We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear
a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
-President Obama, excerpt from inaugural speech
I will run to people who are bad. I will talk to them and speak the laws and they will change.
-Super Running Boy, (Zander) Kindergarten
It is a day of great hope.
It is the Inauguration day of President Barak Obama.
It is the day we remember and honor Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It seems like a perfect day to share some of the Peaceful Magical Super Heroes created by PreK, Kindergarten and 1st Grade children at SWS.
I began the New Year introducing the ideas of Martin Luther King, Segregation, Equality, Justice and Injustice, and Non-Violent protest.
I began by asking the children “What do you know about Martin Luther King?”
The largest knowledge base from the children was he was shot, the next most common response was he was good and for peace, the third most common answer was there is a sculpture of him in DC, and the fourth most common response was a confusion of him and Rosa Parks.
Only 3 children understood who he was. Two of those children were brothers.
In small groups, I began by saying “Martin Luther King was an American, he was brown skinned and he is one of my heroes”.
And then I told stories:
“A long time ago, in the United States of America, you are not going to believe this, all the brown skinned people, and tan skinned people had to live separate from the white and pink skinned people. It was the law, or the rules.
People were not allowed to go to school together, play together or live together.
It gets even worse!
The white and pink skinned people got all the best stuff. The brown and tan skinned people were not allowed to use all the good stuff.
It was unfair!”
And so went my retelling of history.
The children were flabbergasted!
“What, you mean I couldn’t play with _______?!!!” (naming a friend in the group)
I even went on to share that I could have gone to go to jail because my children are brown skinned.
And so I continued…
I shared a portion of the I Have a Dream Speech.
I shared that people wanted to join Dr. King, however they had to make a vow or promise of non-violence or no fighting, weapons or fighting words.
“Sometimes I fight with my brother.”
“Sometimes my parents fight.”
“Yes! ” I said, “this is normal; it takes a lot of practice not to fight. The important thing is to practice, and try, and think about what to do when you are angry.”
I told a story of brown skinned boys who sat down at a lunch counter and the restaurant would not serve them, because of how they looked.
I told the story of how Martin Luther King rallied people through his words and how they joined outside the restaurant and held hands, and chanted “This is unfair, equality now!” and how people used art and words and made signs.
And then bad angry people came and pushed them down, and said mean words and hurt them. But the people who were protesting did not fight back. They helped each other up and peacefully kept chanting, “This is unfair! Equality now!”
What really got the children is when I told them, “…and then the police came, and who do you think they took to jail? They took the peaceful people to jail! And when the peaceful protesters were put in jail they sang songs, like “This little light of mine” and “We shall overcome.
Drawing By Elise, 1st Grade
And the word got out, that we lived in a country where peaceful people were pushed down and put in jail, and so more people joined the ideas of Martin Luther King,Jr.”
Of all the things children knew about MLK, it was that he was shot. And so I told them how “he was speaking to the garbage workers, because they were not getting enough pay to feed their families even though they worked really really hard to keep the streets clean.
And someone who did not believe in all things fair and equality was violent and shot him. But, the amazing thing is, the work of Martin Luther King did not end when he was shot. People kept working for fairness, and soon the laws or rules were changed.”
The conversation was riveting with all groups of children.
Patrick said, “Wait, were the police all white that took the peaceful people to jail?”
He looked at his skin, and looked up, “I hate being white.”
I assured him that he did not do any of those things from the past. That he was not responsible for what happened a long time ago. I reminded him that his maternal side of the family is from Columbia, South America.
“And my Dad is from Hawaii.” He seemed momentarily relieved. I was struck by his deep sensitivity and and sense of responsibility.
Throughout this project, parents stopped me to share that their children were coming home to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude that this project had meaning.
At this point I introduced their new project:
“First think about something you are really good at or love to do.
Next I want you to imagine, make-up, invent a super hero with super powers that includes what you love to do. You can have more super powers too, like super speed, or strength or even flying.”
