Episode 1 – Getting Started

Listen to Episode 1 of SallyPAL the Podcast

Blog Post – What’s in Your Way?
I had an enlightening conversation today with my friend Sheila about how I have been avoiding putting my podcast out into the world. I already had the first episode fully produced. But I have been second guessing myself daily until I finally went back and listened with people whose opinions I trust. That’s all it took. They didn’t even have to say anything. Just the act of listening to the podcast with my husband and daughter gave me fresh ears to hear what was missing. That is not to say Episode 1 is the most fabulous podcast ever made. I assure you, it is not. It is, however, the start of something I anticipate will improve as I learn and grow with your suggestions. It’s like that with original work, isn’t it? When you first write an idea into a document, or try dance steps alone in your kitchen, or sing some song phrase into your phone, you are not quite ready to share it. Or ySally Seeks Input from the Worldou struggle to make your partner or your mom (or your kid) understand what you’re creating. A few key strokes, dance steps, or musical notes later you might be ready to share. When you share, if you want your work to grow, you must start by finding someone who a) validates you as an artist, b) understands the value of constructive criticism, and c) is given the go-ahead (by you) to give an honest reaction. Most of the time you don’t even need to hear what they think, it will become clear what needs to be done as soon as you reveal this early draft. But your audience of one or two may still want to talk about what they noticed. When you allow people to express opinions about a work of art you are never suggesting that every idea expressed will be incorporated into your work. That would be silly. Allowing another person to share an opinion about something precious to you is the beginning of collaboration. To be able to hear what other people think about the work, your ego must step out of the way. Take what you can use, disregard the rest and thank all your critics for their opinions. Thank them with genuine gratitude. I promise, this gets easier to do after some practice. Don’t be confused about comments made about your art. A person commenting on your work is not critiquing your character. Listen for the contribution to the art. Sometimes, the most ridiculous ideas can lead to sublime finished work.
Listen to Episode 1 of SallyPAL the Podcast

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From Legos to littleBits

Ayah Bdeir at TED: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach
How does approaching a complex problem with the mind of a child elicit fresh, creative, accessible new things?  Ayah Bdeir, an artist/engineer looked at Legos and was inspired to consider transistors in a new way.  I have often told my students that art is a unique expression of a universal idea.  This broadens the concept of art significantly.  If we want to inspire creative thinking, we must be willing to encourage and celebrate differentness and its contribution to the creative process.  Diversity, a buzzword for racial and gender integration, takes on powerful meaning in the world of art and education.  Diversity is a necessity for artists.  But children who are different often feel at odds with a system that rewards sameness.  I look at a classroom full of middle school kids and I sometimes wonder if teaching them how to work to a standard is one way to let them off the hook.  Kids do the minimum required rather than push for greater understanding, deeper knowledge, and personal best skill development.  Once a student recognizes the objectives of the academic game, he or she is free to play at any level.  If good grades are the goal, many savvy learners do what is required to get to the goal, but no more.  For those not interested in the game, playing at academics is boring, annoying, or off the radar.  For those who have been trained to believe their grades have some connection to an individual’s character quality, the game of school can produce paralyzing anxiety.

How do we, as educators, provide the assessments kids want without attaching them to a child’s self-worth?  This non-judgmental assessment feature is no fantasy.  Children who play video games live in a world of action assessment.  When a character dies on a video screen as a result of a lack of skill or knowledge, there is rarely a response like some I have seen in school when children do poorly on tests.  The gamer’s reaction to a lack of skill is to get better at the game whether through repetition, research, or online cheats (don’t be fooled by the name; cheats have their own learning curve).  When the expectations for schoolwork reach beyond skill building and touch the sensitive nerves around a student’s developing sense of self, there is room for reassessment of our assessment tools.

