Use Student Surveys (in part) to Measure Our Teaching Effectiveness


A teacher’s stakeholders’ satisfaction with their course is an important measure of instructional effectiveness that is too often overlooked or outright ignored. Of course it’s absurd to hope to satisfy every young adult’s needs and wants equally throughout an academic year, but to endeavor to do so seems a requisite to respecting student voice in the classroom. We educators all know sometimes young adults simply don’t know what they need as well as we often do—our experience, credentials, and wisdom are the sources of a power only we have been fully initiated into; ideally, we use said power to fill the gaps in their knowledge, to advise, and ultimately to predict and instruct what they will need to know to seize opportunities and become a reasonably happy and contributing member of society. It would be simple for me to disregard and ignore the eight students above who were only “somewhat satisfied” with my pedagogy, but really it just inspires me to try additional angles next year to catch the students that seem to fall through the cracks of my lessons.

The above statistic is achievable by all facilitators of educational opportunities, even those who simply aren’t very good at their job. Judging by the flood of students running from public schools in Columbus, OH to Arts & College Preparatory Academy, though, this is a domain many educators fail in. This one measure alone can help teachers develop a reputation as student friendly simply because they make a concerted effort to address and respond to questions, emails, and confused looks with attention, respect, and—not the answers—but a pathway for students to uncover and/or build their own intellectual responses to course content. For me, this is just part and parcel for the profession.

Every project needs to be useful—this means, yes, it covers the content—but, more importantly, educators’ projects should actually be applicable and relevant to real life experiences. The utility of assignments must be explicit and explained—this is “the why” that Simon Sinek talks about in his TED presentation on leadership. Student buy-in increases the more they sense and understand the applicability, the literary usefulness, of our work on the *frontier of freedom (*the classroom, according to LBJ).

The learning in high school happens via the feedback, the suggestions, the advice, the corrections, the explanations, and the help that we facilitate as lead learners, and—this is key—their responsiveness and editing in the face of said criticism. High quality feedback—most notably in their writing—takes time, a lot of time, and is exhausting and sometimes (I prefer to be honest) dull. But pushing myself to comment on their Google Docs until my eyes tear up from staring into a glowing screen is the bayonet to bayonet foxhole fighting of our profession; I am not one to easily roll over and show my belly for the filthy fascist of sloth to jab. No one has to be, really, but the temptation for some is there because—truth be told—few administrators or parents have the temerity to check our work and suggest we aren’t giving diligent enough feedback to students. How would your students assess the quality of your feedback? what does this say about your practice?—as a tip, I paste lots of comments into a Pages document and then use the search bar to bring up reoccurring comments and links to explanations on routine errors like the Ghengis Kahn of punctuation, the comma splice, or the *Stalinesque semi-colon (*not a real thing).

So, yes, as I tell all students who don’t have me in class, but claim to be excited to study with me: I’m overrated. I say this to hopefully lower their expectations, to feign modesty, and as an attempt at humor. I actually think there is something to be said for students having low expectations or even a low opinions of us as, that way, we can Prince Hal-style surprise them by our brilliant educational performance. Apparently, at least one student truly decided my course was all hype. Again, it’s easy to be bummed and wonder how you failed that one young adult, but all it did was make me chuckle and make me want to fix my work with that type of student in subsequent work together. Was it likely the one student I had to fail this year?—probably, yes. Is it my fault they failed?—nope, not a chance; I gave said student more time than just about any other. In the end, sometimes young adults need to see they can’t manipulate their way to a passing score; you get what you earn in my courses and that doesn’t always sit well. So be it. My job isn’t to be loved or liked; it’s to instruct and guide as best as I know how. That said, the above responses reflect my intentions and are one of the best measurements of the success of my work that I have found.

This one is always interesting because my classes are structured differently that most. I don’t do quizzes, lectures, and tests ad nauseam over and over throughout the year. I use projects to guide student inquiry, creative tasks that allow students to show their learning in unique ways like via puppet show or choreographed dance (both had a writing component explaining their artistic choices). After thirteen years at three institutions—Catholic and charter (public schools who have interviewed me have always passed on my talents)—I’m confident my anecdotal evidence proves my way of teaching is superior to bubble tests, rote memorizations and regurgitation worksheets, and uninspired Pearson or McGraw-Hill textbook tasks.

The comments in such surveys are always revealing, blunt, and evoke a grim combination of fear and excitement in me; they make me feel incredibly vulnerable, like a babe televised to the world as a reality show live birth. Yuck, yes, maybe a little, but more beautiful than eww. Author Tom Robbins writes of a character who suggests “There are only two mantras in life: yuck and yum.” That said, here’s the yuck: “too much writing and discussions,” but here’s the yum: “best class ever! keep going above and beyond for the students Mr. Sherman.”

It’s fairly simple to set up your own survey and have students assess you at year’s end (I do this in the middle of the year, too). You don’t need to broadcast your results for the world, but sharing our work as educators is how the next generation of young teachers can eclipse us. May they do so, and may we eclipse our past teaching selves. Yum.

