Friday, November 26, 2010

Benjamin Garner: Observations from the Classroom

I would like to share with you some observations I have made while in the classroom with my mentor Patrick.

The Top 10 Observations from the Middle School Classroom

1. Students often listen to their peers.
It seems that when a class is out of control, which is rare at the school that we have been visiting, it seems to make all the difference to have a student who does understand the activity explain it to the rest of the class in their own words.

2. Students are more engaged when they can move around the room.
The idea of the one-piece chair-desk is, by nature, movement-limiting. Having students up out of their seats, demonstrating for the class, moving to different places in the room to rehearse, and grouping with partners, all help the student embody, with their whole body, the art-making and activities.

3. Each class is different, and the lesson for each class needs to be malleable enough to meet the requirements of that class.
I’m basically saying that a rigid lesson plan is not necessarily going to work for every class. A general outline is preferable, especially when it has optional additional activities for under-prepared or differently paced classes.

4. Teachers are your allies as well as your students.
Good teachers are aware of what is going on in the class even when they are not the ones teaching. They are able to step in and guide the students toward understanding a concept or to discuss thoughts from a previous class. Any technique or activity that a guest teaching artist uses is fair game for the teacher to incorporate in his or her teaching style.

5. The students are more willing to be creative when they do not have to perform.
In numerous classes, the students would make decisions about their art. This could be anything from rearranging the order or placement of chords, to coming up with a different rhythm for how to speak a stanza of a poem. However, as creative as the students were, when it came time to demonstrate their work, they would occasionally shy away or withdraw their desire to perform. Having a dedicated performer in the class, as I was fortunate to be, gives them the creative license to make a decision like a composer and then observe the effect safely and objectively from the sidelines.

6. 40-minute classes go by faster than you think.
In most cases, the students did not realize that the class time was up until the school bell went off, especially when they were engaged in music-making activities.

7. I am still a student.
Well, not a middle school student; I am more like a student at a middle school. The point is, when working in a school for any reason, it is important to remember what it is like to be a student. If you bring an intention to learn to your classroom, then you will most likely foster that in your teaching. This will also connect you with other students who have that same intention.

8. Music allows us to view a poem or text in a different way.
By asking ourselves questions about a musical composer’s decisions, we are forced to really look closely at how he made those decisions. The lyric text or poem has a meter and, in some cases, a rhythm. The musical setting can influence significantly the key words in the text. It is a composer’s job to distinguish those characteristics. To act like a composer requires us to become intimate with the texts.

9. Patience is absolutely necessary.
Even with clear instruction, there will always be a few students who need a little more. Taking time to work with those students individually or in small groups can ensure that they understand the concept. Once those students get it, then they can share what they have learned with other students. The class or activity will progress rapidly once the students have a clear idea, simply as the result of being patient with them and carefully explaining the ideas in different ways.

10. Students can be very insightful when given the opportunity.
Big surprise, right? We were discussing two poems, one by Langston Hughes titled, I, too, sing America and the other was I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman. To paraphrase a 6th grade student who responded to the Hughes poem, “It is about equality. The Whitman poem does not say anything about race or color. Hughes is saying that people with different color skin are part of America, too.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kathryn Logan: Observations from the Classroom

Lynn and I have been at an elementary school in Long Island. We’ve had two full days of teaching in eight separate classrooms, Kindergarten through 2nd grade. The work of art we are teaching to is Ghostcatching by Bill T. Jones, a piece that we also spent some time discovering with New York teachers in Summer Season [LCI’s professional development workshops for educators] this summer.
The teachers at the planning session here had remarkable ideas. I have noticed through my own process of aesthetic education that I tend to skip steps when I am looking at a piece of art. Often, instead of just noticing what it is that I see, I find myself seeing something, interpreting it, seeing it again, comparing it, finding metaphors, referring back-- all of these things before I really have a conscious idea of the first thing I was noticing. These teachers see so clearly. It was inspiring and is a lesson I am taking into other parts of my life. Noticing deeply is not making connections, is not identifying patterns. There can be moments in an aesthetic education lesson plan that exercise many Capacities* at once, but the Capacities themselves are not overlapping. This is why they are separate in the LCI philosophy. Notice deeply. Make connections later. Skipping steps is not helpful; it is mind-muddying, and it ends up taking up more time in the long run.

