August 26, 2014
On conceptual versus other forms of art

My wife brought up an interesting point as I was talking about the theoretical aspects of the UnHappy Meal project.  I mentioned I was looking for a framework for the book I’m writing about the project itself, and that perhaps looking at the project as a process-driven work of art itself would be that framework.

That is - thinking about the challenge/experiment and its inspiration as an act of inquiry, then gathering the tools at hand, and then going through the multiple steps of refinement.

She said, “You know, this isn’t what most people think of when they think of art.  It’s usually the more traditional things - painting an object, modeling a sculpture, things that are more recognizably the art they are used to.  You are messing around in the world of conceptual art, which is more about exploring ideas, and people may not get it.”

I tried to make it plain in my pitch to the editor that this project’s artistic sensibility lies in thinking like an artist, rather than incorporating a specific art form.  But this does add a challenge.

I do not have an answer, but it’s worth thinking about as i go…

August 26, 2014
Learning Environment Challenge

So this is the classroom I’ve been handed down.  

The previous teacher appears to have vomited up a Jackson Pollock painting onto the walls.

I’ve taken some inspiration from the Third Teacher over the years, and always thought about creating a classroom challenge to remake our learning environment as a class.

In this case, we have a Hands-To-Work team whose job it is to prettify the campus (provide “curb appeal.”)   

I also have a 9th grade class that I need to teach the rudiments of challenge-based learning to.  It would also help to have them understand the importance of addressing an audience of more than one (the teacher) and of course, the importance of an authentic legacy for their work - something real they can effect that will live on after them.

It seems to me that the time has come to give them the challenge of recreating this classroom from the seizure-inducing, poorly done train wreck we have here to something that actually is conducive to learning.

I will let them do the research, make their pitches, and let the best argument win.  This will follow on the heels of another short assignment I’ve created to give them the chance to tell all of us a little something about themselves, to model effective teaching, and to practice rubric development and peer critique.

So far my intended curriculum is dropping further and further into the misty future in favor of immediate triage.

But this is all good, right?  If my goal is to model improvisation, then this may be the right instinct.  This is practical, physical and immediate…

August 11, 2014
Entry Events

I’m thinking of what the day might look like when I unveil the Happy Meals to my little deconstructionists.  What do I do to set the stage?  How to convey to them the nature of the challenge?  If Thomas Thwaites was inspired by a line from a novel that spoke to him, what speaks to them?  How do I tease them into taking on a project that I have essentially devised for them?

It occurred to me it might be fun to tweak their own sense of cultural arrogance.  This generation has been lauded as technological natives - homo sapiens technologensus (I make that up - god knows what it is in proper Latin).  It might be entertaining to play with that.  Perhaps a series of questions:

To begin with a survey of the types technology that they own?

To ask, what can we do now that our ancestors a thousand years ago could not?

To ask, what does their modern tech allow them to do that couldn’t be done before personal tech existed, even during my own childhood?

Are we a technologically advanced society?

To ask, what they think might still be invented in the future?

And then, what they do when they get hungry, or cold, or thirsty?

Or, what would happen to them if the sources of food water and warmth were taken away, and beg the question, what does it mean to be technologically advanced?

And at that point, unveil the Happy Meals, and ask them what they would have to gather and then learn what to do in order to recreate the Happy Meal?

Ask them to look on-line to deconstruct these ingredients in finer detail?

To gather what information we know about the Happy Meal?

To identify the tasks that need to be completed that they would like to learn?

To be placed into teams of 4 or 6?

To identify the roles with the same sort of exercise we did for the aquaponics project - to identify builder, architect, salesman and contractor?

To seed the project the night before with the Toaster Project TedTalk project as HW with a blog that requires them to use one of our thinking routines.  Connect Extend Challenge?

August 10, 2014
New Year, New Prospects, New Projects

I have finally parted ways with Hawaii after several roller coaster years and am now somewhere in upstate NY - in a school housed within a Shaker village, to be exact - in the Berkshires.

I have also recently signed a contract to write a book developing this idea of artistic design thinking in project-based learning.

So I am looking at the start of school at the end of this month and trying to figure out where to begin.

In the tradition of NASA engineering-thinking, I begin with my limits - and artistically, with the tools at hand.

