The Uncommon

“We react to weather in relative rather than absolute fashion,” said Laurence S. Kalkstein, a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami. “The uncommon is what bothers us.”
(From the Washington Post article, Shriver or shrug: On a bitter cold day, a telling personality test)

But, I wondered, what if the “uncommon”  polar vortex that changed the DC metro area could be transformed into a temporary wonderful, magical, and stunning curiosity?
For the children and community of SWS, this small poetic gesture was offered.
Frozen Sun catchers.

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May you encounter the uncommon with all your senses
May it fill you with wonder
And joy
May you pass it forward
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Happy eARTh day!

 

(Yes, that’s my car.)  Happy eARTth day!

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a workshop panel and presentations with an international group of researchers called Speak Out: Art and Eco Activism. This was at the National Art Education Association Conference in NYC. I was thrilled to gain not only connections and new relationships with colleagues who share similar values and do tremendous work, but a new lexicon of phraseology.

My first and favorite of this new vocabulary has been singing in my ear causing new delight in my work with children at SWS.

Radical Amazement.

“To understand what it means to live on earth in a meaningful way is to create immediate, sensory, feelingful, and embodied connections with one’s changing environments. Aiming at awakening the senses or experienc-ing radical amazement (O’Reilly, 1998) mean that one engages in diverse and personal meaningful ways to observe, experience, feel, and connect with the environment. In short, this is a challenge to pause, note, and experience the extraordinary in the everyday and ordinary.”

My goal is to enact, provoke, kindle, evoke and incite radical amazement. Celebrating our very local and fleeting cherry blossoms with ritual and joy across the street in Stanton Park is an important ritual.

One of my favorite moments of our Cherry Blossom Celebration was looking over to see a group of boys playing very intense  game of soccer  with crowns of flowers upon their heads.

That’s “Our Ladies of the Cherry Blossoms” (Rachel Cross, Cynthia Copeland, myself, Cecilia Monahan) who facilitated musical parades and movement, bubble blowing land and cherry blossom crowns. These are the memories that connect us to “place” or to the rhythm of our geographic and cultural location. Children are inundated to consume popular culture and place in  non-stop media bombardment, even on the public transport and food packaging. It limits the ability to connect. A pre packaged culture does not allow one to add to the creation of where they are right now. And while popular culture and media saturation is here to stay, Radical Amazement empowers all of us to engage in joyful, creative, new and meaningful ways.

Last Friday, as part of the Kindergarten Anacostia River Project, we visited a new river park called the Bladensburg Waterfront River Park. It was a full day outside interacting with this body of water. Though still toxic from decades of neglect and dumping, it supports a plethora of wildlife. Chris from the Anacostia Watershed Society guided us all on a boat tour filled with wonder, silence and the sad realities of it’s current state and what we can do.

The fact that anything from the Peabody playground (from food to trash to balls) ends up in the Anacostia River made the connection very real. Our actions directly affect the river. On the first trip to Anacostia River Park in DC, Mr. Jere’s class (among other stuff) found a ball and brought it back as an artifact. The children were amazed to realize this connection. As we looked at the river,  more balls were spotted.

Despite the trash, the Anacostia River the children and teachers experienced last Friday had  both a  beautiful tranquility  and an energy teeming with life.

Brooke was worried about the boat ride and asked if I would sit near her. Her fear evaporated as she began experiencing the river from within.

Radical Amazement!

 

The day continued with the provocation of how to measure the river (and yes, both classes in small groups armed with yarn did some creative measuring that is to be continued with Mr. Jere and Ms. Scofield) singing and music with Ms. Rachel, observation, games and making memory lockets of the day from recycled caps with me.

(aerial view of the boat on the river)

(turtle and bird as seen from the boat)

Both the Cherry Blossom Celebration and the River Project support another important principal that I adopted from the workshop I attended.

Place-Based  Epistomology

“Developing caring, attentive, fulfilled, and protective relationships with one’s environment and its habitants requires a place-based orientation and epistemology, which acknowledges the environment as central to understanding one’s place in the world. Attending to the specificity of place supports a sense of kinship, emotional bonding, empathy, and revitalized perception (Jokela, 2007).”

While I have sought intuitively for this type of connected learning throughout my teaching career, adopting the lexicon gives gravity and intentionality.

