Afrofututrism-Part 1, A New Lens By Which to See, Inspired by Cyrus Kabiru
This Spring as a school, we focused on elevating Black Joy, Excellence, and Culture through living folx throughout the African diaspora. And while this is a project that we engaged in from February through beginning of April, Black Joy is intended to be a provocation for continued expansive teaching practice and curriculum development at School Within School as a core principle.
In the Atelier, Black Lives Matter at School is 24/7, through expression, art, culture, movements, and making. The narrow expanse historically of art, art institutions, and art education has centered white male Eurocentric artists, with a handful of women and BIPOC thrown in during their designated cultural months.
I dare say it is easy to scrap the white supremacist model of art education because there are limitless and boundless histories, cultures, and BIPOC and women artists to center to inspire young children (and ourselves) to express and transform power, beauty, and aesthetic.
Inspired by an art exhibit I visited in Barcelona 5 years ago “Making Africa”, and as the Early Childhood Atelierista (working virtually yet live with the children), I centered our Black Joy, Excellence, and Innovation projects around Afrofuturism.
“For the uninitiated, Afrofuturism is a fluid ideology shaped by generations of artists, musicians, scholars, and activists whose aim is to reconstruct “Blackness” in the culture. Reflected in the life and works of such figures as Octavia Butler, Sojourner Truth, Sun Ra, and Janelle Monáe, Afrofuturism is a cultural blueprint to guide society. The term was coined by Mark Dery in 1993 but birthed in the minds of enslaved Africans who prayed for their lives and the lives of their descendants along the horrific Middle Passage. The first Afrofuturists envisioned a society free from the bondages of oppression — both physical and social. Afrofuturism imagines a future void of white supremacist thought and the structures that violently oppressed Black communities. Afrofuturism evaluates the past and future to create better conditions for the present generation of Black people through the use of technology, often presented through art, music, and literature.”
We began by being inspired by the vision and genius of Cyrus Kabiru.
“I grew up surrounded by a lot of trash,” says Cyrus Kabiru of his childhood. “The biggest dumpsite in Nairobi was right opposite my house. I used to tell my dad, ‘When I grow up I’ll give trash a second chance.’ I used to feel like trash also needs a chance to live.”
After looking at Mr. Kabiru’s glasses ( C-Stunners, as he calls them), glasses no one had ever imagined before, I explained how he is called an Afrofuturist. He is an artist from Kenya who creates art that no one in the world has ever seen before, he creates by making a new and better future, where trash is given a second chance. All of his C-Stunners also tell a story. Each one is different. He is a creative genius.
“To me, being an Afrofuturist is a mix of creativity from different continents.” •
His increasing success in the art world has afforded Kabiru the opportunity to travel and to expand his collection of found objects. •
He says: “When I go to London, I’ll pick up trash. I always pick up trash from different continents. If I make an artwork with European trash, my work will look newer, so I try to combine old Kenyan trash and new European trash.”
This was a project we returned to for many weeks. This returning is to practice depth, as opposed to a make-it take-it crafting hour. Each class we re-visted Mr. Kabiru through looking at his art and watching and listening to him speak to us through videos. As children constructed, an Afrofuturism playlist that I created of SunRa, Janelle Monet, Laura Mvula, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Kamasi Washington, Eryka Badu, Valerie June and more played. The sensory and delight of the creative process was compelling to observe. The music helped keep track of time and guide children into a state of flow.
I could see into all the squares on the Teams Meeting where children were experimenting, constructing, and creating, all while centering the Afrofuturist ideals of Cyrus Kabiru.
We did multi-modal language shifting by using our sculptures as a provocation for mixed media 2d collage art (as Cyrus Kabiru also uses photography and mixed media collage to express his stories.)
All of this project work is happening during a global pandemic. This is relevant. There is no doubt that each child and adult has experienced trauma, loss, and abrupt change. Because trauma is experienced inwardly, with no words to express,(especially if you are 3-6- years old) the act of making and creating in an open-ended and expansive manner allows one to process (often unconsciously) pain or anxiety. The brain shifts and creates new passageways during making. When these neurological passageways shift, you are released from the biological and emotional effects of fight, flight, or freeze. Expression through the arts releases and heals emotionally and neurologically.
Right now, in the newspaper is the unrelenting horror of the details of the murder of Mr George Floyd. What strikes one, is the fact that the police officer who kneeled on the neck of Mr Floyd and killed him ceased to see his humanity. What strikes one, is the fact that a trial is even necessary when the world witnessed his tragic death via a cell phone video. What strikes one, is those who watched who had the power to stop another Black man, another human being, from being killed just watched. The othering and dehumanizing of Black and Brown children and adults hails from the transatlantic slave trade. It is enmeshed in all of our systems, including our education systems. We are raised in the subtle and the obvious ways that creates internalized hatred of BIPOC.