––Aaron Sherman is a facilitator of educational opportunities at Arts & College Preparatory Academy, a charter school, in Columbus, Ohio. He was able to make the leap from teacher-priest at a prestigious Catholic school in Toledo, Ohio to a primarily LGTBQIA, formerly-bullied, and artistic school community without issue because he adapts to fit his students, and not the reverse. He lives and works for his #5Family, and to bring about a better tomorrow today for all those with whom his students interact. You can find him on YouTube sharing everything he knows to all who will listen, one day at a time: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9al6_jSyNthNs5E3838VOw and on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaron-sherman-b776b516/ and on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/Aaron_n_Wndlnd

Socratic Oath: Do No Harm—A Teacher’s Oath

Regardless of the age, location, or demographic one teaches, the first principle of all educators should be: do no harm.

So, yes, I borrowed this from the Hippocratic Oath—the oath physicians take before beginning their practice—and, yes, I can imagine a world where we educators take a similar oath before commencing our classroom practices. This particular component of an educator’s oath—let’s call it the Socratic Oath—is essential to keep in mind as too often teachers think their content and their curriculum and their assignments are the most important things in the universe and should be regarded as such by every student at all times. As a parent and facilitator of educational opportunities (the term “teacher” doesn’t work for me), I know this to be totally bogus. School is all too often an experience of being powerless in the face of adult domination which masquerades as guidance, and the young adults I teach seem to have picked up on this prior to their entering our classroom space as juniors and seniors.

Do no harm should be our first responsibility as educators so we do not force our Beowulf essay assignment down the throat of a student who has more pressing matters at home like: being child-care providers for their siblings while mom works nights, performing in a off-school grounds performance space like a theatre, working late at Chipotle and then going to check in on their ill hospital-bed-confined granny afterwards. Not sure where you teach and work, but where I am in the city in Columbus, Ohio such occurrences are not as rare as we might hope; in fact, based on the evidence I have, at least a third of my students find themselves in comparable circumstances at home. So what are we to do?

Do let them—at least occasionally—negotiate a mutually beneficial due date or altered task due to their circumstances—some might call this differentiation or personalization, both of which are, of course, all the rage right now.

Do hold them accountable to the freshly negotiated due date and altered task—no one is saying allow them to do less, just to take a path more appropriate given their external challenges in life. They are, clearly, at a disadvantage in life compared to their non-swamped affluent suburban counterparts, but they won’t catch up taking zeroes for missing deadlines.

Do let them feel safe enough communicating with you to open up about their circumstances, not only to build and strengthen rapport, but to foster your empathic drive as their instructor and—like it or not—as their mentor—every adult mentors every young person each time they are observed adulting, and the truth is how we treat them and how we act as adults sticks with them far more than the learning objective we point at the board and lecture about.

Do remind them that you want them to do the learning and to do the work as that is what is important—regardless of when it trickles in to you. Your main focus should be to help them learn and grow as human beings, not to teach them to meet deadlines and rigidly imposed submission timelines. Yes, deadlines are important and in life you have to meet them to survive and thrive, but, no, high school is not the time where meeting deadlines is the number one most important thing. The number one most important thing right now is to help our young people learn and grow a little every day, to aid them in working toward becoming their best self, and, yes, that does eventually culminate in a conversation and expectations about the importance of meeting deadlines for school, work, and beyond. That said, some projects and a given student’s home situation may merit an extension, and teaching young people to negotiate for extensions hones their interpersonal persuasive skills as well as their ability to ask for what they want from a person in a position of power over them.

Doing no harm also implies breaking any and all rules imposed by any entity that may negatively affect your students. You must be their caretaker, the one looking out for them, their protector, even. You may have some problems in your lap as a result, but any administrator worth their salt should understand your move was out of respect for human dignity, and not malice. As an example, I was once asked to have the students take their third practice ACT section test of the day. We had just spent the entire morning doing the same, and one more section may have emotionally broken this somewhat emotionally-fragile group, so, I opted out. I technically didn’t do my job in that one brief moment and I’ve zero regrets. Instead, we discussed best practices like mindful meditation breathing for managing stress, anxiety, and typical young adult emotional mindsets like the fear of the future, the fear of failure, and the fear of not being successful—of not being enough. The conversation we had as a class far out-weighed in value any practice ACT ever taken in history. Yes, practice tests are helpful and important, but, no, not in that moment, and as the professional on duty that day I knew my students best and I made an executive decision. Later, I did, I admit, inform one of my principals just to be open and do my due diligence as a professional, and luckily—as I’ve no union protection—they understood and trusted that I made the best choice available in the moment for the people with whom I was teaching and learning in the room.


Do recall Maslow’s Hierarchy which, from this article’s vantage, suggests the deeper work we aspire to work through with students is not feasible until their physiological needs are met—such as working that evening job so they can contribute to the family’s food supply or for their rent payment. Helping their uncle move, and thus being unable to meet their research paper topic deadline, is important for their sense of belongingness and familial affection and adjusting this deadline to help them cope through such a moment is the humane thing to do—and I will always be a human being before I am a teacher.

For me, do no harm also suggests we must teach material that is directly related and applicable to their lives and that, yes, it is our job to ensure this is happening and that we’ve properly persuaded the students of the value of our current educational endeavor. As author and consultant Simon Sinek suggests, explain “the why;” explain the reason behind the work in order to create more buy-in, trust, and engagement. We are teachers not just of content, but—more importantly—of life. Accordingly, we must give our students equipment for living in the context of our content areas every single day, not just when it is convenient or when it’s in the standards—these are standards, remember, ultimately dictated by politicians whose expertise is law (supposedly), and not education or the advancement of human consciousness (that’s our expertise, and we should own that without apology).