This might sound easy, but, I have a big challenge for you; your Super Hero selves have taken a vow or promise of non-violence or no fighting, just like Martin Luther King and all the people who believed in his words.
That means you can make the world better, you can rescue, you can change bad guys, but no hurting or killing anyone…not even the bad guys!”
(I have no issue with children killing or eliminating bad guys in their play or pretend. It is normal development for young children to begin to deal with good and evil through dramatic play. It is healthy for children to do this play, as it allows them a sense of control over all things bad. However, peaceful conflict resolution and non-violence takes great thought and practice. This project is to allow children to start the thinking and practice through narrative, art and metaphor.)
Below, Mira works on showing power in her drawing.
She loves making art, and so like many, her super power is activated through teaching:
Art Super Hero
I’m gonna fly and jump over roofs and teach people who want to be artists to do art. – Mira, PreK
The majority of PreK children jumped into this project with fantastical magical thinking. Ryan, for example included Santa Claus as the ultimate change agent:
Flying Boat Hopper
I can jump past heaven and into my boat. My boat has wings. I fly to Mexico to save my grandparents. I save them from evil bad guys. My boat shoots out Santa and his reindeer and the bad guys are not coming back ever. -Ryan, PreK
For Ainsley, she recently developed a new power over Christmas, she learned how to do somersaults. For her, her super hero was based in her new physical abilities:
Somersault Super Hero
I do somersaults to make people happy. -Ainsley, PreK
Dorian’s Super Hero is also not separated from his real life self:
Dress Up Dorian
I dress up and do shows for people. They will feel happy. -Dorian, PreK
Harvey, who loves using the hammer, drill, and tools in the studio uses his “thing that he loves to do” to help others.
Super Strong Man
I will use my hands to make houses for people. -Harvey, PreK
Lucca, PreK, uses his powers to protect the force that protects him now, his parents. He does have the bad guy hurting himself as a by-product of his actions. This was not uncommon, with many PreK age children still needing to hurt the bad guys in some way (and this is completely developmentally appropriate.)
Super Fast Man
I’m great at soccer. I go really fast with my super fast shoes. I jump really high to the ceiling and save my parents from the pointy ceiling. The bad evil vampire put them there. He bangs himself on the door when I climb up there. -Lucca, PreK
Levi has made the correlation that calming people can prevent bad decisions. This developmental leap is illustrated through his super hero that both rescues and transforms:
I fly to dogs that aren’t being treated well. I’m gonna stop the people from being mad. I will calm them. -Levi, PreK
PreK Dylan shows some deep thoughts about nurture and nature. His idea that maybe if you are in a place with “not so much mean stuff, you couldn’t be bad”, is deep.
Lava Man makes volcanoes that scare away bad guys so that they would maybe go somewhere that didn’t have much mean stuff so they couldn’t be bad.
PreK student Tate also follows this theme of changing bad guys. For him, giving nice things, like a Yankees baseball cap to a bad guy. makes them feel good, thus facilitating change.
My shoe turns into 100 Yankee caps for the bad guys to feel good. The other foot makes Red Sox caps. First they’re bad and then they’re good! -Tate, PreK
Isabella uses the metaphor of sunshine in her illustration, connecting the iconic symbol with meaning:
Isabella Super Hero
I’m really good at riding my huge bike. I go fast. I go up in the air and give people sunshine. -Isabella, PreK
In addition to thinking, and inventing based on a concept. I showed children exaples of how illustrators show power through line and color. I challenged the children to make their picture really show it was an example of some type of super power, and not just a regular kid or scene. Below, Kindergarten students Carter and Matteo Z. are deep in focus as they tackle this new kind of task.
In Kindergarten, ideas began to expand. More children created super heroes that helped or rescued in specific ways. While there is a mix of children still deeply entrenched in complete magical thinking, I began to see the next stage of development emerging; more use of metaphor, understanding of fairness, change and inclusion of the greater community.