When we got to the school on the first day, I felt the most incredible rush of very specific memories. An elementary school is an elementary school is an elementary school, it seems. There is some underlying feeling-factor that lives in each and every one. Of course, the children and the teachers; principals; lockers; linoleum; restrooms marked “girls” and “boys” instead of “men” and “women”; visitor stickers; florescent lights; hand-painted pictures in the hallway; cut out letters, leaves, teddy bears; and the sound of small scuffling feet…

But it’s not the stuff that feels so remarkable to me-- there is something about a place that’s entire purpose is the cultivation of the minds of children. Some space designated specifically where children are taken seriously. There seems to be so little of that in the rest of the world. We as adults have a tendency to treat children without respect, as though we own them, and as if they are not in any kind of position to have an opinion or take charge of themselves and their education. But isn’t that what we want for them? I think that AE is certainly focused on empowering people in this way: putting them in charge of their own education. The point being: in elementary school-- the kids are it. The kids are the reason this building is even standing! The children are the reason there are pictures on the walls, are the reason there is a gym down the hall and there are books on the shelves. There is something really inspiring about a place dedicated to children in this way.

Oh, and these children. We began with a kindergarten class on the first day and ended with a kindergarten class on the second day. A kindergarten bun, in between which were many first and second graders. A grade school sandwich I’m still digesting a week later. How quickly they catch on, and how ruthlessly they pursue their own research. In one activity, they would make a shape with their bodies, then draw that shape on their paper. Almost every one of these children, when they went to draw their shape would, unprompted, stand up again and look at their bodies, feel their bodies, experience this shape, try to draw it again, stand up again, experience, try to draw. It was remarkable. They were so invested in creating a true likeness of their shape.

It was so fulfilling to watch these children grasping onto movement so quickly and so fully. It has been a concern of mine that our culture does not put enough emphasis on the understanding and experience of our bodies, and that this is one of the reasons that we are so unhealthy, and on so many prescription medications: because we don’t know how to listen to our bodies. We aren’t taught from a young age, as a whole, how to listen to them, how to converse with them. We are, in fact, taught not to think about them, not to notice them. We are taught that our minds are what we need cultivate, singularly. Physical Education practices are meant for kids to blow off steam in the middle of the day, or learn about sports, etiquette, and teamwork, but not their relationships with their own bodies. As such, seeing these children so inquisitive about their bodies, and a school that was so open to our presence there, instilled a little bit of hope in me.

They were so taken with Lynn, and I learned so much from her. The way that you ask questions is so important: varying your language, and being incredibly specific about what you want them to do, especially at this age. A lot can get lost in translation when you’re working with twenty 5-year-olds moving their bodies.

In the next to last class on the second day, I led the second part of the lesson, and in the very last class, I led the full lesson. I felt so intimidated. By kindergarteners. So intimidated. But they were so attentive, so curious, and remarkably quiet! I was so impressed by these children that I zipped through the lesson a little too quickly, and we had a few extra minutes at the end to ask them more questions.

The questions Lynn asked were so fascinating, so intuitive. Things like, “If your arm is straight and behind you and you can’t see it, how do you know that it’s straight?” or, “What is the difference between a straight line and a curved line?”

The answers these kids gave! One second-grader suggested that curved lines were bumpier. Many kids would get up and show us with their bodies.

I can’t wait to get back into the classrooms for our next lessons and to continue to cultivate my relationships with these amazing children. I am really excited at the prospect of refining my skills as a Teaching Artist: learning to ask more specific yet open-ended questions, how to remain open and intuitive to the experiences of these children, and how to keep the flow moving so that the kids stay active and interested the whole time. Between Lynn and all of these remarkable kids, I think I’ve got a pretty solid set of teachers.

*Note from editor: The Capacities for Imaginative Learning were created by LCI to list some of the potential student outcomes from our teaching practice. They are used both as a planning and as an assessment tool. They are: Noticing Deeply, Embodying, Questioning, Identifying Patterns, Making Connections, Exhibiting Empathy, Living with Ambiguity, Creating Meaning, Taking Action, and Reflecting/Assessing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Kenan Fellow Artistic Projects

The Kenan Fellows are deep in rehearsal for their upcoming Artistic Projects, which will showcase their artistry for the public. They'll be performed the weekend of January 21 - 23. Here are the details:

Aria: A Journey to the Heart, a concert by Megan Szymanski
This performance takes the listener on a journey to the heart through different variations of the “aria”. Three different kinds of love are portrayed: Familial, Spiritual, and Romantic. The program features a piece for flute, digital delay, and CD entitled Pulse Aria; the Bach aria Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben; Borne’s Carmen Fantasie for flute and piano, and Doppler’s Rigoletto Fantasie for two flutes and piano.
Performances on Jan. 22 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. Informal Q-and-A reception with the artist after the performance on the 22nd.

