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A Closer Look – Pt 1


One morning as students began streaming in under the weight of backpacks popping at the seams. I recognized immediately that I would have to start scheduling time slots so that hours on end were not consumed with Show and Tell. Watching students take turns pulling mysterious objects from backpacks and spilling exuberance into the room made me wonder, "What if sharing can somehow be empowered with purpose beyond the obvious public speaking opportunity?"

Small observations have large consequence. The Earth is heliocentric. Galileo, defending the observations of Copernicus before him, came to realize this truth after careful observations of the sky over time. From botany to astronomy, let's face it, the basis of all science begins with observation.

So at the end of that busy day, as our children contentedly rampaged in the great outdoors, a friend and I punched holes in a stacks of cardstock, rummaged for binders, and with a click of the rings the Observation Journal was born. Show and Tell would never be the same.

The goal of the activity would be simple: Provide the student with an opportunity to slow down, an opportunity in this warp speed culture to discover and ponder the reflections in a spoon, a meandering hermit crab, or the pomegranate’s true color.

The next day we gathered our co-op children together and had them sit in a circle on the floor. We handed each child their own journal and placed a pumpkin in the middle of the group. We were ready to guide them in their very first lesson.

Guiding them to draw, line by line, shape by shape, what they were looking at was just the trick to get them thinking with their eyes. We began with a pumpkin. Together we discovered that the lines on the pumpkin were not parallel, but luscious curves that meet at the top and the bottom of the fruit. We looked again and discovered that those lines were not really lines at all, but grooves. We decided that this particular pumpkin was more oblate than spherical and that was taller than it was wide. The skin was smooth but the stem was prickly.

This is the point where I gave pencils permission to begin sketching, lightly at first, then darker as the image begins to mirror the real thing. When it was time to place watercolor on top of the pencil image, Sara demonstrated how to create the complex pumpkin color that is never really just orange from the paint tin. With orange and yellow with a touch of its compliment, blue, plus a drop of a warm brown for fall she taught the how to make a color puddle sing!


As the children were washing their pumpkin sketches with paintbrushes, the table was set with books about pumpkins for them to discover facts. Out on the porch a galvanized tub was filled to the brim with water ready for dunking and near the sink a space was prepared for pumpkin dissection. As our group moved on to discover a mountain of information about pumpkins through books and hands-on exploration, exclamations galore echoed from one corner of the room to the next, "Pumpkins float!" After separating seeds from gooey web and placing them into by piles of ten, the students counted close one thousand in all. They washed, roasted, and indulged in a homemade snack while quietly writing discoveries in their journal.

The activity transformed sharing from, "This is my teddy bear that lives above my books on the high shelf," to, "This is a centipede I found in the garden, let's go get out our Observation Journal." 

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A Creative Challenge

The new CB Fall Challenge is now posted. What do your young artists have to communicate about "City"?


I realized long ago that I am a mentor who cares deeply about protecting and promoting individuality. In my co-op, my foremost goal is to draw out creative genius in my students. Blackbird & Company Educational Press was established as a result of this realization and to further this goal. I simply want to inspire my children, my students and students at large to dig into their imagination because I believe that creativity is a valuable academic pursuit. I believe that creativity fosters passion for learning and critical thinking skills.

Aaron, Best of Show – Painting, 9-12th grade (
Fall 2009 Challenge "Freedom Within Boundaries"

It has been my experience that there is very little opportunity for student artists, writers and particularly student musicians to showcase their work. About a year ago was established for students to have a safe place to develop their craft and to collaborate with artists across creative domains.

Klarence, Best of Show – Drawing, 6-8th grade (Spring 2010 Challenge "Express Yourself Through Color")

There are three ways for students and teachers to participate:

The Creative Banter Challenge is a competition for student artists, writers, and musicians to explore a specific directive within their chosen art form. Winners are awarded cash prizes and their work is published on CB site with the potential to be included in the CB Review.Twice a year a new directive is posted challenging students to express and communicate a specific concept through visual art, music, or writing. The directive is presented in the form of a lesson plan suitable for use by teachers or individuals. The directive is designed to be used as an extended project, enabling students to develop and refine their ideas over a period of time. This is a great opportunity to show that the best work only comes through diligence and devotion.

Collective Banter Review is an annual online and in-print arts journal dedicated to providing an opportunity for student writers and visual artists to showcase their craft.

The Creative Banter Salon is forum where creativity is published in various stages and critiqued constructively by peers.

Please visit to see what all the banter is about!