The standards of every teacher, if they want to avoid doing harm, must include matters that directly give students the tools they will need now and in the future to create a meaningful, happy, and purposeful life. Indeed, using the English Language Arts to make better decisions, to advance one’s personal perspective, agenda and objective, to stretch toward self-actualization, and to become the best versions of ourselves as human doings—is at the very beating heart of my practice. May the blood-jet of your practice be the same and may our students all benefit, adding value to the world we make together.

–Aaron Sherman is a facilitator of educational opportunities at Arts & College Preparatory Academy, a charter school, in Columbus, Ohio. He was able to make the leap from teacher-priest at a prestigious Catholic school in Toledo, Ohio to a primarily LGTBQIA, formerly-bullied, and artistic school community without issue because he adapts to fit his students, and not the reverse. He lives and works for his #5Family, and to bring about a better tomorrow today for all those with whom his students interact. If you have additional amendments to his idea of the Socratic Oath, please comment below as he’d love to hear your suggestions. You can find him on YouTube sharing everything he knows to all who will listen, one day at a time: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9al6_jSyNthNs5E3838VOwand on LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaron-sherman-b776b516/ and on Twitter here:https://twitter.com/Aaron_n_Wndlnd

The Kuleshov Effect and Soviet Montage

Posted by Eric Meiring

serguei-eisenstein-montage-2

Soviet Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein

 

During our meeting this week, the conversation shifted to the way art can affect the perception of the viewer, and, in turn, how these perceptions can be manipulated by the artist.

An extremely important example of this manipulation is the Kuleshov Effect. The Kuleshov Effect was developed by Soviet film theorist and director Lev Kuleshov during the 1910s and 1920s. An editing technique, and a theoretical precursor to modern montage, the Kuleshov effect is a mental phenomena in which the viewer derives more meaning from multiple shots back to back, than from a single shot alone. Kuleshov’s films demonstrated that when a static shot of a man’s face is shown in combination with another shot, the viewer’s interpretation of the man’s expression is dramatically altered. When the man is preceded by a bowl of soup, viewers see the man’s expression as hungry; When the man is preceded by a girl in a casket, viewers see the man’s expression as sad. Critics hailed Kuleshov’s editing techniques as innovative and emotionally powerful; of course, the man’s face was still a completely static shot. Here, Kuleshov’s theory and technique was proven valid and effective even under the highest level of scrutiny.

This theory was later expanded upon by Kuleshov’s student and master director Sergei Eisenstein. Kuleshov’s theory appears in the opening sequences of Eisenstein’s masterpiece, “The Battleship Potemkin,” and is made use of throughout the film. The modern montage owes much of its existence to these two filmmakers, and montage’s ability to affect and influence the viewer is an important structure to remember when interpreting a work of art.

 

The Kuleshov Effect:

 

Community through Video Production

As I’ve started thinking about the new school year, I’m focused on developing community in my classroom – in my AP Lit, Humanities English 10 (my PAGES class), and D-Town Video Production. The longer I teach, the more I see the positive effects community building has on my students’ learning as well as their ways of living with each other in the world. One of the more significant successes of community building at the end of this last year involved a group of students in my video production class. They were eagerly gathered around a computer to watch the final version of a video by my student Clay. He wrote, directed, filmed and scored a movie called “The Book Robber”. Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.58.41 PMThis couldn’t have happened a year ago because Clayand threeof his classmates from the Transitions classroom wouldn’t have been in my class. Our school’sTransitions students have a variety of developmental disorders, but severalare identified as being on the autism spectrum and have characteristics thereof that preclude them from being mainstreamed, but their teachers are always in search of regular ed classes in which they can not only be included, but where they can become a part of the community.

 

A year and a half ago, my course had developed areputation ofcommunity building through a small group project-oriented approach to making short films. Early last August, two weeks before school started, Miss Emily, a teaching assistant in our Transitions room, stopped byto let me know that we would be working together this year in D-Town Video Production, as four of her students had been added to my class. This was a joyful surprise to me; the students in the Transitions classroom had previously been successfully mainstreamed into gym class (for both the physical and social benefits). Administration and the Transitions lead teacher had decided that D-Town would be an ideal addition for some of their students. My four new students had varying degrees of autism, andthe primary goal for them would be socialization.

Delaware City’s stance on inclusion is in tune with my own – we want our “regular ed” students and our “inclusion” students to have as much interaction as possible for the benefit of both of them. We grow compassionate, patient, thoughtful students who understand that the world is a blend of people of various abilities who all have something to offer.

Twenty years ago, I worked for Goodwill Industries in Columbus by teaching daily living skills to adults and young adults in their homes and in the community, most of that time being spent with a boy named Joey who had moderate autism. When we would be out in the community, I would be saddened by the way Joeywas perceived and treated by others – as being so different as to be unaware of how negatively strangerswould sometimes treat him. During ourtwo years together, I often thought that my job was only half of what it should have been – I was helping him learn to be in the world, but often it was a world that didn’t know how to be with him. This new opportunity in D-Town would be a realization of what I had always hoped my time with Joey could have been – a chance to develop real community.

