Some wisdom for 2012

Birthdays, solstice, anniversaries and New Years are such wonderful triggers for reflection, memories and storytelling. While many make resolutions, I tend to think about experiences that have inspired my thoughts and actions. Returning to these memories or ideas provide me with a path for forward motion.

For five or six years I have hung words from The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) on the studio door at SWS. I often reread them as they deeply represent my beliefs. I wish I wrote them. What I can do is actualize them.

Yesterday, I took the Kindergarten students, teachers and parents on the annual trip to Baltimore to the AVAM. It is my favorite museum and favorite place to introduce  others to. For this post, I will share the powerful AVAM words from my studio door, with images from my work/life.

AVAM’s Seven Educational Goals

1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.

Images from visit to the Folger Theatre Costume Shop with room 9 Kindergarteners.

Natalie’s rendering

2. Engender respect for and delight in the gifts of others.

Nick Cave Exhibit at Mary Boone Gallery in NYC, 2011

Evidence of children at work…

AVAM Art Bus

Sanjay Patel Exhibit at the Museum of Asian art in San Fran, 2011

Yarn Bomb in SoHo, 2011

Horse Bomb at SWS, 2011

“A Flying Ms. McLean” By Fiona, 2012

3. Increase awareness in the wide variety of choices available in life for all…particularly students.

4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths.

5. Promote the use of innate intelligence , intuition, self exploration, and creative self-reliance.

This happened a few days ago. During free time in the studio, Winnie (PreK) asked “Why are there letters on the bells? I explained that the musical scale has letters that go C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C and it was the same thing they sing up and down with Ms. Rachel in Music. She said,”Wait, say them again.” As I did, she arranged the bells in order and played them. I went about my own thing, and awhile later came upon this…

6. Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.

(Katie’s Bluebird)

7.Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.

EmmaClare wanted to making something that flies that she could carry like a purse.

Tremendous words of wisdom. For all. I am so thankful for the American Visionary Art Museum.

This morning I was reading an article in the Washington Post about the children’s author, Mo Willems. He wrote “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.”  and more. Once again, words of wisdom. I am ending this post with a quote from the article:

“He’s not afraid to show kids failing,” says Willem’s friend Tom Waburton, a fellow animator. “He’s not afraid to show that bad things can happen and good things can come out of that. There’s something underneath everything he does.”

That something is…humanity, perhaps? Compassion? Psychological strife? Or maybe it’s something simpler, like Willem’s explanation of how he writes for children as though they are all wise souls.

“Adults and children,” he says, “are members of the same species.”

“It’s one of those sentences that means nothing and everything, depending on how you read it.   (The author who revels in a small fan base by Monica Hesse, Washington Post, 1/7/2012)

It means everything to me.

Call them not your children. Call them your builders. -The Talmud

Happy New Year 2012

Some of the Ordinary Things

Last summer at this time, I was in Peru. This summer, I am home. What I decided to do was to name this summer “The Make Sacred the Ordinary Summer.”


So let me tell you about some of the ordinary things:


I attended a wedding in Boston and danced with my husband, daughter and friends until my feet hurt.

I read.

I walked and played with my dog more.

I visited museums.

(Chihuly Exhibit, MFA Boston)

I took a course. It was an intensive Photoshop Lab, every day for a week. The first day the teacher spoke for 41/2 hours while he did photoshop and we watched. Did I mention he was also gulping Red Bull, going off on tangents of the personal nature? He was annoyed with and quite frankly mean to anyone who questioned him. There was not a minute of the class when he was not talking.

By day two, the class went from thirteen to eight (“I am not going to pay to be abused”, the photo editor sitting next to me said, she did not return.)

I walked in on the second day and said to the teacher  “___________, let me share how I learn with you. Yesterday, watching you do photoshop for 4 ½ hours did not work for me. In fact, I retained very little. Today, I brought my laptop and will be using it while you talk.”

I continued to advocate for myself and do what I needed to do to be successful.  I also asked my son and sister to explain a few concepts so I could better understand the process. Here are some of my creations from the week.

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows, 2011”


(“Ojos de Dios”, 2011)

While I was successful, the class was not comfortable or conducive to learning. If I was not an adult, in an adult class, I would not had the power to direct my own learning. This experience reinforced my belief in hands on learning, facilitating learning and creating the space for both exploration and silence while learning.

