Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A letter to all my students past, present, and future:

It’s 1985. Picture a teenage girl with wild, dark, curly hair wearing a hideous pink and purple catholic school uniform.  That’s me, a senior in a strict, traditional, Catholic High School. The AP Lit teacher, Dr. Sharon Meltzer, is asking us what we think about Socrates and his theory of the Chariot. There is a chariot, led by the dark horse of passion and the light horse of reason. She challenged us to understand ourselves, and whether we were driven by passion or reason. I couldn’t believe it. Dr. Meltzer asked us what we THINK. We sat in class and debated our ideas, a full out discussion that was more than just regurgitating information. In that moment, I fell in love with being in that class. I’d never really liked school, but I didn’t want THAT class to end.

It’s 1987, and I’m standing in a sunny Art Institute painting studio. My favorite painting teacher is yelling at a boy who was distracting me while I should have been painting. He then whirled around to me and told me angrily to stop goofing around, to focus because I had talent and he expected a lot from me. I was shocked that he cared so much. In later years, he proved how much not only by being demanding, but also nurturing. He’d take a group of students out for beers and pizza at Exchecquer and we talked for hours about painting concepts, philosophy, science, and literature. On many occasions, he walked into class, handed me a book and simply said, “you should read this”. It was always complicated, brilliant, and EXACTLY what I needed to read for this or that painting I was working on. His name was Paul Hinchliffe, and my second daughter, also an artist, is named for him. Zoe Paula.

It’s 1989, and I’m close to graduating with a BFA degree from art school. My old photo teacher asked me to be her assistant in the art classes she was teaching for pre-school kids. Colleen Conley had been my teacher since I was 12 and I already knew that I loved art, loved photography, and loved learning from her. But, she had one more thing to teach me. Each day of class, she’d quietly give me more responsibilities. Eventually she casually said, “I think you should teach this lesson. Plan an interesting lesson.” I did, even though I thought it was a bit odd. At then end of the lesson, after all the happy kids went home with their art, she turned to me and said, “Do you know what you are? Do you see what you just did?” I looked at her quizzically. She looked me right in the eye and stated emphatically, “You are a teacher.”

I realize that teaching is very much about love. These amazing teachers loved me and taught me to love them. More importantly, they gave me the love of thinking, exploring, and creating. They inspired me to be the artist I am today. They inspired me to be the teacher I am today. I have taken a bit of that love from them, and internalized it. These teachers are with us today through me, talking to you right now. The connection continues on because as a teacher, I hand these ideals to you, and you begin to think and create. You begin connecting to each other, to the world, to me. We will learn together in this classroom. When others view your art, they will know you. When you leave here, you will carry this with you and connect with others. Someday, you will be making art, or raising children, or perhaps even teaching. You will affect THOSE people around you and continue to build this connection.

Someone once told me about a teacher she had that used to sing a love song to his class every day. I thought that was an amazing way to connect. Here is my love song to you. Listen to the words, because I mean them with all my heart.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Philosophical Welcome

A Philosophical Welcome

Hello Everyone,

Welcome to Spaces for Possibility: An arts-based learning community for reflective teacher practice. Just as the title suggests, we are convening and re-convening a group of dedicated professionals who teach in the arts to question, explore and challenge the possibilities of what an art education can be. Our group formed three years ago to use the Studio Thinking Framework as an analytic lens to consider specific dispositions used in the art studio. This framework gave us much to think about. We grew in our own understanding of critical thinking, and questioned the very thought of teaching art in our current climate within the Chicago Public Schools. We exhibited these questions last spring at Firecat Projects gallery and created an exhibition catalogue with artwork, essays and reflections.

Internal expertise with on-going questioning
What has become clear to us over the course of convening this learning community is that we need dedicated time and space for substantive conversations around our teaching practices. 

We have heard over and over again that teachers yearn for a space to share what you are doing each day. You also need time to explore different concepts, methods and practices for teaching within public education. Internally, our group contains vast amounts of expertise. As a member of our learning community mentioned last year, teachers need a space where you don't feel as if you are broken and need to be fixed. 

What we hope that this learning community allows you to do on the most profound level is to re-examine your own practices in the company of others. That means that you are open to seeing what you cannot see as individual teachers on your own. Through dialogue, reflection, readings, images, and conversation, we come together to think about what is possible within an art education.

The late art education philosopher Maxine Greene talks of the value of making ourselves strangers. We must defamiliarize ourselves with our own patterns and habitual practices to see differently. At the heart of this process, we ask ourselves difficult questions about what we do each day. Within this learning community we trust that you inherently know your own classrooms and that your are ultimately responsible for your own education as teachers. Within this learning community we provide a space to ask pertinent questions and gently nudge each other towards a more complex practice. We include ourselves in this process as facilitators.

Multiplicity of Spaces
Exploring the concept of space takes on many different meanings. For some it is the physical spaces we teach in, the art studio, and for others it has to do with concepts in the mind, for others it is simply the time to be reflective/reflexive within a practice. 

We can consider the philosopher Gilles Deleuze when talking about breaking old patterns, and how he refers to the idea of "deterritorialization" - "a movement by which we leave the territory or move away from spaces regulated by dominant systems of signification that keep us confined within old patterns, in order make new connections." The system of teaching is full of insidious patterns of reproducing predictable movements. If we remain open to new possibilities, new patterns, new ways of emerging, that doesn't mean we have to leave what works behind. Instead, we remain perceptually aware and wide-awake to what might happen in the moment. As art educators, we have a unique role within education to work with this kind of space and thinking. So, Spaces for Possibility has to do with a state of mind. Being open to what might happen, listening to each other, checking in with ourselves, asking questions, reading and viewing the work of professional artists and educators beyond the classroom, and being present to what is before us. 

Perspectives of Others
We have an incredible group of teachers this year. Many are returning, while half of the group is new. We have high school and elementary group members. All teachers work within CPS. There is a wealth of experience within our group and we are asking Olivia Gude, founder of the Spiral Workshop and writing team member for the new visual arts standards, to lead two workshops, one on curriculum development and the other skeptical assessment. We also have our dear friend Dr. Cynthia Gehrie working with us to think about student feedback as way to improve our practice. These outside educators come in to help us practice a state of "wide-awakeness" through a type of shock. Here Greene would say that shock allows us to move into a "new province of meaning" and out of which new visions arise. Greene would say that after this shock "an event or feeling may precipitate a change in attitude." 

Often our funders ask us to think about how teacher practice will change. We find it difficult to explain how change occurs in grant writing terms, but when we read Maxine Greene's concepts of wide-awakeness and shock leading to new insights and actions this makes a great deal of sense.

However you as a teacher come to understand your own practice, this community can serve as place to tackle both the mundane and philosophical aspects of teaching. 

We are very excited to work with you this year.

If you are interested in these philosopher ideas, Maxine Greene's work can be found in The Passionate Mind of Maxine Greene edited by William Pinar. The title of the essay is "Existential and Phenomenological Influences on Maxine Greene" and Gilles Deleauze's ideas can be found in Teachers in Nomadic Spaces: Deleuze and Curriculum by Kaustuv Roy.