The Currency of Hope and Beauty

Artist Ekua Holmes is planting 10,000 sunflowers, and changing her part of the world.

“Artists deal in the currency of hope,” Holmes said. “We deal in the currency of beauty, and our job is to reflect back to society what we see.” (Boston Globe, July 11, 2018)

Oh my gosh! YES!

As creatives — artists, thinkers, possibilitarians, musicians, writers, makers – we are about beauty.

We look for beauty. We find beauty. And when we cannot find it, we create it. We live in the realm of possibility — perhaps because of our belief in beauty and hope  — and we invite others join us there.

I love that idea! Beauty, hope, and possibility are my currency!

Then I thought: Isn’t this true of us as educators as well? Or, perhaps shouldn’t this be true of us as educators? Shouldn’t beauty, hope, and possibility be our currency as well?

Isn’t it our job to recognize the beauty, hope and possibility that exists in our students, our admins, our parents, and our selves? Don’t we, everyday, endeavor to find and illuminate the beauty, hope and possibility inherent in learning, struggling, wondering, failing, falling, persisting, discovering, collaborating, and simply being?

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Yes! Yes, we do.

Beauty, hope, and possibility. It’s part of us as educators. It’s our currency. It’s our strength.

Let’s embrace it, live it, and offer it to all those around us.
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Cancer? Yes, and …

Each summer I head to Boston for my yearly Dana Farber visit. I’m happy and grateful to have these remarkable people on my healing team. At the same time, as my appointment approaches,  I experience a relatively serious amount of stress and anxiety. Even looking up the website to share as a link sent waves of nausea crashing over me!

The nausea isn’t about them — it’s about the cancer and my relationship to it. I’m relentlessly positive, and do  many really wonderful things to strengthen myself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But, my positivity, and all my other good work, is sometimes overshadowed by my angst.

I needed a bit of a jolt to amp up my game. So, I buzzed off to see Catherine — a beautifully creative and awesome human being — for some henna and positive vibes.

She knew I wanted something powerful that could speak to me, and others. She didn’t disappoint.

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How fantabulous is it?!! In case you’re not sure, the correct answer is “Awesomely fantabulous!!!”

Beyond the artistry, it’s fantabulous for the power it holds. It’s a philosophy of open acceptance of what is, and what can be.

Look …

Yes, I have to go to Dana Farber each summer, and frequently have blood drawn, and that is a great privilege and opportunity.

Yes, I am experiencing angst and stress, and I am happy and blessed.

Yes, I have cancer, and I have incredible health.

Yes

and, I am happy.

and, I am loved.

and, my body is working for optimal health, my mind is working for optimal learning, my spirit is working for optimal awesomeness.

and, there are untold possibilities. Possibilities that I know, and ones I have yet to discover or imagine.

As I write my yes, and thoughts, I realize there is a better, more creative way to look at my yes, and lists. I can be creative, re-think, re-cognize.

Often my and, is actually my yes. 

I have cancer. Yes.

It feels huge, overpowering and all encompassing. It is a yes in my life, but absolutely, positively, not the essential yes of my life.

The essential yesses of my life are:

Yes, I am blessed, and … 

Yes, I am happy, and … 

Yes, I am loved, and … 

Yes, I am healthy,  and … 

Yes, my body, mind, and spirit are working for optimal health, learning, and awesomeness, and … 

Yes, the world is full of possibility, and … 

Yes, I am, and am surrounded by, incredible abundance, and … 

I’m digging the space that surrounds the yes, and in Catherine’s design.  It speaks of the space we take as we hear, say and wonder about yes, and.  It is a space waiting to be filled with breath, thoughts, conversation, prayer, openness, insight, creativity, being, and possibility.

Yes, and.

I embrace the power and possibility, and wait with curious and hopeful joy.

 

Seized by Curiosity

I was just reading a great book, and laughed out loud — with surprise and delight — when I read this line:

… but then, curiosity seizes me: How is it possible ...”

Say it to yourself again. “But then, curiosity seizes me!” Isn’t that a remarkable thought — to be seized by curiosity? Lots of images of curiosity seizing me flooded my mind  — images of what it might look like in reality, and what it might look like with curiosity anthropomorphized! At first I just chuckled and thought, ” I love that!”