We are all, within our capacity able to create, demand, imagine, and act in a way that centers Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and dismantles white supremacy culture. For me it is as a mother, artist, educator, and activist.
As children gazed at the beauty and genius of Cyrus Kabiru, valuing his existence, we are reminded of the importance of our our daily work. Especially with our youngest citizens.
“Why do we care about what the Afrofuturist has to say? And why would we suspect that their answers would differ from that of an average futurist? It is because the Black experience is defined by a historical struggle for existence, the right to live, to be considered a person, to be afforded basic rights, in pursuit of (political, social, economic) equality. Because of this, the Afrofuturist can see the parts of the present and future that reside in the status quo’s blind spots.”
Our paths co-constructing Afrofuturist thinking and making in the Atelier/Art Studio led us next to The Black Indians of New Orleans, The Super Heroes of Hebru Brantley, and The Quilters of Gee’s Bend. The journey of learning and thinking as an Afrofuturist makes visible Black Joy, Excellence, and Innovation intrinsically. It goes on and on. Like the C-Stunners of Cyrus Kabiru, Afrofuturism offers us all a new lens by which to see, especially in the blind spots.
This year, in addition to the daily creating and expression and relationship building in the studio/atelier, I engaged and facilitated a Mardi Gras/Speak for Living Things Parade and an Earth Day Parade with my partner Atelierista, Erika Bowman
One weekend there was a community sign building for a national parade, this past week a pop up interactive art installation, then we made and completed and installed a kinetic sculpture attached on the side of the school “The Listening Sculpture”,
and there were three big field trips for students to encounter immersive, sensory, recycled, and out of the box art. (ArtTech House, The Glass Forest, and The Renwick)
And all of it connected to each other, overlapped, provoked, and embraced the idea of Global Environmental Stewardship (or as Amira, age 5, summed it up, “Dear Earth, Why are we here?)
…but no blog post. All my time and energy went into the hands on making and organizing.
Hence, the balance issue.
Yesterday, I represented DCPS by marching in the DC Capitol Pride Parade with my SWS sisters and brothers.
(YES, it’s been a year of PARADES!)
All to find myself home sick today, coughing, headache…seems like life gave me lemons, so here comes the lemonade!
Overwhelmed by the idea catching up from Earth Day, I am posting from the present- the most current happenings, (and will try and catch up the middle at a later date.)
I have no voice today, so I will stay with this as a metaphor and let the children/SWS speak through this vide0 I created, (since I was stuck at home in bed.) Enjoy the lemonade!
I want to thank the Renwick, they opened up No Spectators- The Art of Burning Man exhibit an hour early, so that some of the youngest citizens in DC (ages 4-6) could experience the wonder and beauty of the exhibit (without competing with taller and larger bodies.)
We were welcomed by Geoff, and his invitation to touch and explore was lovely.
The children were moved and wowed. Many felt the weight, the lightness, the sacredness, and emotions of the Temple,
and all were mesmerized by the plethora of possibilities within the art and ideas of the playa.
The upper elementary aged children who visited the exhibit with Erika during the previous weeks were also astounded and inspired.
Upon returning to school, the upper elementary children began to build a collaborative Temple out of recycled cardboard.
The youngest children used tools and helped each other (just like the teams of artists who collaborated in the exhibit) to create a small Burning Man/Woman out of recycled materials with a wish, hope, or memory.
“I remember when I was a little baby , I felt happy with my family.” Brooke, age 4
“My memory is going inside the Renwick gallery. My favorite room was the one with the television in the sky.” Malda, age 6
The pop up museum opened Friday June 8th.
It will be gone by the end of the week.
But maybe gone only in the material state.
The gift of this type of work is the deep resonating memories and the thoughts by the children and community left in the SWS temple.
The gift of this work is children learning first hand, the power of creating a vision and dream into reality with friends.
The gift of this work is creating something in community with others, with both personal and global ideas (reflected in the cards left in the temple.)
The gift of this work is creating the space and the safety to be vulnerable in interactions, sharing wishes, hopes, and remembrances, and in the actual creating.
It was not easy. “If it’s easy, your brain isn’t growing”, a common refrain of mine. “It’s supposed to be a little bit hard.”
This is education:
Inclusive. Cultural. Personal. Community based. Global. Reflective. Expressive. Scientific. Inventive. Kind. Meaningful. Fun. Hard. Connected and inter-connected. Responsive. Oriented from thought to action (and sometimes the other way around,) Most importantly education is being a part of creating a better world.
I was thinking about the complexities of “labor” today, on this Labor Day eve.
I was thinking about the labor or role of the teacher. The possibilities and power of relationship and transformation that can happen in a learning environment is on my mind as this new school year has begun. For me this is in the Atelier or Art Studio at SWS. It made me jump to the phrase “Labor of Love.”