Going into lastyear, the goal I was given for these four young men was to provide them with opportunities to be in community, to build socialization skills. The “regular ed” (I dislike the term, but it is the one my context uses, so I’ll stick with it) students’ video production teams each invited a Transition student (the kids don’t use these words – for them they are just other students) into their groups. The Transition students might hold a reflector to help with lighting, or would even act at times, but I wanted something more for them.

Mid-September,I said to Miss Emily, “What would happen if we put a camera into one of your students’ hands and just let him go with it? What would the world look like to him?” So I asked Austin if we could work together to make a film. He had made attempts at storyboarding when we practiced the skill as a class, but the cognitive process of creating a plot would have required so much prompting from me that I feared the film might take on too much of my own vision. I wanted the film to be his as much as possible, so I asked him if he wanted to film one of the classes at the school, and we talked through which ones would be most interesting to capture on video. He decided to film the ceramics class.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 2.06.14 PMBefore our first visit to the ceramics room, we talked through how he would tell the teacher about his idea for the film and how he would ask the students for their permission to film them. He did both wonderfully, and the students and teacher were enthusiastic about the possibility. Austin and I reviewed how to use the DSLR before class the next morning, then we went to the ceramics room and filmed for the period. I would remind him to watch the camera’s screen to make sure he was keeping the subject in frame, but otherwise he was in control. When we got back to our room the next day, we began editing. I showed him how to use Final Cut Express and guided him through the process, but left him in control. He chose music from a free music website we searched together. He made this film-“Ceramics”. Austin and I had discovered together how rich his and his friends’ experience could be in D-Town, far beyond just socialization.

A month later, I invitedTy’ron, another Transitions student, to make a movie with me. While less verbally communicative than Austin, Ty’ron loved to write on the board and windows of our room. His writing often included drawings, though both still required some interpretation – we were seeing into his way of thinking. So I was excited about the prospects of how he might be able to create more of a narrative than Austin had. Ty’ron showed up the next day with a complete script. The two of us spent the next few weeks working on his film. Again, I showed him how to use the camera and then rehearsedScreen Shot 2016-07-25 at 2.11.38 PMthe social interactions with him before he approached the teachers and students he wanted in the film, but otherwise he was in control. He even acted in his film, “New Things! My TKCCSV Things?”: a loosely narrative film in which he polls students and teachers about his favorite things to see which ones they liked best. When we showed his film to the student body in one of our monthly viewings in the auditorium, they cheered with support, both before and after. It was beautiful.

Clay’s project was my last collaboration for the year. He had made a film about lunchtime earlier in the year, but it never really felt like him – it was more of an imitation of the style of film Austin had made. Clay wanted to make a second film and came to me with a multiple scene script about a student stealing a book from the library and then being tracked down by school detectives. Clay was open to discussing and revising the script to make it meet the audience’s needs because he truly cares about movies. In fact, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of film. It is one of his gifts. And his film shows it – you can see gags, plot twists, and exchanges adapted into his film from the many he knows and loves.

We were making this film in the midst of my other students filming their final projects, so time was scarce, but five of the boys in D-Town happily agreed to give up a day and a half of class to act in Clay’s film. Clay described their costume needs and they actually all remembered to bring their materials on the right day (a victory and a rarity – really a sign of their caring for Clay).

I walked with the group to get them into the spaces they would need, but Clay was in control. Occasionally I asked Clay if he wanted to get a second shot of something just in case, but he declined, and he was right to do so. The film turned out wonderfully. For Clay’s film, I was a little more active in the editing process, as he finds the tedium of importing footage difficult, but then he made final edit suggestions and chose the music. He made a film that his new D-Town friends were proud to be in. They had fun making it, and as I watched them I understood it to be an act of caring that I’m not even sure they were aware of. It is just their way of being. Here’s Clay’s film -”The Book Robber”.

Our D-Town students, through filmmaking, have a chance to grow together in their compassion and understanding of each other. My love of this course has grown exponentially because of this, partially because of the community we have formed, but also because we no longer see boundaries. Everything is possible; anything could lead to an amazing experience. We just need to be open to the moment.

For this next year I am gamifying D-Town so that students work toward badges for the different filmmakingskills (lighting, editing, directing). One of the badges I’m most excited about is the Buddy Badge – I’m going to let go of the control I had this year and invite the regular ed students to partner with the Transition students to mentor them through their own filmmaking process as I have done. The potential for growth for all of them will be wondrous.

We are creating a space together in which we aren’t Transition students and regular ed students. We are filmmaking together, and honoring each other’s unique ways of being through art and community. We are learning to be human together.

Tom Hering, English Teacher

Learning with a side of grades

A week ago, a student said something so sad in my Humanities English 10 class. We were about to choose parts for that day’s reading of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sunwhen a studentmentioned how little time she had to finish an assignment, but that she needed to get it done for the grade.

(Distant siren goes off in my head.)

“But your real goal is to learn, right?” I asked.

“Mr. Hering, we do this for the grades.” This stopped me in my tracks. I could feel a crack forming in what I saw as the shared understanding oflearning we had been co-constructingall year. As my confusion melted into sadness, acouple of other similar comments were uttered:

“Mr. Hering, parents don’t ask us what we learned, they ask howour grades are.”