This summer I also returned to my childhood hometown of Rochester NY for my 30th High School reunion. My family left in the 1980’s, so it had been a long time since I had been there. Besides the joy of reconnecting with old friends, I was interested in what memories came back. My best friend’s home, where her Dad still lives made me cry.

The kitchen, especially that blue green color of the counters, the smell of coffee, remembering her cat, and songs, and tiny nooks and crannies, a painting, the African violets, the swinging chair on the porch…so very rich.








(That’s my dear friend Tina in front of her  childhood home, and with her sister Dee in the wonderful kitchen of some of my fondest memories.)

A sense of place holds so many fragments of sound, smell, touch, sight. These sensory fragments or memories make up the stories of life.

In my studio/atelier at SWS, kids often return as teenagers and college students. They also remember the small things that make a space more than a room. It is the reason that the Reggio belief exists that the environment is the third teacher. I was reminded of the importance of small touches.


I spent a lot of time with my college age son.

Yes, some of it was guiding him through the (often) frustrating necessities of organizing and functioning as an adult, but it also was filled with baking at 10pm because we craved something sweet.

Or sometimes it was watching old sitcoms off the computer on the sofa until I fell asleep. It wasn’t exciting, but I recognize that there’s a good chance we won’t have a whole summer of hanging out in nothingness again. I think for the first time in a long time, there really was a feeling of being present. And it felt good.

(small place in my garden)

As I return to the frenzy of school, I hope I am able to sustain great moments of being in the present, as a gift to my students and myself.


I returned to a center for incarcerated youth, to teach two more art workshops. What did I learn? Notice? Feel?

Children will go to great lengths to be seen and be heard, even if it is in horrible ways. Undiagnosed and ignored silent disabilities and family crisis create failure. Survival is a complex thing. In a group of 12, the boys had a pack mentality that was both predictable and sad. The girl’s group of seven showed amazing compassion for each other in between the stories of bravado (often  inappropriate and tragic) born out of despair and bad choices.

Surprises…there was some beauty created out of clay. Whenever I offered help or some extra attention with the project, it was welcomed and appreciated. While language and topic was often out of control, I was always spoken to with politeness and care.

Facilities are a desperate and depressing environment for adolescents. It is essential to recognize children and families in crisis when they are very young, and support interventions and adaptations as much as possible so places like this do not have a population to fill it up. I can only hope that some of these youth find a way out of the path they are on.

The boy who would not touch the clay, but asked for pictures of wings to keep (a few weeks ago), ended up in my first group. He immediately came up to me and said, “Thank you for those drawings you gave me last time.”


Sometimes all you have is a wing and a prayer.

(detail, Wing and a Prayer, 2010)

I still have a few more weeks of ordinary. An Uncle’s 80th birthday party in NY, a cousin’s 30th. Lunch and shopping with my Mom. Full days creating in my own studio,

(in process, Blue Bottle Saints-Syncretism, 2011)

and moving my two children to two different cities. Marching in a rally to Save Our Schools. Keeping the flowers from dying on 100 degree days

and clocking in 7 or 8 hours of sleep every night.

(“Exit Peru”, 2011)


It might not be Machu Pichu, but it sure feels sacred.

(my home)

You Change Them

Camille face

The Art of Inspiration

The Arcimboldo exhibit entitled Nature and Fantasy is on display at The National Gallery of Art. Last week I led a Kindergarten class (Ms. Rick’s) on an exploration of his surreal paintings. For those not familiar, this is a painter from the 1500’s who made portraits out of  things such as fruits, flowers, books, poultry, mammals. It’s fantastic stuff for any age.


I chose to not tell the kids that the paintings of fruits, flowers & vegetables became distinctive faces. I wanted them to experience the element of surprise and excitement. With the teachers, we prepared them for the trip, by talking about being observant, noticing details, using color thoughtfully, as well as the idea of inspiration.

What does it mean to be inspired?

The museum does not allow photography in this exhibit, so of the many tasks I gave the children, an important one was to choose one of their favorite paintings, and draw it in their sketchbook as a “memory” of the exhibit.

