Steinways and Snow

My first Kindergartners are now 10th graders. Hard to believe, but true.

Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing one of them participate in the NJ Poetry Out Loud finals. She recited three poems. Each was filled with pauses, inflection, breath, emotion, and gestures, which drew me more deeply into the words and meaning of the poems.

My favorite was Undivided Attention by Taylor Mali. It’s a fun, and thought-provoking poem for an educator. An added sweetness was that  I was introduced to it by my alumna!

If you’re unfamiliar with the poem, take a moment to go read it now. Especially if you’re an educator, read it — right now.

I’ll wait.

The whole thing is glorious. But, if you ask me, the most striking part is:

So please.

Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air,
so almost-­‐falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers’ crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.

Let me teach like the first snow, falling.

(Mali. Taylor. “Undivided Attention.” What Learning Leaves. Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002. Print. (ISBN: 1-­‐887012-­‐17-­‐6)

Fabulous! Right?!?

As I listened to my alumna recite the poem, I imagined the educator asking permission of her administrators, coordinators, and colleagues to allow her teach in this fashion. As I listened, I heard her imploring others to share her vision.

Later that day I read the poem to myself, and then aloud to others. I heard it differently. I’m not completely sure why.

Perhaps I heard it differently because  it was my own voice that spoke the words. Or, perhaps it was because Mali’s words had been floating in my brain since the morning, somehow becoming my own.

“Let me teach like the Steinway …so almost-­‐falling, so hinderingly dangling … let me teach like the new snow, falling.”

The word I heard, with soft, encouraging, invitation was me. It felt like a quiet manifesto.

Much like the piano movers I need to move my personal Steinways. My Steinways are lessons, ideas, inspiration, motivation, classroom culture, design experiences, creativity, and much more. Similar to the movers in the poem, occasionally, my eye-popping, jaw-dropping, risky, awesomeness has to hang out the window. Scary, but also a huge blessing, because, hanging out the window, others can see it, engage with it, and be excited by it.

First snow, falling, is nothing new, and yet each time it falls it feels new. The snow beckons all who notice it to come and look with long interested looks. It reworks the view out the window. It offers the opportunity for play, and the necessity of work. And, when examined closely, it reveals the marvels of each unique flake. That is a profound way to teach.

Yes. Let me teach like that Steinway — big, brave, bold, and fantabulous. Let me teach like snow falling — offering play and work, changing views, and surprisingly breathtaking wonders.

Let me

Let us.

 

 

 

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Engaging in the Hard, Fabulous Work of Creativity

My bathroom has two sliding doors. I designed the bathroom with these doors as canvases for some sort of artwork. Finally, one side of one of the doors is finished!!! Well, to be specific, the artwork is finished,but the door remains perched on two saw horses in my bedroom/studio, waiting for a few coats of polyurethane before it is hung again on its slider.

.door on saw horses

It is remarkable how much thought, research, doodling, re-thinking, kibitizing, talking, looking, and physical work, are involved in being creative! I love the process, but for some reason, this project really encouraged me to notice the time, effort, thought and work of creativity.

My process:

  1. I spent days thinking about the project. I imagined what I wanted. I thought about how I might achieve what I wanted. I changed my mind numerous times. I decided I wanted to — somehow — stay true to the architectural design of my arts and craft bungalow home.
  2. This sent me on a long path of research – looking up arts and craft fonts, flipping through a plethora of arts and craft design and art books, and googling various people and pieces I was particularly drawn towards.
  3. I found two fonts, and many designs I liked. Now I had to see if I could actually use them. Could I learn how to draw them and make them my own?
  4. Next came the doodling and sketching. Funny as it may sound, I experience joy when I find and use a pencil that feels good in my hand, moves smoothly across the paper, makes great marks and erases easily. And speaking of erasing, the number of iterations I went through in order to come up with the final design, was amazing! I wish I hadn’t thrown away all my sketches. It would be good for my students to see and know that the work that looks so easy, and causes them to say, “Wow, you are so good at that, Miss James!”  is actually informed and supported by many other tries! I’ll be sure to keep the next batch.
  5. My final design is the result of being open to possibilities wherever I found them, and mashing together ideas from many different arenas – arts and craft designs, zen-tangling sensibilities, yoga, mandalas, nature, botany, math, color theory, and I’m sure many more that I’m currently forgetting!

door collage

But that wasn’t the end! The work, thinking, experimenting, ideating and iterating continued.