But then, struck by the power and pleasure that comes when one is seized by curiosity, I thought. “Geez, how often do I make space for curiosity in my life, and in my classroom?”

So much is wound up with curiosity:

  • surprise
  • wonder
  • dreaming
  • questioning
  • thinking
  • trying
  • searching
  • being immersed
  • intensity
  • freedom
  • agency
  • interest
  • desire
  • a beginner’s mind
  • possibility
  • joy
  • inspiration
  • awe
  • time
  • opportunity
  • learning
  • discovery

I like it all — curiosity and all of its richness, needs, characteristics, and possible outcomes.

I want more of it — in my life, and in my classroom!

 

New Blocks

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An educator friend was getting rid of her wooden Cuisenaire rods. She wondered if I might have any use for them.

Lovely colored, wooden blocks?!?!!! OF COURSE I can use them!

Happily, my students are as excited by new materials as I am! As I put them into containers yesterday, this conversation ensued:

Them: “What are they, Miss James?!!”

Me: “New blocks!”

Them: “New blocks?!?!!! For us?!!”

Me: “Yes!”

Them: “What are we going to make with them?”

Me: “I don’t know. What are you going to make with them?”

As others gathered — helping to put the blocks into the containers — conversations and gasps of delight erupted around me.

I love when excitement, joy, imagination, creativity, conversation, problem solving, and possibility surround me. And when it’s precipitated by wooden blocks saved from the trash bin, it’s extra special.

 

 

Classroom Setup 2017-18

Merriam-Webster’s sixth definition of setup is “the manner in which the elements or components of a machine, apparatus, or system are arranged, designed, or assembled.”

I love to remind myself of this definition while I’m going about my classroom setup. I am designing a system in which I, and my students, colleagues, and parents, will work, create, play, and learn. If I’m any example, creating a classroom system requires a lot of thought, reflection, iteration, sweat, and muscle!

As I worked, thought, and sweated, I reminded myself of the truth about myself and my students. We are “rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent(Loris Malaguzzi quoted in The Hundred Languages of Children, 2nd addition, p. 275). I also thought back to my MA research where I considered the environment that might best support creativity and academic excellence.

I read so many thought provoking things as I researched for my MA. I synthesized them in an article in Creative Education.  If I were writing my dissertation, or the article now, I think I might title it Managing the Classroom for Creative and Cognitive Excellence. I want my classroom setup to support creative excellence, and cognitive excellence. To do that, it has to include and support the 6 elements of Teresa Amabile’s KEYS I adapted for classroom management in Managing the Classroom for Creativity:

  • Freedom which enables and and encourages ownership, motivation, and engagement of all the learners.
  • Positive challenge which helps everyone know the tasks/skills they engage in are important and valuable.
  • Supervisory Encouragement which values work and thought, and encourages inquiry and exploration.
  • Work group support which encourages the generation and exchange of new ideas.
  • Easy access to sufficient resources.
  • Organizational Support of our shared vision and an infrastructure that enables and empowers everyone in my learning space.

I’ve finished my initial classroom set up, and am super happy with the result. There is more work to be done, but I’m ready for my learners to join me in the space.

In addition to including the 6 elements listed above, I worked on including more visibility this year. I was mindful of balancing beauty and utility. I wanted our work, vision, thought, prototypes, iterations and our creative and cognitive “mess” to be visible. It adds a richness to the space — telling our story while increasing curiosity, inquiry, wonder, learning, understanding, creativity and excellence!

 

Here are a few photos with my reflections.

Last year our maker projects where stored in a classroom cabinet. This year, some awesome maintenance people ripped out the cabinet, and I replaced it with this open shelving unit. The wall behind and beside it is covered with a large art piece my students made last year. (How awesome is that?!!!) The use of that artwork, the trays for student work, and the words on the front of the shelving unit let everyone know these things are valued and supported.

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A second smaller shelving unit — on the coolest, gigantic wheels — keeps our tools neat and easily accessible. There’s opportunity for remarkable exploration and learning through the use of these tools.

