“Really? Does your mom, like, never buy sweet stuff for you guys?”
“Are you kidding? Why would she? My mom bakes cookies, cakes, and pies all the time!”
My son Wesley came home appalled. A dish is only as good as its ingredients. We know when we use fresh produce instead of canned that the dish is going to have a higher nutritional value, that we are going to experience much better flavor.
I don’t start with a box mix. I cook from scratch. I make my cakes with flour, fresh eggs, butter, sugar, and chocolate. People notice and love my baking. Sure, anyone can go to Costco and buy a chocolate cake, but it has three paragraphs of obscure ingredients on the metallic label and a metallic taste to match.
I believe every child is like a blank recipe card and that our job as educators is to teach them how to bring their unique spice to a bland world. Each child possesses a unique cabinet brimming with flavor. One might be like chili powder (which you really need to make a good pot of chili), another cinnamon mixed with sugar, yet another oregano (which gives a great background flavor to many dishes).
What if our job is to challenge our children to explore the potential of their flavor? Let’s help our children develop their unique recipe for life.
– Sara With this new year, we welcome a new contributor to four&twenty!
Sara and I actually grew up in the same town by the sea. We lived parallel lives as children and as grown-ups, moved miles away from our hometown to the same small town location raising our children. Go and figure. My teaching career took a sharp turn at an unexpected bend in the road when our paths finally crossed at a garage sale. We became fast friends and kitchen table philosophers. Her wisdom is an orchard teeming with fruit. I know you will be blessed!
Welcome to the conversation Sara! Read more about Sara here.
Back in the summer of 2003, I took my children to Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Sketchbook and pencil in hand, I patted each of them on the back and set them free to explore the works as they saw fit. I love observing the creative process. I felt fortunate to wander with them among works that we have admired from afar in books and on the web.
The exhibition, a collection of works by Modigliani, his friends, and contemporaries, might have been better titled “Conversations from Montparnasse” because the collection was a reunion of works developed long ago in a bohemian Paris neighborhood. I was excited to see how my children would join the conversation.
My oldest son Taylor was nine. He had been studying piano for a bit more than a year, but seemed at the time more interested in visual art. Three works captured his imagination at this exhibit: Dancer, Second Version by Sonia Delauney 1916, Black Hair (Young Seated Girl With Brown Hair), Modigliani, and The City, Fernand Leger 1919. These are the works he decided to study. I watched him study and sketch the first two carefully. When he came to the third, Leger’s painting, he simply stood there, soaking the image into his imagination.
Later that day I heard Taylor plunking away on the piano, but didn’t give it much thought until this past spring when he won a competition for an original piano composition and had to write program notes:
Industrial Animation, a composition for piano by Taylor Bredberg
The story behind this piece began seven years ago after visiting an exhibit, Modigliani and the Art of Montparnasse and after watching a set of short films called Masters of Russian Animation. Here I learned to appreciate industrial beauty and fell in love with the dissonance of Russian music that inspired the main melody. The next part of the journey is very dull considering that the melody sat dormant until recently. In a moment of composer’s block I began to sift through some of my older sketches and came upon the melody. It was unrefined but still had something to it, so I took to it and started working. Prokofiev and Shostakovich, being two of my favorite composers, heavily influenced its mood and shape. Soon enough, along with four brand new melodies, the work is finished, an Industrial Animation at last.
Da Vinci’s sketchbooks come to mind, page after page teaming with elaborate ideas, “Art is never finished only abandoned.” All those years ago when we visited the LACMA exhibit Taylor was simply encouraged to abandon some of his ideas into a little sketch book.
Guess it was worth the trip to the local art museum.
Today seven-year-old Mikayla, the youngest girl in our school, watched me climb on a countertop in high heels to fetch a pot for tea and observed, “My mom would never do that.”
“I’m me,” I replied. This gave me an idea, “So what makes you, you?” Everyone in earshot eagerly chimed in (simultaneously of course):
I like to run, other people don’t have to.
Different eyes and skin.
I like peanut butter, so does Michael, but Isaiah and Mikayla don’t.
Dirt and lizards and pretty flowers.
I can eat what I like and you can eat what you like.
Writing a poem.
Computers and cars.
I can like math.
Ducks and monkeys and piano and drawing.
I like to read.
When I asked them to think about how school helps them become more fully themselves, the room was struck silent. Then, hesitantly the youngest girl in our group whispered a reply, “Courage.”
“You are right,” I applauded!
This little student, brave enough to raise her voice to a whisper, reminds me of Mark Twain’s booming voice whispering through time, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Just got home from Waiting for Superman. Great film. I am reminded that the recipe for academic success still lies with the individual.
When I first saw the trailer, Sherman Alexie’s essay, “Superman and Me” came to mind. After viewing the film, a connection emerged. Where Waiting for Superman reminds us that an overwhelming majority of children are “not accepted” to successful public schools and leaves our hope dashed, “Superman and Me” picks up the pieces reminding us that the system cannot stop the individual from picking up a book and doing the work of developing a Habit of Being.