“My parents say I have to get good grades to get into a good college so I can get a good job.”

….and then the saddest of all – “Mr. Hering, teachers give us enough time for grades, not enough time to learn.” I had to say it over in my head a few times to even make sense of it. My eyes welled up.

I looked out at their faces and saw pain, sorrow, frustration….and nodding of agreement, many heads nodding, eyes staring back at me. I couldn’t quite understand what was happening. They looked broken. To be fair, they were also three days away from their AP US History test, and had all been madly studying for many days, running on energy reserves they would otherwise save for a desert island.

But we had such wonderful experiences this year growing with the guest artists from the Wex PAGESprogram. We had explored art and literature, and then co-created projects that expanded our understanding of the world for each other.

Glancing from them to their Historical Conflict Assemblage projects on the top of the cabinetPhoto on 5-16-16 at 3.04 PM #2(inspired by our work around the Noah Purifoy exhibit), I couldn’t make sense of it all.

Then one of them tried to pull the moment back together:

“Well, we’re just talking about how it is in our other classes, not in this class. We know this class isn’t about grades.”

It helped a little, but in a choked whisper, I said, “I don’t want that to be true for you in any class. That isn’t what we’ve been about becoming this year. I don’t even know what to say right now.” So we moved on to reading the play. Right before the bell rang at the end of class, I attempted to reframe their understanding of learning, but I, and they, needed a little more time. “We’ll come back to this tomorrow.”

My teacher friendsstarted to trickle into my room for lunch: time to eat whileplaying board games – time to reenergize both our minds and bodies. I told them about the conversation, repeating twice “Then she said we give them enough time for grades, not for learning,” still barely understanding it, but knowing how it could be true. “Don’t we cut down to the ‘power standards’, focusing on just 50% of the state standards so that we can take learning deeper? Are we failing?” I had this conversation a few more times that day with other colleagues and my wife. I fell asleep that night wondering what kind of habits we are reallybuilding in our classrooms.

When class startedthe next day, I drew this on the board:

Learning vs. Grades Triangles

“I want to revisit our conversation from yesterday. I’m not sure I’ve stopped thinking about it since, and I know that if my own children ever come home from school and say what you said yesterday, I’ll wonder where I went wrong.”

Pointing at the diagram, “Look at the triangle in the center. If you learn for the sake of grades, you exist in there. Imagine that in kindergarten you start at the left hand side of the diagram. As you move to the right, you are learning and getting good grades, but the triangle ends – perhaps at the end of high school or college or grad school, but it is guaranteed that at some point you’ll stop being rewarded with grades. Now, by that point, what will be your motivation to learn? You’ve been learning for the sake of grades for 12 to 18 years – that’s a pretty serious habit. Imagine developing any habit for that long, and then trying to quit. It would be tough.

“Clearly you’ll still grow, but will you do it for the right reasons? When offered the opportunity to move up the pay scale at work by getting more education, will you ask around to see where others got the cheapest credits, or will you want to know what classes could help you best to grow as a person/thinker/collaborator/worker? If you’re in the habit of grades, and the incentive is just to finish the class, not to hold onto the knowledge, likely you’ll look for the cheap class. That will be your habit.

“Instead, I hope that when I see you in twenty years, you’re living outside of that triangle, in the space of the larger angle. And notice, the angle has no end on the right side. If we make a habit of learning for the sake of learning, for the joy of knowledge and to help us understand ourselves and the world, then there is never a reason to stop – the habit feeds itself.”

We had a good talk after that, but I was still saddened about what we need to do as a school system to help our students build better habits in the future. PAGES is a step in that process for me: I want my students to be strong enough to face life with frameworks about how literature, art, music, performance, history, politics…and our own lives intersect, to find what really matters for us.

Perhapswe challenge the powerof the G.P.A. as David Brooks did last week, or we teach our kids the 5 Whys. Maybe next year we start the year with Alexandra Robbins’ Overachievers.

What I know for sure is that art integration will be an essential part of that process, and the kids I’m sending on to their junior year of high school will hopefully approach their learning with a little more forethought, with a different frame. That they might see it as learning with a side of grades instead of an obligatory step on the way to “a good job”. Oh yeah, we’ve got to spend some time unpacking that one someday, too.

Tom Hering,Learner

Making Something Out of Nothing

As we round out the year in Pages with our third and final experience, we will see Noah Purifoy’s work in the exhibition Junk Dada. Working with Bryan Moss, visual arts artist-in-residence, we decided to first explore this work with as many of the five senses as we could engage. Armed with a box of “stuff”, Bryan introduced Purifoy’s work, a brief history, a biography, and images of his assemblages and collages.

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This was no typical lecture. During the presentation, students wrapped their fingers in yarn, paper, and other small unidentifiable objects. Students listened, asked questions, and worked together in small groups of three and four, with the occasional lone student breaking free to create a work on their own. Students listened and built with the “stuff” they found scattered on their tables or desks. What was the end goal? Whatever they wanted it to be – this kind of freedom often a challenge when students are staring at a blank page trying to translate their thoughts into writing. But with the materials, students had a lot to say, as they looked at Purifoy’s work, considered the choices he made as an artist, and engaged in fluid discussions about Dada, art and social justice, the museum, and community.