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The maker trolley has always been a part of the makerspace, but this year I am repurposing the back to hold more materials, and storing our large item bins in the open. I am hopeful this will increase use and understanding.

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The two classroom easels provide opportunities for creative art experiences outside the regular art curriculum. The second is actually a double easel – fabulous for conversation and inspiration! I love leaving the dried paint on the easels. It adds an element of beauty and history to the space, and allows for freedom as one paints.

I’m thinking about the resources I have that might enable me to store paper beneath the easels — enabling the artists to be autonomous in their work. I have some ideas I’m going to try this week.

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I love the connection between my learners’ art experience and mine (the watercolors are my work). I also like the suggestion of a connection between painting, shapes, blocks and building.

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Print is plentiful and purposeful in my learning space. I want my students to read the room and learn. I want them to become more skilled at letter recognition and use, and to be inspired — to see, read, absorb, and live, what is important.

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I love all the little print treasures in my space, so it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite. However, I am enjoying this one quite a bit!  I wonder what it will evoke or awaken in those who see it. For me it stirs up joy, possibility, positivity, and continuing even when obstacles arise.

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And this, partially hidden gem, out of the way of traffic, is a message from me, to me. “Be a superhero every day. The kids and the world deserve it!”

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All the best to all my fellow educators. Arm yourself with another Malaguzzi truth “Nothing without joy!” and have a fantabulous year!

 

NOTE:

Whenever I write, I think of all the remarkable people I’ve read, talked with, and researched . I think about adding tons of links to each post. Instead, I offer my deep gratitude to all those who informed my research and learning,  and remind my readers there is a great bibliography at the end of my Creative Education article.

 

 

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Are You a Possibilitarian?

 

My friend Jojo gifted me with, among other things, a lovely pair of socks. The artist, Kelly Rae Roberts, whose work is on the socks has a tag line that reads artist – author – possibilitarian.

When I read that, I thought, “POSSIBILITARIAN?!?!?! Is there actually a word — possibilitarian — and I don’t know about it?!?! Oh my gosh!”

I laughed out loud, and grabbed my laptop to do a bit of searching.

Yup, possibilitarian is a word. It hasn’t yet made it to dictionary.com, but it can be found on UrbanDictionary.com, and google returned about 77,400 results to my search.

As far as I can tell, the word originated with Norman Vincent Peale.

“Become a possibilitarian. No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities – always see them, for they’re always there.” 

Raising our sights, seeing possibility — being a possibilitarian — has the potential to increase our ideas, exploration, discoveries, inventions, innovation, collaboration, creativity, life, and joy.

Really, how fantabulous is that? Super duper wicked amazing fantabulous?  Yes, I think so, too.

Now, how super duper wicked amazing fantabulous would it be to help our students become possibilitarians?! Even better, right?! Right!

Let’s get on it!

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As an added note: I wanted a photo to add to the post. I remembered this cool little piece of art my mom bought me for my classroom. PERFECT! After I took the photo I turned it over and guess what I saw. The artist is Kelly Rae Roberts. Rock on with your possibility loving self, Kelly! 

The Blank Page Revisited

I’ve written several times about the blank page – once about my own experience and then another time about my Kindergartners working to overcome the blank page.

Even so, I still struggle with the blank page. It fascinates and attracts me – enticing me with its beauty and possibility — while simultaneously intimidating and mocking me!

I love making art – letting other’s art inspire me, exploring new mediums, or creating beautiful things for myself and others. I’m pretty talented. But again, wow, sometimes I’m stymied by the blank page. It pokes at me — like a sneaky bully — with angst and doubt, and keeps me from doing what I might.

My mind is always searching for connections between seemingly unconnected things, and the other day that trait helped me have an epiphany that helps me overcome my own blank pages.

The first part of the connection is a note and bracelet gifted me by one of my K students:

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I love that note and bracelet. I am even thinking how I might have a more permanent bracelet made that says “Imagine possibility!”

The second part of the connection was a quote on a friend’s Facebook post:

“Stop worrying about what might go wrong and get excited about what might go right!”

Ding, ding, ding!!! All of a sudden I got it!