I know I need to work within the system I have - that is, the class periods are fairly short, and this is not a project-based school - not in the traditional sense of it.  Nor do I necessarily want to teach a project-based class, anyway - not that I would likely be allowed to…  Moreover, I enjoy teaching history and literature - deep reading, discussion circles, etc, and I like to shift around in a number of student-centered approaches depending on what seems to work best, anyway.  

I will also not have the luxury of an interdisciplinary program, and working with a partner in STEM.

On the other hand, this school has some interesting traditions.  It incorporates Shaker traditions of handicrafts into a Wednesday hands-to-work program in the afternoons, and is a boarding school, so we have extra time that is not built into the day.  There is a farm on campus, a greenhouse with hydroponics, and the countryside is liberally sprinkled with artisans and farmers.

This should be helpful w/r/t to the UnHappy Meal project.

So, just in the name of thinking about needs, I can list a few things here I need to resolve:

While I do not need to start teaching PBL skills, I do want to establish a few habits immediately - starting with inquiry, independent investigation, basic thinking routines, and potentially the idea of exhibit and curation (which will also help me with developing rubrics for blogs, formal writing, and other forms of presentation, and with peer critique)

I need to set up the basic electronic/web tools - one for housing our resources, one for showing student work, and one for immediate communication with students.  I imagine Weebly, Edmodo and EduBlogs will be my suite, but I need to be open to possibilities the students like. I never really did much with VoiceThread but it may be useful for providing oral feedback.  Much depends on the technology the students arrive wit, of course.

I need to come up with the entry event (likely the full demolition of a couple Happy Meals.  And then the immediate follow up activity, though I don’t know we have to dive right in to the resources we used for the permaculture project so long ago, if I am going to remain true to the idea of independent discovery.  Rather, it might be better if the kids articulated the skills they will need to learn and figure out how much to break down the items themselves.  There just needs to be a step where they can start developing their own inquiry, and I’m not yet sure how to lead them that way.  This is probably where a “Wall o’ Questions” would come in handy…  or a derive into what the internet holds by way of discussion about McDonald’s.

I need to find the times in which we can interact with experts who can teach them the small skills necessary to make the meal.  I am thinking of those Hands to Work times on Wednesdays or Saturdays, if possible.

I of course need to find these experts, but even a small amount of sleuthing turned up a few folks - cheese-makers, dairy farmers, and a hunter how has offered to show the kids how to render a deer into meat.

I also need to develop a regular schedule of writing for the book, as it will be written during the year, with liberal input from the students.  I need to clarify this idea of artistic thinking.  I do not yet need to have a more significant question than “What will happen if I do this…” and a sense of why I’m doing this apart from, “I want to come up with a classroom experiment that will allow for the most creativity and independence I can while still providing structure that will help the students navigate this process.”

I do feel that a number of aspects can be left up to chance - the format of the exhibition itself, the format of the check-ins on research, and the discovery of some of these experts, which might be a cool afternoon class in and of itself.

Good questions, all…

July 6, 2014
Vocational Traditions and German Crafts-Based Education

I learned something about the US while reading an article about Jurgen Klinsmann:

"{He} lived with his parents in an apartment above the family bakery in Botnang, a suburban district in Stuttgart, Germany. In the early ’80s, just as his professional soccer career was getting underway, he worked as an apprentice, learning the family trade, weighing the flour, portioning the dough, kneading. By the time he made his Bundesliga debut for VfB Stuttgart, he was already a certified journeyman baker…

The German educational system isn’t designed to funnel as many people as possible into the universities, but rather to place the country’s youth into apprenticeships called Ausbuildungs (a system Obama has talked about replicating in the United States). As a result, the country is full of craftspeople: masons, electricians, cobblers, bakers. Craftsmanship and skill mastery are central to the German ideal. Klinsmann Bäckerei isn’t just about humble origins; it isn’t part of a cute narrative built around the seeming absurdity of baking as a backup plan. It’s about what Klinsmann has in common with regular Germans. The bakery is a symbol of Jürgen Klinsmann, craftsman.”

This is interesting - I had no idea this program existed.  It’s true, by the way, from what I’ve seen.  Germany takes its crafts tradition quite seriously, and you can see plenty of these journeymen carpenters, wearing traditional guild clothing, emigrating through the country in search of work.  From what I was told, it’s a sort of “walkabout” every guildsman must take for at least one year, traveling about and working small jobs.  