Searching for the Sacred, a music/theater collaborative piece by Drew Madland and Benjamin Garner
Searching for the Sacred is a restless meditation on the role of space, memory, and dreams in the human search for the sacred. Combining a rich soundscape, live instrumentation, interactive projections, and theatrical text and movement, Searching for the Sacred creates echoes of familiar images and nostalgic longing that reach deeply into those lasting questions that arise in the human search for home and ultimate purpose.
Performances on Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 22 at 1 p.m. Informal Q-and-A reception with the artists after the performance on the 21st.

Everything Potent is Dangerous, a dance piece by Amanda Hinchey
Everything Potent is Dangerous is a contemporary dance piece created to investigate the question, “How is one’s perception and presentation of self influenced by his or her cultural background?” It is an exploration into how we believe our own cultural circumstances have shaped us, and it began as a series of interviews of a group of diverse individuals who were each given a set series of questions pertaining to their personal background. The piece in particular aims to tackle the idea of how our sense of self-identity is affected by whether we look at ourselves as a majority or a minority.
Performances on Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 22 at 2 p.m. Informal Q-and-A reception with the artist after the performance on the 21st.

The Orchard, a music/dance collaborative piece by Kayla Herrmann and Kathryn Logan
Using videoed and live original choreography and live performance of arrangements of classical compositions, The Orchard creates an atmosphere of this oscillation, exploring the curiosity of ourselves and surroundings, anxious mental fixation, and the swing that takes us between them. The Orchard invites the audience to examine their own relationship with their swing, and to open themselves to recognizing the catalysts of this dynamic movement.
Performances on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 23 at 3 p.m. Informal Q-and-A reception with the artists after the performance on the 22nd.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Megan Szymanski: Observations from the Classroom (Instructional Sessions)

For the last two weeks, I have been observing the classroom lessons with my mentor Lisa. It’s hard to believe we are already halfway through with the unit. I have been to a total of four days at the school we are working with, and within a day we usually have between three and five 50-minute lessons with the kids. Personally, I am quite fascinated with these kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms. I especially love all the books, the art hanging on the walls, and the crafty “learning tools” that are posted everywhere. In one classroom, the teacher had even posted lists entitled, “What we noticed about ____”, filling in the blanks with books or artworks, and quoting the kids on their responses. I silently cheered at that!

I also give the teachers a lot of credit for being so patient and strong when it comes to behavior in the classroom. Convincing a group of twenty-seven six-year-olds that it’s the right thing to be respectful and work as a community seems like a major challenge. I’m learning terms like “Magic Five”, which is used to remind the kids to sit quietly, with legs crossed and hands folded. Every classroom is different, too. Some have more kids, some have quieter kids, some have two teachers, and some have just come from recess or lunch. All these factors dramatically change the way Lisa has to teach her lesson. Lisa is so flexible, as I expected, and after each lesson, we always talk about what just happened and why. Each classroom has been fun to work with for one reason or another. The lessons almost never go exactly as they are written on paper, because kids love to ask questions, or sometimes there are a few kids who need extra attention. The great thing about a trained LCI Teaching Artist is that they are always able to redirect the focus to the work of art, no matter how far the kids’ minds seem to wander. There is always a connection to be made.

The kids are fascinated by rhythm and music, and they are always eager to learn and perform songs. We even had one class perform a great song about expressing their feelings. They were so excited to sing for us, so the teacher put on an accompaniment CD, and they sang their hearts out. It was really special and completely unexpected. When the kids hear the Mountain Music or talk about the rhythms Lisa has been introducing in the lessons (“boom-chick”), they automatically make connections and embody the music. It is great to see LCI in action here. For another example, when they learn the instruments, they do not just look at a picture of an instrument and memorize the name of it. Lisa has them hold an imaginary fiddle, or guitar, or bass, and they feel the motion as if they were a part of the bluegrass band. After seeing these lessons, I have a deeper understanding of why the kids will “get more” out of the work of art (Mountain Music). They are learning the key words of the performance, the instruments used, the words of the songs, and the rhythms-- all through brilliant Aesthetic Education. And it’s working.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Drew Madland: LCI's Practice and the Imagination

Ideas belong to everyone. Ideas are free. Imagination is free.

LCI teaching practices of art making, questioning, and reflection open the imagination up to the breathing continuum of knowledge. LCI teaching reveals the three-dimensional, textural character of the mind and body; acute to verbose, vacillating and vast.