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There were no crisis moments of creative or maker’s block; no one got stuck. No one thought this activity of lecture, learning, and play felt weird. Everyone learned something, most likely learned many things. Students all knew what to do with their slivers of paper, buttons and beads, yarn, feathers, and sparkly things. We discussed how objects can be arranged to represent an idea or how those objects can be used to build a narrative. This is one way to integrate pre-writing and the making process: encouraging students to be physical in the process, be thoughtful with their choices, and most of all, to play.

Students Answer Life’s Messy Questions Together

We don’t always have the answers to life’s messy questions. Through the PAGES program, English I students had the opportunity to experienceGirlhood and consider how one teenage girl attempts to answer these questions. With very few resources or reliable people guiding her in the right direction, Marieme makes a chain of “bad” choices.

2016-01-29 13.48.38During our post-visit, the following messy questions were printed and cut into strips:

What is on the other side of this choice?
What if I dare to dream?
What does my voice sound like?
Whose life is this anyway?
How do you know it’s love?
What if I make “the wrong” decision?
Who do I think I am?
Who is in control of this situation?
What do I do now?
To get to tomorrow, what do I need to do today?

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Students chose one question that interested them and formed groups based on that question. Within their groups, they discussed and wrote about the following:

    • If Marieme had asked herself this question at different moments in the film, what would have been her answer? At the beginning, the middle, the end?
    • Think about moments in your own lives. What do you need to know to be able to answer these questions?

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Students selected a peer from their group to report their answers to the class. The resulting discussion proved that while small, these young students had big things to say! They were able to effectively analyze a film as a text and make connections to their own lives:

Even when she made a bad decision, it was HER decision, and she was in control.”

Showing love is love; it’s about what you do versus what you say. “

I picked this but I didn’t know what this meant until they helped me.”

You have to consider every outcome, not just the good. You cannot ignore the bad effects of your choices. You need to think critically about your choices.”

“She lost everyone because of one bad choice.”

“I don’t think the door was locked for her. I don’t think doors are locked forever.

“Don’t doubt yourself.”

 

In the Classroom: Seven Ways Into The Media Arts Experience

We will screen Girlhood, a film by Céline Sciamma, in a matter of days, and we are busy in the classroom engaging with this upcoming experience in myriad ways. When encountering a text, or a large body of work in Pages, we try to avoid considering that text as the end all, be all, the grand moment, the point to reach, and then we’re done. Instead we cultivate conversations between the main text and other texts, sometimes, unlikely ones or weird ones; we stretch and stretch some more, the content and themes. We ask: How many different ways can we get into this work, and make connections beyond it? Below are some examples:

 

What’s in a name? –with Kim Leddy, Mosaic

Mosaic students are beginning a big folklore project, and with that we began to think about the narratives of our lives. We considered these tales that wave and warn our curiosities into wonder and at other times into submission.

We began with the folklore of names, entertaining why we name things, especially inanimate objects, and that led us into two nonfiction texts, excerpts of text-based journalism, about the folklore around how Apple’s iconic Siri got her name. We read two excerpted versions of the story (tech folklore if you will), then had students turn to writing their own coming-to-name narratives, a play on the idea of coming-of-age, a central theme in the film, Girlhood.

 

Whose life is this anyway? – with Kim Swensen, Westerville North

Students are in the thick of Toni Morrison’s Sula, so we paired that text with the children’s book, also by Morrison along with her son Slade, The Big Box, and a song in the front yard, by Gwendolyn Brooks. In those pairings we discussed identity, boundaries, oppression, and choice. Students found the characters in each of the text were seeking something, but in that seeking there were obstacles, interventions, and consequences.

After a rich discussion making connections in all three texts, students wrote in the voice of the character in the Gwendolyn Brooks piece, seeking beyond what is immediately before in plain sight. Students asked themselves what they were curious about, what spaces, boundaries, or mindset did they want to break open or expand, theme explored at length in Girlhood.

 

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Why don’t students read more poetry? – with Thomas Hering, Delaware Hayes

Students are reading The Yellow Wallpaper, and thinking about ideals around feminism, oppression, and voice. We wanted to explore more poetry (because students do not get a lot poetry in the curriculum), so we paired that short story text with a few poems, one we read in the pre-visit, Letter to a Friend Unsent, by Rebecca Lindenberg. We also began with a short video clip of Naomi Shihab Nye on the civic responsibility of the poet, a case for poetry to move and stir the senses, a permission to be human and to feel emotion and vulnerability, to engage with empathy.

We pulled the texts in conversation with each other, as students made connections to safe and unsafe spaces, boundaries and oppression, the stillness or the coming to voice, something the main character in Girlhood grapples with throughout the film, and themes running through The Yellow Wallpaper.

 

What can we learn from the artist and why is that important to our writing? – with Aaron Sherman, ACPA

We used our session to slow down and learn from the artists, using two different texts: film and poetry. We wanted to explore time and space, and as the lesson developed had the chance to explore so much more than we anticipated. We watched a scene from the high suspense film Day Night Day Night, by Julia Loktev, then listened and read the poem The House with Only an Attic and a Basement, Kathryn Maris.

