: art—and imaginative learning in general—affords us new ways to form conceptual connections through representation. As Eisner further elaborates:

“The process of representation stabilizes ideas and images, makes the editing process possible, provides the means for sharing meaning, and creates the occasions for discovery …The act of representation is an act of discovery and invention and not merely a means through which an individual’s will is imposed upon a material. It is this sense of discovery that affords individuals the opportunity to grow (p. 239).”

Stewart’s character, Elwood P. Dowd, reminds us that discovery is not solely limited to the tangible properties surrounding us (in Philosophy, we like to call this “the external world”), but rather can be deeply rooted in the process of creating and sharing meaning. One of my favorite scenes recounts time spent in a bar, as Elwood explains how he and his imaginary friend, Harvey, interact with their fellow patrons:

“Harvey and I sit in the bars…And soon the faces of all the other people turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, ‘We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.’ Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers—soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us.

They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us.”

In this scene, Elwood and Harvey both create and share meaning with perfect strangers despite the fact that Harvey doesn’t exist to anyone but Elwood. Quite simply, though, he doesn’t need to. The representation and sharing of imaginative conversation is enough to sustain the creative process. This, in turn, facilitates qualitative learning by imparting significance upon a wholly malleable medium. Harvey may represent one thing to Elwood, but the story passed down to a fellow patron may take on a completely new life.

There is flux in the process, and it is through the simultaneous enacting and embrace of the process—whether it’s making ravioli by hand, writing an essay, or swapping bar stories—that one can adjoin becoming “oh so smart” with being “oh so pleasant.”

imagine.

nick nelson via society6

In his plea for peace entitled “Imagine,” John Lennon once sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Each listener was called on to imagine a peaceful world united by fraternity and social kinship in the hopes that maybe—just maybe—we could end violence through community initiative.

Indeed, most children are raised with the understanding that violent behavior is not a tolerable type of social interaction. In line at the grocery store, mothers scold their children for hitting, while the maternal adage of “Keep your hands to yourself!” is one that stays with many of us long after we leave the nest. Even schoolteachers are given the task of teaching students about proper social interaction: hitting is uncivilized, brutish, and absolutely will not—or, at least, should not—be tolerated in the classroom.

Yet, as we develop over the years, this simple philosophy often manages to get muddied. Whether you blame video games and the internet, music videos and lyrics, or  movies and TV, there appears to be an endless supply of mixed messages. Suddenly, Mom’s warning doesn’t seem to stick as much as it once did, as children are left with the arduous task of unraveling the infinite number of signals being sent to them—all in the hopes of developing a coherent system of socially accepted behaviors.

This same situation unfolds in our educational climate.

*****

In my time spent working at a preschool, I discovered that the promise of “free art time” was like Kindergarten catnip. Overexcited four-year-olds would frantically put away their toys and rush to the art station, anxiously awaiting their supplies. As each child meticulously created his or her own small masterpiece, the only sound that would fill the room was a quiet chatter outlining each illustration in painstaking detail.

As an Assistant Teacher, I often enjoyed the perks.

Yet, by middle school, there is no “free art time.” Students are either encouraged to read, finish homework, or (if you’re lucky enough to get a “cool” teacher) quietly talk to a friend. There is no creative outlet. Sure, reading may have the ability to excite one’s imagination, but—as with any chore—it loses its appeal when it becomes an obligation. When the entire day is structured around implementing obligations, is it any wonder so many students complain about disliking school?

Additionally, this practice can even turn the Arts themselves into a slippery slope of begrudging commitment. If one is expected to play the violin for 3 hours each, this too becomes a chore. As a result, the benefits usually incurred through creative expression can be dampened just as easily as they’re fostered. This tells us that it’s not necessarily the practice of “art” itself that produces such strong educational advantages, but something else…

Something bigger, and perhaps a little less tangible.

*****

John Lennon invites us to consider a world different from our own—one lacking possessions, countries, and religion—all for the sake of mental exercise through an imagined future. In listening to my four-year-old students chatter about their art projects, each one had a story unfolding from it:

“…Here’s the sun, and here’s you and me…First, we’re playing outside. Then we pick flowers for my mommy and I find a really big yellow one…” **

There is no obligation in developing this story; it could just as easily be a picture comprised of colors and scribbles without any associated meaning. But the act of choosing to develop a spontaneous, original story is where the element of creative liberty shines through:

It is here that “art” takes place. It is here that Maxine Greene’s mission of “releasing the imagination” is met.

As this practice all too rarely occurs in secondary education, it is also here that we still have a lot of work to do. In advocating for an arts education, it is not simply about securing band instruments and school plays—indeed, seeking to develop a codified structure of “the Arts in schools” defeats the very purpose. Instead what we must do is foster that development of expression: tell me a story; make something up, anything; use your imagination. 

Only by adapting our current learning practices and incorporating this philosophy into our current education structure will we fully access the benefits derived from arts-based education.

** [N.B. That was the actual story provided by my student, Addison, on the first picture featured in the photograph above.]

full steam ahead.

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics—Unquestionably, all good things. Certainly, all necessary to help in the advancement and proliferation of modern society. These facts are undisputed.

But, aren’t we missing something?

Perhaps my primary and secondary schooling experience was unusual. While I may gripe from time to time about not having a more well-rounded Arts experience overall, I was still immersed in vocal performance, drama, and—for a very brief time—jazz band. Over the years, music has always managed to maintain a strong presence in my public education experience. However, as we continue to slash school budgets and emphasize the necessity of technology as our only means to “compete in the global economy,” the arts are often the first to go.

As we weigh our options with No Child Left Behind and struggle with an increasingly globalized economy, Americans are at a crossroads. Over and over again, evidence points to connecting the arts with science and technology in order to provide the greatest educational benefit (Root-Bernstein, 2008), yet in our frantic attempts to “compete with the global economy,” we continue to disregard the facts, opting instead for a “Hail Mary” by way of route memorization and math drills.

What is most interesting about this disconnect is that the notions of “science” and “art” are not diametrically opposed; in fact, it’s rather the opposite. For example, in Erik Robelen’s Education Week article (“STEAM: Experts Make Case for Adding Arts to STEM“), elementary students in a Philadelphia school utilized art-making projects to learn complex mathematic concepts (simply put, they created a “Fraction Mural”). From using watercolor paints to illustrate the parts of the cell to discussing the literary concept of “setting” through paintings, there are boundless ways to incorporate imagination and creative endeavors into even the most rigid of standardized curriculum.

The opportunities for implementing academic pursuits through artistic endeavors are literally only limited by one’s imagination.