I do backflips and catch up with bad guys. I will tie their hands behind their backs so they won’t punch me. I will take them to a spot and tell them to be peaceful and no fighting and no weapons. The change happens when I put a rainbow on them -Lane, Kindergarten
The idea of friendship as a gift of power transmission as told by Gus, is both fierce and gentle:
I stomp on the ground as hard as I can and I put my hand out like a fist and a ray comes out. But no one can see it. If there is someone who didn’t know how to make friends they can make friends. -Gus, Kindergarten
Raigan loves to make string necklaces in the studio; her super hero bestows powers to others that allow them to travel:
I make necklaces. My necklaces help people to go anywhere they want. -Raigan, Kindergarten
August, though in Kindergarten shows his understanding of non-violent protest by using signs and text to create change. Even though he has not colored his sketch yet, the image is powerful to share.
I can run around the world putting signs everywhere, they might say, “No Fighting”. -August, Kindergarten
Zuri combines magical thinking and metaphor to illustrates in detail how her Super Hero will make change:
I’m gonna build a bridge tower around the bad guys with stars. The stars sprinkle stuff all over and they turn into good guys. -Zuri, Kindergarten
My powers will make the city grow back; houses, cars, streetlights, boats, trees, and grass. –Michael, Kindergarten
Lily believes in power of Art:
I’m going to make the world more beautiful. I’m going to make bad guys pictures. They will like them and turn to good guys. -Lily, Kindergarten
Electra already recognizes the power of reading. She also travels in time, therefor righting past wrongs:
Super Reading Girl
I can travel back in time. I will read to bad people and they will be good. -Electra, Kindergarten
While for Evie, the healing powers of a Band-Aid prevail!
I’m good at helping people. I have powers to fly to people who fell down. I help them with my powers and potions. It helps them get up and puts bandaids on them. -Evie, Kindergarten
(Lily, Evie and August will be returning to add color to their representations)
In first grade, many children were challenged by this assignment. By first grade the majority are aware of pop culture, advertising and movies that cast super heroes in a pretty reliable role of eliminating bad guys through violence. They had a harder time figuring out how to transform what they are good at into something beyond themselves. There was a less blurring of the lines between real life and imagination, which made the younger children’s stories flow more effortlessly. However their understanding of injustice and justice was more complex. Their ability to express themselves through visual media was more complicated.
Witnessing these subtle changes in thinking, representing, and creating is rewarding. It reinforces why having an Art Studio (in the context of Reggio Emilia Environment like SWS) in upper grades continues to be necessary and a vital force in developing 21st century thinking skills. Much of the work in the studio is about big ideas and how to construct/deconstruct and communicate through symbols and metaphors.
Mason’s Super Hero shows his understanding that not all people are able to afford flying:
I can make paper airplanes. I make an airplane that people can fly on for like $5. Cause it cost a lot of money to fly on an airplane. -Mason, 1st Grade
My name is Dare Dog. I fly and I have a tail. I have three fingers. I fly around looking for people who need help, like if a kite is stuck in a tree or if you’ve lost your mom. I can magically make a path to them. -Dylan, 1st Grade
Super Emma Clare
I save babies if they get hurt. I fly down and pick them up. -Emma Clare, 1st Grade
Charlie creatively understands the power of humor to diffuse conflict.
I’m good at making funny jokes. If the bad guys laugh, they’ll be good. -Charlie, 1st Grade
Max uses his “thing that he loves to do”; skate, to teach others, like many SWS children. His thoughtful representation shows the intricacies of his ideas.
Super Ice Skater
I’m a super skater. I give ice skating lessons. I throw ice dust and the dust makes people better at skating. –Max, 1st Grade
Alden saves fireflies, a wonderful metaphor for preserving light and peaceful beings.
I’m good at studying fireflies. I’m gonna have a jet and when I see predators coming to eat fireflies, I’m gonna save the fireflies. -Alden, 1st Grade
Tillie had a simple idea that she illustrated graphically different from most of the children. Her tiny super hero is detailed in simple black silhouette. Initially when she added color, she had the blue sky only at the top of the building (a common idea that the sky is only on the top of a page.) I tried explaining that the sky is all around and she looked puzzled, so I scooted her out the front door of the school to observe how the sky actually surrounds a building all the way to the ground. She lit up with a smile and said “Ohhhhhh, I see that now!” There were a lot of these type of visual “aha” moments with the 1st graders as I encouraged them to take leaps in visual perception and expression.