This movie brilliantly reminds us that reform within the public system is happening in pockets all over our nation and leaves me grateful for those reformers. But it also leaves me with an image of all the children who will shrivel because they do not have Bingo Ball 78 glowing in the palm of their little hand.
The reality is that there are wide-open plains outside of the system waiting for Lewis and Clark—perhaps the sequel?
Reform Lewis and Clark style.
A voyage of discovery.
As an educator, I for one realized a long time ago I couldn’t wait for Superman any longer. I encourage my students to slip on the Superman suit before they begin each day, reminding them Alexie style: “The suit will save your life!” Geoffrey Canada’s mother may be right, Superman is not real, but every child has talents equal to Superman’s power—the gift of numbers, the gift of humor, the gift of words, the gift of song, the gift of compassion… an endless list.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned,” according to the Renaissance sage Leonardo da Vinci
So what has art to do with a movie about the state of education in America?
One thing this film fails to examine is the need to move beyond the workforce preparation model of education by addressing the deeper individual needs that are ignored in mass education. How can we provide opportunities for our children to develop Critical Creative Thinking if we starve individuality?
Leonardo da Vinci left us tremendous insight into his work habits. He knew first hand that, “it is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end,” still he painstakingly collected thousands of his ideas in sketchbooks, most of which would never be fully realized. But I will venture to say there is not one who would dare call him a slacker. There are academic skills that do not fall under the Three Rs umbrella—think rigor, resourcefulness, responsibility.
When my daughter Hannah was 10 she began working at Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum on the piano. One afternoon while I was scrubbing pots and pans in the kitchen, listening as she delicately worked through each new section, I called out, “Is that the Debussy?”
“No this is mine.”
I dropped the pot back into sudsy water, quickly wiped my hands, and walked to the piano, “Your piece?”
“Play it for me…” and she did, jubilantly, without hesitation. Hannah was composing.
When Hannah turned 13 things began to change. She began to depend on notes more than her ear. Simultaneous to her sight-reading ability moving into the bilingual realm, she became insecure with her creative voice. No amount of coaxing would console the teenage composer to come out of hiding. She wanted to create, but in her mind her ideas never sounded just right. Hannah became paralyzed by perfectionism.
Over the course of the next few years I presented opportunities and encouraged her to engage in the process of creating. I reminded her that creating something happens with little steps that begin with an idea, “Remember Da Vinci…’Art is never finished only abandoned’.”
Fast forward, two years ago an 18-year-old Hannah composed a piece for piano and charanga that involved more conversation, more tears, and more hugs than hands on the keys and pencil to staff paper. The fact that the project was to be submitted for a competition made the work real but ultimately Hannah’s prize was persevering through the process of developing an idea even if the idea failed.
I will never forget her beaming smile the day we played back the final mixed recording of Empty Halls. The composition did not win a prize in the competition that year, but did receive encouraging notes back from the adjudicators. The notes were more valuable to Hannah than a cash prize. Empty Halls whispers in Hannah’s ear to this day: “Keep working at your craft. You ARE a composer.”
A year later one of Hannah’s poet friends was collaborating with my son, Taylor, on a film they were to submit to a competition and asked Hannah permission to use Empty Halls as the music for the film. She granted permission. The film won regional recognition from the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards competition.
This past year, Hannah composed a film score for a competition sponsored by the Music Teacher’s Association of California. There were a few bumpy tear-filled stretches, but she persevered through the creative process with very little coaching. Hannah’s film score won first place in her division.
Yesterday my 20-year-old daughter came home from a day of practicing music and handed me her phone, “I started a new composition.”
I think this might be what Sherman Alexie means when he locks arms with Superman.
Waiting for Superman begins with a challenge to “take a leap of faith” and ends with the charge to muster the “fortitude to make different decisions” for our children. Perhaps its time to walk with mere mortals, time to learn from Lewis and Clark that the journey has to be made on foot.
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!
We moved to the city when my boys were toddlers. I shed tears in sessions, endured a hefty dose of grief. During one particular session, being a forward thinker (worrywart), I heaved gut-wrenching sobs for the loss of freedom to roam the countryside that my three sons, then toddlers, would experience.
We’ve been city dwellers for seven years. My boys aren’t toddlers anymore and, it’s true, they don’t have the freedom to step outside their backdoor to explore green roaming hills or wide open fields. But they do have a neighborhood and they do have bikes. Still, in the city we have rules. So they are free to roam as long as they stay together within pre-determined neighborhood boundaries. And they have to check in every hour…
I get on my feet fast when I hear two moms in a row!
“Mom, today is TF141!!!”
I relax, “TF141?”
“You know… Trash Force 141!”
It began with a blow up raft, the kind you use in country ponds or on lakes. We live near the beach, but this is certainly not an ocean raft. I suggested it might make a fun pool raft.
“No mom, can we blow it up and use it in the studio?”
“…O-k-a-y, sure, of course.” Why not? Imagination is, I reminded myself, more important than open fields.