A Choregraphy of Hues

The day was stained with gray
I turned to a blank canvas
Pouring out my fighting hues
Ideas crashing upon my actions

Blue tumbled to a halt
Giggling yellow jumped in his path
Emerging color
Splashing their way together

Green joined the rushing escapade
Living, breathing color
Red crashed upon the surface
Sprinting from corner to corner

White prowled unseen
Consuming a quite nook
She discovered a cherished friend
Seizing a silent embrace

Pink leapt from within
Unfolding the swelling pigments
Twirling across the exterior
Color and rapture collapsing into one

Emotions clear as crystal blue
Joy strong as radiant yellow
Life lived as fearless red
My portrait, feelings, thoughts

Grace, 2nd Place – Poetry, 6-8th grade (Spring 2010 Challenge "Express Yourself Through Color")

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Very First iModinarri

E&H Flowers 2

I’m not sure how many years have passed since Sara, Evelyn, Hannah and I participated in iMadonnari but I will never forget the experience. We packed a picnic, slathered on the sunscreen, and set out with our bucket of chalk into the unknown. When we arrived at our designated rectangle of road, Sara and I exchanged blank stares, caught our breath. The reality of our lofty goal to transform asphalt to canvas, translate a Renoir to chalk pastel was coming into focus.

We prepped our surface by painting a layer of crushed pastel mixed to a loose paste with water. We chose a pale blue-green value to begin. The pavement was warm so the pastel base dried quickly. Next we gridded off the area to match the grid lines we made on the laminated color copy of the Renoir that the girls would have to work from—preparation is key. These two steps made the process so easy for our girls. Laying the base coat of pastel paste smoothed the surface and helped the subsequent layers of color pop. Helping the girls break the painting down to gridded off parts made the drawing manageable.

The street painting took around five hours to complete. I am pretty sure Hannah and Evelyn never complained once, never uttered the dreaded “B” phrase (“I’m BORED”) because this activity was academic in the true sense… yes, academic. During all those hours I watched the girls merrily engage in scholarship, watched them navigate geometric spatial relationships, engage in complex problem solving, learn about color theory, and make intricate observations. All these years later I can say with certainty that participating in iMadonnari was one of those rare bird’s eye perspective experiences that gave Hannah and Evelyn a hands-on opportunity to be mentored by a creative thinker, Renoir himself.


It has been great this summer focusing on the life work of Leonardo da Vinci with my children and trying to bring something of the Renaissance Man’s philosophy of education into our realm of reality. Looking back on summer and reminiscing gives me an idea. Today school resumes. I’ve decided to begin the year with Leonardo. Why does Leonardo da Vinci have to be limited to summer? After all he reminds me, “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”

My favorite phrase comes to mind, “I have an idea.” What about transitioning from Da Vinci Summer to school by celebrating Leonard iMadonnari style? Yes!

Coming soon: Mona Lisa!

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Inside Søren’s Sketchbook

Keeping a sketchbook is very important for the burgeoning artist. Some sketchbooks should be dedicated to imaginative spontaneous drawing. Some should be dedicated to the work of learning the skill of drawing. I call this the “directive drawing” sketchbook.

At any given moment in time Søren has numerous sketchbooks floating around the house, but one is always dedicated to directive drawing. Inside this sketchbook he learns about and tries his hand at specific drawing techniques.

This week Søren has three drawings of a little glass bottle and two flowers in progress. His is exploring line and value:

Line is a fundamental element of art. Closed line creates shape while repeated line will create texture. I taught Søren long ago what I learned from Paul Klee.

“A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.”

Value is the light and dark in a drawing. The play between light and dark in a drawing gives the impression of three dimensions. Søren keeps in mind Cezanne’s wisdom,

“…light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.”

Søren was directed to draw Still Life with a Glass Bottle and Two Flowers three times, three ways and to incorporate as much detail as possible in each drawing:


The first was to use line only, no soft shading at all.


For the second drawing he was to use soft shading to create value.


And for the third drawing he was taught to stipple. Stippling is the technique of using dots or tiny “pencil touches” to imply value.


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The Art Cabinet

I keep all sorts of REAL art supplies on hand, have a dedicated pantry in the kitchen! Here are some tips that have helped me tamp down the chaos of prepping for an art lesson:

I keep my paints in bins organized by color families—primaries (reds, blues, yellows), secondaries (oranges, purples, greens), toasty tones (umbers, browns), blacks and whites.


Drawing materials are all together on a shelf: chalk and oil pastels, charcoal, ink, fixative, rulers, and the oh so vital sundry of magnifying glasses.


I have one shelf for all things watercolor and gouache.


I have an art bin for drawing tools. My children and the students in my co-op are always allowed to dig in. The one rule: Get the tools back in the box!


Every once in a while I do an inventory and I've found that having the one rule works. I rarely find stray pencils or kneaded easers… well, unless the kneaded eraser is cleverly substituted for modeling clay!


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The year I moved back to LA the first thing I did was pack
the kids in the car and head to art museums. I had been teaching art for years,
but here I was in LA, an art hub for sure, and I wanted them to experience what
we had studied in books and on the web in all its glory! So that first summer I
sought out art opportunities for my children, enrolled them in week-long
workshops at the Getty, Otis, and LACMA… back to back.

Week 1 Taylor and cousin Cloe hit LACMA, got some really
cool t-shirts with bright orange graphics and got to wander behind the scenes
at the museum. Last time I was at Tracey’s I smiled at the sculpture Cloe made
of blocks of wood that is perched on a shelf with other works of art.