Last Spring I became part of a year-long 12 person Art Educator DCPS Fellowship. ACES Art Fellowship. ACES stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. The fellowship I am a part of aims to create a cadre of trauma –informed art teachers to develop strategies and practice within their art classes and then share and spread this work within their school communities and throughout DCPS.
What is ACEs science?
ACEs science refers to the research on the prevalence and consequences of adverse childhood experiences, and what to do to prevent them. It comprises:
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study and subsequent surveys that show that most people in the U.S. have at least one ACE, and that people with four ACEs— including living with an alcoholic parent, racism, bullying, witnessing violence outside the home, physical abuse, and losing a parent to divorce — have a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide, and alcoholism.
Brain science (neurobiology of toxic stress) — how toxic stress caused by ACEs damages the function and structure of kids’ developing brains.
Health consequences — how toxic stress caused by ACEs affects short- and long-term health, and can impact every part of the body, leading to autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, as well as heart disease, breast cancer, lung cancer, etc.
Historical and generational trauma (epigenetic consequences of toxic stress) — how toxic stress caused by ACEs can alter how our DNA functions, and how that can be passed on from generation to generation.
Resilience research — how the brain is plastic and the body wants to heal. This research ranges from looking at how the brain of a teen with a high ACE score can be healed with cognitive behavior therapy, to how schools can integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices that result in an increase in students’ scores, test grades and graduation rates.
“ACEs are still experienced by more than one in three children under the age of six. Even in higher income families, more than one in four children have ACEs.”
Here is a wonderful link (where I copied the above info from)
It means a more intentional and informed practice of being the safety net for children within the context of the SWS Atelier/Art Studio.
A child does not need to have 1 or more ACES to benefit from me cultivating a compassionate and inclusive classroom based on ACES science. A child who does have one or more ACES has the added potential and benefit of altering their neurology, developing a sense of healthy connection, and developing necessary resiliency.
One of my favorite simple strategies within this work is to offer “unconditional regard.” It means taking a breath and offering love, even when a child presents in an unlovable behavior. It means routines, rituals, and language that lessens triggers. It means learning how to de-escalate children who are acting out with care and thought. It means thoughtful planning and facilitating of materials, environment, and lessons through this lens.
And let us not forget the power of the arts to heal. Materials or the 100 Language of children offer children (and adults!) opportunities to express, explore, experiment, and take risks. It allows one to reflect, make beauty, destroy, make mistakes, construct, and transform.
When opportunities to create art occurs within a safe inclusive space, with a teacher who verbally and non-verbally defines boundaries, offers freedoms, and unconditional regard, there is fertile ground for growth. And for joy.
SWS and DCPS are systemically committed to this work. It is an honor and privilege to meet consistently with the DCPS ACES Art Fellowship cadre under the facilitation of Lyndsey D. Vance, ATR-BC, LPC from ProjectCreate, DC in Anacostia.
This year, all the ongoing Reggio practice, Constructivist theory, Art Theory, Art Ed, Early Childhood pedagogy, DCPS Standards, Developmentally Appropriate planning, Project Approach, and Mindfulness practices that are embedded in my teaching at SWS, have a new connecting thread. Unconditional regard. Trauma informed practice. Love.
“Relationship is the evidence based practice.” Dr. Allison Jackson
Intuitively I have always known this. In my life, I have been both on the receiving and giving end. Now I have the science and fellowship to truly understand, share, and further develop my practice.
It seems most appropriate today to declare this work, this year, sincerely, as a Labor of Love.
This year at SWS, I have three new classrooms of children to interact with. For the first time we have two 3 year old preschool classrooms and one classroom with non-categorical medically fragile children.
Scarlett, one of our children from our first SWS 3 year old PreSchool program and Ayanna, who is in Ms. Maureen’s non-categorical class next door
Because they are located on the ground floor, many people have not had the opportunity to greet the possibilities that grow with these new populations.
In a Reggio context, this has been an opportunity to truly believe in the concept of the 100 Languages.
The idea that children are able to express themselves through 100 Languages and that teachers/facilitators need to be “Visual Listeners” to observe, understand and extend that conversation (especially non-verbal conversations) has always been a tenant that I embrace.
In the context of our new classes, the pre-school children do not necessarily possess the strongest ability of expression verbally and with the medically fragile children, the majority are non-verbal.
With the preschool children, my goal has been to engage the senses, develop their capacity to be in a small group that gives and receives, and the experience/environment to express themselves and their theories and for them to find value in this.
Using the outdoors and the garden as a provocation to “see,” I set up this provocation in the studio.
“There’s something on the round carpet for you to see. Please walk around it, look closely, have a seat, and think about what it is.”