I’m gonna flip through the air and save people in trouble. -Tillie, 1st Grade
The next day, Tillie brought to school a Christmas present that her talented Uncle created for her for Christmas.
“See Tillie, now you have proof that you really ARE a Super Hero!”, I said.
When I see broken buildings I shoot them. When I shoot (the buildings), they come back to being a building. -Xavier, 1st Grade
First grade Ava’s Super Hero touched my heart. I often push her to try again and push through the hard parts. Here’s what she created:
I’m going to fly to people in a rocket ship and teach children how to make wonderful art. I have a grabber and I grab the art they don’t like. I get them to do it again. I don’t want them to give up. I give the art back to them and then they try once more. -Ava M. 1st Grade
And Anja combined the idea of conflict resolution through diplomatic talks with the addition of some magic dust!
I’m good at making peace by talking. I can fly. I throw my peace sign dust and people stop having fights and can work it out. -Anja, 1st Grade
Inaugural poet Richard Blanco read his poem “One Today” at the swearing-in ceremony for President Obama today. Here is the last stanza:
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky.
And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
(Light Sculpture By Xavier, 1st Grade)
It occurs to me, that often it is indeed metaphor and magical thinking combined with reality that stops us in our tracks, and causes pause.
And causes understanding.
And causes wonder.
And sometimes change.
Not unlike the “I have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King.
Not unlike President Obama’s inaugural address.
Not unlike Richard Blanco’s poem
Not unlike the children’s work above.
They are practicing.
And for that, I am thankful.
PS I am also thankful for Early Childhood Educator and friend Maureen Ingram who told me of her idea to do Peaceful Super Heroes with her 3 year old class. It inspired me to explore the idea in the studio at SWS.
Sometimes life can feel incredibly complex to break down into small digestable bits.
Many rich projects have been occurring in the studio during this time of my playing hookie from blogging. This causes me to feel overwhelmed on what to include. (I mean I’ve been told my blogs are too long already.)
Sometimes I can see this same feeling within my students.
A provocation can seem overwhelming, draw a self portrait, build a chair out of clay, draw your nightmare and tell me about it. A big part of my work is teaching others how to break down what they see, feel, think, or hear into pieces, deconstructing what seems insurmountable.
Some background of what you are seeing: The “Chair Project” emerged in Ms Burke’s PreK class. Winnie drew a picture of the tables and chairs to illustrate the job of “snack helper.” The table had about fifty legs and the chairs were represented as circles on top of the table. Dimensional thinking is complex, let alone representing it with pen and paper as a four year old. Ms. Burke found it fascinating, and we discussed it. I suggested giving the children the challenge of creating a 3d chair out of clay, and returning to the drawing later. The photos above from the studio include Hannah Birney scaffolding or asking questions to provoke understanding that would facilitate overcoming the challenge, examples of chairs in different postions to help children understand how they are constructed, and Zuri giving peer support to Matteo.
50 percent of the children began by making a flat “drawing” out of clay initially.
90 percent of the children struggled with creating sturdy legs and balance. What you see plus the wonderful quality of clay-you can smoosh it when it doesn’t work out, led to enormous leaps of growths.
About 20 percent of the children came up with their own strategies for making the chair upright. Platforms, bucket chairs and a chaise lounge were some of the ways.
When the children finally manipulated the clay and created an upright chair, I had a few figures from the play castle for testing stability. After children “tested” their chair with the fugure, they went off to have some studio freetime.
In one small group, all but one child was done. Fionn was working with great intensity to tackle his chair. When he finally had success, I commented on how he stuck with this project, even when it was hard. I placed Fionn’s chair next to the other chairs still on the table that had a small figure seated.