  1. Now I had to take my idea  – drawn on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper – and transpose it into something beautiful on the actual door. Rulers, yardsticks, lovely pencils and erasers, compasses, and scratch pieces of paper were purposefully strewn across the door. I measured, sketched, thought, looked, breathed …. and did it all again for some time. It was fabulous! Finally the design was sketched onto the door.
  2. Next was the wood-burning stage which would create the dark lines of the design on my door. I should mention that this stage was also preceded by many hours of practice. The burner comes with many different tips. I experimented with each one to see what type of line it created, which heat worked best for it, and how easily I could manipulate it to create the lines I wanted. I experimented on various types of wood – they all seem to burn differently – and then explored the different areas of the clear pine I was using. The grain caused different burning rates and necessitated changes in speed and heat.
  3. Finally, time for color! I loved the look of the design burned into the wood. I’m sure it would have been fine to polyurethane it in its natural form, but I had created it with color in my mind and knew it would seem unfinished if I left it uncolored. So, once again, I risked “wrecking it” in order to make it what I knew it could be.
    1. I laid the colors out on the design – playing with different combinations.
    2. I painted the colors onto a similar piece of wood. I was amazed by the difference in the colors out of the paint tube versus on the tube.
    3. I thought, looked and waited. Mostly the waiting was because I was working during the day and coaching in the evenings, leaving me little time to create. But, that waiting was important, because I had time to look, and look some more, and allow my brain to play with the colors.
    4. I couldn’t decide on all the color combinations so I started with one color combination – the leaves – and as I painted, the other colors combinations coalesced for me.

The color and painting process was fascinating! I tried to figure out the entire color scheme, but failed time and time again. When I stopped trying and began painting, I – for lack of a better phrase – began to see better. It was as though the process of immersing myself in the medium – the paint and the painting – increased my clarity.

I can’t explain it — many ways it was magical! As I painted the leaves, with the tubes of paint lying about me, and I would notice myself thinking “Oh! That might work.” I’d continue painting, and notice another thought “Hmm, perhaps that is too much. I think this might be better.”

Often I’d run my ideas past my brother (another creative, learned soul) for clarification and validation. I wouldn’t always use his ideas, but somehow his ideas fed mine and helped them become more “perfect.”

door closeup

Each step in the process involved risk, flow, joy, time and triumph. It was all fabulous, but the time was really important. Time to think, to do, to wonder, to mess up, to re-think, and to experience the process, the product, the materials. I would often just stand at my work – leaning on the door, examining it with my eyes. Other times, I would run my palm over the work. The tactile experience of touching my work in its various stages of completeness was incredibly important, necessary and satisfying.

It makes me think about school and my students. How can I help them have this experience of creativity — in all its angst, sweat and splendor? How can I give them the time and opportunity to experience — in their own creative work and thought — what I experienced in mine?

I’m not completely sure, but rest assured I’ll be thinking about it, and letting the question, and any possible answers, inform my teaching practice!

 

 

When 2+2 does not equal 4

We had Back to School Night at our school this week. As I shared who I was with the parents, I began talking about creativity and creative thinking. I told them creativity, and creative thinking, are not just about art! Creativity, and creative thinking, are about noticing, seeing possibility, taking risks, making mistakes, trying new things and thinking new thoughts. They’re about learning. They’re about taking what you know and using that knowledge to go beyond. They’re about playing and communicating. They’re about life!