“It looks like a snowflake!” Abbey
“Green stripes!” Joe-Joe
“Green pictures!” Oskar
“A flower and the petals.” Miles
“Like the sun!” Emily
“It looks like a spider.” Coby
“I think it looks like a spider web.” William M.
“It looks like a diamond.” Elana
The previous week I had the children paint and asked them what they “saw” or imagined in a painting. Because of this, they returned to this type of thinking and few children noticed or verbalized that everything was green without prompting.
“There are 100’s of greens in the world, and we are going to hunt for them in the garden today.”
I attended a conference where a presenter shared that because of the extended time young children are spending on ipods, iphones, and other close range viewing screens- children are not developing full spectrum color sight as well as full long range distance sight.
As an artist and human this appalled me. To counter this possibility, the intention was to get the children to observe all the nuances of color outside, especially in our vibrant garden. After an exciting and intense green hunt, the children engaged in painting only in green. It also was an opportunity to introduce small brushes and small paintings, another way to make marks, learn to take care of paint colors, and have a shared experience in the studio.
“What do you think of your small green paintings?”
“This one (green color) is kinda blue. The dark green, it is melting all the light colors up.” William T.
“Mine is beautiful.” Jillian
“They look like the grown up paintings.” Simon
Continuing the provocation of nature and the garden, I facilitated embodying leaves and the concept of metaphor within the concept of the fall leaves and three year old children.
With the non-categorical medically fragile children I began a journey of non-verbal communication and relationship through materials and the senses.
My goal is to develop a relationship of caring and trust, a community of “makers” and an awakening of senses through projects and materials.
At first I was a little timid. How much can I touch, move, adapt with these young children. What is safe for them? What is a good risk? How much can I expect? (Making musical percussive shakers)
The beauty of eye contact and a pat from a child who initially stayed across the room and by week three began to join me and “make”, observing a child realize they are making marks instead of watching others make marks, the reactions to cause and effect, the feel and sound of materials, the lightness of being when I began spontaneously singing to engage them in a new project, the non-verbal greetings of joy when I walked in by week four, the deep beauty and surprise of touch (both human and materials.) The richness in these small moments of connection is vast.
The continuity of the garden and nature explorations and inspirations continues with the Prek 4’s and Kindergarten classes.
I have such gratitude for the community (led by Jennifer Mampara and Nicole Mogul) in creating and maintaining the garden that greets every child, family member, friend, and visitor as they enter our school.
At a staff meeting last month, 2nd grade teacher Erika Bowman spoke with great admiration and awe at a community who makes it a value to create and grow a bountiful garden, the first year existence in new location.
For the PreK 4’s, all the project work has been about facilitating the development of visual voice to express their observations in the garden. Each small group picked a vegetable to touch, observe and then sketch. Before beginning each child was asked to observe their plant silently and think about something they noticed after looking really really really closely. Then we took turns sharing and listening, learning that listening to your friend is an important part of the curriculum. Listening to another child gives the group new ways of thinking, seeing, and doing. This is a practice that I want the children to value. Here’ a radish conversation:
“Whoa, there’s a pink thing down there!! Charlie B. “There’s spikes on the stem.” Liam “The leaves are a little pokey.” Priya “There are lines on the leaf.” Julia “The shape on the leaves is blurry like, wiggly.” Santino
One of the cabbage groups had a very interesting conversation that developed into theory building:
“I can see little holes in the leaves.” Myles T. “Caterpillar must have ate it.” Quinn “I see a bubble. It’s a bubble of water.” Melin “Why do you think the leaves have those bubbles?” Ms. McLean “I think maybe a bumble bee came. I think a bumble bee came and sting the leaf to make a bubble” Edwin “I think it’s juice that someone spilled.” Quinn “I think it’s bumble bee honey. I think a bumble bee ate the leaf, then licked it and the bumble bee made a juicy on the leaf.” Anais. “Yeah, I think it’s from a bumble bee licking it.” Myles T. In the following weeks children used their sketches from the garden with a corresponding photo of the vegetable and used paint to make an observational painting in the studio. This time the children had to be extremely observent not only about line and form but color.
Going through the same thinking process, children were asked to silently look closely and observe the color and then we went around the table and listened to each other’s observations. “The white on the leaf is cause the sun is shining.” Mason
The following week each group progressed to making Observational Art of the same vegetable, this time using materials. First they had to shop and collect materials. Next they had to arrange the pieces so it made sense using their photo, observational drawing and observational painting as a resource.
“Why do you have all the colors if we only need greens and red and pink ?” asked Gabriel. He had a radish and was a little disappointed when I asked him if his radish had all the rainbow of materials color that he had placed on his paper.
“Because then I would be doing all your thinking. You get to make your own decisions and this is how I can see your thinking. It’s hard but your brain will grow.” Ms. McLean
Before gluing, I ask children to place the obkects on the paper, allowing them to edit and change, unti shape, form and space begin to come together and make sense into the form of their vegetable plant. When I see they have solid ideas forming, I place the glue down for them to use. Because of this process, children usually continiue to add and delete objects as they observe nuances not noticed before.