An amazing and powerful personification of this priniciple is Kindergarten student Jasper. On our first trip to the Anacostia river as a community, all of us were dismayed at the huge amount of trash in and on the shores. This sparked great conversation, poetry and representations. I printed this poem in my last post, but I am reprinting since as you can see, Jasper was in this group of poets.

IN THE WATER By  Luke, Jasper, Stephen, Maya, Ra’kyia

There was a lot of trash in the water

Brownish

Mushy stinky

There was even a skittle wrapper in the water

Maybe they didn’t know they dropped it

Maybe their parents didn’t teach them

Not long after the trips and poetry and collections of artifacts from the river, Jasper’s Dad, Adam sent out an email.

“Hi all–At Jasper’s urging, we’ve found out that there’s an Anacostia river cleanup on Sat. 4/21 for Earth Day. It might be fun to have a bunch of us go together. The cleanup is in the morning, and there’s some kind of fair afterwards which we could turn into a class social/potluck. Anyway, we can figure it all out after spring break but I wanted to suggest it and invite everyone to put it on their calendar.”

Yesterday, I was honored to join the SWS contingent in cleaning up the river, as urged by Jasper. My sister Gale (co author and photographer of the book Craft Activism) was in from Connecticut and joined me. As we got out of the car, I told her the story of the project, the workshop I attended, and Jasper. As we walked along the river in search of the SWS kids, the first thing I saw was a dilapidated tv pulled from the river, and who should be examining it?
.Jasper!  What a great start to the morning. It turned out that parts of that TV were pretty darn interesting, so thanks to Maya’s Dad, Eric, (and his mother-in-law’s van parked nearby) there  will be some TV innards to transform into something this week in the studio.The clean up was both sad and joyful. So so so much trash.

and so so so much discovery.

There also was some excellent multi-tasking as the kids in addition to removing trash, collected natural materials to make Fairy Houses later this Spring.

Yet another concept or phrase that struck me is

Relational Learning – Recontextualizing Self as Interbeing

In February I decided to do some worm composting in the Art Studio. The classrooms had already started, and so I asked Margi Finneran (Assistant teacher in Room 11) who is a wonderful garden and composting expert (among many other things!) if some of her trained PreK children could help me set up mine.

So Piper, Carter, Emmett, and Electra became my experts.

Piper: They live in dirt but sleep in paper.

First step was ripping up the paper. But what a surprise when our music teacher Rachel Cross ended up in our worm bin!

Emmett: The worms will eat her up and poop her out. (Lots of laughter)

and then? She will help grow the flowers!

The experts had a lot of physical labor. And while drilling had a conversation.

Carter: They eat paper.

Electra: Vegetables

Emmett: Rotten stuff

Carter: The worms think it’s delicious, but we think it’s gross.

It was time to add the worms. I was touched by the simple kindness of the act.

Emmett: Don’t be scared little buddy

Carter: I’m giving you a home.

Piper: Don’t worry worm.

Emmett to Ms. Finneran “Can you talk to my mom to see if the worms can come to my house for a play date?

Electra: I’m glad we got a chance to dig in the worms.

Me: Well I’m glad and thankful that you came to help me do this. I didn’t know what to do at all.

Carter: We teach you and you teach us!

Each week I open up the bin to feed the worms. I do this during free time or in the common area. It never fails that I immediately have helpers to feed, turn and maintain and observe the worms. Radical Amazement. Recontextualizing self as interbeing.

“Humans gain a sense of purpose, belonging, and fulfillment through developing loving, caring, respectful, non-manipulative, non-acquisitive relationships with each other. But beyond human affairs, similar expanded relations with the environment are necessary to Earth Education. Beyond the obvious need to respect our environment, people who are committed to nature preservation and deep ecology arguably enjoy life more, have deeper relationships through a shared sense of belonging, and more emotional capacity to bond and to attend to experiences, such as fear and mourning in the face of social and natural events (Milton, 2002). Implicit in the notion of interbeing is the understanding that self-realization cannot be attained through heightened attention to the individual ego, but must be achieved in relationship with other people, species, living organisms, and even with water, rocks, wind, and earth. We suggest that, in seeking to achieve interbeing, people engage in collaborative and relational processes/projects with other artists and nonartists, particularly in the context of the natural world (Boldon, 2008; Bourriaud, 2002; The Green Museum, 2011; Jokela, 2008).”