I was so excited to be talking about creativity, my hopes for their children, and the possibilities for creativity in all venues, that I found myself saying, “Even math is a perfect venue for creative thinking. I read this article once, that talked about when 2+2 isn’t 4!” As it came out of my mouth, and I saw the looks of surprise on some of their faces, I recognized the need to clarify that I would, indeed, be teaching their children that 2+2 was 4! But, I would also be encouraging them to think like mathematicians, and, when appropriate, look for those times when 2 plus 2 was something other than 4.

I want their children to be able, even as kindergarteners, to take what they know and are learning, and transfer it to other situations. I want them to see the more.

Here is how it was lived in my classroom this week.

One of my students loves to get “math problems.” She seems to have an insatiable appetite for them! I wanted to honor and encourage her love for “doing math,” but I also wanted to go beyond the rote “doing of math” and engage her in mathematical thinking! I wanted to give her the opportunity to be challenged to notice things, tinker, get stumped, and keep trying.

Yes, even in Kindergarten this is possible, and appropriate.

So, after several problems with numbers and symbols, I started using pictures. First, I gave her pictures that indicated addition and subtraction. I didn’t tell her whether the problem was addition or subtraction, I let her figure it out. Once she discovered an answer, we talked about why she chose subtraction or addition, and how she got her answer. (By the way, her answers – listed on the page – are great answers, but not the only possible “correct” answers!)

add subtract

Then I asked her to complete patterns or provide the next item in a sequence. She had to think about some of them, and occasionally gave me a quizzical look. I resisted the urge to chuckle, and instead just encouraged her to think about it. Sometimes I realized I hadn’t given her enough information, or I had been ambiguous, so, I amended my instructions.

Each time she got it! I decided it was time to take a chance, and see what she did with more of an open-ended question.

I wrote:

10 equals

She looked at me, and then at the problem. She looked at me again, this time with a bit of annoyance.

“What is this?” she asked.

I responded, “Well, what does it say?”

“10 equals. But what do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, what does 10 equal?” I asked.

She again looked at me with a bit of annoyance, and a bit of confusion. I just pursed my lips, and raised my eyebrows. “You can do it. Think! What does 10 equal?”

She looked down, thought a bit, and finally wrote “10 = 10”

“Yup,” I said. “10 sure does equal 10. Can you think of anything else?”

She thought for a bit and said “6+4.”

“Yes!” I responded. “That does equal 10. What about this? Does 10 equal this?”

10 petals

She watched as I drew. Looked at me when I finished, then back at the drawing, and said, “Yes.”

To which I responded, “Why?”

“There are 10 petals.”

“Indeed!”

We did a few more problems together – sometimes I drew or wrote for her, sometimes she drew or wrote for me. Then, I took it a step further. I gave her this problem.

not 4

Using what she had learned from the car drawing – they were coming together –  she said, “It’s 4.” I said, “True, but what else is it? Do you see? I wrote ‘not 4’ I want you to think a bit. What is it, if it’s not 4?” She looked at me for a bit. I said, “Think. I want you to think. What else can it be? Thinking is good. You can do it!”

After a bit she came back to me and said, “It’s 16!”

“Oh! How is it 16?” I asked.

She showed me the 16 dots. “Indeed! That is 16.” Now it could just as easily have been 8 because of the antennae, or the wings. It could have been 24 because of the legs. It could have been a lot of things! The importance, (outside of the math facts) was the noticing, the thinking, the sharing of thinking, the questions, the explanations, the affirmation that thinking was good, and finally the confirmation that her thinking was sound.

It would, however, also have been ok if her thinking wasn’t sound, because it would have given us an opportunity to converse, rethink, and to come to another conclusion.

So, I ask you? When is 2+2 NOT 4?

Amazingly enough, there are many times! Think. Draw. Write. Be creative. Think in ways that might not be your first choice. Think in ways that seem to defy mathematical sense. But think! Oh, and be sure to play, and have fun.

If you come up with some ideas, please leave them in a comment. In a few days I’ll post a comment with some of my ideas when 2+2 is not 4!

Enjoy!