An LCI imagination frees itself into an acrobatic sponge that soaks up every experience, flips, leaps and dives into questions, observations, and more questions to follow; all the while, the mind is absorbing and transforming the experience into knowledge.

Flex the mind, wear out the intellect, taxed after a day full of analysis, reflection; a day of breaking down the most minute aspects of observation: what is that? Be more specific. What is the actuality? LCI demands a tireless process of searching to uncover the textures of the complicity of a vast array of subject matter, experience, and observation: the truth. Strong, resilient imagination.

Imagination as question-dialogue.
The “line of inquiry” and the questioning process are the backbone of imaginative facilitation. LCI teaching practice uses the open question to activate the imagination. In the LCI teaching practice, the crafted question is designed to release unlimited responses from unlimited participants. Through the use of art-making activities that relate directly to the work of art, LCI teaching generates constant conversation and questions. This dynamic dialogue creates an imagination community, a feedback learning loop amongst students and teachers where everyone learns from one another.

Imagination as experiencing with all five senses.
By structuring art-making activities to call on all five senses and the mind, LCI develops the whole imagination, mind and body. LCI teaches “backwards” by using art-making activities that empower student as creator, thereby freeing the student of “getting it right” and enabling the student to experience information before “learning” it. By teaching “backwards”, LCI practice injects information into the body’s senses before the mind and the insecurities of the self can distort the actuality of the incoming information.

Imagination as searching/risk
LCI teaching practice of noticing deeply and reflection trains the mind to trust intuition as the basic impulse for learning and implicitly embeds a hungry curiosity in students. The student begins to trust and own their powers of observation. The student takes ownership of the inquiry. The mind is trained to ask, “What else?”, to say, “Yes, and…”, to notice deeply the connections among questions and content, and to use this experience to generate further questions and push the boundaries of how deeply one can go into an inquiry. The inquiry-based process becomes a personal search for truth.

Once the student takes ownership of the inquiry-based process, the student’s willingness to take risks and “fail” becomes greater. The beauty of the open question is that it abandons the negative connotations of “failure” altogether. “Failure” is an opportunity to learn, and although it is sometimes painful, it is part of the inquiry-based process. LCI teaching embraces the idea that one must continue to risk failure in order to overcome challenges and the perceived limits of the mind; to grow the imagination.

In reality, these perceived limits of the mind may not even exist; humans are capable of incredible things when the will is strong and the mind is ripe.

Together we solve problems.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Amanda Hinchey on the Development of her Artistic Project

My Artistic Project has been a source of both never-ending joy and stress at the same time. From the moment I found out that my proposal had been accepted, it has been very difficult for me to not become overwhelmed with worry over everything from casting to budgeting and rehearsal space. This will be by far the largest project that I have ever taken on, and so much of my time has been spent trying to let go of being intimidated by the amount of work that I will have to put into it.

Once I really started to delve into the process of interviewing people on video (the primary source of material for the piece), it became very clear that the first very big hurdle of this project would be distilling all of the gathered information down into a single cohesive work. At this point I have only collected four interviews (a fifth of my original goal), and already I have enough information to create four very full-length pieces. I’ve found the process of interviewing people extremely enjoyable; it’s certainly been great to get to know each individual more through their personal history. Often times I’ve even wound up asking questions that have nothing to do with what I had originally planned to investigate; rather, they were things that I was simply curious about. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at how little encouragement the people I’ve interviewed have needed to talk openly and candidly on camera. The most interesting aspect of each interview is the overall impression that I get of that individual, as often times there is a lot of fascinating information in the way that he or she said things, as well as the things that were not said. It has become relatively clear that these impressions will be the main source of inspiration for the piece, as they are what interest me the most, and also, from a purely practical standpoint, it will make it much more manageable for myself and the composer I’m working with. Additionally, I was fortunate enough to get the chance to go on a retreat for contact improv dance in MA. This experience did help tremendously with the generation of choreography for the piece.

By far the biggest headache in the process thus far has been casting the actual dancers, as the number of people that I’m working with fluctuates regularly. Currently, there is only one other dancer attached to the project along with myself, although there is a possibility that there could be more joining in the future. This has presented an interesting challenge for me, as I had originally intended to work with four bodies in the space. Because of this I have begun to think about alternative ways to portray a larger group of individuals with just two dancers. Currently my plan is to experiment with using many strong beams of light that will hopefully cast shadows in multiple directions, although this idea is still purely hypothetical and I still need to work out the logistics of whether it is even possible.