One might wonder how worm composting is connected to art making. I felt no need to have the kids sketch the worms.

Experiences (such as the worms) activate the senses, understanding,  and connections. Because of the richness of the interactions these experiences become memory. Here’s why it is important to the creative process. Invention is often an act of recombination.

The inventor , George de Mestral went on a walk with his dog and returned to find his pet covered with burrs. As he pulled them off, he became interested and put one under a microscope. He noted the way the fiber was like a hook and latch. He soon invented velcro by putting nylon under infrared light.

By creating a transdisciplinary studio environment, filled with meaningful and memory laden experiences, children are building a reservoir of concepts and understanding. These reservoirs of experiences combined with  poetic languages, materials, inquiry, construction, representation,  community, ingenuity, trial and error, experimentation, practice,  and observation develops the mind set of creativity.

One morning I was working with a group of PreK students, when Lena from Ms. Scofield’s Kindergarten came in. She waited until I had a minute and said, “I was cleaning off the stuff we collected from the Anacostia, and I found something living. I think it’s a caterpillar, look!”

“Hmmm,” I responded, “it doesn’t look like any caterpillar I’ve ever seen. Let’s do a little research at the computer.” First I brought up images of caterpillars, and she agreed that it did not look like any of the photos. We tried worms, snakes and finally moved on to larvae. Low and behold, she found a match. It was a beetle larvae. We went on to see what type of beetle it would turn into. It was thrilling. And she went running back to her class.

I cringe when parents choose computer learning over hands on interaction, thinking it will give their child advancement in learning. I do believe in computer literacy, however  computer literacy without real life sensory interactions does not create intellect, it creates data entry ability.

While outside sketching, something surprising is discovered on the old logs.

Augie found a whole world of brightly iridescent insects.

Sometimes the shared experiences become challenge. For the Kindergarteners I asked, “How does an artists create water in their art? ” What does water really look like?” “How can you create water on paper?” I challenged them to experiment with materials that can be manipulated in experimental ways-oil pastel, paper towel, brushes and baby oil. I urged them to try a new way and another and yet another. To shout out when they figured out something interesting.

“Animating Art Knowledge as a Model for Understanding Nature- To develop a sense of interbeing with one’s immediate and larger environment simulates the process often experienced by artists engaging with the development of their art. This relationship is an animistic process, during which the artist and his or her work renegotiate their connection, and the meaning of existence in relation to one another. We suggest a similar organic and animistic relationship to be the goal between an individual, their communities, and environments. Altering one’s self to relationality and availability utilizing artistic, embodied, and emotional bonding allows all components to develop in meaningful relationality.”

It is hard to tell from this blog that we are a school located in the heart of a city.

Another phrase I heard again and again at the National Art Educators Association was “Embodying:

Once again including the entire body and sensory system  with experience, interaction and in this case, play. At SWS the nature play space is transformed hundreds of times every day. One afternoon I documented how children interacted freely with the environment. The choreography from contemplative to raucous, imaginary to reflective illustrates the importance of these open ended natural spaces, especially in a city school. Once again, children are creating their culture and play-not just consuming it pre-made.

I will end this post with some inspiring words from Peter London, who was one of the speakers at the conference I attended. I hope on this eARTday it speaks and resonates within you too.

 “But suppose we are Nature. Suppose we are one more interesting crop of
a universe whose nature is fecundity and whose manifestations are infinite. Suppose there is no divorce.
And that drawing closer to nature is not so much an outer journey to some distant exotica but a journey in
the exact opposite direction, inward to an awakening of what is already contained within. What we so
fervently desire to join is joined, just veiled.

And the artistic/creative processes
lift the veil.”

Not afraid of the dark

The darkness of this time of year, is actually our guide.

How do I greet and introduce this shift of our natural world with my young children that I share the bulk of my time with in the SWS Art Studio?

It is all to easy to shut out the natural occurrences with modern technology and a blind eye. With ritual and reverence, playfulness and curiosity, the journey into the darker days of the year become meaningful.