Henry gathered a lot of information, using both notes and representations, with the help of a chaperon:


Lia, used a different approach for her “memory.” She used expressive marks, creating a representation with great feeling:


Camille, I noticed sitting in the middle of the floor in one of the gallery rooms, intently sketching. The exhibit is popular and I noticed that patrons were walking in front of her and blocking her view.

“Camille, it’s getting crowded. You are welcome to get close to the painting.”

She replied, “No, I see it better from back here.”

This surprised me, because in general, kids often go so close to displays, they are craning their necks. She was serious and in fact, correct. To get perspective, one does have to step back.

She chose the painting “The Librarian.”

"The librarian"

Her dedication to representing this painting was intense. You have to picture the scores of adults walking around and in front of this small body, hunched over on the floor space, gazing in between the bodies to create her memory.

Before the trip was over, she showed me her sketch. “Can you make me a copy today? I want my Mom to paint my picture.”

When we returned to school, we all discussed what we saw. Camille raised her hand, “Did you make the copy?”

I immediately did, and added a post-it note to inform mom of Camille’s plan.


It was a Friday, and Camille’s mom, Susan was to be out of town. On Tuesday morning I received an email.

I  got in Camille’s folder a copy of her sketch from her field trip (dated 10/15/2010… this must be in her sketch journal that is kept at school), and a Post It note from you that Camille would like me to paint a painting based on  her picture, so I stayed up way too late tonight and painted her a painting… I liked Camille’s composition and so I tried to stay true to her picture… The painting is attached. What a fun thing to do! I named the painting “It’s Time to Cook.” Medium is oil on canvas. 🙂
When I told Camille that I received an email from her mom, and saw the painting, she grinned ear to ear. “I know!” she said.
I asked her if together we could share this story of inspiration with the class, and she was thrilled.
When we shared with the class the story of Camille being inspired by  a 500 year old Arcimboldo painting,
and then her Mom being inspired by Camille, a 5 year old, they were enthralled. There were rich observations and questions made  by the class.
Reginald: Why did you want your mom to paint your picture?
Camille: Because I like the painting.
Beck: Your mom’s painting is cool because at the bottom it looks like a carrot with a watch, but the carrot holds up the book.
Frederick: If you look really close you can see a hand.
Ruthie: Those two bent things look like fingers that are holding a book.
Lia: The painting looks like a bumble bee. The bent fingers look like wings, and the part in the middle looks like a body.
Sam: I think there’s a celery for the nose.
Owen: The eyes look like glowing beads.
It's Time To Cook
A kindergarten student inspired by a 500 year old painting.
So inspired, she wants her Mom to be inspired.
The Mom is then inspired by the 5 year old.
The entire Kindergarten class is inspired by Mom’s painting.
Everyone now wants a copy of their “memory.”
Tomorrow I am taking another class (Ms. Burke’s) on the same trip. I  spoke with the class  in order to prepare them.
“I think you will be inspired! What does inspired mean?”
“You can’t believe your eyes”
“You want to look at it for a long time”
“Really really really really pretty”
“I know what inspired means, it means,
You change them (the paintings)
but it can still be them”
I am looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure with Ms. Burke’s class, and then Ms. Scofield’s PreK’s in November and Mr. Jere’s class in December (PreK parents, try not to show the Arcimboldo paintings before!)
While the trip was originally planned to align with “The Story of Food” grant  work, the deepest work went beyond the fun scavenger hunt of identifying and finding the hidden eggplant or onion in a face.
This type of deep work,  can be revisited in life endlessly:
Making marks to create memory.
Observing deeply.
Internalizing inspiration.

What Mani said, is  a succinct definition of inspiration.
“You change them, but it can still be them.”
It is also a beautiful metaphor for teaching.

Nothing without joy!

Nothing without joy! Niente Senza Gioia!

Nothing without joy! Niente Senza Gioia!

Loris Malaguzzi, one of the founders of the pre-primary schools of Reggio Emilia exclaimed this simple yet powerful statement.
This photo was taken on the last day of school at SWS and the first day of summer.
This is what summer feels like and this is what joy looks like.
How can we as teachers value joy in our school?
How can we, as teachers provoke and create an environment where we can say, daily, “This is what leaning, teaching, creating, and discovery feels like and this is what joy looks like!”