Week 2 at the Getty our kids came home with sculptures made
of meat trays, paper towel rolls, and yarn. Really? Tracey
and I raised our eyebrows, didn’t need words. Not sure what happened to those

Week 3 was Hannah’s turn to go to camp with cousin Cloe.
Otis Art Institute was on the schedule. When we arrived to pick our girls up, their faces were less than
enthusiastic. The girls had been given tempera, newsprint, and an easel and
were told to paint a dream… for three hours!

“Mom we have an easel in the back yard, do I have to go back

“No dear.”

That was the last summer I enrolled my children in art
workshops. Looking back, I know much was gained from those experiences that I
cannot re-create in our studio, but where was the canvas, acrylic and chalk
pastel on rag paper and clay that had to be fired in a kiln? Looking back, I must
admit I was a bit of an art materials snob.

I believe the creative work of children should be elevated
to a state of permanence. The
creative work of children is important. Striving for “perfect” is not the goal,
but elevating a child’s creative work validates their process and is a very
important goal. Back then I somehow came to the conclusion that using
sophisticated art supplies was the best way to achieve this goal.

But I’ve been enlightened by aluminum foil.

This past spring I wanted to teach the elements of sculpture
but didn’t want to simultaneously dive into the complexities of manipulating
clay or alabaster. So I taught my students to look at and think about 3D
objects and handed them a roll of foil. I think the results speak for themselves.



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When Work Becomes Meaningful


Taylor began tackling a concerto back in October. The process of moving from notes on a page to music was grueling, not only for him but for all the inhabitants of our home. For the piece to resemble music, he had to break the thing into sections to be played repeatedly.Whenever he made a mistake he would repeat that section… over and over, leaving notes to bounce off 1800 square feet of walls and tangle somewhere in the center of my brain.

I was relieved when the notes were at last learned, thought I would enjoy 3 to 4 melodic hours a day. Nope. The next stage was to add dynamics, which entailed playing Ravel’s ridiculously fast composition in fast motion… then slow motion through absolutely everything in between while stopping at sections where his fingers slipped to, you guessed it, fix each mistake three times. I pride myself a fairly patient person with broad musical appreciation, but any given section of this piece taken out of its entirety is fingernails on chalkboard. So this is how it went for three months straight.

When Taylor at last performed Ravel Concerto in G Major, III. Presto,



I was shocked, “What?!!!” I had no idea! Then his music teacher’s comment hit me on the head: “Taylor’s come into his own.”

My internal voice whispered in response, “Who was it up to before tonight?” It slowly dawned on me that the work of the teacher/mentor is implied in that overused phrase. As parents, Willie and I have never pushed or prodded Taylor to become a musician, but we have tirelessly encouraged him that his work matters. Taylor has worked hard to form this habit, but his teacher is right, he has at last embraced the work as his own.

Not only does Taylor play music, he writes music. Here is a recent composition:


Industrial Animation


This past week Taylor was sick and his one complaint was that he would not be able to work at his music… it’s true.

We are ridiculously busy in this world, at times too exhausted to chase our own dreams. As a teacher, my students readily share their dreams of being a prima ballerina or an astronaut or a paleontologist, or, in the case of my son, a performing composer. But what happens when we answer, “Yes you can,” pat them on the back and watch them while away hours on the X-Box? Dreams shrivel when students form enduring trivial habits.   

Becoming Juilliard material was never our goal. Fighting for a habit of purpose is costly in more ways than one, but we find a way. There is no doubt Taylor's skill serves him well and hopefully will encourage others to engage in the work of chasing a dream.

When the phone rang and a writer from the Los Angeles Times wanted to speak to Taylor… wanted to interview my son, I speechlessly handed over the phone. He has certainly come into his own, one note at a time. What I see developing in my oldest son's character is something that a standardized test will never measure.

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June Bug in July


Today I gave Søren the job of dusting window sills. Quick as lightening.

“All done Mom.”

“Great, thanks buddy.”

About an hour later, concerned by a large slice of silence, I wandered into the kitchen and discovered my son at the table with his sketching gear examining a dead June Bug strategically posed on a paper plate. 

Windowsill booty.


“Wow Søren, what's all this?”

“Remember that beetle at the Getty mom?”

One word: Observation.

Need I say more?


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If You Give a Boy a Camera


My middle son is an amazing writer, a deft creator of unique
characters. He will sit for hours crafting a tale. He usually enlists his
younger brother, Søren, to illustrate because he is not particularly fond of

Every Thursday we break out the cameras. We use a couple Polaroid cameras and
sometimes we experiment with cell phones. We use disposable cameras and,
occasionally, one dinosaur that uses 35mm film. Mostly we snap digitally. Our
students are encouraged to explore and observe their world through the

Liam loves the art of photography.

One day I gave each student a green apple and told them to
use it in a still life arrangement of objects with interesting shapes and
textures. Liam was the youngest
student looking through the viewfinder that day. His photo was, by far the most
sophisticated—a minimal composition of the circle, square, and rectangle, a
simplistic balance of light and shadow.

Looking to explore photography more with your children?

Lesson Plan: Element of Art / Kodak

13 Lessons About Digital Photography

Happy clicking!