The Snake Charmer is Back

I really enjoyed assisting In the junior high art class in Washington Heights on Monday. The girl with the drawings was absent, but another girl (a loud one)  who insisted that she couldn't draw, was running over to show me what she did every 5 minutes after I snake charmed her. I very pleasantly got a handful of refuseniks to progress, and I did my thing where I talk to another kid at the table, but the kid I really want to listen to starts eavesdropping. 
I've started analyzing what I do that works, because I'm not sure half the time what I'm even doing. I think one thing is that if someone is resistant or refusing I don't ask them about it or even acknowledge it. If they are sullen, I still act like we are having a conversation. I just proceed as if oblivious, like, of course they want to succeed.
Because, secretly, they do. 


Turning from Teacher to Artist: What's the Difference? Maybe Not Much.

"I'm always interested in things that we don't call art, and I say why not?"
-John Baldessari

I loved this quote by Baldessari for years; now I'm enrolled in the MFA program that he helped design. I'd always assumed I couldn't draw. When, at age 19, I discovered that I could not only draw but drew better than some people who'd been drawing and painting their whole lives, it astounded me.  I learned how to draw while observing myself learning how; I noticed what helped and what didn't. It felt amazing, and magical, but it was not beyond analysis, and I kept notes. I didn't know the term "meta-cognition" at the time, but that's what fascinated me. My brain was changing; I liked how that felt. My undergraduate degree is in painting and drawing, not because I planned it, but because I discovered it.
I've taught photography for 14 years now. I am, for the most part, self-taught. I've become conversant with digital art and photography. I've invented a rotoscoping technique, taught myself HTML, XML and Flash. My technology interests are not just forward; I modded a vintage Pxl-2000 video camera. I also use letterpress, and fold that back into digital art.

Lately I've been thinking about putting what I know about perception and awareness of power structures into another form. I had a recent experience that struck a deeper chord. I managed to volunteer for Key to the City in 2010. I instantly recognized that the project was about surprise, exploration and experience, and that felt very close to the way I teach. "This!" I thought. "I want to explore this." Designing an experience is the way that I teach. If I stop calling it teaching, and no longer encumber it with the burden of bureaucracy, it would be 'art' in any other context.

I want to excavate the interrelationships between making art and making an educational experience, identifying the signifiers that tell us whether something is education or art, and questioning and manipulating those signifiers to see what happens.


Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” Art School Applications

(Summation and rephrasing of the points that interest me from Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”)
Firstly the title interests me. It doesn’t address his main point; it serves as a disclaimer on what the essay is not about: morality. The point for which he builds a case is that truth, as an absolute, is not possible. We need to believe in a truth in order to navigate our existence, but that ‘truth’ is an arbitrary designation, implicitly agreed on by groups, even generations, of people, not a fixed point that is beyond question.
Knowing that Nietzsche “was a philologist first– interested in the history of language and words” helped me hone in on his examination of words in making his case.
“We separate things according to gender, designating the tree as masculine and the plant as feminine. What arbitrary assignments! How far this oversteps the canons of certainty!”
He refers to how the Romantic languages apply male or female gender to all nouns. English and many other languages don’t, although grammar in Japanese depends upon the gender of the speaker- women speaking to men use one tense, men use another. If knowledge is contained in the words themselves, not just the meaning, then cultures with gendered language have a ‘dual transmission’. For instance, in Spanish a chair (la silla, feminine) is not just a chair, it communicates a message (a passive, receiving message) about femininity.  A knife (el cuchillo) is not just a utensil, it contains a message (a proactive, powerful) message about masculinity. The Japanese grammar tenses I mentioned are meant to demonstrate subservience; when Japanese women speak to each other in a female only situation, they dispense with that grammar and speak the same way men speak to each other. The subservience that this grammar teaches isn’t even poetic or subliminal.
What I take from the lecture and this reading combined; the meaning of words is not just the abstract idea each represents, but also the word itself. A word is not a disposable styrofoam cup made to be discarded once we have consumed the content, but an ancient goblet handed down from generations, continually annotated with the markings and wear from use. This is a rich idea to inform artwork. I've often felt that objects contain multitudes, and could be read the way some read books; now I'm thinking about how language and words might be experienced as objects. 
There are two ways of creating our abstract knowledge from or lives; by grouping experiences and dividing them. The grouping activity as Nietzsche describes it reminds me of pattern recognition, an innate ability to perceive related, but not identical, things (faces being a specialization of this, speed reading another).
“We know nothing whatsoever about an essential quality called "honesty"; but we do know of countless individualized and consequently unequal actions which we equate by omitting the aspects in which they are unequal and which we now designate as "honest" actions. Finally we formulate from them a qualities occulta which has the name "honesty." We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual”
How we have created the abstract idea of honesty, which is not anything tangible, is by sensing from of a wide range of actions a recognizable element that we value (it's not lies that we resent as much as the negative effects of lies), that we note as important to our survival and comfort. We know honesty not from picking it up off the ground and examining it, but in the comparison of a thousand actions witnessed or described. When we remove the extraneous individual details, what is left is this abstract idea that we recognize when we encounter it. Honest people are helpful, and isolating this quality helps us.
Differentiation between concepts is also arbitrary. An example would be the story that Inuits have an exponential amount of words for different types of snow. While it isn’t exactly true, that myth demonstrates a deeper truth, that our experience can be divided up into differently sized chunks or categories. For a Floridian, one category, snow. For the Canadian, wet snow, sticky snow, fluffy snow. 
“Just as the Romans and Etruscans cut up the heavens with rigid mathematical lines and confined a god within each of the spaces thereby delimited, as within a templum, so every people has a similarly mathematically divided conceptual heaven above themselves and henceforth thinks that truth demands that each conceptual god be sought only within his own sphere.”
Another example- the spectrum of visible light is what it is.
The eight standard colors ROY G BIV
8 crayons
Or a whole lot more.
a zillion colored pencils
In order to live our daily lives, we need to forget that we are dealing with arbitrary groupings, divisions and abstractions. We would be unable to grocery shop for celery if we saw each and every stalk as a unique entity, much less more important tasks. To ‘know’ anything, we have to forget that we only achieve our knowledge of categories by ignoring the tiny details. If you've ever spent time with someone on the autism spectrum, part of the condition is this ability to generalize. Categories, themes, abstract ideas like honesty or white lies are difficult to grasp. The see and hear all the details, all the time, and that is what causes the difficulties they have interacting with the rest of us.
The excerpt from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil addresses the assumptions made by philosophers, and, like a student putting different variables into a math formula, he changes some of those assumptions to see if the theory still holds. Surprise, they don’t. Assumptions are part of the culture in which philosophers live, they don’t fully recognize them;  like fish who don’t know what water is.
“That individual philosophical ideas are not something spontaneous... but develop connected to and in relationship with each other, so that, no matter how suddenly and arbitrarily they may appear to emerge in the history of thinking, they nevertheless belong to a system just as much as do the collective members of the fauna of a continent…”
His explanation for this again stems from his interest in language and grammar, (also used as evidence in On Truth and Lies) and how they structure thinking, not the other way around.
“...thanks to the unconscious mastery and guidance exercised by the same grammatical functions—everything has been prepared from the beginning for a similar development and order of philosophical systems, just as the road to certain other possibilities of interpreting the world seems sealed off. There will be a greater probability that philosophers from the region of the Ural-Altaic language (in which the idea of the subject is most poorly developed) will look differently “into the world” and will be found on other pathways than Indo-Germans or Muslims…”
Think about two languages: one in which the subject is emphasized, and another in which the action is emphasized. According to Nietzsche, the philosophies that arise from those two cultures are predetermined by the language that formed the thinking of those philosophers, one philosophy perhaps centering on the self, or discrete entities, the other emphasizing groups, or actions as a basis for reality.
Perhaps Nietzsche would agree that learning another language helps create an awareness of cultural assumptions. Think again of the fish, but this time out of the water, who is suddenly, and intensely acute of water’s presence in the world when he sees it from the afar, and feels air in his gils.
“…the task of the human is to become more than human.” Recognizing that both our separations and groupings are arbitrary is the only way we can make conceptual breakthroughs in science and art. Rethinking a category (what is ‘art’? What if we adjusted our definition of an organism?) allows for new possibilities. Moving between knowing and not knowing is what makes both science and art powerful, if not possible. We humans need to group and separate our experiences for survival; it's innately human to do so. To step back and take notice that we do such things, makes us a bit more than human. To examine the human experience from both the inside and the outside makes us more than human. The role of the 'humanities', all of the arts, is to engage us all in a process of becoming more than human.


