Monday, July 30, 2012

Swim now... breath later

Swim now... Breath later is a saying I heard often from my father when I was competing in swim meets as a child and teen.  It seemed I always slowed down when I breathed so .... Keep your head in the water and push through was what I learned. His statement is one that I have repeated to myself throughout my graduate school years. Yet, it is amazing how fast two years can by 
when you when you have your eye fixed on the finish line.

I haven't blogged in awhile because I was swimming. Now I get to breath for a little bit before I dive back into planning for this next school year. It's time to catch up with friends who have been so patient while I was focused on school and times to play more with the kids. For 6 months now I've said.....August,,just Waite until August and you will have mommy back full time.

This weekend my daughter received a tissue paper flower making kit from a friend of mine. We have been making so many flowers that the living room was bursting with color. When I asked her what she was going to do with them all she said "give them away to people". So Sunday night we went to the county library and made a new flower garden, complete with a sign telling people to take one home. I think we'll go back by tonight to see if anyone did. I thought it was a nice gesture to spread some beauty to unsuspecting citizens. I hope the library saw it that way too and not as " littering"

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Energy versus Expectations

Memories of Paris 08. - 2011

What I need to do and what I have the energy to do are two very different things.

We’ve all felt it.  It’s the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion from a day of teaching and being a wife and mother.  We say to ourselves, if only I could just teach. If only I could actually spend my entire planning period working on lessons, making examples and preparing materials.  If only my students actually wanted to be in class, learn about artists, generate new ideas and create art, then my job would be wonderful. If I didn’t have to drag ideas out of students or rack by brain for ways to motivate the unmotivated.  If I didn’t have to spend hours preparing lessons only to have the schedule changed or half the class absent.  If I didn’t have activities to get my children to, dinner to cook, laundry to do, or homework to help with.  If I didn’t have to start my graduate work at 9pm once the kids go to sleep.  If I didn’t have all these things to do then I could do the other thing that I need to do. I need to write about my teaching, learning, and research so that I actually remember and learn from my day’s events. While I have many things running a marathon through my head, I just don’t have the energy to write them down.  I know if I could get in a run or some cardio exercise I’d have more energy, but when do I fit that in?  When do I fit in time to relax, refocus and refuel?  IT seems that every moment of my day is already accounted for. 
                If you’re a teacher you know, and probably live, this scenario.  You have sticky notes everywhere and scribbled thoughts all over your planner.  You make mental notes you hope you won’t forget by the time you get around to writing them down.  You count the minute to the bell so you can pee.  You scarf down lunch, or skip it, so you can prepare for the next class.  You stay after school so students can keep working on a late assignment.  There will be good days, bad days and days you are just trying to make it through without losing your cool with a student or your administration.  There are days when all has gone fabulously and you feel like a million bucks at the end of the work day.  There are days when you wake up and look forward to the adventures of the day simply because you got 8 hours of sleep.   And then there’s that one day when you get a note from a student that says Thank You. One heart felt note acknowledging that you are appreciated by a student who you didn’t think was ever listening reminds you of why you do all the things you do.  That is what makes the job worth it all.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

To some I teach. To those that allow me, I educate.

Inner Contemplation, S. Wirt, 2011, Mixed Media

“To some I teach.  To those that allow me, I educate.”  This realization came to me today in the midst of a discussion with a dear friend about his college students.  It seems that the characteristics of his students are very similar to mine.  They are the products of k-12 standardized test based schooling.  While they are skilled in deflecting responsibility, producing a variety of excuses and surfing Facebook, many lack in the ability to generate an original thought.  Always wanting to be told what the right answer is and exactly what will be on the test. They do not clutter their mind with “unnecessary” peripheral information that just may relate to something beyond the test content. 
So what happens then, when you do away with the written test?  How will you quantify a student’s level of knowledge? I think the answer to that question has much to do with the content of the course.  As an art educator, my students can often show me they have learned a skill and how to apply it to a variety of situations or concepts through the creation of an artwork.  However, there are times when they just have to know and understand specific technical content, this includes vocabulary.  This “entry-level” knowledge base will then serve as the foundation for learning how to apply, manipulate and create something else. I believe, a good assessment system would be one that is tiered and allows room for both demonstration and articulation of knowledge.  There’s a difference between entry-level mastery of information and advanced level understandings of concepts with the ability to apply knowledge as to demonstrate understanding.  Sadly, I think the Virginia k-12 education system as a whole has spent way to much time, energy and money to ensure that students reach entry level thinking and not enough time, determination and funding to ensure students construct their own knowledge so they may demonstrate their ability to apply concepts, skills and understandings to more than a singular situation.
The primary questions in designing authentic education reform should be, how much time and how many “in the trenches” teachers are needed to create a balanced structure of “acceptable” evidence that can be utilized to validate learning instead of how much money will it cost to create authentic, standardized, tests that prove all students are competent in specific subject matter.  What ever happened to teachers having autonomy and being seen as capable of determining a student’s readiness to continue to the next level or their level of understanding?  Testing has taken over learning.
I am thankful everyday that I teach art in Virginia.  Where, we don’t have to bow to an end of year-standardized test.  Yet.  I see my own 4th and 5th grade children’s school schedules and way too much instructional time is lost to state standardized testing.  If more time is spent on process, the product is often of much higher quality.  The process of learning is prematurely halted once the “test” on content has been administered and then instruction moves on to the next topic.  It is for this reason that I try to structure my scope and sequence to systematically build on ideas and provide opportunities for individual inquiry.  I present concepts, techniques and options and see what students can do with them.  Some need more direction than others while some students need the space to figure it out for themselves.
Going back to my original statement I reflect on what I do.  Yes, I teach.  I present information.  I demonstrate techniques, processes and methods of art making.  For some students, that is as far as their art learning will ever go.  For others, they will ask questions and push the limits of an idea.  I will guide them in using the educational tools they have been offered to create what it is that they want to make.  Maybe a better way to say that is to mentor them in how to find the best way to use their artistic voice in the process of learning a variety of art content.  What determines whether I teach or I educate comes down to the choice the students make.  I ask them at the beginning of the year if they are here to get a good grade or are they here to learn about and create art.  If their honest answer is that of the later, they will also earn the grade.