Sometimes a child will need what is called scaffolding. “I see the red stem very clearly. What do you see inside the leaf? “Red lines!” Andrew then went back, getting more materials to show his new observation. (below)
Children are learning to make visual metaphors by using objects to represent and symbolize real thinking and observations. This is no different then learning that letters symbolize words that can represent thinking and observations. This is literacy.
Cora’s cabbage Melin’s cabbage
Ava’s Swiss Chard
When looking at their representations, I avoid having children at this stage present their own work.
Here are the two “scripts” I give them:
“Please share what was difficult or hard about making this observational painting.”
(With the Materials Observational Art project, each child was asked to “read” the art of another child’s work in the group and respond,) “When you look at Ingrid’s Observational Art, what is it telling you she noticed.”
This intentional reflection practice encourages children to utilize visual thinking strategies (instead of “I made a stem.”), listening (the artist is eager to hear what his/her friend sees in his/her art) and another layer of observation development. It also illustrates the belief that every child has something to learn from another. Using the garden and nature as a provocation with all grades, (but with a different approach) allows for a continuity and collective understanding for the representations throughout the school.
The Kindergarten children were challenged to tackle symbolism and meaning through color and objects.
In this provocation, they were asked to make a plan for a collaborative sculpture where every color or image had to represent or symbolize something from our garden or nature experiences. These plans stayed up on the big whiteboard in the common are. They were a constant reference point and guide as children made choices as to which part of their plan they wanted to create to be added to the collaborative group sculpture.
Here’s Noah working on wrapping blue fabric around sticks he had painted yellow. “It represents the sun and the sky.”
As children progressed in making all the small symbollic pieces, the counter became a bounty and source of ideas.
Each week Kindergarten children returned to see visually what the next step was. Last week many of the small group sculptures were assembled. The process was truly an act of trusting the group, as the head became unbalanced and balanced as the children took turns drilling and adding pieces. An unintentional lesson was in fact Balalnce.
My sticks look like flat oranges. It represents oranges. –Lilah
I planned to do the stick. I painted it gold. The gold represents the sun. –Dorian
I made it be like an acorn tree. I painted it blue like water around the earth. –Aksel
I painted the head golden like hot lava. –Gabriel
I made the thing about some flowers that are in our garden. They are kind of colorful and they are are very soft. And they are small. The petals are warm. Flowers are important in nature because they are beautiful. –Anabel
I painted the golden part on the head. I was thinking of rocks. Some rocks are golden.
The acorns represent the sky, the blue acorns. The sky has clouds. The sun shines on it. –Sofie
I made flowers. They help bees and butterflies live. –Mira
Flowers make the world a beautiful place. –Willa
I did the sun. It helps flowers grow. –Dylan
I made grass. Grass is good for the world because it makes people walk on it. –Willa
I made a flower. Flowers help butterflies and bees. Butterflies make pollen. Bees make honey for us. If they weren’t alive we would have no pollen or honey. And then we wouldn’t be happy because if there was just plain yogurt, you would want honey in it. It doesn’t taste so good, if you mix it up with honey it’s good. -Ibby
I made some sticks that I painted yellow. It represents the sun. And the blue that I put on, represents the sky. –Noah
The red roses, they can grow good and live like if you water them a bunch they will be good. They will grow better. –Isaiah
The brown paint represents the dirt in the garden and also the earth. –Harvey
The carrots go in the dirt. –Eric
The necklace represents the rocks of the ground.
On top, the stick represents trees with berries.
It symbolizes a flower to the branch. I see a carrot tree, there also might be an acorn tree.
The purple is for the whole wide world to grow. If people die, the purple takes their spirit and buries them.
The flowers symbolize prettiness.
The jewels symbolize a shiny thing, like the sun shining down. It also makes music, like a jingly.
I no longer am teaching the older expanded grades of (this year) 1st and 2nd.
The growing pains of a Reggio Inspired school are , How do you keep the continuity, caring and intimacy of a small community, while at the same time expand to secure a vital future and create a new revolutionary model of public education?
This questions helped me to develop some small “interventions” to cross-fertilize the entire community through creativity.
The first small intervention I just recently tried, is inviting two first grade children to be studio assistants for an hour while I have a 3 year old group.
My first two friends were Kayden and Remi from Ms. Scofield’s class. I wanted them to experience being in a different developmental bracket, so I asked them to visit while a had 5 three year olds in the studio.
I broke their time in to two segments. Before I went to retrieve my three’s, I invited Remi and Kayden in.
“The three year olds have been exploring nature around the school. They have such wonderful ideas about the changing of the seasons and the leaves right now. However, you have the experience to illustrate and respond to their ideas, like an artist who does the pictures for another writer.”