“WAIT WAIT! He didn’t get to put a person on his!” Michael exclaimed from the floor where he was playing with the wooden castle. I had no idea he was paying any attention at all. I was about to just pluck a figure off the neighboring chair, when Michael rushed up with the small figure he was playing with. “There!” He pronounced, placing the toy he was playing with onto Fionn’s chair.
That small moment of caring, of equity and of kindness struck me as not just kind, but incredibly giving. Memories like these remind me of the tiny gestures which make humanity grand.
How do I hold on to these small moments? How can I catch them, and put them in my pocket, to be retrieved and written down before I forget them? And then, when do I remember to share them, with the person who made the moment, or the small gesture?
“…I wonder how memories can be here one moment and then gone the next. I wonder about how the sky can be a huge, blue nothingness and at the same time it can also feel like shelter. ” p.175 from Memory Wall By Anthony Doerr
After the chairs were fired in the kiln, I placed them on black paper and put up a stand so that black paper would be a backdrop for the chair. I wanted the children to see the negative space black instead of the entire visual field around their chairs.
I wondered if the memory of mentally deconstructing a real chair and physically constructing a clay chair would support their dimensional thinking , allowing them to “see” and draw this complex object.
Mira’s chair with standing figure above.
I told the children that this was difficult for even grown-ups to do, and that they should expect to do a whole bunch of tries. That even grown ups have to do things a lot of times, and even then, it might still be difficult. As you can see from the above photos, the cognitive and tactile experiences paired with the expectation that it would take a bunch of drawings to figure it out, made for astounding development. I witnessed tremendous breakthroughs in this process.
When it was discovered that a seat of a chair sideways makes a letter “L” shape, I showed everyone this finding.
This immediately made sense to Tessa (above)
Bella, below, was really trying hard to figure out how to draw her chair sideways. Her seat was a big circular shape, and the way she saw it, it was more from an aerial perspective. I know she was listening as I urged each child to notice that “L” shape on their own chair. When she didn’t find it, she added it to the bottom of her drawing as a bunch of “L” legs. Sometimes what you see doesn’t look like what others see. If you look closely, there is indeed a side view, just from a different perspective.
With each group, I left time at the end to reflect about what was hard or difficult as well as what they and or their friends figured out.
This intentional practice of teaching and modeling observation, critique and reflection is a way to make it a value or eventually an internalized practice for each child. At first it’s a little like pulling teeth, and then “pop” with ease and surprise great awakenings are verbalized.
Eva, throughout the process kept saying “I can’t do this.” I reminded her that “can’t is a bad word, but instead she could say, “This is hard! Can you help me?” She was however quite successful in in the end representing her chair, which she created on a base.
When we regrouped to reflect, Eva exclaimed poetically:
“If your brain looks into your creation,
Use the power.
And tell Mommy and Daddy, ‘You did it! Whoo Hoo!'”
I returned to transcribing the nightmare paintings. My goal was to complete this important process of writing down each child’s words with their paintings. I find these works by four year olds both brave and playful. While some children turned their nightmare into a dear friend like Simone,
or an element of power like Archer
Ava S. expressed herself in an honest and touching way. I find her nightmare painting and memory as incredible evidence of the importance of parents protecting their child from even the imaginary.
“Then he holds me by the shoulderss and looks me in the eyes and says,
We see things. Sometimes they there. Sometimes they not there. We see them the same either way. You understand?”
p169 from Memory Wall By Anthony Doerr
The intensity in the studio is coupled with the free time children are able to take, time permitting. While sometimes project time will use up the entire slot, I try hard to be cognizant of the merits of free time as equally important to the teacher facilitated period, and make space for it. Some children live for free time, especially those who seek the social emotional release and joys of dramatic play. While they might “live” for this free time, it does not mean it is easy. Negotiating friends, time, space, place and materials takes a multitude of thought and self regulation. Even those who prefer to make something on their own or play alone often have to defend their choices- all important habits of mind.
Here are some memories caught and documented during free time.