When  K teacher Jere Lorenzen-Strait sent me a link to an exhibit The Bright Beneath,  at The Smithsonian Museum of natural History, my heart skipped a beat. A resident artists was invited to explore bioluminescence through kinetic art installation. The two of us became fascinated by the idea that light and energy can occur where there is no sun, in the deep dark depths of the ocean. Together we went on a recognizance mission to see what it was all about. We were blown away. We quickly  planned to bring the children with their sketchbooks to this trans formative space. We had a sense that this multi-sensory environment would engage and sustain them and prayed it would be a slow and quiet day at the museum, so that they would have time. To prep the children on the day of the trip, I asked them to think about representing something really difficult: movement, change of color, form, light and sound in their sketchbook.

 

 

 

Joseph, above represented movement using undulating lines, while Katie stood up and danced the movement with her whole being immersed in the dark dramatic light, sound and color of the installation (below).

The children pointed, pondered, worked  alone as if in a bubble, or worked with a friend collaborating on how to sketch this enormous idea. The children were rapt for an hour, in fact, we had to stop them so that we could free up the space for the rest of the museum patrons. Several adults and school groups commented on the children’s intense creativity and attention. They were surprised at the children’s focus.

This trip filled my heart. It was values, belief and pedagogy made visible. Children indeed possess deep and thoughtful insights and must be given the time, respect and materials to document their ideas. This trip also was an illustration on how multi-sensory arts education is the great equalizer. Looking at this group, no one would know who has a hard time sitting in a chair, standing in line, or answering a question. All children were engaged in higher level thought and practice. Just beautiful.

The dark alters how we see things. Shadows are long. The overcast sky creates new hues. So with this in mind, I collected some favorite materials for some of the preK children to experiment with. I wanted them to see things in an changed state. While the end result would be creating a  kaleidoscope  of sorts, the process was the illuminating aspect of the provocation.

 

With the longer darker days come the opportunity of spending time inside creating, constructing, and reading. I grew up in Rochester, New York where it was cold and grey six months of the year. I attribute that environment in shaping my love for creating and imagining. As a child I spent hours taking things apart, playing under tables and creating small worlds, and noticing the light whenever a beam glowed in my bedroom.

With teacher Margaret Ricks and her PreK class, we walked to the US Botanic Gardens to see the extraordinary natural small world and trains created by Paul Busse of Applied Imagination in Alexandria, Kentucky. His attention to extreme  detail and fantastical creations makes me imagine him sitting for hours surrounded by leaves and berries and small light.

Despite the beauty and wonder, there is also a small bit of darkness. All these small creations possess the allure of fairy tales with their horrors that the protagonist must face and overcome. It is important for children to understand that adversity is a part of life, and it is through overcoming, that the self’s story begins to emerge. Here is a wonderful article to check out that speaks to this importance, and not just for children: once upon a time… we lived happily ever after

While Paul Busse’s miniatures make you marvel, here’s a link to a family that created their own life size fairy house as their home: Man builds fairy tale home. What a wonderful story of truly building your dreams.

After the botanic gardens we walked across the street to the Reflecting Pool with old bread to feed the birds. Just like in the fairy tales, Ms. Ricks warned the children of falling in, and that she was not planning on swimming that day. The joy and amazement that was elicited through this act of interacting with wild birds was exhilarating.

 

I am not afraid to admit that I scare easy. Sounds in the dark, nightmares, scary movies effect me deeply. In the studio, taking a cue from the sunless sky, I started a conversation with some small groups of children. Willa told me about the sounds she hears in the night, but her parents told her it was the radiator. Dreams were recounted filled with monsters, bad guys and characters from popular tv. I read There’s a Nightmare in My Closet and There’s Something in My Attic by Mercer Mayer.

With one group of PreK children I brought out black paper for them to create their own nightmares. Fionn exclaimed “I’m going to ask my mom for dark paper to paint with!” just thrilled with this project.

 

 

 

 

 

With a Kindergarten group I explored the same subject, this time using a coated paper, that reveals line/color as they  scratched away at the dark surface. Their stories revealed their more advanced language and development. Both groups equally were drawn into the provocation of sharing their nightmares.

Dominic’s Nightmare-age 5, December 2011

 I think there’s a poison ivy monster under my bed who drinks poison. I had a dream about it.

The poison ivy monster had two arms and I ran away from him.

He trapped me and then when it was morning time, my daddy shouted,

and my dream was over.