Here are there responses.
They took this work seriously. They didn’t laugh or question the validity or ideas of the three year old children, they simply, responded visually. I will continue to explore the possibilities of these types of new interactions.
Last week many of the teachers attended a professional development at Washington International School, in conjunction with the DC-Project Zero (Harvard Grad School of Education Research Collaborative/Institute.)
One of the speakers, Ben Mardell said, “We can make children (young children) big or small.”
At SWS, our youngest smallest children are not considered small. We see them in big ways, as individuals and as part of the community.
The first ever SWS Yarn Bomb was the second intervention or act I facilitated to bring the community together in a creative cacophony of joy and color.
As I view the images of children/adults of all ages equally participating, it clearly makes visible the strength of honoring every individual at their current stage of development.
People stop by and ask me, How’s it going? What do you think of this big place? How’s the change? Do you like it?
This is a great experiment in expanding the heart. It is beating, it is warm, it is vigorous non-stop beating, it is at times exhausting, but it is, truly wonderous and just the beginning of a ripple of change. A ripple that will keep on moving outward, one heart at a time.
If you work with young children, you know there are many opportunities to experience emotions.
Last month I was working on a project with some 1st graders. The provocation was to plan a story without writing the details or the the ending.
Why? Well, I noticed the 1st graders had figured out how to draw and make graphic representations well enough, to respond quickly to pretty much any prompt or observation. However, their ideas and drawing were somewhat static. The figures (even though well done) seemed to be a stuck at the same level and their story development was not stretching them.
I wanted to know what would happen if each page, a part of the plan was tackled slowly and thoughtfully through a new process.
First, I asked them to look at their story plan and only draw the setting part. “If you said it was winter what needs to be remembered? If you have a location of Washington DC, how do I know it from the picture? If it is night time, show it.”
I was surprised that I had to teach them to “read” or evaluate what they had drawn, to see if it made sense. Having the plan to refer to , made this facilitation quickly become an independent process. Instead of saying, “I’m done!” and me asking “how do you know?” and them responding “Because I did it,” the responses became more intentional, such as “They all have mittens and coats, and there’s snow and a sidewalk, and rowhouses.”
The next time in the art studio the focus was on facial expressions.
Emma Clare, “It’s when you show how you feel on your face.”
Using mirrors and books as resources and really practicing and noticing, the children checked their plan to see if they needed to represent an expression that was happy, sad, surprising…
Carrington for several tries drew a U shaped bottom lip and a parralel line for the top lip. Hmmmm, I would say, I’m not seeing an expression of happiness or laughter. I am seeing the same smile you always draw. I want you to push yourself and solve this. I kept prompting, look closely at your top lip in the mirror. What shape is it making? She became extremely agitated, “I don’t know what to do!”. After several attempts and nearing frustration, she realized the top lip is (unbelievably) shaped like a traditional frown line! Once she figured this out, she was elated. She also began helping her peers to see the same thing.
Xavier developed a technique of puposeful smudging, after he accidently dripped some ink on his page. This became a great resource for all the kids once shared.
Maya concentrated looking in the mirror longer than many of her peers. All of a sudden she looked up at me, with tears streaming down her face-but smiling!
“Look Ms. McLean, I practiced being sad so hard, tears came out!”
Another time in the art studio, I asked them to pull out their story idea or plan and tell me, where they go to in their story.
I then asked them to try to walk, run, skip to their imagined place based on the 1st drawing figures in the setting page. It was hilarious acting out walking with both arms straight out and legs locked straight as well. Thus became the exploration of joints, viewpoint, and action. How does the body work? What do arms do when one walks? How often are both feet on the ground when one is moving? How does one look when being viewed sideways?
This process was extremely difficult.While the intention was to help children think about movement, expression and observation, it became about perseverence.
She believes there are some simple steps to boost creativity:
Teach kids how to be happy.
While this might be simple, it is far more complex. Happiness is a set of skills that must be learned. She asks, “How’s that problem solving going when you are angry?”
The first place to start is LETTING KIDS FAIL. Children must be taught the skills, thinking and coping for when things don;t go as planned.
When children do not learn these skills, they hide mistakes, feel shame, expect others (parents/teachers) to “fix” things for them, and in teen years self-medicate through alcohal and drugs.
“No one is entitled to a life free from pain. ” says Christine Carter.
It is necessary to develop grit and persistance. Mistakes are opportunity.
Before one of the studio sessions, I had a conference with Alysia Scofield (one of the 1st grade teachers.) She expressed that many of her kids were quick to crumple up or dispose of any work when they experience any mistake, instead of working through the hard parts and transforming mistakes or trying to solve the problem. For this reason, I started the class by saying that if you make a mistake, you would not be able to grab another piece of paper today. Instead, you would need to figure out how to make a mistake into something wonderful.