For years, my extremely successful strategy with the worst kid in my art classroom has been not punishing him (which only confirms his idea that you don't like him, and that he's not the kind of kid who succeeds in school) but making him my constant assistant. I have him work the computer while I give the talk for the overhead. That way not only is he busy, not only does he feel important, he's getting the attention that he craves. Also, you can walk around the room and stand behind the other eighth-graders, where you can see everything that they are doing. Also they can hear you, but not see you. This means they will actually be looking at the screen, not at you. Initially he will be uncertain, because he thinks you're trying to embarrass or trick him. Assure him that it's not a punishment, you just really need the help, and you know he's smart enough to handle it (BTW, you don't ask, you just tell. Stride confidently away from the computer, as if discussion wont even happen). Within two weeks that kid will come running into the room every day to ask "What are we doing today?". I promise.

If you don't have a computer with an overhead projector, give him a video camera and have him videotape all your lectures. Even if you throw the recordings away, the importance of what he's doing and having to concentrate on what you're doing by looking through the viewfinder will ensure that he pays attention quietly and doesn't bother the other kids or shout out rude things. This, more than any reword system of stickers or promises of treats or anything else has been the key to my extremely successful classroom management in an urban setting. If you win over the worst kids, the middling kids who can go either way then go towards the good side towards the kids who are always good, no matter what. 

The school had a very large amount of students receiving free lunch. I wrote three referrals a year. Usually those were written in the hallway to kids didn't know me.
With older kids I find stickers or reward systems only truly work with the kids who are conditioned to want rewards and achieve. A fair number of students get more reward out of back-talking you, and making the class laugh. It's instantly gratifying, and it excuses them from putting in the effort. Think about it; f they try and fail, they look dumb. To those kids avoiding the embarrassment of failure matters more than grades. Creating a supportive, safe, funny and fun classroom, becoming their favorite class of the day, is more difficult than a prize system but more rewarding. Contributing, creating and achieving should be it's own reward. But it's up to you, not them, to make that happen.

"I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming."

Widely attributed to Goethe, but also claimed to be a distortion of a passage by Haim Ginott.


I'm terribly proud to tell how my former student, Magda, started her blog.
She wasn't getting any TESL job offers from overseas, so I advised her to find a volunteer position that would not set her back by much. That was in June, when she graciously helpers me move.

Two months later:


Dear Facebook; I've worked with hundreds and hundreds of black teenagers.

Dear Facebook; I've worked with hundreds and hundreds of black teenagers. Sometimes they know web design, and sometimes they need help setting up their very first email. Sometimes they're on the honor roll and watch Doctor Who (or Sherlock; you know who you are), and sometimes they're accustomed to failure, and nervous about really trying (but I win them over). Some of the same ones on the honor roll might smoke pot, and sometimes the ones new to email do not, and call their moms when they want to stay late to work on something. Some are argumentative, some are quiet. Some go to engineering school, and some ask me how to carve a pumpkin, because they've never done it, and want to do one for their baby.
But every single- EVERY single one is still a child while in high school. Trust me on this. They are goofy, or sweet, or rambunctious. Regardless, every single one responded to being greeted, to praise, and to my interest, even those that might initially seem to approximate someone's racist stereotype. They are complex and diverse, but none are immune to love and concern. I love them. And my throat closes up every time I think about how they must feel right now. Alone.
All that love their parents, other teacher, coaches, Sunday school teachers, and I poured into them is negated by a bigger message; their lives aren't worth justice. Here's all the advice there is until juries stop sucking.


Don't Ever Tell Your Child 'Good Job!'

There have been studies done that prove that when you tell a student "Good job!" over and over, s/he will take less risks, and put forth less effort, for fear of messing up their good thing. Telling students empty phrases will not build self esteem. Students don't get self esteem from adults' meaningless phrases. They get it from their own efforts and actions.

What students want from the adults in their lives is to *notice* them. I say things like "There sure is a lot of empty space over there. Is that for a specific reason?" Instead of passing a judgement on their work, (Good job!) which would have ended our conversation, I have noticed and paid specific attention to their work. Paying attention is the ultimate compliment. Saying "Good job!" is not evidence of the adult paying attention;  it's hollow and empty statement. You said the same thing when they brushed their teeth, shut the door, helped an old lady across the street- "good job" is like breathing with some parents, and it means nothing anymore, especially to your child.

 By answering my judgement-free question about the empty space, the student revisits their own reasons, passes their own judgement, and formulates a plan of action. This is more helpful than empty praise.  I actually plan for failure in my curriculum, and for the students to struggle and emerge victorious, because overcoming obstacles, achievement is what builds self esteem, not the teacher or parent who never wants the child to be unhappy, for even one second. Your child will not miss the phrase. And they will adore the fact you actually see and notice their struggles and efforts.