For further reading about standardized tests and how they really aren’t true assessments of learning, especially if what has been “taught” is merely superficial facts with no application see What's Wrong With Standardized Tests? ( )

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Giving up too easily

Reflections on process

I am a believer that the process of creating is just as important as the final creation itself.  What often happens when creating art is the artist ends up “starting over” a few times before the final artwork comes to life.  This is not a bad thing if the artist has figured out that the design is not working out as intended or that materials are not right for the concept.  Then the starting over becomes a milestone of learning.  Reaching that milestone usually entails some frustration along the way.  Not giving up, until you have found a solution to express your idea visually is a characteristic of a dedicated artist.  It’s a character strait that crosses all disciplines. 

However, in high school art we are not dealing with many “dedicated” artists.  We are dealing with teenagers who have been programed to expect instant gratification.  My students have grown up with digital media and social networking as the normal means of communication and entertainment.  They are the “plugged in” generation.  Fast food drive through, instant energy drinks, and late nights surfing the web and playing video games have contributed to the expectation of seeing results as soon as the idea pops into their head.  “Getting it right the first time” is what our education system has trained our students to expect of themselves.  When a student doesn’t get a concept, they simply fail the test.  The teacher moves on because they still have so much to cover before the year end state mandated standardized test.  Where’s the time to figure it out?  Essentially, students are being trained that they must get it right the first time around or they will fail.  So then, what happens to students after years of this type of expectation?

I have experienced what happens.  What happens is that students give up easily when at first they don’t succeed or they want to keep starting over rather than adjusting to incorporate unexpected outcomes.  They are not willing to push a concept beyond their first thought. In art you either adapt the design or concept to fit the media you have to work with or you find the media that will best communicate your concept.  This doesn’t always happen instantly.  Herein lays the problem.  You must take time to figure it out.   Most of my students don’t have the patience or stamina to figure out how to expand on an idea to find unique ways of representing a concept.  They want the teacher to tell them what to do, how to do it, and then expect it to look like original and unique. The cookie cutter method only works on standardized tests where there is only one right answer. 
It’s frustrating to me as their teacher that they want to just give up so easily.  So often I have students get started on a really unique project that has great artistic merit, is complex but not so much that the students can’t do it, and that has the potential to be great.  Then, at the first speed bump in construction they get frustrated and then give up choosing to do the simplest mundane project because they don’t want to have to think through their first idea and the frustration that often comes with doing something for the first time.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Paper Sparks Thoughts on Education