I AM good at imagining. I imagine wonderful opportunities and ways of accomplishing them when I’m building with my kids. When I’m imagining art possibilities, I revel in all sorts of fabulous, positive possibilities. I enjoy imagining things I might make, as well as new ways to do things.

But when gazing upon the blankness of the page my imagining begins to change. Instead of the joy-filled optimistic possibility thinking, or the enthusiastic fun of trying new things, I imagine all the things that could go wrong. And, just like my more hopeful, lighthearted imagination, my fretting, angst-ridden imagination is powerful and thinks of many possibilities. Only problem is, these possibilities include the numerous things I do not want to happen!

This epiphany helped me as I worked on the door design I am creating. I did research. I prototyped. I discarded methods and color combinations that didn’t work. I refined the methods and color combinations until I was quite pleased. Finally, I mustered up my courage and took control of my own thinking.

Instead of allowing my imagination to travel down the dark path of doubt, doing it’s beautiful creative process to imagine all that could go wrong – destroying my hours and hours of work – I chose to get excited about what might go right! I imagined the fantabulous things that might occur – in my learning and in my actual product.

Sometimes I’m not able to come up with the actual possibilities because my thoughts of what might go wrong are so strong. In those times, I determine to embrace the excitement and possibility of what MIGHT go right — even if I’m not sure what they might be.

So one day, as sat in my workshop space, my door stared at me, daring me — or begging me, depending on your perspective — to come continue to work. With determined resoluteness, I accepted the challenge! I pulled out the colors, chose my brushes and began working.

It was a bit stressful for a moment, but as I worked, the stress eased and I developed a process that worked well. After just one flower was painted, my imagination was freed! I began to imagine — and believe — all the things that might go right. It was remarkable how interesting — intoxicating even — it was!

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I am now super excited to be in the process, and see where this will end up. I’ve made mistakes. But, I’ve chosen to breathe through them and let my imagination and process make good things happen. My fingers are crossed this will stay with me for future blank pages.

I’m wondering — imagining — how I will use this information with my students. I am certain there is something profound to share with them. My mind is already at work.

Now to await the marvelous, mysterious connections sure to come, and to become excited about all that may go right — for myself and my students.

Creativity and Leadership

I recently had an article published entitled Cultivating Dynamic Leadership through Creativity.

I give three examples of leadership in a creative venue:

  • She leads through her curiosity and sensible risk taking, and all emerge with new understanding and innovative methods.
  • She leads with empathy, which drives her to connect and comfort others.
  • She leads through her belief in the power of possibility, discovery, research and experimentation.

When a friend of mine read the article, and these examples, she said “I wonder if people just read these examples, if they’d know who you are writing about.”

I wonder that, too!

So, who do you think she (or he) might be?

A teacher? An entrepreneur? An artist? An IT professional? A psychologist? A parent? A scientist? A researcher? A doctor?

While each are suitable guesses, they are not who I had in mind when I wrote.

I didn’t write of a professional, or even of an adult. Instead, I wrote of my kindergarten students.

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They are remarkable, strong, powerful children. While they are fantabulous, these characteristics are not unique to them. All children, have incredible strength, power and potential.

My teaching practice is informed by my belief in this profound power and potential of children. I try, as best I can, to allow my teaching, and my reflection, to be nourished and driven by the “joy, passion, wonder and conviction” of my understanding of the truth of the strong, powerful child. (Managing the Classroom for Creativity, James 2015)

Children are natural leaders. Placed in an environment that enables and encourages creativity, their innate leadership abilities germinate, increase and flourish.

Resources:

James, M. (2017). Cultivating Dynamic Leadership Through Creativity. KPS Voyager, 2017, 8.  (https://issuu.com/kentplace/docs/voyager2017_final?e=1889902/47525909)
James, M. (2015). Managing the Classroom for Creativity. Journal of Creative Education Vol. 6, No. 10, 1032-1043 (http://file.scirp.org/pdf/CE_2015061915593867.pdf)

Seeing Spelling With New Eyes

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I read this the other day. When I reached the end and read buttufele, I had an epiphany about spelling!

Spelling is a remarkably daring journey into  possibility thinking, creativity and design!