Rather than push for homogeny, we could reward new ways of thinking.  The weird girl who thinks differently will be included at lunch because the school’s environment embraces and rewards her contributions.  The weird boy who daydreams will be lured into conversations to mine his mind for unique ideas that cause an upward spiral of abstract thought in the classroom.  We have a role to play as teachers in creating an environment where divergence is no longer frowned upon but encouraged.  In fact, we now know it is this divergent thinking that creates great ideas such as Legos and littleBits.  It’s about time we stop rewarding imitation.  Let’s celebrate the weird kids and give everyone permission to reveal his or her diversity.

Ernie Kovacs and TV Art

Ernie Kovacs
Image by geminicollisionworks via Flickr

I first learned of Ernie Kovacs on a random stop in 1984 when I stumbled into the New York Radio and Television Museum.  I was dumbfounded when I learned I could view old Kinescopes of shows I had never even heard of.  A docent recommended an Ernie Kovacs kinescope and I was hooked.  I spent a couple of hours looking at rare footage and falling in love with his childlike spirit and risk-taking comedy.   As an arts teacher I am constantly in search of ways to show my students what artistic expression can be.  Ernie Kovacs used the medium of television the way Picasso used brush and canvas or Julie Taymor uses the stage.  Unfortunately, for Kovacs, his legacy is only just now being heralded with a release of a retrospective by Shout! Factory.  He was a clear creative genius at a time when his talent found a voice in a brand new medium of expression.  His ideas and the medium were new.  Everything about his art was difficult to assess as there was no precedent for what he was doing.  This lack of a grade or measuring stick made it possible for Kovacs to play as a child would play.  It was a gift to television and comedy in general that he  create fearlessly.  Some ideas failed, others were before their time and still others kept his fans tuning in and his fan base growing.  To this day there are numerous iterations and flat-out copies of his work.   His comedy is as fresh and funny as it was when he was competing with Uncle Milty, Jack Benny, Steve Allen and Danny Thomas for laughs.  Television comedy is an art form that doesn’t garner a great deal of respect.  But if you are interested in seeing the work of a true artist regardless of the art form, consider giving Ernie Kovacs your attention.

NPR Story on the release of the new Ernie Kovacs anthology

Part 3 (of 4) Reconceptualizing Education

This 19 minute TED talk is well worth your time.  I have ADD and I couldn’t find a distraction that could tear me away from this man’s talk!

Charles Leadbetter is an unintentional innovator by virtue of his intense curiosity. His interest in finding out what’s available in the world of education beyond the borders of ‘sanctioned methods’ is one of the most exciting reformist efforts today. Rather than speak about education with a collection of theorists, he is out in the field on a quest. His quest is every bit as important (perhaps more so) as the panel discussions, policy debates and academic lectures. He has discovered the purest form of learning; people hungry for knowledge are using available resources to feed their hunger. What could be any more pure? This ties in with the slide show titled “Shift Happens”http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/33834 created by Karl Fisch which compares India, China and U.S. digital and educational revolutions by the numbers. It’s very provocative and I think it informs the conversation concerning what’s happening in education in rising nations.

Part 2 (of 4) – Reconceptualizing Education

Educational innovator, Dr. Jim Taylor, Huffington Post blogger and author of twelve books on parenting, education, and sports psychology, asserts that it’s time we trade in the S.T.E.M. educational model “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”and, as he puts it, “Broaden our focus into S.T.A.M.P.E.R… which stands for Science, Technology, Arts, Mathematics, Physical (activity), Emotions, and Reason.”

Everyone admits the current system is inadequate to the future we envision, but changing anything often means spending money.  Right now, with districts cutting everything from teacher salaries and jobs to closing entire schools, folks cannot imagine affording any kind of sweeping change.  It causes many reform-minded administrators to lose heart.  Taylor argues for the inclusion of the arts in the new model because, “Inventive thinking cannot be “taught” in the traditional sense of the word, but it can be experienced and nurtured through the various forms of artistic expression.”  Experience, free play, and the freedom to fail and recreate a project is not unique to the arts but arts teachers understand better than most the value of these concepts.  Without ‘failure freedom’ actors would hesitate to get on stage.  Without the experience of playing with a particular medium, an artist might not consider combining it with another medium to create a new form.  Recreation is essential in dance where an artist must return to a piece again and again to perfect her physical communication.