The more I read the more fired up I become.  Sitting at the kitchen table I read the Richmond Times Dispatch Sunday Edition, and I can feel my blood pressure rising.  An hour or so later, after great discussion with my Sunday Morning study group”[1] I sit down to write this wondering why my state of Virginia, and my country for that matter, is going backwards in civil rights and common sense thinking.  How will I turn this question into meaningful knowledge and then into power with a positive purpose.  What is my purpose?  That’s a question that’s often hard to answer.  My purpose in reading, watching and discussing the local, national and international news is to educate myself on what is happing in the world around me.  If I educate myself then I can educate others.  This leads to inquiry into how what is happening now is going to effect my way of life, the lives of my children, students, community and the future of our global existence.  The old saying of “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” is a huge piece of dung flung by a child who has yet to be introduced to consequences of someone else’s actions or to expectations not met. 
            So, back to what is my purpose?  My purpose is to understand what I can change or do something about and what I can’t.  What do I, as a lone individual, have the power to change?  Nothing.  Except myself.  I can only change how I act, interact and react to any given individual or circumstance.  However, as my Father always told me,  “Evil prospers when good men do nothing, and if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” [2]  With that in mind, when one voice becomes two, then grows to 10, 20, 100, 500, 1,000, 10,000, 100, 000, then that single voice of change becomes too powerful a force to ignore.  How do those voices become informed, knowledgeable, responsible and effective leaders of change?  That answer is simple.  Education!  The more you know, the more power tools you have in your toolbox for building a more just world. 
“Knowledge is Power” has been the slogan for educational institutions for generations, but what qualifies as knowledge?  Knowledge is not simply a memorized system of facts and figures.  Knowledge is an understanding of the implications and functionalities of those facts and figures.  It is the recognition and appreciation of cause and effect relationships throughout history and in contemporary times. 
Here’s a question for you.  Is it more important to know the exact date and time of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor or to know the reasons, why, how and under what pretext it happened and how that affected, and continues to affect, our families, country and global community?  I vote for the latter of the two.  Then again, I’m one of those people who thinks the answers to the “what”, “why” and “how” questions are more important than the “when” questions. 
            Today’s Richmond Times Dispatch front page was the catalyst of my frustration this morning.  Some of the major headlines were “Assembly passes pension overhaul: Part of the burden shifts to teachers, local employees”(p.A1), Budget battle goes overtime as assembly session ends”(p,A1,11), and “20 reasons the legislative session mattered” (p. A10).  Then after, numerous paper advertisements and fire starter materials I find the “Commentary” section and am hit with what has really been firing up the state citizens.  In sections titled “Inciting Hysteria” and “Twisted Debate” are more titles designed to grab attention.  Abortion industry pushes blatant misinformation and When did ‘free’ contraception become a basic right?    

Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, presents the conferees' report on the VRS pension reform bill.

I love to read the Commentary articles but I wish the editor would print more than one side (viewpoint) of the same issue.  Why not give the readers something to debate?  In this 3/11/2012 issue of the Richmond Times Dispatch the conservative readership will be boosted by what people may all too often misinterpret as “news”.  I think this calls for a lesson in the difference between reporting the news and reporting the opinion of an individual or special interest group.  “News” and “Opinions” can both be valid statements.  The power they carry is held in the reader’s ability to separate fact from propaganda and opinion.

Ability to compare, contrast, infer, combine, separate, utilize and apply are some of the most critical 21st century skills that need to be taught in any quality k-12 educational program.  Are they being taught?  The answer to that question depends on whom you ask.  As a high school teacher I see so many of my 14-18 year old students who don’t have a clue as to what is going on around them and who are seriously lacking on the afore mentioned skills.  Who’s to blame for this?  All of us!  We (The US Educational System) have taught the way we were taught.  We have tested and retested students expecting better results.  We have payed for more tests and corporate “suggested” remediation resources.  We have penalized difference.  We have marginalized the student who thinks differently and constructs knowledge in ways that standardized test can’t measure.  We have followed outdated mandates made by those so far removed from the contemporary k-12 learner that we have left some children behind.  I once heard that the definition to insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. 
Luckily, there is a light emerging from the long tunnel.  I see it in the discussions I have with my children.  I see it in some of the work they bring home.  I see it in some of the work my high school students create.  There are some teachers utilizing strategies that require students to use high order thinking skills and apply knowledge.  But that light is still very dim.  It is muted by the mandate to indoctrinate children with specific “knowledge” with out any relevance to their own life.  If content of instruction cannot be made relevant to the life of the learner then true understanding of that content can also not be made.  If teachers were allowed to transform the curriculum so that the essential concepts were still the main focus of instruction and learning, but the methods of instruction and evidence of student learning were validated differently then think of the possibilities it would mean for developing more educated and empowered generation. 
I am thankful every day that I teach Art.  In the art room we discover, discuss, relate, compare, contrast, infer, combine, separate, utilize and apply in the process of creating and understanding art.  In actuality, it’s all in the process of constructing our own knowledge on our path of self-empowerment.  I say “our” because I learn everyday from my students.  Good teachers are intrinsically life long learners.  Isn’t that something we all should be?

This is an ongoing topic that I will continue to elaborate on in future postings.

[1] Manolo and Dale are two close friends who also work in the realms of education and commercial business respectively.  Our weekly gatherings generate significant personal and professional topics for discussion.
[2] I was taught through my parents’ actions and our discussions that if you see something that you think is wrong, unjust or hurtful, and you do nothing about it, then you are part of that wrongful force.  I can’t remember when my Father first started talking to me about speaking my voice through voting, but I do remember that it was often wrapped around a student government or community vote of some sort.