When trying to share our ideas, encode sounds and/or spell words we all go through the following steps:

Possibility thinking: How might we use what we already have/know in a new way? What letters or letter combinations are possible?

Creativity: We have to be brave and take risks.We use what we know to make something new and useful.

Design: We define a design challenge. ( For instance, write the word – beautifully.) We ideate. (butfoolee, beyuootefooly, beeyutyfuly, buttufele), and prototype (see illustration above). Then we test. (Can I read it? Can someone else read it? Can the person I wrote it for read it?) Our test provides us with data, and perhaps, new understanding. The process then begins again for this, or some other, word.

I love this understanding of spelling. It brings an element of play, and ease into the process of spelling. It embraces the fact that the spelling process, like all other design processes, often includes failing.

I’m wondering if approaching spelling this way, might make it easier for our students. Understanding they are choosing a design (spelling) challenge might empower them. Being creative might infuse joy into the process. Embracing failure as a natural part of spelling might diffuse some fear, and increase learning.

I’m going to work on my language and give it a go with my learners. I’m hopeful!

And just a note: Conventional spelling can also be approached as a design challenge. except now the challenge might be “Spell beautifully as it is found in library books, or on dictionary.com.”

Translation in case it is needed: She is very pretty. She is funny and she is goofy. She is a kind princess. She lives in Westfield. She sings songs beautifully.

 

The Power of Language

Lately I’ve been struck by the profound power of language.

Last night at a mindfulness session someone pointed out the difference between saying: “I am a worrier!” and “I am experiencing worry.”

Do you hear a difference? Do you feel one? They are very similar statements, but the small variations cause large differences in meaning and impact.

The first statement says something about me, and therefore about the possibility of my actions or thoughts. I AM a worrier. If I am a worrier, I have no choice. I worry. If, instead, I am experiencing worry, I have choices. I can notice the worry. I can observe it. I can choose to turn towards the worry and learn from it. I can choose to do something to alleviate it. Or, I can worry, lol.

The point is, the change in my language opens possibilities for me! It gives me options. It creates space to be, and to do.

I share the worry example because it helped me to understand my experience of another rather subtle change in language.

I’m writing an article on creativity and leadership. My editor suggested I change “How might we?” to “How can we?”

What do you think? Say the questions to yourself a few times. What do you experience when you read the questions? Do you notice a difference? Do you have pull or preference for on or the other?

I definitely experience the questions differently, and I have a clear preference!

I am experiencing — in my life and in my practice — that the power of “How might we?” far exceeds the power of “How can we?” Sounds a bit crazy, right? But, it’s not!

“How can we?” offers two options: we can, or, we can’t. That’s it. Too often, when given the choice of can, or can’t we choose can’t.

I can’t do that! I can’t walk a half marathon! I can’t solve that problem. I can’t write a story. I can’t do a multimedia presentation. I can’t pass this test.  I’m not able. There is no way. (sigh)

If we avoid the “I can’t!” quagmire. We may fall into the “I don’t know” trap because”How can we?” suggests we are looking for the correct way to do whatever we are doing. If the person being questioned is at all unsure, this often leads to the answer: “I don’t know.”

In both instances — “I can’t” and “I don’t know” — the problem remains unsolved understanding stagnates, learning is limited, and, perhaps, most tragically, the one questioned is now more convinced than ever that they really don’t know, and they really can’t .

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In contrast, “How might we?” is more flexible and less prescriptive. “How might we?” invites divergent thinking, allowing us to go wide with our answers. Even the uncertain can offer ideas because the “rightness” of the answer is not demanded.

Often the answers which fail, are more valuable than those that immediately succeed. They allow us — demand it actually — to reflect, examine, explore, talk, learn and try again. In this process many positive things happen. To name just a few:

  • Understanding (of ideas, materials, students, ourselves, others) deepens.
  • New strategies emerge.
  • Trust, confidence and relationships grow.
  • Thinking and ideas are valued.
  • New ideas are formed.

The power of simple changes in language is intriguing. I’m super excited by the possibilities of HMW questions, and am working on using them more often in my life, and in my practice.

Give them a try. If you do, I’d love to hear your reflections.