Lane over the past weeks has sought out the drum during free time. He keeps a repetitive and steady beat, and loses himself in the concentration and rhythm. A few weeks ago, he began rearranging chairs and stools to make a seat and platform for his playing. He was experimenting with many configurations independently. “Can I sit on this?” he asked, rolling over the clay trash container on wheels. No child had ever asked this, so I told him to go ahead. After some bustling around, I realized the steady drum rhythm had returned. When I looked, I could see that Lane had created a throne for his music making.
Sophie this week chose to use clay to make something for her free time. She spent a long time crafting a teeny tiny sculpture. While she was welcome to take a big wad of clay, she chose to make something small and precious. When she was done she handed it to me. “It’a a platypus.” I turned it around in my hands trying to figure out how to even put one initial on it. When I determined an initial would overwhelm her piece I told her, “Sophie, this is so small, I am unable to put your name or letter on it. Please remind me that you made it after it’s been fired.”
Sophie looked at me in alarm and said, “But Ms. McLean, what if someone ELSE makes a platypus?!”
Robert and Gabriel chose to work together making copious amounts of meatballs and spaghetti. For a half hour they made tiny pinch pots and squeezed out clay through the extruder with great excitement and seriousness. It was an epic amount of clay pasta, and their engagement and spirits were so high. Was this a fleeting moment? or a memory that one day, when they are grown and cook for themselves, will slip into their consciousness like a small little jolt?
What memories do we control? How can memories be utilized as a learning tool in intentional connected ways? How accurate are memories in reflecting or re-experiencing events?
Mant times when I lead classes to a museum, there is no photography allowed of the objects. In these cases, I speak very seriously to the children. “It’s important that you sketch what is interesting or gives you ideas. Since photography is not allowed, these pictures in your sketchbook will be your memory for you to return to.” I was floored by the intensity I observed when I led Ms. Ricks’ PreK class to the Museum of African Art. The line quality and pen strokes conveyed materials, features and intricacies of art and artifacts.
In the art studio, Raigan tends to complete drawings with speed and little effort.In the Museum of African Art she was transfixed, staring closely as she slowly sketched. I never tire of the phenomenon of young children enthralled and engaged in an art museum. So many parents tell me their children won’t draw or aren’t interested in looking when in a museum setting. These very same children, with high expectations that they are competent and able , seem to float into a zone where the rest of the world disappears. They create images, ideas and connections which they know are important and can see are strong work.
Sometimes memory is important just for the reason to share a moment that was delightful. The first week back after Winter Break, folk dancers came to share dances around the world. Despite having an audience of over 80 four to six year old children, the performance was interactive and entertaining and the hour long performance was a hit. Thanks to Arts for Every Student and Class Acts, this program was free.
The hundreth day of school was marked by the Kindergarten students with a lot of numeracy and ritual. This year, I joined each classroom with thousands of craft sticks, wire, glue dots, paper towel rolls, egg cartons and some foam bits and pieces. In both K classes the children were given the challenge of using each one hundred sticks in some kind of sculpture that they make in an hour. A beautiful chaos of “making” ensued.
While most kids consciously or unconsciously gave up on the idea of incorporating one hundred craft sticks, Emma Clare was determined to use all 100 sticks. With shades on, she created a skateboard storage area on her sculpture (that woud be the sticks as skateboards placed tightly in a paper cannister.) Brilliant!
This exercise of exploring and constructing without a plan was filled with engineering and ingenuity. It was however lacking time, so I found myself in a mad rush of cleaning up the gazillions of materials which sprawled, before the kids missed lunch or the bus. When I was leaving Mr. Jere’s class, clutching various materials I heard my name being called and felt a small person quickly following me as I zipped around. “Ms. McLean, Ms. McLean” I hurriedly said “What?” and spun around to face Anja. “Thank you for setting that up in our class. I really like doing that kind of thing.” I felt a wave of gratitude and a little shame for being so curt initially.
