Celebrating Projects

This (long-ish) list of mine is making me take trips into memory and thing pop into my head. I find myself remembering with a smile or a groan some of the interesting and obscure creative projects I’ve participated in, with people of all ages. So today, for #32, I celebrate some of those moments.

History Comes to Life

The first one that popped into my head has led me on a futile search for some record of another amazing person in my life. When I was a Sophomore in high school, I had a wonderful teacher named Rita Smith (who would a few years later be named the Time Magazine teacher of the year). She taught social studies, and as a class project we created a living chess tournament using characters from history (The War of the Roses) as our chess pieces. I, along with a fellow student, wrote the script for the tournament, which we then submitted for the state history competition, and made it to the semi-finals I believe. We all performed the living chess play/tournament in Boston, dressed in costume and enjoying every moment. This was one of the moment I saw the power of theatre as a teaching tool, but also the influence of an incredible and creative teacher on making learning an enjoyable and memorable experience. To this day, I strive to create opportunities like that in everything I do. I spent the day trying to find out where Rita Smith is now, but haven’t found any information. I’d like to say thank you, if I could. (Any Brockton High School alums who may read this . . . do you know where she is?)

Mystery on a Train

When I lived in Vermont, one summer I taught a summer camp at the Burlington Center of the Arts that was called “Mystery on the Flyer.” The kids who participated created a murder mystery that we performed on a moving train in Burlington. It was fun. It was fabulous. It was an adventure.

We met all the characters in the train station first, then we got on the train and the mystery began.

We met all the characters in the train station first, then we got on the train and the mystery began.

G.O.A.L Reached

While living in Durango, I worked on several projects geared toward grades 5-8 that I found rewarding. One was the Girl’s Opportunities in Arts and Leadership, where I helped some middle school girls find their voices through writing and onstage. I love mentoring girls. I also worked with a group f 5th graders as an Improvisation coach for a Destination ImagiNation competition which combines science, theatre and social studies. They placed fourth in the state and were a wonderful group of kids.

Creativity is for Everyone

In Kansas I worked on a program that I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, providing an arts/drama workshop for a group of adults with developmental disabilities. That will always remain one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

Combating Hatred

If you read any of my posts about Slovakia, and working with the Roma you know how special and influential that experience was, and how much I hope to find a way to continue with projects like that.

Students Who Think

Over the years, I’ve managed to inspire or challenge some of my students to take their learning beyond the classroom. There was the one who decided to create a piece of invisible theatre in the campus center protesting the abuse of women around the world; there was the class (last semester) who decided to do a flash mob of sorts exploring the issue of sleep deprivation and stress around exam time.

There were Honors students who became inspired by something I taught  and pursued that as their project.  There was the Japanese student in my conversation class who took my discussion of poetry back to his college classroom to share. There was the student who took a chance and applied for a transfer at her dream school, partially because of a discussion with me (she’ll be graduating from Emerson in May). The list of students who have inspired me because of their passion, and of whom I feel like I’ve helped inspire as well, is ever-changing and growing. I’m honored to have been even a small part of their journey.

While I still sometimes look at my career and say, what have I done? I don’t have a big name in my field. I’m not famous. I never became the well-known director I had dreamed of becoming, it’s these smaller moments and short-term projects (a list which could contain many other examples) that I cherish.

What are some of the work/project experiences in your life that you hold dear?

The Great Debate: Humanities vs. Science

Albert Einstein

Image via Wikipedia

‎”… we should mandate dial-up internet connections for all rooms that house humanities departments and the re-appropriation of network power to the people who actually make contributions to humanity: the mathematicians, engineers,and scientists.”

This was a comment by some truly  “eloquent” person in response to an article called “The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail” found in The Chronicle for Higher Education (The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail – Do Your Job Better – The Chronicle of Higher Education). Once my eyes stopped bugging out of my head and I was able to close my dropped jaw, I began to think about a world where people only focused on science, math, and engineering. Or a world where people in the humanities were not contributors to society in any way. That world, my friends, would not be my choice of homes.

How dare someone argue that the humanities are not of value to society? I acknowledge the worthiness of science, math, and economics. I admire people who do those things well. But, I also know plenty of people in those fields who are not capable of communicating with anyone unless it is another member of their field. Perhaps the arts and humanities don’t contribute to finding cures for cancer (which, may I remind you, hasn’t happened) or getting us to the moon. But, without them, how would anyone be able to raise funds for support of these worthwhile projects?