The next hour Søren and Liam came home with a wooden sword and the hour after that it was a life-sized Sponge Bob costume.
I thought I had seen it all, but later that day when I began closing down shop— putting Legos and colored pencils and bike helmets in their proper place—I found an old backpack I had never seen before and an empty suitcase! I took a deep breath and prayed that our family was not going to become the neighborhood refuse-sorting center. I would give it a week or so, surely the novelty would wear off.
That night after dinner—the hour when activity shifts to quiet mode—I kept hearing a faint music box playing. I chalked it off to Taylor composing something on Logic. But then Søren came into the room with the head of a toy zebra impaled on a wooden skewer. He began to explain that the object is part of an idea brewing inspired by Leonardo da Vinci.
Turns out the creepy music box melody was Taylor composing. He had rescued the music box that was once tucked inside the stuffed zebra and was in the studio recording it to incorporate into a composition.
One man’s trash is another boy’s treasure! I’m so glad my boys can be boys.
It’s time to launch a brand new school year. I open iPhoto to flip through images hoping to be inspired by antics past. I click through until I spy little Taylor with two of his elementary home school buddies, “How cute.” A few more clicks of the mouse and I pause at an image of the same three characters in their teens. I crack up.
So what do Mozart, Batman, and the GEICO Caveman have in common?
We cultivate genius when we inspire the heart, nourish the mind, and train the will to actively pursue individuality.
Goals 2000 was beginning to be implemented when my oldest daughter, Hannah was in Kindergarten. I received a cryptic postcard in the mail from the school district, a disclosure that the exit exam was on its way. In ten short years Hannah’s graduating class would be affected. I remember being fascinated by the specific goals the district had in mind, goals that seemed vague and far removed from academics that would promote individuality. Being an inquisitive mom, I tucked the postcard into my purse and paid a visit to Hannah’s Principal.
I began my show and tell. The Principal had never seen or heard about the information on the postcard. Flustered, he pulled an enormous binder from a stack on the shelf behind his desk. With a slam and a great puff of dust he proclaimed, “…must relate to this.” The sad reality is that the discouraged Principal confessed, “Who has time to read?”
The next year I began homeschooling.
I have three secret ambitions: 1. Grow a garden that thrives 2. Learn to play guitar 3. Become fluent in Italian
Sometimes my ambitions frustrate me, especially when I walk up the driveway, look to my left, and see the small plot of city dirt that holds the potential to feed my family as I rush to my computer to get cracking on another lesson plan. I become discouraged when I compare myself to Barbara Kingsolver (Animal Vegetable Miracle), James Taylor, and Pavarotti (okay, so Italian as the stepping stone to opera).
I had a roommate in college who was a focused high achiever. While I had so many interests that I found myself spiraling into a state of indecisiveness, she had two activities on her free time list: exercise and cheesy romance novels. What I perceived as a lack of imagination kept her schedule even keeled. My roommate, who eased her way into a pediatric practice, was living the “can’t do it all” kind of life that I secretly envied.
But the good news is I think I finally understand. As I press into the work of cultivating my individuality, I’ve made the conscious choice that there are some things that I simply cannot accomplish.
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 sculptures.
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 tomorrow.”
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.
Building with LEGOs is academic. I have witnessed my boys following complex directions, engaging in problem solving and demonstrating critical thinking for hours upon end as they engage with LEGOs. When we pour two enormous tubs onto the wool rug in the living room, I have witnessed my three boys learning to live together in harmony on LEGO Island.
Being the mother of three imaginative boys, I made a pact with myself long ago to not be annoyed by LEGO blocks scattered here and there. But early yesterday morning in the kitchen, as we were racing to start the day, I went sliding across the kitchen on a Ferrari F-1 driver, severing his arm and nearly cracking my skull. The race came to a halt. My youngest son caught my eye. I took a deep breath and said between gritted teeth, “That was close.” I took another breath, “Can he be fixed?” Søren’s face beamed with a wide smile.
I think what saved me in the kitchen this morning was an image I had just snapped the day before—a little LEGO world Søren had tucked near the leg of my desk right next to work stacking up. This juxtaposition made quite an impact.
Today I was reminded of the value of play: LEGOs are academic.
Just one click to visit a favorite blog to get a quick nugget of inspiration or encouragement. Then it happens, I see the blogroll beckoning me from the sidebar. Like the promise of a multi-family yard sale, I wonder if there is something amazing to be found there just for me. Something I have been wanting, something I have been needing. So I click…then one click leads to another, and leads to another until a couple hours (or more) have disappeared from my day.
Can you relate?
What I love about the concept of a blog carnival is that someone else has done the work and gathered a great collection of related articles for me to explore. It does save time (if I limit myself to these blogs) and it’s a great way to learn about what other moms and educators are doing and thinking!
Check out the latest Carnival of Homeschooling and learn about the history of homeschooling at the same time. Of particular interest to this artful educator, are some great links to articles on music education and discovering the artist Giotto.