Robert’s Nightmare- Age 5, December 2011

My nightmare is a zombie and is has 1,2,3,4,5,6, 7 heads! It’s a seven-headed zombie monster. I am on top of his head. I don’t want him to find me. The car, motorcycle, skateboard and scooter are all crashing into the monster because I have a controller. I never fall off. They turn into one transformer and then the monsters fall because they really are sand monsters

I jump down before they fall.

Amira’s Nightmare- Age 5, December 2011

I am sleeping in my bed and I hear the monster. I wake up and I get my lasso.

The monster appeared quite suddenly. I call my mommy and daddy.

Then my bed starts roller-skating. Mommy and daddy pick me up and got me out.

My bed hits the monster and the monster starts to cry. My nightmare says, “What did you do to me?”

I said, “Well, see how fierce I am!”

My monster said “See how many heads I have?” Then he started being fierce again.

Then mommy and daddy said, “Look how fierce WE ARE!”

Then the monster started shooting pellets. But, I turned his body off.

The End

The very last day of the 2011 school year is marked by a lovely tradition at SWS, our Solstice Celebration. The entire community wears pajamas, cooks pancakes and bacon, cuts fruit, creates projects that respond to light and dark, enjoy a concert by Rachel Cross and her husbund Henry and friend John, and everyone attends a moon ritual in the art studio.

Here’s the rockin’ trio. What started out as a civilized concert turned into a joyful dance party.

Every year I lead the children through the Moon Ritual. I recreate the studio space and selectively choose music to create a whole body mind spirit shift. The golden moon, created by children 5 years ago hangs in the center of the space flanked by the children’s newly created and flickering lanterns. The overhead projectors create lightscapes of drama. Furniture is removed. By grace, it was a dark day outside, so it was especially dramatic.

The ritual takes them through singing songs (This little light of minds and I will be your friend), dancing to the song Dancin’ in the Moonlight while holding crescent moons that changed into smiles, frowns, tambourines and hats,  and a recitation with movements of Oh Look at the Moon poem. Most importantly, I guide them through thinking about the darkness and the changes in the natural world. I place a simple necklace of a moon around each child’s neck as a memory and give them a kiss on theri head and say Happy Solstice. I ask them to embrace the darkness instead of being grumpy or bored by creating, dreaming, playing, thinking, examining, singing, dancing and making their own light. While holding hands we made wishes for the darkest days.

“When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for you to stand upon or you will be taught to fly.”
― Patrick Overton

Wishing everyone a Solstice Season of stories, memories and warmth. Embrace the dark and make some light!

“This”

I believe that theory and practice are indeed the pedals on the bicycle and you need both to move forward. (Loris Malaguzzi coined this phrase)

 

It is a goal to share this belief within my blog. It is important.

 

Today, however, I want to show

 

gratitude through images.

 

beautiful moments,

small and large

private and public

hard earned through perseverance

spontaneous gestures

independence

help from friends

help from family

exhilaration

quiet

togetherness

chaos

making

flow

solitude

the lit fire

connection

joy

love

 

Embrace this idea:

Without deep relationships developed with children, hand, mind and heart-

“this” would not be possible.

 

This is creativity.

 

Thoughtfullness.

 

The data gathered is called humanity.

 

Trust.

 

It is the force that makes life remarkable.

 

Not always easy.

 

But remarkable.

 

 

In full gratitude,

Marla

 

Binoculars above and walkie talkie below

(Katy, PreK first self portrait)

The surprise of translucent transformation.

(BK Adams I AM ART exhibit at the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum) Both K classes got to view the exhibit and meet the artist. When I emailed BK the images he was just blown away. “Marla, wow, this is the reason I do what I do.”

Michael rummaged his hands through the jewels and held these two red ones up to me.

Me: You found two red ones. Your favorite color!

Michael faces me and presses them to my chest, “No, it’s your heart.”

I carried them in my pocket all day. Patting them. I took them home. They sit on my dresser.

Not always easy

but remarkable.

PS  I have made many connections through reading and commenting on visionary blogs especially ones in early childhood education.

One of my favorites is a West Coast PreK teacher who is nothing short of prolific. He is also passionate, committed and fearless. I am humbled and honored to be nominated by him for the best best individual blog through Edublog. Please take a look at  Teacher Tom .  His review of my blog warms my jewel red heart.(and while you are there, brew a pot of coffee and read his posts!)