Watching the film we entertained three ideas: a question for the excerpted work, what information we could gather from the scene, and considerations of before and/or after [the scene}. The point was to take an extended, close look at the film and gather ideas on what the artist was doing to pull us through the narrative. Students identified uses of color, light, sound, long close-ups on the character, limited dialogue, and the placement or use of objects in the scene to create suspense, slow down or speed up time, tension, and to build the narrative.

After the film clip, we listened to a reading of the poem by both the author and a student in class. Listening to at least two different versions of the reading is an ideal entry to the poem. Following the readings, we used the same extended looking to peel away what the writer was doing in the work. In both cases with the film and the literature, we stayed away from meaning (it’s a good challenge for students), to examine the art and what the artist is doing to convey that meaning as practice for watching a film with subtitles: following the narrative as it unfolds, and looking for clues in the imagery and context, even as the dialogue flies across the screen (this practice especially essential for slower readers of text).

Often students get stuck in only knowing how to seek out meaning, analyze the text in a way that is tunneled and limited. In this exercise we create boundaries for students to slow down and look at the work, not just for meaning (though you can build that in later), but for technique, artistic devices, choices the artist is making. Students can become better writers by learning what a writer is doing in their work, not just what the work is saying or means (though that’s important too!).

In the end we wrote for a short time taking what we learned and trying to transfer that into the writing.

 

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So you want to make a documentary? – with Andrea Patton, Whetstone HS

Students want to make coming-of-age documentaries. Again, the coming-of-age theme is central in the film Girlhood. However, as I’ve learned from a range of visual media artists, documentaries just don’t happen, in other words, you turn on a camera and just film. Documentaries need a premise, intention, and could use some pre-writing as a way to organize ideas, the stance, or the narrative.

We watched the documentary They Call Me Muslim Diana Ferrero, and gathered as much information as we could, forging the meaning or premise of the film (though that was tempting to many students), but rather what the filmmaker was doing to deliver or convey that meaning or premise. We considered that if they want to make documentaries, they should watch a few to learn to the craft.

With help, students did a nice job keeping their opinions of the subject matter of the film to themselves, and keeping a sharp focus on what the filmmaker did to highlight the varying points of view of the subject matter. It was important to not get burdened by whether or not we agreed or disagreed with the opposite stances of the film, but rather to consider whether or not those stances were in balance. We watched the film to learn from the filmmaker and what she did or did not do in conveying the perspectives and subject matter, resisting chiming in with our opinions on said subject matter (there will be plenty of time to debate that later).

 

Mastering the Argument – with Elise Allen, Central Crossing

Students will inevitably have to write persuasive pieces, argument essays, works that try to convey a notion to the reader. But before students can do that they need to know who that reader is, make a few assumptions, and then on to the persuasion of said reader. However, if students never learn to write to, or at the very least consider their reader or audience beyond just the teacher grading the essay, students will get stuck repeating the same ideas over and over again without bringing in any evidence or fact to support the stance. We encouraged students to think beyond just writing to the teacher. Who is your audience, and how will you convey your stance to that audience? If the only assumption is your audience is your teacher; that limits the risks a writer will take to convey an idea or stance.

We watched a short documentary film, They Call Me Muslim, by Diana Ferrero. The film explores two sides of an issue, and students, while watching (with subtitles – more practice for the film Girlhood), gathered information. What is the thesis or stance? Who is making the case? How is the filmmaker making that case? Who is the audience? Watching an argument reveal itself on screen, allows students to see how an artist can “show and tell”. It also allows students to have a critical eye for bias, something that will help students curb bias in their own writing.

In the end, we explored the visual argument as practice for text-based argument writing. The documentary is a good resource for exploring how-to tackle persuasion.

 

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All the World’s a Stage (and we wonder what it sounds like) – with Laura Garber and Sarah Patterson

With Shakespeare in our pocket and Girlhood on our mind, we explored coming-of-age in a slightly different medium – music. After viewing and listening to the BBC’s beautiful visual mash-up,BBC a lifetime of original drama,of the text All the World’s a Stage, by William Shakespeare, we annotated ideas and discussed our ideas about the themes of the piece and looked to understand the seven stages both literally and figuratively.

Students then took to creating their own seven stages, interpreting the premise of that text using musical selections to represent their understanding of each of the seven stages. Students will also do some research on coming-of-age in France, grounding them with cultural context for the film. But the pre-visit, inspired by the Shakespeare piece, enabled students to not just read the piece, but create their own stages of lyrics and sound, an engaging way to explore the text and relate to it in the contemporary. Check out the Pages Twitter feed, @pagesprogram, to see examples of songs from students’ playlists.

 

 

-Dionne Custer Edwards

 

Gaining Power Through Mindfulness: Thinking, Feeling and Action

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“What worries you masters you.”

– Beam, “Ten Mindful Quotes…

Aaron Sherman, long-term partner in thePagesprogram and teacher atACPA,asked me a few months ago to visit his class, creatively themed around power. He wanted me to present/co-teach a lesson on gaining power through mindfulness over various aspects of one’s life.

We explored this topic in three different areas:

Power over thinking– In this part of the two-day lesson we explored howfocused attention practice, such as focusing on the breath, can allow students to get distance from their thoughts enough to decide with which thoughts they would like to engage.