Dr. Taylor is recently fond of pointing out that success in education begins before school starts.  In addition to supportive families and a loving home environment, he supports free play and recess for the development of children’s imaginations and he is definitely interested in encouraging kids to push themselves hard enough to fail.

Our most famous innovators would certainly agree that free play and social creativity, ‘freedom failure’, and experience make for success in nearly every field..  Henry Ford was interested in social creativity.  He once said, “I am looking for a lot of people who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.”  Thomas Edison was known for monetizing his failures.  He famously noted, “I make more mistakes than anyone else I know, and sooner or later, I patent most of them.”  And Pablo Picasso remarked, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Perhaps Taylor is not saying anything particularly new and fresh, but if enough educators such as Taylor speak out about these common sense strategies we may finally begin to reconceptualize education for the 21st century.  We may indeed learn to honor the current generation’s needs more than we honor education’s poorly performing past.

Arts Education Advocates Speak Out

A block of marble reveals a secret

I am sharing some insights by a few profound thinkers on the subject of arts education.  I hope you will find these ideas though-provoking.  Please let me know what you think.  If you have a quote that should be included, share it in your comment.

The Disappearing Arts

“In America, we do not reserve arts education for privileged students or the elite. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students anywhere except at school. President Obama recalls that when he was a child ‘you always had an art teacher and a music teacher. Even in the poorest school districts everyone had access to music and other arts.’

Today, sadly, that is no longer the case.”

– U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, April 9, 2010

 

The Integrated Arts

“The arts in the schools do not, cannot, and should not exist in isolation.  They necessarily must operate in the framework of general education.  When they are part of the curriculum of American schools – and this cannot be taken for granted – inevitably they are there because they give students an indispensable educational dimension… The arts are affiliated with the schools’ important responsibility to pass on civilization.”

-from Strong Arts, Strong Schools by Charles Fowler
1996 Oxford University Press

 

The Arts Equation

“Education minus art? Such an equation equals schooling that fails to value ingenuity and innovation. The word art, derived from an ancient Indo-European root that means “to fit together,” suggests as much. Art is about fitting things together: words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs.

It is both a form of serious play governed by rules and techniques that can be acquired through rigorous study, and a realm of freedom where the mind and body are mobilized to address complex questions — questions that, sometimes, only art itself can answer: What is meaningful or beautiful? Why does something move us? How can I get you to see what I see? Why does symmetry provide a sense of pleasure?”

-Jeffrey T. Schnapp is director of the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, a prominent cultural historian of the 20th century, and a frequent curator of art exhibitions in Europe and the United States.

 

The Squandered Arts

“All kids have tremendous talents and we squander them pretty ruthlessly… We (educators) stigmatize mistakes… We are educating people out of their creative capacities… We don’t grow into creativity, we are educated out of it.”

-Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources.

 

The Teaching Arts

“Learning to think within the affordances and constraints of the material is one of the things that the arts teach… we can look at the arts as tasks which develop the mind because of the kinds of thinking that they evoke, practice and develop… What we need in American education is not for the arts to look more like the academics… but for the academics to look more like the arts.”

-Elliot W. Eisner, Lee Jacks Professor of Education and professor of art at Stanford University, speaking in September 2006 on “What Do the Arts Teach?”

Art is Everywhere!

