Friday, January 23, 2009

images and the imagination

My neighbor (a teacher and someone I respect for her political savvy) and I were sharing our experiences of the day, on Inauguration Day. Henry was home from school. Her five year old had kindergarten as usual that day and the little ones watched on TV the ceremony and the speech following. The self-aware five year old confessed to her mom she didn't understand a word of the speech, and her mom questioned the value of her having seen it. I reported to my neighbor that when Obama stood up to take his oath I urged Henry — woozy with the flu, lying down with his head cuddled up in a blanket — to sit up and SEE the event.
I repeated this story to my Documentary Studies class the next day.

There are certain events that define a generation. So much is written about the Vietnam War as one of those. More significant to me is the knowledge of JFK's assassination. I often call this “my first memory”. I would have been just three at the time. I have an image of myself sitting on the stairs leading to the second floor of our house in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. I can see the door just in front of me and the banister to my right, and the living room beyond that. The is some discussion of who shot Kennedy. This may be a conflating of several events. Maybe I was sitting on the steps getting ready to go to the Pittsburgh Zoo with the water fountain in the whale's mouth. (Do I really remember being there or is this a memory recreated from photographs?) What is significant to me is that I have an image—a visual picture—that allows me to verify that I WAS THERE. The chronology speaks for itself, so clearly this event happened during my life time and that it was a defining moment for our generation. The loss of a hero. The loss of safety. I could write at length about any number of interpretations. On Tuesday afternoon I am sitting on the guestroom bed where we hide our TV and I am juxtaposing the image of JFK slumped over in the blue convertible next to the image of Barack and Michele Obama out of their armored vehicle walking down Pennsylvania Avenue---("is he really doing this NOW? Am I really watching live coverage?" I am stunned by the message it sends to us: that he is safe in his country and that we are too. More than that, I am very anxious and notice I am holding my breath.

It may be that the girl next door and all the kids in her class listened to Obama's speech with no comprehension of such things as "petty grievances", but they did SEE Obama looking out onto the Mall packed with a crowd that stretched back to the Washington Monument. Living as close as we do to D.C., many of these kids have probably been to the Mall (and they know how long a distance it is even from the obelisk to the dinosaur museum) but never looking as it did that day. And as we know that we are visual before we are verbal, I am confident that they will store some image
that will afford them the privilege of owing this event as their. As belonging to their generation. I am so happy for our children to be part of this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Intelligence of Boys

Shortly before the Christmas break there was a parent’s forum at my five-year-old son Henry’s (he’s the one not in camo’ making shooting noises) school, Sabot at Stony Point, a Reggio-based program. There’s a decent description of the Reggio Approach at and some reference points of departure at I realize now as I write this entry that I haven’t written here about how fundamentally my exposure to the Reggio approach has shifted my views of my role as a teacher and the culture of the classroom. I’ve published papers on this but have neglected to write more informally here. I’ll put that aside for the moment to talk about an issue raised in the community that opened up a difficult and very important conversation about weapon play initiated by the children in school. Some schools have an outright ban on guns. By this I don’t mean real guns—of course—for these preschoolers, but the use of sticks and the construction of guns and weapons from legos and toilet paper rolls, or any other materials that inspired an imaginary gun. One parent was adamant that allowing this sort of play at all was entirely unacceptable. For the rest of us, there was a grey area with most of the parents (maybe even all the parents of boys) accepting this as a stage that needed to be guided and allowed so that children, in keeping (I believe) with school philosophy were able to work through issues of power and aggression in a safe and supportive way. The teachers at this meeting cited a lot of current research suggesting that an outright ban of guns only increases a child’s fascination and fear and confusion, creating a deeper impulse toward this forbidden avenue for play.

I was disheartened when Henry began to fixate on camouflage last year. I envisioned a boy glorifying the military, with visions of his choosing this as his career goal. It embarrasses me to write that now, but it may be the first confrontation I had with the possibility that my child might choose paths I don’t approve of and that conflict with my own commitment to such values as kindness, generosity, and an opposition to military action as the solution to a dispute. My way of dealing with his pleas to buy a camo' shirt or pants was to say that I didn’t feel comfortable and that when he was older and could buy his own clothes he could choose to wear whatever he wished. This issue became a moot point when I came home from school one day and saw him in a pair of camo' shorts his dad had bought him at Target. They both seemed happy, Henry especially and I didn’t want to chip away at his delight so I smiled and said they were great. He knew I didn’t really like them and was trying to figure out why I would say that and I honestly explained that it wouldn’t be my choice to buy them but that it was between him and Don, his dad, and that was okay. Other moms suggested it really was not about an extension to the military but really about just what it was: camouflage. I realized this when I gave in and bought him a camo’ shirt and was surprised how innocently he believed he could hide by backing against a tree. I began to recognize that my reading of camo' was wrong and my projections were silly.