Already, I’ve learned so much through the beginning process of creating this piece, and I’m happy to say that I’m ALMOST at the point where I can finally let go of all of the unnecessary expectations and fully enjoy having the opportunity to create something meaningful to me and on this scale.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Kayla Herrmann: Observations from the Classroom

“Seek! Do not destroy!”

Man, let me just tell you how amazing these K-2 kids are! I have taught music lessons and coached swim teams full of children for years—and I am still inspired when around them! I want to share with you some particularly wonderful moments:

Jessica and I walk into a classroom of first grade students and Jessica says to everyone, “Do you guys know why I am here?” And this little boy opens his huge eyes says, “Ms. Jessica? I LOOOVE music!”

While in an art classroom of second graders, Jessica plays a little clip of the work of art they are studying, Mountain Music. They are supposed to be listening carefully to the sound of a particular instrument to see if they know what it is, but this one girl can’t stop moving every time Jessica plays the music! The minute the music plays she is closing her eyes, smiling, and waving her entire body! If any of you have seen Kenan Fellow Benjamin Garner dance down the sidewalk, she kinda looked like him.

In a kindergarten classroom, Jessica played a music clip and asked if anyone knew what instrument was playing (keep in mind, these kids have been in school for less than two months). A little boy called out, “A banjo!” I saw the teachers' eyes pop out of their sockets in amazement!

In another classroom, Jessica asked if anyone wanted to play a rhythm pattern on their instrument. A shy boy raised his hand and played the rhythm while saying, “Red, yellow, yellow, red.” (We were using colors to show patterns). The teacher told us that that boy is still working on his language and rarely speaks in the classroom.

Jessica asked a classroom of second grade students what they noticed about bluegrass music. One girl said, “Music is so comforting.”

Captain Picard and I connected on another topic yesterday. (In my last blog, I mentioned that I watch Star Trek as I fall asleep and that I often find myself empathizing with Captain Picard because he is full of deep curiosity and a desire to explore.) The Enterprise came across an unknown life form, and because they did not know how to communicate with it, they were afraid and wanted to fire at it. (Also, this unknown life form was sucking the life support from their ship…tiny detail. :) ). Captain Picard refused to allow the life form to be killed, because he knew that all they needed to do was find a different way to communicate. In a moment of passion, he spoke out, “We are here to seek out new life form, not destroy it!”

Like the unfamiliar life form, imagination can be scary. Captain Picard’s crew wanted to kill the life form before it had the opportunity to destroy their ship. In the same way, we often “kill” imagination before it has the chance to develop. I have heard so many adults say, “I’m not imaginative, I’m not creative,” and I’ve heard teachers say about their students, “Oh, some of my students are imaginative.” In the past few days, I have been moved to tears countless times in these classrooms. These children are amazing—their eyes are full of pure, innocent wonder! I have been in eight classrooms and not once seen a child unable to feel imaginative; to embody the music into their every movement; to create many different sounds using two sticks! So I ask, when did we start telling ourselves that we don’t have imagination? When did we start telling others that we are not imaginative? When did we, as a culture, start accepting that some are imaginative and others are not? The evidence from these eight classrooms shows clearly that every child is using their imagination, so what is happening to us? My guess is that at some point, someone decided imagination is scary because we can’t know or see where it will go. If we don’t trust humanity to be good, we can’t trust each other to be imaginative in positive ways. I think we need to feel more in control, and that is what ends up “killing” imagination.

I feel very lucky in my childhood to have had such wonderful, encouraging teachers and parents. I remember one time in elementary school when I did something quite imaginative. My second grade teacher and I did not get started on the right foot, and I was very concerned about this. One day, before school started, I moved my desk right next to the teacher’s desk. When she came into the classroom, she said, “Kayla, why have you moved your desk over here?” I said, “If we sit next to each other every day, we will have to get along!” Now, my teacher could have said, “No, go back to your spot.” Or even worse, “That’s a bad idea. Go back to your spot.” Instead, she said, “Well, okay, that is different way to think about it! Let’s give it a try!” Right there, I felt like my imagination was appreciated and encouraged. Had she turned me down, I may have felt like imagination wasn’t a good thing.

The scary part of this story is that if the teacher had said no, she may have not being thinking about the long-term ramifications of that. I think we often fail to think about how our behavior around children can change the way they behave on a very quiet level. I appreciated Picard’s determination to give the life form a chance to communicate. I think sometimes we need a Captain Picard to root for us, too. Maybe it is a parent, school teacher, friend, or sibling who says, “Wait! Give them a chance to be imaginative—even if they take an approach that you are unfamiliar with!”