I’m sure that most of the great scientific minds we know about today did not limit their knowledge to math, science, and engineering. Albert Einstein loved music and played the violin. The study of music itself helps with understanding math. I’ve seen that myself as my daughter began taking piano lessons and her math scores improved. Galileo loved art and considered becoming a painter. Looking at the world through the eyes of art allows anyone to think differently, and leads to the creation of engineering marvels. Let’s not forget the importance of language, and storytelling, and the ability to write and express oneself. For example, Dr. Paul Farmer, an anthropologist and physician (oh no, he dared combine humanities with science) writes prolifically and speaks eloquently.

Education suffers in our world because of these attempts at making one field more valued than another. We’ve seen that in primary and secondary schools, where the focus on testing has not led to great success stories. I see it at the college level, when students don’t have the desire to learn anything beyond what is in their major or what will get them the job. The recent stories in the news about Brockton High School (which I have written about elsewhere) show that learning can be enhanced by combining humanities and science or math. By requiring students to write in every class, their grades have improved all around. If that isn’t evidence that an interdisciplinary approach to learning works, I don’t know what is.

Shouldn’t educators encourage learning for the joy of learning? The more we learn about anything, the greater our capacity to learn. If we keep our brains alive then that makes us stronger. But if we limit our knowledge to only one field or type of fields, it only makes us weaker.

For your amusement, when arts, humanities and science meet

Make: Online : Kinect hacks keep rolling in.

Making Connections with Words A Powerful Tool in Education

My Alma Mater, Brockton High School, has been in the news recently.

In a time when the news about school is usually depressing (murder, suicide, school shootings, bullying, failure, etc) this was good news: with a lot of hard work and commitment the school was able to turn around from being the lowest testers in the state to the top 90%.

Many people suggest that this is somewhat miraculous because the school does not represent the so-called ideal that people argue for today. It is not a small school. It’s huge! When I went there, there were around 6000 students. Numbers have dropped, now they have only 4300, but that is still larger than my college.

So what did they do that was so drastic? It is simple really (in its logic, not in the amount of work). They added reading and writing to EVERY SUBJECT!! Yes folks, a radical change, encouraging people to read and write actually helps them learn.

This story has really been resonating with me since I heard it. Not just because it is my school, or because the principal Susan Szachowicz was one of my favorite teachers in high school, but because of my own experiences in the classroom. For the past 5 years, I had been teaching Freshman Composition classes at a small Liberal Arts College. I enjoyed it, except for the fact that so many of my students were not good writers (even though I wasn’t teaching the lowest level classes). Even more of them were not good readers. They could read, but they had no interest in it, and found it difficult to understand or find meaning. Some of them did not know basic grammar.

Now, this is not an attack on the public school teachers. I know that they work hard under trying circumstances. Rather, I think this was a symptom of something greater–the idea that we as a culture are not making young people understand the value of learning or the connections between what they learn and real life.

I usually began those classes asking if anyone thought writing was unimportant. It never failed; I had several students who would argue that they would never use it, because they were accounting majors. or business majors, or science majors, or physical therapy majors or whatever. My goal was always to prove them wrong. We would talk about how reading and writing would play a role in almost any job or just in life in general. Of course, someone would always come up with a couple of examples where they could function without writing–like a porn star.

When possible, I tried to have at least one assignment where the students could choose a topic that interested them to research, read, and write about.  Usually that was pretty successful. One of my accounting students chose to explore how research and writing might fit into accounting. She was very surprised at her results, when she discovered that writing does play a role in accounting.

Back to Brockton High School. By incorporating writing into every subject I believe they are doing several things: 1) encouraging reading and writing, a valuable skill;  2) showing even the most reluctant students that communication is important; 3) making subjects interconnected in a way that they truly function in the so-called real world. You need math as well as words to function in our society.

I believe that when you connect the material to the interests of the students, and show how everything is interconnected you create an education program of true value. Our world functions on the connections we make between what we know and what we don’t know.

John Dewey said “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” By allowing the students to see how language plays a role in sports, in math, in science BHS has allowed them to become thinkers and to grow as learners. They may not all succeed, but they are being given the tools to succeed.

The lesson to be learned from this is not that big schools are better or all schools must do this program to succeed. The lesson to be learned is that, through hard work and focusing on the true needs of the students, education can succeed. Kudos to Dr. Szach and BHS for understanding that low test scores does not give educators the right to give up, but rather creates the mandate to try something new.

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