He was aware of my position on guns (“Some people like them, but I don’t” and the military “It wouldn’t be my choice but it is no doubt a good choice for others.”) He would question me often about this when he picked up a stick on our walk and point as if to shoot --- at a rock or a tree. He began to ask me what I thought about guns and we would repeat parts of the script, about how I didn’t like them but that I understand that some people did. Not outright saying they were bad but that I didn’t like guns. Sticks and guns didn’t hold much interest for him eventually. Drawing in the gravel and collecting trash in the alleys was more engaging. I did make him a bow and arrow from a stick and string and acquiring the skill of making the arrow fly a long distance was exciting to him. He would eagerly show off.

I forgot about this casual interest in weapons until the community forum that evening a couple months back. Dialogue, and co-construction are critical components to the Sabot philosophy and this extends from the classroom to the conversations at pick-up and in the playground and at birthday parties on weekends. Every parent I spoke with seemed to believe that there were certain stages children needed to go through and the best way for them to do so was in an environment that supported the intelligence of the child, and that gave very close attention to guiding and supporting the ways children learn to interact and respect each other.

I’m writing this now in response to an event last weekend. My friend and neighbor Melissa has a son Calder a year older than Henry. Henry and Calder have known each other for several years and they have rarely connected amiably. Henry tends to get extremely territorial around Calder and it has rarely been enjoyable to hang out with my friend and let the boys play together. Recently they’ve been less combative with each other and on that day last weekend Calder followed Henry in the house after a walk around the neighborhood. They were amiably engaged and Melissa snuck off to get ready for a Buddhist meeting at her house. I was in the kitchen when Henry ran in and had behind the door jam holding like a gun some Lego construction. Calder appeared with some large construction (as you can see) that he called his bazooka. The kids ran around the house and pretended to shoot and hide and then retreated back to the playroom where they had built a fort. It was the most cooperative play I’ve seen with these two. I didn’t see the predicted behavior when Henry acts out with Calder seemingly aware of how easily he can push the younger boy’s buttons. I’m not a psychologist but this is how there previous relationship appeared to me.
In a while, they finished their peanut butter sandwiches and we dropped Calder off at home on our way to deliver diapers for one drive and canned food for another. I explained to Henry about Obama’s call for a day (or weekend) or service. I think he understood.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


I’m looking for some hook, some way to introduce the first assignment in my Print class. I just want them to remember how to think visually. To reenter the semester feeling open and inspired. So I scan the shelves in my work space upstairs and don’t see what I’m looking for, even through I don’t know what I’m looking for. I scan the bookshelves downstairs in the livingroom. James Hillman’s “The Soul’s Code” catches my attention. Then Natalie Goldberg’s “Long Quiet Highway”. She writes so vividly about waking up: about writing and Zen practice (“Writing Down the Bones”, if you”re not familiar with her). I was prodded and reminded that there is something underneath why I teach. Something beyond making graphic design or teaching young people how to do graphic design. But I don’t know what that is. Or, I can’t say. Or, I’m afraid that I won’t be believed if I write it. Or, that I shouldn’t be so open, so exposed. Or all of the above. To wake up and engage with something so deeply that it changes you.

A run this morning around the swamp in Forest Hill Park. Cool damp air, blue sky, hear nobody else but robins and a kingfisher.

A visit this weekend from a niece in whom I see myself, my sister, my son and herself all in one.

Waking up from so much that clouds the mind. I want that for myself and to draw that out in my students. It’s not that complicated.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


My colleague John DeMao just wrote he is “working on a paper on the intersection of creative thinking and design thinking - Can you tell me in about 30 words or less -
When you get what you think is a creative idea, what is usually the primary spark for it?“

My response: a visceral response of joy. inspired by deep connection to person, or nature. elevates, humbles and dissolves self. leading to an impulse to make something, to share that initial visceral experience.

thank you for asking.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Dance Continues

I take a break from writing to engage. In the end of the semester, in preparations for my birthday party - the square dance ( we play music, we all danced: kids families, lots of dancing, swirling bodies filling the dance hall)
- christmas, new years. Friends and family visiting. Writing is a stepping back and observing and naming. To name is to know and understand and Becky (Becky Heaver, sister-in-law)and I were considering last night at diner. I think about the start of the semester and the exciting possibilities. How to engage my students in a way that excites them as much as music, or dance, or my connection to the river excites me and feeds me. I am about to fax to my sister (for use, maybe, in a project she is giving her students at Ole Miss) a few pages form Rufuge, by Terry Tempest Williams. She writes about her observations of egrets at the Great Salt Lake. "we have lost track of time in a birdwatcher's trance," she writes. "Egret plumes like French lace billow in the breeze and underscore their amorous play. One egret rises, the other follows. ... The egrets stagger their leaps—one lifts, one lands, one lifts, one lands—and the dance continues.”

Another writer Ester de Waal (I will check on this later but I write quickly while my guests are in the kitchen. Voices float up through the floor boards.) speaks of walking as a dangerous practice. We pick up our foot and momentarily are balanced on the other. We reach forward and are momentarily out of balance. Then in balance again as we transfer out weight. Gracefully we remain upright. Grace keeps us from falling. Then we begin this whole precarious process again. And repeat it again and again. In balance then out of balance. In balance. Out of balance. In balance...