Power over feeling– In this part of the lesson, we focused on practices for dealing with negative emotions due to overwhelming stress viaheart-focused breathingmeditation.

Power over actions– in the final section of the lesson, we focused on howloving-kindness meditationcan be used to feel more compassion and connection for others

Click here to read the rest of the article and learn strategies to use for each of these focus areas.

– By Brandi Lust

Big Messy Questions

As we prepare for the screening of the film Girlhood, a story of a teenage girl navigating the complexities of her life, exploring her perceived choices (and lack thereof), a reminder that includedin your resource binder, or you can also find them here, https://wexpagesonline.edublogs.org/files/2015/07/GirlhoodResources-1lsg18s.pdf, are a few examples ofrelated literary works to inspire our thinking.

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Image: Strandreleasing.com

Included are poems and short stories by Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Emily Dickinson, Alice Walker, and Amy Tan… There are some male authors in the mix as well, but considering this film focuses its main character on the female voice, writings by female authors are a natural compliment.

As with the film, some of the included literary works (poems and short stories) uncover universal themes and experiences, while others are more nuanced, complicated, or culturally specific. These literary works are great starting points, as each piece offers its own big open questions, allowing enough troubling space for students to get lost in discussion and written reflection, opening up many entry points that not only intersect with the film, but also encourage creative and critical thinking.

Making space for students to wonder about some of these big messy contexts first gives them permission to wonder without a specific end point, deadline, or contrived purpose in mind. And often while students are conflicted, concerned with the end-game, the purpose, the point, the why they are doing something in school, the big messy open-ended questions raised in these poems and short stories, much like the film, offer no easy resolution, no neat and tidy answer or outcome. This will certainly frustrate some students, but will also allow them to take their own risks (sometimes calculated, sometimes messy) in their wonder, then maybe just maybe, translate some of that messy wonder into their writing.

Here are a few examples of big messy questions to wonder about in the context of this film:

What is on the other side of this choice?
What if I dare to dream?
What happens when someone tries to take away my voice?
What does my voice sound like?
Whose life is this anyway?
How do you know it’s love?
What if I make “the wrong” decision?
Who do you think you are?
Who do I think I am?
Who is in control of this situation?
What do I do now?
To get to tomorrow, what do I need to do today?

-Dionne

Soundtracking our Literature

Photo on 12-3-15 at 2.09 PMMy AP Lit classes read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street this last week, and some of them had a hard time connecting with the text. They couldn’t feel Cisneros’s rhythms or didn’t like the narrative style or couldn’t identify with Esperanza emotionally.

I was a bit surprised because Mango Streetis one of my favorite books for the fact that I think it speaks more easily to us than some of the more well-aged literature that we read (Frankenstein was our last text). But I knew we could get closer to Mango, we just needed the right activity. I then remembered an assignment in grad school when we had to pair a song with a section of text for the young adult novel we were reading. I remember my group’ssong – Jimi Hendrix’s “Kiss the Sky”; and I remember the protagonist, a young girl, was swinging – she found freedom in the swinging, and the song spoke that. I can’t remember the title of the text, but that moment of it will never leave me.

So I asked my students if we could delay discussion a bit today to head in a more creative direction; they agreed. I then walked them through my thought process of finding a soundtrack song for the chapter “Bums in the Attic”. “The Weary Kind” by Ryan Bingham had the relaxed feel I wanted, but was too sad. “My Name is Jonas” by Weezer had the power and joy I think Esperanza feels when she dreams of having her own house, but is a little too heavy. So I read with”Sedona” by Houndmouth as my soundtrack; it has the joy but with a laid back feel – and I timed it so that I ended the chapter right as the chorus begins. Nice.

The students worked in groups of two to five and had about nine minutes to choose their selection from the text, find a fitting song, then practice their performance. When they performed, they did so in chronological order of the text so we could feel the emotions in the order Esperanza felt them.

The students’ choices:

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwoʻolefor the chapter “Darius and the Clouds”

“Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. for the chapter “Smart Cookie”

“Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira for the chapter “Hips” (they rapped it)

“The Funeral” by Band of Horses for the chapter “Born Bad”

“Lose Your Soul” by Dead Man’s Bones for the chapter “Red Clowns”

“First” by Cold War Kids for the chapter “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes”

One violinist happened to have her instrument with her, so her group used the1st movement of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole for the chapter “Chanclas”.

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And after we were done, they said, “We should do this more often.” Yes, we should. We could feel the text in new ways once we heard how it sounded and felt to the others in the room. Our next class discussion on tone will have even greater depth as we develop this new lens of hearing literature with a soundtrack.

Happy Teaching,

Tom Hering

Potential Project

 

1.) Collage image/images that speak to you in your journal provided to you for the PAGES program

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2.) Overlay previous page, make sure it is blank 😉 Create a page of writing that reflects your collage or whatever you are inspired by.

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3.) Cut each line into strips, but be sure not cut them out completely.

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4.) Fold back and lay flat different combinations of words to manipulate your writing (cut-up technique) until your image and words connect to you, and each other.

 

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5.) Glue down strips of writing to finalize your cut-up.

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6.) Extract words, and embellish image with color pencils to make your art resonate with you and your viewers.

 

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Hope this is informing and helpful

Sincerely, Bryan Moss