I gave some examples of accidently dropping a big puddle of ink on my drawing. What could I turn this into? Silence.
What about a flower? A hole? A tree? A rug? In fact, the image became more interesting with the transformed mistake.Soon kids were making innovative suggestions.
“Ask each other for ideas! Artists always do that!”
Shortly after, Maya made some type of “mistake” and asked for another paper. I reminded her that this was the challenge, to turn the mistake into something else. She was not happy. She proceeded to ask, then beg for another piece of paper. I encouraged her to ask friends for suggestions. I told her she could ask me for suggestions if she wanted some. Friends began to chime in with innovative solutions. No.
In that moment, she became so angry, she began to cry, and ask and then return to begging for another piece of paper.
These are moments when you have to make a split second decision. I took a risk, “Maya, I know you can solve this problem. Everyone here is willing to make suggestions. I am so sorry you are feeling frustrated, however, I will not be giving you another piece of paper today. You are welcome to go get a drink of water or take a break if that helps too.”
Katie went over to give her a hug as she returned to drawing silently. She skipped free time and continued drawing, for a long time. Then she looked up at me. “I’m done.”
“Can I see?”
“What do you think?” I asked
“It’s the best drawing I have ever done.” replied Maya, with a huge grin.
“I am really proud of you, you didn’t give up, you worked through the hard part, and now you feel really good.”
“It’s my best drawing ever.”
Hard. But not hard for hard-sake.
Another step in teaching kids these skills of developing the abilty to persevere is: Reducing Stress through Compassion.
Instead of focusing on the child/self (What did you do? Did you do your best? Were you line leader? Did you know the answer? Let me see yours) broaden kids capacity and vocabulary for compassion or the “other” with simple daily rituals.
Here’s two questions to ask your children everynight at the dinner table (and the rest of your family members and self too!)
“What’s one thing you did for someone today?”
“What’s one kind thing someone did for you today?”
The brain has a funny way of returning to neural passages ways again and again and again in times of stress or failure. This determines response. When kids (and adults) default to the ways in which they are supported and helped on a constant basis, they are able to frame or perceive problems differently.
Instead of defaulting to “Well he did it first!, or I couldn’t do it because the teacher wouldn’t give me more paper”, the child defaults to “Oh, I made a mistake, how can I fix it or make it better, who can help me solve this?”
Last week, I made a mistake. Somehow I completely skipped a studio group in Mr. Jere’s room the previous week. When I saw the skipped group, I said, “Ms. McLean made a horrible mistake. I had to change some groups around last week, and I completely skipped you! I feel terrible, because now you have double the work to do. In the future, please say something to me if you think you were skipped. I feel really bad. Grown-ups make mistakes too. I am so sorry.”
“That’s ok Ms. McLean.” replied Harvey, “Now you know what to do!”
The PreK’s have been working on the very long process of creating Soundsuits, inspired by artists Nick Cave.
Once again, this is a project that takes tremendous perseverance.
Because I noticed the lure of the tools in the studio, the project started with an ankle piece.
I use real tools with students, and they needed to flatten the bottle caps and then use an awl to put a hole in it.
Dominc: “This is hard work. I’m gonna sweat!”
While some children were energized by the heavy work, others were fatigued. The amount of sensory inout and output varies from child to child. It is my job to notice who is awakened by this work, and remember to use this as an adaptation. At the same time, for those who fatigue early with heavy work, I notate who needs support to develop their core strength.
When Samuel found his name on a bottlecap he was thrilled. Suddenly, everyone was looking closely at what was printed on the bottlecaps. Soon anchors, elephants and “this is almost my name ” were seen. This act encouraged not only literacy and observation skills, but an understanding and acknowledgment of the extraordinary found in the ordinary.
The work on this project vacillated between focused heavy big work and small focused actions.
Attaching the bottle caps and beads so they create percussion, was once again difficult.
While this proved frustrating to many, Lucinda seemed to respond to the sequencing and constant twisting and connecting. Her Sound Suit ankle was overflowing with sound. She also was able to help others. Everyone in each group has a strength. Everyone has many challenges. By remembering that Lucinda can help peers in this part of the project, she is also able to receive help at other times. This is the culture that must be nurtured and taught in order for kids to be able to handle mistakes.
In every part of this project, every time someone completed a part, and tested it out- the perseverance quotient heightened.
Next it was time to revisit the artist Nick Cave’s work.
I started by asking “What is a suit?”
First I got blank stares and silence. Then slowly ideas emerged. This is the power of a group. It promotes formulating remembering, and responding in a social and conversational construct. It gives each participant a wider breath of looking at topics.,
“A bathing suit! ” Tate
“Superman wears a suit!” Liam
“A costume is like a suit.” Dylan
“My Dad wears a suit!” Audrey and Maddie expressed this in separate groups
“A coat you wear. Something you put on your whole body so people will notice you.” Gabriel (In Jere’s class)
Next, I showed them some videos of Nick Cave’s creations in action and still.