I’d love to see something that like in our own education system.  I felt we had the most buy-in from the kids when they were exposed to genuine workplaces, but we never took it to the level of having kids work genuine internships.  But the German system goes deeper.  Not every kid is tracked to a liberal arts or engineering college.  You learn a basic education suitable to being a self-aware, capable citizen, and then you go into your career (what we dismiss as “vocational ed.”)

Of course, like most educational reform in the US, this appears to be lip-service.  Here’s a critique

Obama also mentioned a previously announced plan to spur innovation among high schools. “We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career,” Obama said, according to prepared remarks. According to a fact sheet circulated by the White House, winners will be announced this year.

Obama first announced the competition in his 2013 State of the Union address.Early plans gave the competition $300 million to split between school districts that outlined visions to overhaul their high schools to make them more relevant to 21st century graduates. But the program ultimately launched in November, called “Youth CareerConnect,” was downgraded to $100 million, funded by Department of Labor discretionary funds.

In promoting the competition, the administration has highlighted nontraditional high schools that offer technical alternatives to standard academic fare. Obama highlighted career education most recently with a visit to New York’s Pathways in Early Technology Early College High School, a public school run in partnership with IBM that aims to let students graduate with an associate’s degree. Obama called the school outstanding, and advocated fully funding federal vocational education programs.

But many have criticized the administration for discovering vocational education too late. “It doesn’t really fit with their emphasis,” Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor whose research Duncan often cites, previously told HuffPost. “What we have so far is an endorsement of an idea and the best practices, but so far there’s no money behind it.”

June 11, 2014
blog post on entrepreneurship published!

Whoopee!  My rundown on the power of entrepreneurship to transform classrooms.  You can read my brilliance here on Edutopia.

June 5, 2014
A conversation with artists about education

Now that my time in Germany is winding down, I was asked to present my educational work to the Arts Fellows.  However, I wanted not to simply present my work, but to open up a dialogue to discuss what other approaches I could be using in the classroom. If you have been reading my blog, you will know that I have been concerned with ways to increase student creativity via artistic thinking.  I thought that this was a perfect opportunity to gain more insight (and especially to test whether I had any understanding of what an artist does.) 

I showed the example of our aqua-ponics project, as I thought it was perhaps the most effective thing we did.  I ended though by stressing how the engineering design process had more or less created a convergence among the students projects. That is, all of their designs more or less seemed the same due to the constraints and the criteria of the project itself. In other words, the end, which was the aqua-ponics tank, dictated all aspects of the process and even the nature of success.  I pointed out that we were able to teach the students how to collaborate effectively how to communicate confidently and how to be critically analytic about their work and the work of their peers. The challenge yet remaining was the final component that we were hoping for - creativity.

I discussed a quote by Elliot Eisner as a way of summarizing a conversation about artistic thinking I had with an architect here at the program back in November:  

“In the arts, ends may follow means.  One may act in the act may itself suggest ends, ends that did not see the act, but follow. In this process ends shift; the work yields clues that one pursues. In a sense, one surrenders to what the working process suggests… Uncertainty needs to have its proper place in the kinds of schools we create.  How can the pursuit of surprised be promoted in a classroom?”

The architect had mentioned that while engineers often began with the end in mind and work towards that end as closely as they could - success being based on the degree to which the product fulfills the engineer’s goals - artists often spent the majority of their process just trying to understand the goal.  (How’s that for mind-roastingness?)  Any products arising from the exploration were merely stages along that process.  Someone’s art was not the final stage, but merely the means to continue that exploration.

I then asked the assembled artists to discuss three questions.  First, to think about what tools or abilities and artist needs to be created. Second, whether they learned those tools or abilities in high school. Third, how schools could be better organized or changed to facilitate the growth of those artistic skills and abilities.  I include their answers below.

What is thinking artistically

  • It isn’t necessarily logical - not jumping from one point to the next connected one.  connections can be discontinuous (ie - make a conversation between a person’s notebook and her glasses)
  • It’s having desires and fantasies
  • Your mental toolbox is whatever you are interested in.  You figure out your interests by making things
  • It’s being intuitive, risk-taking, questioning everything, thinking and reflecting
  • It’s being able to follow a tiny lead to something else
  • The idea of “discovery” is important
  • A lot of repetition
  • Deconstruction
  • To understand why one is choosing an object to work with.