The Seth Thomas Clock Company-manufactured clo...
Image via Wikipedia

Art is everywhere.  It is in everything we use, see or express.  The art we experience is the art created by millions of people who express creativity through design.  These are people who move beyond traditional models of art.  They have all been practicing artists.  Because of their commitment, training and creativity, we are so immersed in the arts we aren’t even aware of it.  We respond to the arts as a fish responds to water.  We rarely acknowledge its existence.  When we do, we speak of music, visual art or theater as if they are things we must create in order for our children to have an “arts experience”.   Kids are no more cognitively aware of their arts immersion than the adults.  Let me give an example: When I wake up, I often hear music on my radio.  This is an obvious arts experience.  But when I trudge to my bathroom I am immersed in design.  My toilet, mirror, sink, the colors on my bathroom walls, the shape of my toothbrush may be based on utilitarian notions, but there is an artistic design element to everything I use.  Even if everything were gray and made of steel, someone would find a way to insert a level of personal expression into a utilitarian product.  This ubiquitousness of artistic expression is not limited to design.  According to Mr. Webster something is theatrical if it “has the qualities of a staged presentation”.  If I attend church or synagogue or mosque or even a Buddhist temple, there is theater just as there are players in a courtroom, classroom or sports arena.  We call these events by different names but the term ‘live theater’ applies.  Dance is also an area of self expression that shows up everywhere from the traffic circle to the crowded hallways of Grand Central Station.  Many of our driving patterns are choreographed as are the flight patterns around an airport.  It is our perception or lack of it that makes artistic expression seem scarce.  Let’s return to my modern morning ritual.  At some point I will dress in clothing designed by an artist.  It won’t matter if I bought it at a thrift store or WalMart or Saks Fifth Avenue.  Before it could be made, it had to be sketched.  The design was then rendered through an artistic process.  Trial and error revealed a useful, aesthetically pleasing garment.  Fabrics and details were selected which were also designed by artists in those fields.  After all this creativity a piece of clothing appeared. The same goes for my coffee and creamer and anything that didn’t come directly from the earth.  The coffee maker I use is different in design from my brother’s coffee maker, or my sister’s, or my parents’.  If there is no need for art outside the areas designated for expression, why is there a need for differently designed appliances?  Business leaders understand the appeal of design.  They spend billions of dollars on designers and artists every year to create products that appeal to our cultural and aesthetic sensibilities.  If there is no need for art outside of its designated areas, there is no reason for design.

There has never been a time in history when art was not being created.  There are numberless examples of profound works of art emerging from dark periods of human history.  This includes the great Jewish artists of the Holocaust, Byzantine art following the fall of the Roman Empire, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the photography of the Great Depression and Dustbowl period.  Even the balladeers, bards and brilliant thinkers of the dark ages whose work is lost to us set the stage for the European Renaissance that followed.  The indispensable and urgent human need to express has been with us since cave paintings and dances ’round the fire.  After I finish writing this blog post, I will grab my beautifully composed leather bag and place in it my aesthetically pleasing computer full of music and media files.  I will walk outside my house that was designed by an architect who was  an artist in the field of building design.  I will press a button on the elegantly fashioned car key that opens the door of my goldenrod minivan.  There will not be a moment in my day when I do not experience another human being’s artistic expression.  This expression is not about talent, it’s about practice.  For everyone who believes it is more important to learn the answers on a test than to learn how to artistically express an idea, it’s time to wake up and smell the artisan coffee.

The Arts, Not Testing Practice, Improve Test Scores

“We started to treat the arts program like we treat all the other departments that matter in our school.”  That’s what Rose Greco, literacy coach, for  MS 223 in New York City says about the reason for the success of the School Arts Support Initiative (SASI) in her school.  An article in the February 2011 issue of Middle Ground (the National Middle School Association‘s practitioners’ magazine) features a different kind of educational program.  In 2008 the Center for Arts Education launched, “a multiyear research project in four New York City middle schools that provided little or no arts education.” The program began having immediate results.  According to the article, “The impact was apparent in improved student attendance and social behaviors. Results on local and standardized tests showed greater overall proficiency. The culture of each school began to change. Faculty members, administrators, and visiting artists noticed the changes… Attendance has improved dramatically… English Language Arts scores improved despite less time devoted to test preparation… Suspensions declined. Students have also acquired artistic skills that have increased their likelihood of being accepted to arts-focused high schools.”  In this video from MS 223, staff members reveal the reasons they believe the program works:

With Desire, Nearly Anything is Teachable

Bill Evans and Derek Amato have these keys in common

Until 1980 when he died, Bill Evans was one of the most important and influential jazz musicians of the modal style.  I used to pretend to be into jazz in college but only recently (and I’ve been out of college a long time) have I really been able to appreciate the improvisational styles of the 1960’s and early 70’s.  There were a couple of styles from that period that competed for attention and they are referred to as free jazz and modal style.  Evans’ influence is still felt among young composers in the modal style.  Evans seemed really interested in teaching young musicians as well as  allowing them to discover their styles independently.  He also had some things to say about self-teaching after he graduated from college with a teaching degree in 1950.  In a 1966 interview with his brother Harry Evans from the television program, “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”,  he described his growth as a musician, “I don’t consider myself as talented as many people, but in some ways that was an advantage… I didn’t have a great facility immediately and in a way it forced me to build something.”

Compare Evans’ statement to the  fantastic story of the sudden savant, Derek Amato who suffered a brain injury after diving into a swimming pool to catch a football.  Derek recently visited the Mayo Clinic to film a Discovery special concerning his sudden ability to play the piano.  According to Derek, before his accident he had “never even touched a piano.”  In contrast to Bill Evans,  Amato says of his own experience, “I still can’t read music or tell you where the notes are.  All I know is the black keys are flat.  I don’t even know what I’m going to play each time I sit down… but since my accident, the notes just pour out of me.”  Amato can’t seem to stay away from pianos.  From the moment he touched one after his accident he could not stop.  He plays for hours at a time because now his desire is so great.  Although he doesn’t read music, he composes intricate pieces on the fly and plays by ear.  It’s as though what he is experiencing is an end run around the conscious brain to the unconscious mind where style and substance meet.

Bill Evans referred to this as a universal mind.  Evans discussed the need for intense musical study in order to free the mind to go where it can create freely.  “I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal musical mind.  Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people.”

Evans’ theory is similar to what Stephen Nachmanovitch has to say in his book on creativity titled Saving the Cat in one way:  They both believe artists are especially adept at tapping a part of the mind where creativity lies.  Nachmanovitch makes the case that the spark of creativity comes first and can be followed by intense study of the medium, “The important thing is to start someplace, anyplace. Then we can play with, refine, elaborate the original statement until it pleases us. Before the dance of inspiration and perspiration can begin, there must be some raw material, some spark of inciting energy.”  Although both believe in allowing the language of creativity to lead the way, Evans suggests the intense study of technique must precede the creative event while Nachmanovitch believes the creative event must inspire the desire to study artistic technique.  I tend to lean toward Nachmanovitch’s theory but at some point the two, technique and creative expression, begin to tumble downhill one over the other, picking up speed until together the two take flight as one creative event.  Technique informs expression which inspires the artist to hone his technique.

In Amato’s case of sudden savantism, his expression has inspired him to begin to study song structure, music theory and technique.  But his condition allows him to create endless amazing compositions without knowing anything at all about music.  He creates freely without the hindrance of a lack of skill.  For the rest of us though, there seem to be two pathways for creative expression: to have a germ of an idea and pursue it passionately, learning the medium as you go or to imagine a desired outcome and learn the medium necessary to achieve the vision.  Ultimately, it will occur as a holistic experience.  In fact it might be difficult to determine where one approach ends and another begins.  In fact, the immersion in the creative pursuit makes the division unnecessary.  It really doesn’t matter how you do your art when you’re in your element.  The same artist may approach different projects in different ways.  It’s the joy of creation that ultimately informs the effort.  The freedom an artist experiences makes her want to continue to pursue the art.  Although their styles and approaches to music are different, Bill Evans and Derek Amato have in common their creative freedom and desire.  And as a teacher I have learned my most useful tool is a student’s desire.  With desire, nearly anything is teachable.

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