When I stated, “It will take a long time to make your own sound suit.”
Levi shouted out, “Its like the fish!”
He was able to connect the persistance needed to complete the wire project to the ideas of this new project. Hard. But not hard for hard-sake.
This is Eric using his Sound Suit idea plan to figure out what color he needs to select. He is shown using the tape on the table to measure the strips.
The concept that designing an object means more then one view is one leap these learners must learn or “read.” When I first proposed the template for designing the Sound Suits with a two-figure graphic, Mira was the first to figure it out. “Is that the front and the back of the shirt?”
This new way of thinking about a two-sided design using a one-sided paper was also hard.
Aksel was thrilled by the opportunity to alter the design. “Mine will have wings, look!” And he drew the colors so they looped like wings. So many adults do not realize that young children have strong ideas. It is when they have the time, facilitation and the culture to create original ideas that they come to fruition and visibility.
Next, the fabricating of the Sound Suits.
I broke down this part of the project into small bits. First, just weaving the flagging tape through the front and back collar. (Myself and a cadre of parent volunteers snipped two parallel snips for each strip to go through.)
Once again, this was difficult. many kids put the strips in backwards, or had trouble using two hands to manipulate threading the strips through the front and back of the shirt.
Using intentional language and uploading,
When I heard, “This is hard, I can’t do it!”
“Can’t is a bad word in the art studio-it stops you. What can you say instead?”
“This will be difficult. That’s ok. You can take a skipping break down the hall and return, you can stand, you can sit, you can shake your hands, you can jump. Everytime you come it will get a little less hard. The practice will make it easier for you to do. And when you do something hard, and complete it, you feel soooo good because your brain has grown, and you know you can do the hard parts.”
“I’m not very good at this.”
I replied, “That’s because you’ve never done it before. Stick with it, you’ll see, it will start making sense.”
“What are some things you can do when you are stuck?” (Ask for suggestions from other kids and adults, express that it is tricky and I need help, express it is frustrating because you are not alone, it is for hard for someone else in the group too.)
After two to three studio times of adding the collar and sleeves, I told the kids they could try the Sound Suits on.
When the first group tried to attach the flagging tape to the mid section of the shirt, it was too hard. The oversized shirts become just a mess of fabric when trying to find the inside. In this case, hard was just too hard. At this point I came up with a solution that I had a hunch might work.
Embroidery hoops! You can see this allowed for many opportunities to try techniques, and allowed the children to maneuver the strips through successfully.
I am intentionally changing the culture, wheras asking for suggestions is applauded as opposed to a sign of weakness. Wheras it is exciting when someone figures out a way that works for them, and it is shared as a resource for all.
Gabriel (in Ms. Hannah’s class) was having a hard time persevering. He complained and procrastinated. Maybe this felt too big or overwhelming so I helped him break it down further.
“Gabriel, why don’t you put four strips through the sound suit and then take skip all the way down the hall and back. You can do this each time.”
This helped. Then he started slowing down again.
“Hey Gabriel, how about you count out the strips you are using before you start, just four!”
“I’m gonna do a pattern!”
He returned to the work with energy.
All of a sudden I noticed he was talking as he worked, “In the lava, out the lava, in the water, out the water …”
His flagging tape became a metaphor and a mantra, and he worked to completion.
In the lava out the lava, in the water out the water. Hard, but not hard for hard-sake.
Working in collaboration with Movement Teacher, Shannon Dunne the kids are developing a new conversation with movement and patterns, their selves not as their selves but these “rainbow beings.”
(A flash mob in Eastern Market is being planned in a few weeks, an opportunity to bring these rainbow beings into the unsuspecting daily lives of the public.)
Here’s a peek at Shannon with Mr. Jere’s class taking turns watching two classmates have a conversation using their body and ankle Sound Suit piece “Remember and think about how one person talks while one person listens, and then you respond and say something. In this conversation you are doing the same thing, but you are using your body and no words to talk.”
See how attentive the rest of the class is.
This idea of choreography surfaced in the studio.
“Look Ms. McLean! ” said Aurora, “Look how to move.
and Half Moon!”
Now that so much progress is being made, they can’t wait to try out the Sound Suits in progress for anyone who will look, teachers, kids in the halls, and especially their classroom teachers and their peers.
Hard isn’t good for hard-sake. But hard is good within the context of a project that encourages not only personal growth but the development of a culture of shared community struggle and JOY!
The Sound Suits are not so interesting on their own, it is within the group that the emotions and purpose soar. It is the development of a community creating an identity as a group of rainbow beings that make this powerful.