Was there a moment when school taught you that?

  • Depends on who your art teacher was
  • I had a teacher who made you question things - no yes/no answers
  • Alternative methods of presentation, such as a video installation
  • A teacher once asked, “Please draw me a beautiful picture” without any other instructions
  • I was encouraged to become an artist - a lot of positive affirmation
  • For me, it was an experimental dance class
  • We had a self-organized group of students who met independently to create art
  • None - nothing project-based, nothing open-ended, nothing artistic
  • Getting direction because someone noticed what you did artistically

How to make school more likely to accomplish that?

  • Support students’ explorations of their own interests and fantasies.  Allow “non-scholarly” interests.  Have the class follow a student’s interest (not the teachers?)
  • A teacher who can give everyone attention, nurture them, encourage them
  • Have interdisciplinary conversations.  And within disciplines, question the form- ie, how history is taught, not just focusing on historical details
  • Understand that every question is valid
  • Telling stories, but especially about failure (and continuing on?)
  • Allowing non-linear paths to solutions.  There are no right or simple answers
  • Have more self-directed study and a looser curriculum
  • The teacher doesn’t have to know everything 
  • Create a safe environment.  Establish a room or space that functions differently from the rest of the school.  Develop respect within/among the students.
  • Break apart the traditional roles of students and teachers, have them work together or so non-scholarly activities together.  Get teachers to discuss their own interests and hopes.
  • Develop the curriculum together with the students
  • Don’t occupy every moment with activities — allow for “incidentality”
  • Teachers should be willing to learn from students

If there is any commonality in these responses it’s that thinking artistically is about following one’s own interests and desires, and being able to draw many different kinds of conclusions from the world around you. That may mean drawing connections between objects that are not normally connected in our minds, or otherwise reimagining the nature of relationships in the world. It’s heavily inquisitive of course, involving the asking of questions - but more importantly, questions that do not often have easy answers or even any answers.  So it seems to me, that the essential skill that students need to be successful in thinking creatively, is being comfortable existing “in the dark.”  It’s likely teenagers are already there, so imagine how comforting it might be if they knew we are all in that same space together, and it’s okay?

What’s striking is how often many of these artists have a moment in their high school experience that opened up the doors to being an artist for them. I was actually imagining that they would have much more negative memories of their education. That said, most of those positive experiences happened either in art classes - or even despite the school, as they were able to build like-minded communities of students to support each other outside the classroom.

I was also gratified to hear their comments regarding what schools can do now to better support artistic thinking. Many of the methods that they suggested are apparently features of project-based or challenge-based education. The importance of asking questions, the importance of working with the students own interests and passions, and the importance of working with students individually yet also setting up a culture or environment of mutual learning.  I agree with the artists that even the essential nature of each discipline should be open to question; this is an approach I use with my history class, as we discuss the inherent fictiveness of historical narratives, and whether the past itself can ever be known. 

Finally, I take heart in their insistence that the traditional relationships between teachers and students have to be rethought. I have been made more aware than ever in the past few New Year’s that the best way to model learning is for the teacher her or himself to be a learner, and for the the students to become teachers. But more than that, they are suggesting that the teacher and the student must work together to develop not just relationships, but the curriculum and classroom themselves. There was also hint in their responses that the classroom itself must be reimagined as a different kind of space. Not the traditional place of organization and discipline and work in the older sense of learning, but a space in which imagination, creativity can be allowed full reign.

Ultimately, what I take away from this conversation, is that artistic thinking does not have to occur solely within our classes, but can be common instead to any subject within the traditional curriculum.  One should as easily become an artist from algebra class as from an arts class. It is as much a matter of approach as it is of skill. 

Much of the experimentation my partners and I did over the last two years in our project-based program where things that we did because they made sense at the time, because they accorded with what we knew of brain science and learning, and often emerge from discussions we had with the students about what our next steps should be.

Recall, I had no training in teaching prior to becoming a teacher and certainly very little professional development regarding new and innovative teaching methods.  Instead, I drew on my own desires that I had when I was young in terms of how I wanted to learn and what I wanted to learn to guide me in shaping our program. What I have learned is to place those instincts at the forefront of my classroom, and to ensure that any classroom I create begins and ends with methodologies.