I happened to bump into Anja’s parents one afternoon and told the story. It’s not often that someone even thinks to thank you for the everyday work you do, and especially not a 5 or 6 year old. This memory truly stops me in my tracks, and illuminates the great power of a small heartfelt thank you.
Memory is closely related to observation and discovery. I took one group in the art studio and decided to see if they were interested in some water experiments. The Kindergarten classes are in the beginning phases of The Anacostia River Project. Because the first visit to the river was cancelled due to weather, there were no first encounters to rely upon. My idea was to observe water in altered states and sketch afterwards. I was not certain at all.
Dropping a golf ball in the water. Adding oil to water. Adding water color paints to water. Adding salt to water.
Perhaps the memory of the experiment will connect to what they see when they visit the river at the end of the week. To my delight, this one group of children (Jasper, Stephen, Ra’Kiya, Luke and Maya) were eager and enthusiastic scientists. They each documented the shared process and sequence and ideas- their memory of the multi step experiment.
Memory is called upon as a coping mechanism.With children, both the joy and the pain must be revisited with support and care to gain a sense of stability and understanding. “Remember when you were left out of your friends game? How did you feel? How do your friends feel when you leave them out? What do you need to do?” Children spontaneously bring up memories of grief, from a relative to a pet. These are great windows into life. I recently attended a funeral of my uncle. The power of memory and story is not only essential to the grief process but to each and every individual as a human being.
How and what we remember informs our very being.
Last Friday, a former student, Eva Epstein who is now in third grade came to visit me. After a big hug she looked into my eyes and said, “Ms. McLean, I came into here (the art studio) and all the memories came flooding back!”
“We return to the places we’re from; we trample faded corridors and pencil in new lines. “You’ve grown up so fast,” Robert’s mother tell him at breakfast, at dinner. “Look at you.” But she’s wrong, thinks Robert. You bury your childhood here and there. It waits for you, all your life, to come back and dig it up.” p.242 Memory Wall By Anthony Doerr
Slowly, I get to know each child, quite intimately. Helena often creates representations of her baby sister. The drawing above came about when I asked her, “What are you into? What interests you? What is something you think about?” My sister, she replied. When I asked her what her sister can do, she told me “crawl”. I bent a small figure in a crawling postion so she could figure it out.
Previously, during free time she created her sister in her car seat out of clay.
There is an amazing way we, all people walk the earth. We bring our memories from home with us, wherever we go. They are invisible to others most of the time. For young children, they wear their memories on their sleeves. The family memories bubble up and emerge. One moment they are playing happily and the next moment they think of their mommy, and briefly, the tears or yearning is vocalized. The next moment they are a part of a new group, building new memories, creating new pathways in their brains. Like Eva Epstein, who visited me, someday these memories will just bubble up. And define them.
“…every hour…, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.” p.242 Memory Wall By Anthony Doerr
“Seeing is like dreaming, and even like falling in love.
It is entangled in the passions-jealousy, violence, possessiveness, and it is soaked in affect, in pleasure and displeasure and pain.
Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis not mechanism.”
This quote was brought to my attention by Rika Burnham, author of Teaching in the Art Museum, Interpretation as Experience who was one of the presenters and leaders during the week long seminar Conversations in Creativity at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington DC.
It is such a poweful statement and it has been resonating and dancing in my head. It brings to mind images of a project I did with Kindergarten children on the idea of seeing. I asked, How do we see? Do we see with more than our eyes? What does “seeing” look like? Here are some of the images from four years ago:
The thinking and emotion that is intrinsic in “seeing” is at the core of both my work with children and adults as well as my personal art making.
Robert S and Michelle M. Root-Bernstein, the authors Sparks of Genius and Dr. Kimberly Sheridan, one of the authors Studio Thinking:The real benefits of Visual Arts Education also led the seminar with a combination of passion and research. These two books have shaped my practice, so I was honored to have the opportunity to be a part of a small group of educators from all over the world to engage with them.
The seminar allowed me to both reflect and recharge on the Atelier or Studio environment that I facilitate.