April 27, 2014
The child knows, what the Teacher must recover

He oft reiterated his bold declaration, from Out of the Mouths of Babes, to the effect that, The child knows, what the Teacher must recover. For the old way of rote-teaching must be banish’d; and all old textbooks, crammed with dead, spiritless facts; and, as well, all teachers who clung to the old ways and did not truly love both their charges, and Wisdom itself. John Quincy Zinn’s experimental class at the Brownrrigg Academy did not sit inertly in their seats, but moved freely about, and were encouraged by their teacher to participate in divers conversations, and to ask a good deal of questions. They studied poesy not by committing verse to memory, but by writing it; they became disciplined in the exacting art of perception, by drawing (with many comical, but surely instructive, results); they were encouraged to invent new words, and new ways of spelling old words—for our great English tongue, as John Quincy taught, is itself a massive machine, an invention of sorts, in which all must participate. They learned geography by applying themselves to actual mapmaking, and anatomy, by studying the skeletons of real animals. Mr. Zinn being a firm believer in manual labor and dexterity, it was necessary that his young charges—girls no less than boys—acquire the use of hammers, saws, files, and planes, and other homely instruments, scorned by the genteel classes. Singly, or in small teams, these amazing children worked on their own machines, and experimented with weights and measurements, and pulleys, and wheels, and water, and fire, and rapid changes of temperature, and direct and indirect sunlight, and the relative buoyancy of feathers, pebbles, blocks of wood, grass, snow, and nails. They designed dirigibles, and submarines, and ideal dwelling places, and model cities. For Invention, Mr. Zinn taught, is at the very heart of the Universe, and the especial secret of our great Nation, yet but dimly understood by the rest of the world.”

—Joyce Carol Oates, A Bloodsmoor Romance

April 26, 2014
First step to my great media empire

November 18, 2013
Essential Questions, Design Theory, and a Project Idea

I’m coming closer to a sample project that will use artistic design as its organizing principle.  That is, I’m coming closer to an understanding of how the project I want to do has potential value as a teaching practice.  A couple of quick points:

the project should in some way require the kids to look more deeply at something they take for granted - something banal yet ubiquitous, and always overlooked

the project should in some way require kids to rethink what they think they know and reevaluate their stance towards that object and what it represents

the project should in some way lead to an exhibit that has the same function for the audience that they project did for them - it should be transformative

the project should also, educationally, tie in different disciplines and offer “real-world” applications for what they are learning

the project should provide the opportunity to practice good design

the project DOES NOT HAVE TO be the avenue to teach specific content according to standards - it can stand alone and be a tie-in, but does not have to direct all the learning

the project should not in fact be the real goal - the project is the means for the process.  The process shall in fact inform the goal of the project, if that makes sense.  The project should be flexible enough to change if need be, as the process is the place where enlightenment happens.

And now I think the project should also help the students develop essential questions that are more in line with their own interests.  I think of how hard we worked to develop our own essential questions that would inform the direction of the project, and how we then worked so hard to make the essential question relevant to the kids.  Perhaps we have it backwards - perhaps we lay out the challenge and the project itself is the means by which the essential question becomes clear to the students?  This may be a way to teach the kids how to develop their own questions and devise the means to investigate them - within the framework of the challenge.

What is the challenge?

to see if they can make this from scratch:


Can they make all the components of a Happy Meal in the same way Thomas Thwaites built his toaster?

Logistically, this would entail breaking down the Happy Meal to its constituent parts, and then figuring out how to assemble the ingredients.  At first I thought it would involve growing the veg, making the cheese and ice cream, and then perhaps just visiting a few cows and visiting the killing floor (rather than having to procure their own meat.)  But Thwaites suggested they even make the box/wrapping and the toy.  And the soda component raises questions as well.

But in terms of the larger goal of the project, the essential questions that would arise from that investigation are seemingly endless - whether questioning industrial versus small farming, our relationship to the animals we eat, international trade and economies of scale, working conditions in the fast food industry, questions about diet and health…  And one would think the exhibit would center on those essential questions (the burger bit is really about showmanship, isn’t it?) and requiring the audience to consider their own feelings about those questions.  Those questions would evolve from the project - from the process itself - which from what I’m learning is the basis of artistic inquiry.  

The point is, I not only have an idea for the project, but a rationale for it, and my goal for the next six months would be to explore a version of this for myself - to try it out before I ever assigned it.

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