Last Spring, when I asked a group of Pre-K students to think about, plan and create “What makes you happy?” I was inquiring into the minds of 4 year olds, however I was not only honoring their place in life as a 4 year old, but facilitating and mentoring the process of constructing their ideas into a symbol.
Here is Jasper’s Supersonic Aircraft:
Yes, this is an amazing scupltural construction, but what you don’t see, is that it took Jasper one whole hour to put holes in the bottle caps using an awl and hammer, and then he had to secure the body of the aircraft into a vice to drill holes with a hand tool in order to attach the wheels. It took another 40 minutes to maneuver the wire through the small holes. These moments of engaging, persisting and working through frustration and often failure- to the end, are a micricosm of the process for all the children in the studio.
Weeks after Jasper completed this sculpture he informed me that he was not done. He still needed to add passengers. I honestly had no idea how he would find materials to fit in such a small area of his sculpture. But, I learned, that he has the great ability to visually make dimensional estimates. Through the proposition “What makes me happy” (a seemingly benign proposal), came great understanding of his thinking and habits of mind.
My commitment to Atelier or Studio (transdisciplinary) teaching and teaching environments was supported and challenged to grow during this amazing and in depth seminar. What a wonderful summer gift!
In addition to the seminar, I have another occurence to reflect upon.
Last night I had an experience that was complex and thought provoking. I was hired as an artist by Class Acts-Project Youth ArtReach to lead art workshops in a local detention facility for youth. This type of work is new for me. I brought clay and universal, diverse cultural & ethnic images symbolizing protection, elements, totems and human qualities. The youth were to make sculptural reliefs inspired by these images. Here are some of them:
I am planning on creating a mixed media mosaic for Class Acts, with these pieces (and more from subsequent workshops.)
Just like with Jasper’s process, this is what you didn’t see: the facility was disorganized so workshops scheduled were cut short, and/or moved to a room without a table/water access. Some staff were disengaged, creating a challenging climate. Eventually, the majority of youth were engaged.
While some participants voiced bravado or tested limits in conversation-others worked in silence. Others told stories inspired by the images. One youth told me with excitement about catching a huge toad, and going to the insect museum at The Smithsonian when he was a kid and seeing the huge hissing cockroaches. (I had scarab images.)
Another told me of his plans to have tattoos all over his body. When he shared plans to one day tattoo his eyelids with “Game” on one eye and “Over” on the other, I gently suggested he get tattoos in places he could hide them. “You really would be limited if you went on a job interview. What would you do, not blink? One day, you will be a father or a grandfather. You want to be able to think ahead and be proud of the images on your body.”
Some of the youth already had tattoos. One had several nautical stars. “What does that mean to you?” I asked. He replied, “Reach for the stars.”
Another had an intricately drawn and shaded tattoo of a tree with entangled roots on his forarm. He told me it was The Tree of LIfe. It was beautiful.
One youth spent most of his time hiding behind a sofa, eventually emerging to sit apart-declaring he was not going to get his hands dirty. Near the end of the workshop, he stood next to me and began going through the images I had brought.
“Can I have some?” he asked.
“What for?” I replied
“I draw.” he said.
“What type of pictures are you looking for? I can give you a few, but I need the rest for the next workshop.”
“I like wings.” he said.
He found wings. I gave them to him. he said, “Thank you.”
Poetic, bittersweet and sad. I question what an hour or 45 minutes of images and clay and me is worth in this environment? I believe in connection and relationship, and yes transformation through “seeing.” How do brief moments with limited connection and relationship effect (do they even effect at all) incarcerated or detained youth?
My husband, LaMar Davis of The Choice Program has done research on the Arts and incarcerated youth. “The truth is,” he told me, “you just never know what it might mean to a kid. That boy who took those (wing) drawings, it might mean a lot to him. These are kids who have nothing, and have nothing to do all day. Who knows, he might draw and create and that’s really great.”
I return to the words in the opening quote: “Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis not mechanism.” and leave them for you to ponder.
and Sasha (below)
PS Here are the links to the above references: