Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Evidence of Things Not Seen

Yesterday, while I was fighting for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way," holding up my end of a stimulating and intelligent debate on health care reform with a couple of my really smart friends (one who agrees with me, one who doesn't), my husband was engaged in his own life-and-death struggle to defend everyone's right to be really, really ridiculously silly. In short: my husband likes to yank people's chain. I think I might be the only one (besides him) who really knows which way the hamster is running in that twisting, turning Habitrail between his ears. Others who think they know may assume that he's going down the tube that has the cheese at the end of it, but I know differently--he just loves a good, rip-roaring argument, so he never takes the same tube twice.

The "debate" he was conducting was about faith v. evidence as a "proof" for the existence of God. We have a lot of very right-wing, fundamental, evangelical Christian friends, some of whom are prone to never update their facebook status with anything except a scriptural quote from the Bible. This offends my husband's sense of originality and fun, so he invented his own "holy book" to quote from just to get their goat: The Book of Le Roy. Daily, he updates his facebook status with little snippets of "wisdom" from the Book of Le Roy, and daily these friends of ours take the bait. I have been amazed at how seriously they take him, and annoyed at how much of my husband's time is stolen from any creative or valuable pursuit (like, say, unplugging the toilet, or feeding the dog) and diverted toward these really silly arguments to win back his soul.

So I jumped into one of these discussions and said, "Don't take the bait....he'll toy with you for hours...." No one heeded my warning, because the struggle for Jonathan's soul is apparently of intergalactic and interdimensional importance. The really silly debate raged on....

I want to make it clear that I do not think my very right-wing, fundamental, evangelical Christian friends' beliefs are silly. I do think some of them have entirely lost their sense of humor and may need to undergo "A Clockwork Orange"-style total immersion re-education in comedy, so they can recognize it when they see it. For the record: I value and respect my friends' points of view, and their right to believe what they believe the way they believe it. (If only they respected mine....)

But it is getting hard to respect the way they ignore their own Biblical directive to "shake the dust from [their] feet" when their message is not well-received. These same folks are particularly intolerant of our more liberal application of the same spiritual beliefs they hold, as well as our "live and let live" attitude of respect for those who don't think the same way we do. Despite the obvious and utter nonsense my husband continued to tirelessly throw at them in response to their desperate attempts to get him to answer their alter call, they just dug in ever deeper.

Finally, after watching this for half a day, and realizing that missing NOVA because my husband couldn't pull himself away from the computer was a very real possibility, I couldn't take it anymore. Jonathan was trying really hard (finally) to make a point about the difference between faith and facts, but either because he couldn't find the words to neatly tie up the argument, or because that Habitrail routine is hardwired into his system, everything he said to try to end the "debate" just fired it up again. Out of sheer desperation, I did it for him. Here is (as far as I'm concerned) the end of that discussion:

"The point Jonathan is trying to make is that quoting the Bible is not the way to get people to believe. Though archaeological evidence has verified many of the settings and locales of the Bible (Old Testament and New), it has never verified the existence of Jesus, nor the events of his life. This is all recorded in the Bible and in many extra-biblical texts, but not one shred of evidence exists to prove that he rose from the dead outside of that. So quoting the Bible does not provide evidence to support what faith inspires us to believe.

So why believe? Faith, that's why. And what is faith? Well, though it is poor form to use the Bible to prove the Bible (in academic research we call this a circular reference--it would be somewhat akin to asking President Obama why the health care reform bill will work and having him reply, "Because I said so"), I will quote the Bible to provide the reason that quoting the Bible is not evidence:

Hebrews 11:1--"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a paradox: there can be no evidence for that which is unseen, because it is unseen; there can be no substance for things hoped for, because they do not exist yet.

The answer to this really, really silly debate is this: Continuously quoting the Bible to people who think you're full of crap is NEVER going to get them to believe in Jesus; only faith will do that, and that comes from supernatural experience. Furthermore, Jonathan--quit yanking these people's chains--they may take you seriously and you will be held accountable for the dismantling of their faith.

Pax. Peace. Shalom."

I wish I could say that did end the debate, but one hanger-on got all defensive about her faith-dismantling-resistance superpowers and kept it going. Of course, my husband couldn't resist that--it was one more Habitrail tube down which he could lead someone, at the end of which there may or may not be cheese. Gotta love his energy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Most Memorable Learning Experience

Just recently I was creating a profile for myself in Montana State University's D2L online course interface for a class I'm teaching for MSU. One of the questions in the profile was, "What was your most memorable learning experience." Hmmm. I had never really thought about that, weirdly enough. But I found the question intriguing, so I drafted a response.Then I got an error message telling me that my answer could not exceed 256 characters. How in the world can you communicate an answer to an important question in 256 characters or less?

I found the question interesting enough and my own response informative for me, so I didn't want to truncate it. I've posted it here in its entirety.

My Most Memorable Learning Experience:

This is too personal to share in specifics or detail, but I'll give you a story that illustrates the nature of the lesson. Several years ago I watched a documentary on the current Dalai Lama. At some point in the program, an interviewer asked him, "Who was your greatest teacher," apparently expecting the Dalai Lama to name another Lama who instructed him in Tibetan Buddhism. To the interviewer's surprise (and to mine), the Dalai Lama answered almost before the interviewer finished asking the question, "Mao Tse-Tung!" Shocked, the interviewer asked why, and the Dalai Lama explained that all of life is suffering, fear and desire are the causes of all suffering, and Nirvana is the absence of fear or desire (my paraphrased summary), which is all in the mind, and not dependent upon our actual circumstances. According to the Dalai Lama, no one in his life or experience had ever inflicted more suffering on him than Mao Tse-Tung, which gave him the opportunity to conquer fear and desire.

I recently had an experience not so nearly as dramatic as the Dalai Lama's and the Tibetan people's suffering under Chairman Mao. But it was extreme in its impact on my life, and every bit as instructive and important. What I learned was that we don't necessarily learn the most (if anything) when we are happy and everything is going well. Suffering and those who inflict it can be great teachers, if we are masters of ourselves and our responses to them. The greatest lessons are lessons that cause suffering, and the greatest rewards are available to those who can emerge from the experience better for having had the experience, and without asking, "Why did this happen to me?"

Why did this happen to me? Because all of life is suffering, and everyone suffers. One of my favorite movies is "The Princess Bride." In that movie Westley says to Princess Buttercup, "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." I agree with the Dalai Lama, and I agree with Westley--we learn through our suffering, mostly about ourselves. Socrates directed us to "know thyself." If we emerge from our suffering having learned something about ourselves, and apply what we learned in future, we will suffer less, because we understand the causes are not external (no matter how dreadful the circumstances or perpetrators of our pain may be), but rather internal; all is revealed in our reactions to the situation or person(s) causing the suffering. If we are able to learn from that and move forward with new understanding, less fear and less desire, the lesson was worth learning. It was in my case.

Thus endeth the lesson. ;-)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Hate Is Not an "American Value"

Once again, still, and continuously, email containing not only fabricated, embellished, and/or malicious information disguised as "news" has made its way into my mailbox. This time it was an email that attempts to make all Arabs look stupid. I've spent more time than these emails are worth wondering what the motives of the people who send them around could be (and commented on that in a previous blog post: "Don't Confuse Me With the Facts").

Where this particular email is concerned, the goal being to make Arabs look stupid, I think the motive is simple: to undermine any confidence the recipient of the email might have in the President, who has made it a central goal of his international diplomacy initiatives to extend an olive branch of sorts to Arab nations, and acknowledge the fact that most of them are not terrorists, and that Al Qaida does not speak or act for Islam (and is in fact not a Muslim organization at all--they are political, not religious). I think there is also a cheap shot at connecting him personally with terrorists, because his father was Muslim (President Obama is Baptist, not Muslim--this is a long-established fact).

Of course I'm talking about the Etihad A340 Accident that has been blamed in this "urban legend" email on the alleged ignorance and stupidity of the test pilots and engineers of Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologis (ADAT).

Today's blog post is not to acquaint you with the details of that accident. If you don't already know about it and haven't been "lucky" enough to get one of these inflammatory emails maligning the intelligence of Arab engineers and pilots, you can click on the link above and read the original email, as well as the debunking of the claims by

For anyone who can read a newspaper, tune in a radio or TV news station, or pull up in an internet browser, it is easy to sort fact from fiction. It's even easier if you get your news from more than one source, not just the one that agrees with you 100% of the time in their slant on the news. Upon closer scrutiny, where news stories from different sources do not agree, it is usually a matter of tone or omitted facts, not outright fabrication (this is what we call slander when it is spoken, or libel when it is printed).

Just so there's no confusion, I do not consider anything that comes to me as a forwarded email news unless it is an email that contains a link to an actual news story on some news-reporting website. Most of the time I just delete them, but some of them really get under my skin.

As I was writing this, I was also wondering why I have no problem simply deleting the emails that wrongly attribute a speech to some comedian (there was a really good one going around a few years ago that was attributed to bunch of different politicians and historical figures, but was actually by George Carlin; and then another one attributed to George Carlin that he said was not his), but then I get all worked up over something like this stupid Etihad A340 Accident garbage. Here's the reason: the ones that get me all worked up are the ones that attempt to malign the character and intelligence of an entire ethnic group.

I should mention that these forwarded emails usually come from relatives. My friends know better (not to mention that my friends would never send them). This brings to mind that old saying that "you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your relatives." (Then there's that other saying that you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your friend's nose....) Make no mistake--I love my relatives (although that little saying is particularly poignant for me right now for reasons that will never show up in my public blog). But it seriously grieves me that so many of them are so closed-minded about any culture or religion that does not fit into their lily white, super conservative, "Christian" beliefs, and a few of them will even send out these emails that are designed to divide us even further.

Let me just come right out and say it: though these emails may sometimes be disguised with humor or cleverness, they spread hate; plain and simple. They are hate mail. No amount of humor or supposed cleverness can disguise their true intention.

For the record, this is not the first time I've ever confronted the senders of these emails. On the contrary. When I get an email that is forwarded to me with this hateful nonsense in it, I go to, type in a few keywords from the email into their search engine, usually find an article debunking the "urban lengend" that was sent to me ( has actually never let me down on this one), and then I click "Reply to All" in the original email and send the link to the debunking of the "urban legend" back to everyone in the "To" field that accompanies my own email address.

Sometimes I get a "thank you" from someone on the list for turning them onto Usually I don't hear anything back. But one chronic offender actually gave me the most creative response I've ever received: "Who are these Snopes people, anyway? What do they know?" Smokescreen! Where did he get his information? Where are his supporting facts? As it so happens, I knew the answer to his question, though he was never able to answer mine, and in fact did not have any supporting facts for his libelous email. (If you would like to know the answer to his question, click here and read all of the numerous articles about who the people behind are, and why and how they debunk urban legends.)

Another reason I got so worked up about this email in particular is that I have been the Journalism teacher at the school where I teach for two years. Debunking "urban legends" is Journalism 101--get your facts straight! Don't print anything unless you can prove it! I do not have to have a degree in Journalism to know this; I learned it in English class every year in the little unit on Journalism. Everyone who's had a high school English class should know this. But, alas, it is not high school kids sending these libelous emails around, but adults.

My final word on this today is about what really got my ire up. It really, really bothers me that people who spout off about "American values" send this hate email around. Perhaps they don't know any Arabs. Perhaps that's because they're so busy creating walls of hatred for anything different than themselves between them and these people they're making up stuff about. Perhaps it's simply ignorance of the unknown; that tired old fear of anything "other" than "us."

Ladies and gentlemen, it is now the 21st century. We no longer have the excuse of ignorance to defend our petty maligning hatreds. America is no longer populated only by the descendants of white European conquerors and the indigenous, invisible remnants of the continent. The "indigenous remnants" are a thriving, vocal part of our citizenship, as are the hundreds of millions of non-white, non-European legal immigrants, naturalized citizens, and their descendants. It is long past time that the ignorant minority begin to acquaint itself with the growing population of American citizens and their friends, relatives, and allies who do not come from a Judeo-Christian culture.

Moreover, we are no longer separated from the rest of the world by slow transportation and communication. When I click the “Publish” button on this blog, it will be available to everyone in the world with access to the internet instantaneously. Regardless of the attempts at censorship we read about surrounding the recent elections and unrest in Iran, it is extremely difficult in this day and age to perpetrate a lie for very long. Now more than ever “the truth will find you out.”

The unfortunate truth that is being revealed by these emails that many think are harmless is how much hate is being generated in the name of the perpetuation of “American values.” I, for one, choose not to participate in the dissemination of hatred. I’ll go one step further than deleting the offending emails and continue to point out to the senders and their other recipients their falsity, as well as my sincere desire for them to stop spreading malicious nonsense. If you would like to participate in my little movement, it’s as easy as I’ve described in this post: go to, type a few keywords from the email into their search engine, email a link to the debunking article back to the original sender and all other recipients. Together maybe we can prove that malicious misinformation and hatred are not American values.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Back to the Drawing Board....Literally

Right out of the chute, I made a classic error in my approach to this AP Studio Art portfolio project: I wasn't true to my own artistic process, which is generally a backwards one.

When I was a senior in college I had to create a portfolio of work that was connected and then write a thesis statement about it. It's been twenty years since I had to do that, so I'm fuzzy on the details, but it seems to me that we had to state at the beginning of whichever course this happened in (Senior Thesis, perhaps?), and then create works which satisfied the thesis statement.

By my senior year in college, I was worn out and disillusioned. At that point it was just about crossing the finish line. I had long since given up any hope or desire to be "the best." There were several students in our art school who were extremely talented and seemed to produce masterpieces without even trying, and I didn't feel that I was even in their league. Why bother? I was never going to be as good as they were. I had faithfully submitted my artwork to the annual juried student art exhibition each year, and each year came up completely empty. Not even an honorable mention. So for me it was all about just getting the diploma.

When my senior thesis class (whatever it was called) rolled around, I declared my intentions and set about creating big drawings. My graduation date was in August, so I spent the entire summer creating about twenty 3'x4' drawings that all had to be connected in some way and satisfy a thesis statement. I felt like a fraud the entire time.

I took a bunch of black and white photos of my daughter for a photography class, and they happened to have this big aloe plant in the background. So I did four drawings in a row of my daughter with that aloe plant and decided that the aloe plant would be my theme. I scrounged through ancient family photo albums looking for something to use for my series (in desperation), and found some photos of my mother holding me on the day I was born that had some pretty dramatic lighting. I did two of those and created an aloe plant wallpaper theme in the background using the aloe from the pictures of my daughter. Then I took one of the pictures of my mother holding me and took me out, and replaced it with the aloe plant. And so on and so forth... I remember thinking this would be the lamest thesis project ever created, but I would get my diploma and finally graduate, so who cares.

Then I submitted the best piece from that series to the annual juried student art competition. It won Best in Show. Knock me over with a feather. But that wasn't the best part of that whole series.

I regularly sent drawings and paintings to my dad when I was in college, because I couldn't afford to buy Christmas and birthday presents. He regularly carried my artwork down to a picture framer who had a gallery, and she asked him if I would be interested in showing my work in her gallery. I carried the entire body of work from my thesis project to the gallery and hung the show.

When I got all the pieces hung the way I wanted them, I stood in the middle of the empty room to make sure everything was level and hanging straight, and just about had the wind knocked out of me. All of those drawings that I felt were part of a fraudulent effort to fulfill a degree requirement that I didn't really care about anymore were talking to me. I suddenly realized, standing there looking at those pieces hung together for the first time, that my series wasn't really about aloe plants at all. It was about generational female family relationships--there were only pictures of me, my mother, my grandmother and my daughter, and that aloe plant. I suddenly made the connection between the healing qualities of the aloe plant and the brokenness that can happen in family relationships. Wow.

For the first time it occurred to me that I might not be in control of my artistic process, and that that might not be such a bad thing. Something bigger than me was at work, and the best thing to do was to get out of the way and let it happen. When I had basically given up on ever being a "great" artist, I created the greatest art of my life to date. It was really powerful, both the art and the realization.

When I teach my Advanced Design class, I always start the semester out by telling them that story. The reason is so they will know that they are not the only ones who feel like every other artist in the world (or the classroom) is better than they are--even the teacher feels that way. I tell them the story and then I show them the work (click here if want to see it, too--it's in my online art portfolio; any drawing with an aloe plant was part of that senior thesis project). They are relieved to discover that I am a human being too, and are also impressed that I can actually make artwork. ;-)

Then I tell them that they have to do the same thing I did in college: create a body of work that is connected and satisfies a thesis statement. Then they groan and roll their eyes.

This is where this little dry run of the AP Studio Art portfolio development process comes in. I explain that I'd like for them to explore a concept, a medium, and an artistic style. My concept for the aloe series was broken family relationships and the healing of those relationships--what concept will they explore? I explain that theirs doesn't have to be heavy like mine was (I didn't intend for it to be heavy; it just happened that way). I also explain that their work, like mine, might just turn out to be about something completely different than they intended it to be, and that is OK; that may even be better. They can always rewrite their thesis statement to match the work, and then discuss how their project evolved.

So back to how I violated my own cardinal rule in this little dry run I was attempting all week. I came up with a concept, a theme ("Patterns of Behavior: Predators and Prey") and then worked too hard at trying to control how it turned out. Realistic drawing is all about control, after all. So I struggled for a couple of weeks, and was feeling like accounting or custodial work must be way more fun than this.

And then Scott Brady sent me a link to an artist who is having an awful lot of fun with methods and materials (Gary Reef).

Doh! I was being way too serious, and needed to have more fun! I kept my theme, but decided to make it more about experimenting with materials than drawing. Voila! Much better.

Here is the evolution of my process on these first few pieces. Evolution and process are the very ideas I want my students to "get" in the Advanced Design and AP Studio Art courses, so it was really good for me to suffer through this.

The first image I created, which is way too serious, and almost a little cartoony (which might not be bad in itself, except that's not what I was going for):

5"x7", graphite and colored pencil on Rives BFK drawing paper. This was my first try. Way too "serious," and way too much nitty gritty drawing for a dry run. So I got this far and decided I needed to try something else. Next....

5"x7", watercolor and acrylic paint and printer toner on Rives BFK drawing paper. A little better. I used Photoshop to flatten the image to just a few values and remove all details, and then printed it directly on the Rives BFK drawing paper. Then I painted the net-like pattern in the border and the colors in watercolor. Then I splatter-painted white and black acrylic paint to soften the brightness of the colors in the border. The writing in the white border around the center image repeats, "Red touch black, friend to Jack. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow."

5"x7", graphite powder, acrylic paint, India ink and printer toner on Rives BFK drawing paper. This one got a lot closer to what I was trying to pull off. I used the same Photoshop method to flatten the image even further (only black tones this time) and printed it on the Rives BFK again. Then I cut a stencil to cover the image in the middle and lightly taped it down. I lay down an assortment of old orphaned keys and then dusted graphite powder over them. I removed the keys and removed the excess graphite powder. Then I used a kneaded eraser to sharpen the key shapes. Then I used a sponge and sponged in a heavy texture in the background around the key shapes, and the red, yellow and blue in the image. Then I lay down the keys again, and splatter painted black, yellow, and white acrylic paint to create more depth in the background around the keys. Then I used Ink and a pen to draw in the hexagonal pattern in the key shapes. Getting closer to what I'm after in this one.

There's another way that I was not true to my own process. Over the years, the method for developing images that has worked best for me has been a sort of photo-montage method. I love to draw, and to me good drawing is nearly photo-realistic drawing. I also love montage. Having learned from my senior thesis experience, I decided decades ago to let the image tell me where it wants to go, instead of me trying to drive the process.

So I begin by going through my photo file (I have thousands of photos that I've taken over the years of various objects, landscapes, lighting effects, etc.) and pull the images that speak to me on a visual level at that moment. I set a few aside, regardless of whether they seem to go together or not.

Then I start drawing one. At some point in this process, how the other(s) fit in with the first one will begin to reveal itself to me and I start drawing the other(s) in the same space, creating a montage effect. When I'm getting close to the end of the drawing, usually songs, poems, stories, or quotes connected to the objects will come to mind, and I write them down right there in the artwork. Then I start experimenting with materials and layering, and eventually the work says, "I'm done now."

I pretty much followed that process with this little experiment, but I started out with a statement and that threw me. I started trying to control where it was going, instead of letting the materials and the methods shape the image. I've learned my lesson (again). I promise I'll have more fun in the next set, and hopefully the work will reflect less control and more movement through the process.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Myth Busted: Teachers and "Summers Off"

Today as I was writing my Morning Pages I realized that I have exactly 5 weeks before school year 2009-2010 begins. This means that I am at the exact mid point of my summer "off." Thinking about having the summer "off" induced a sarcastic grin, because all teachers know that "summers off" are a myth.

While many of us do take time in the summer to get some much needed R&R, the truth is that we also do a lot of other things that our employing school district gets from us for free. Summer is a time when professional development opportunities occur, because most teachers cannot get the time off to go during the school year. Summer is a time when teachers can work on those 4-6 continuing education credits that are required for renewing our teaching license/certificate every 4-5 years. This is all training that we must pay for ourselves (sometimes receiving reimbursement from our districts, sometimes not), and of course it is time spent doing something for which we receive no compensation.

Something that many people also do not realize about teachers is that we do not get paid for twelve months of the year. While some school districts make it possible to have your paycheck spread out over 12 months instead of 10, most do not (mine does not). That means that you have to put money aside during the school year, or get a supplementary job for the summer to pay your bills. A lot of my twenty-something colleagues, so recently graduated from college, simply go back to whatever bread-and-butter job got them through college. Some teachers opt to apply for summer school teaching positions, which are extremely competitive because the summer school enrollment is only a fraction (we hope) of the regular school year enrollment.

It may surprise you to learn that teachers are prohibited by law from applying for unemployment benefits in the summer, because we are 10-month contractual employees. The rationale is that since we know that we will not be receiving a paycheck during the summer months, it is our responsibility to make other arrangements for income without burdening the Department of Labor and Industry with an application for benefits. Never mind that my tax withholding dollars went to the Department of Labor and Industry unemployment fund out of which I am now ineligible to draw benefits. Never mind that in a poor economy summer employment simply may not be available, and even in a good economy most short term jobs available in the summer begin before the school year ends, end after the next school year begins, or are snapped up by teenagers and college kids who only work during the summer. Oh, and of course if our school administrators have scheduled us for professional development during the summer, which usually involves a time commitment of one to two weeks of full 8-hour days, it's hard to get a summer job when you have to take one or two weeks off right in the middle of it.

My strategy is to choose to save money during the school year to float us through the summer, because my bread-and-butter job that got me through college is hairdressing, and I do not have a cosmetology license in the state where I currently teach (my current license is in the state of Montana, and their supposed reciprocity agreement with the state I work in is not really reciprocal). This year, as it so happens, we had several mechanical emergencies right as the summer began that nearly wiped out our summer fund, and then my lucrative end-of-summer teaching gig was sabotaged (a long, brutal story for another time and place) so we've been literally getting by on Grace.

But my financially meager summer is not what this blog is about. Originally, this summer's schedule was planned to go like this: 1) A week of camping in Maine immediately after school let out, 2) Three weeks of writing unit and lesson plans for every single day of every single class for all six of the high school art and journalism classes I'll be teaching in the coming school year, 3) A week of AP Studio Art training, preparing me to teach my AP Studio Art course in the spring semester, 4) Another week of mad unit and lesson plan writing, 5) Taking my mother camping on the beach for a week at Assateague Island National seashore (which I had to cancel, because my summer teaching gig was sabotaged), 6) Two weeks of building the online American Indian Art Survey course I'm teaching for Montana State University this fall, 7) Two weeks of teaching a summer bridge program (the job that was sabotaged), 8) A final week of polishing up my units and lessons for my high school classes and my online graduate course, 9) Back to school.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a full summer schedule, with only two weeks of vacation (and one I had to cancel because of lack of funding). At this point you may be thinking that it's my own fault if I don't get to enjoy the entire summer off. I mean I could do the unit and lesson planning some other time, like on the fly during the school year, right? WRONG! This is the other great myth of teaching; that it's just like any other job. It's NOT like any other job. For the past three years I've spent most of my winter and spring breaks grading papers and projects and trying to plan ahead for the next units. My workdays were 12 hours long for the first year and half of teaching, about 10 hours long for the second year, and between 8 and 10 hours long for the last half of the last school year.

Teaching is a lot like theater. When you go to see a play, the one-and-a-half to three hours of performance you see on the stage during showtime required about 300 hours of rehearsal and stage prep! The same is true for teachers. Before my students ever set foot in the classroom, I've written the entire unit plan (what state and/or national standards does this unit meet, rough sketch of the "big picture" of the unit and what the students will be doing over how many days/weeks) and each individual lesson plan (one lesson plan per day, per class, outlining exactly what the students will be doing in minutiae that day during the lesson from the minute they set foot in the classroom until the minute they leave). I will also have prepared all the materials and equipment they will need to do the task at hand, have it all arranged so that distribution is efficient and economical. And then it's showtime! Once showtime is over (3 shows a day, 90 minutes per show), then I must assess their work and record the grades in my grade book for the record keepers.

What that means is that if I want to come in 15 minutes before the kids arrive in the morning and leave 15 minutes after they leave in the afternoon, then I have to be really, really organized. Without all the summer prep, the reason for my 10- and 12-hour days was that I came in early in the morning to write the lesson plans (because I was never more than a day ahead of my lesson) and stayed until between 6:00pm and 8:00pm to do all the grading and recording of grades, and was still working on it over the weekend. This was a nightmare, and it didn't take me very long to figure out that leveraging my summer "off" time would help me to have shorter, more enjoyable school days, as well as being able to do something restful and relaxing during my weekends and scheduled Thanksgiving, Winter, and Spring breaks.

So that's what I chose to do this summer. Because my end-of-the-summer teaching gig was sabotaged, I chose to see the bright side and look at it as an extra two weeks to get my act together for the school year.

Since I've just realized that I am at the exact mid-point of my summer "off," I've decided to ramp up the organization and planning process a little more. In addition to getting all of this preparatory work done, so I can just walk into my classroom in the fall and teach, I've also gotten into a good exercise habit. I've been walking three to five miles a day and have lost about ten pounds. I do not want to lose this momentum once the school year begins! It's so easy to let the urgency of the school day overrule my own good plans for myself (the saying "poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part" comes to mind). Since I know that this school year is likely to be a lot like the last two school years, and the only person over whom I have control is me, I have decided to do all I can through advanced planning and preparation to thwart all potential threats to the good things that I've done and plan to do for myself.

The first of this multi-pronged plan will be to begin my regular school year / school day schedule tomorrow morning. You may think this is crazy, but I know from experience that any sudden change to an established good routine can totally derail said routine.

I have a gym membership which I haven't used at all this summer because the weather's been so nice. I've just been taking my exercise in the form of these long walks in the park, and it's been really good for my mental and physical health. But tomorrow I am going to get up at 4:30am (my normal school year get-out-of-bed time) and drag my butt to the gym and get on the elliptical trainer 15 minutes and the stationary bicycle for 15 minutes. Including the drive to the gym and back, this means I'll spend an hour on this activity, and I should be home by 5:30am.

Then I'll make some Good Earth Tea (original), fix myself a bowl of Rice Chex with half a banana and 2% milk, eat my breakfast and get to writing Morning Pages. (If you want to know more about Morning Pages, get The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity [10th Anniversary Edition], by Julia Cameron--NOT just for visual artists, but for anyone who needs to unblock the creative process, or keep it flowing.) Writing Morning Pages only takes 15 to 20 minutes of focused, concentrated writing (this simply means DON'T stop writing for a full 15 to 20 minutes--write down every single thing that crosses your mind for the 15 to 20 minutes, no matter what it is!). Doing this as prescribed will produce at least three long-hand 8 1/2 "x 11" written pages. Sometimes I'm on a roll and don't want to stop, and can drag it out to a full hour, but only if I have time. If I only devote 15 to 20 minutes to Morning Pages, I'll have arrived at this point in my morning schedule by about 6:00am or 6:15am, and this means I have time to do my other non-negotiable morning activity: making art.

I need to be at my desk by 6:30am at the absolute latest to get in a half hour of art-making time. This is not only a creativity exercise, but an accountability exercise also. Woody Allen said that "90% of success is just showing up." Most of the reason would-be artists don't make art is because they spend too much time thinking about, talking about it, thinking and talking about why they're blocked and not doing it, but not making art. I have been guilty of the same for about 20 years. I set out to change that this last school year with success. I'm not making as much art as I'd like to, but I am making a lot more than I did in the preceding 19 years, so I'll consider that progress. My goal has been to make progress on one piece a week. I work small to increase my chances of actually finishing something, since I don't have big blocks of time to devote to the effort.

This year I'm setting a new goal, though: a finished drawing/painting/print a day. My inspiration for this is twofold: 1) the painfully slow process I've been testing to simulate what my AP Art students will have to do this school year, and 2) Duane Keiser, who set out several years ago to complete a painting a day, and succeeded. As I mentioned in a previous post, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal," so I have "stolen" this idea to help me get out of my artist's slump. For now I will settle for showing up and making progress, but once school starts I'm going to try to complete a painting/drawing/print a day so my students can see that it is possible, and to catapult me out of this bad habit of not making art every day that I've cultivated over the last 20 years.

After art-making, I'll be in the shower by 7:00am and out the door to school by 7:30am. This will get me to school by 8:00am to 8:15am, which is actually a little early for the slacker I intend to be as a result of all of my advance prep and planning, but so what? Then the school day: 3 back-to-back 90-minute classes (I think I have a 30-minute lunch in there somewhere), a 90-minute planning period at 2:00pm, which I plan to use to do ALL of the grading, recording, and materials prep for the next day, and then out the door by 3:45pm!

There will be a couple of days a week when I leave at 4:45pm because of my once-a-week coach class and my National Art Honor Society meeting, but most days I plan to be home by 4:30pm, taking the dog for a walk in the park for about 45 minutes, and then making dinner, reading a book, and to bed by 8:30pm to 9:00pm.

The most beautiful part of that plan and that schedule is that my weekends and holidays will belong to me and my husband, and not my school district.

If I am able to use the second half of my summer to get all that planning done, then my school year will look exactly as I have described: like anyone else's regular day job, with no homework and no grading outside of regular working hours. It will be a beautiful thing, (dare I say it?) a work of art.

So, the training program begins tomorrow. For the rest of my summer "off" I'll be working a regular 8-hour day like everyone else. The first half of my summer was about recovering my sanity from the absolutely insane schedule that teaching public school is, and the second half of the summer will be about preventing the insanity from happening again, regardless of what direction the insanity is coming from. I plan to be an island of calm and reason in the middle of whatever craziness my school or school district have cooked up for me this year. The eye of the storm, focused on the present moment, centered in myself and my purpose. Life is good. :-)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Inuit Pipe Update

For those of you waiting for the conclusion of the Inuit Pipe cliff hanger, I got a response from Mary Jane Lenz, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, today via email:
"Smoking was (and is) a leisure time activity; the "men of substantial means" sounds very odd though - they may have been thinking that only a wealthy man could afford tobacco, but I'm reasonably certain that anyone who had tobacco would share it.

Before Western tobacco was used, a kind of native tobacco was mixed with ash and formed into a cud and kept in the cheek. But Western tobacco was an early trade item, and people invented pipes to smoke it. The bowls were very small, only enough for a small dollop of tobacco (which was, again, often mixed with ash to make it go further.) Usually there was only enough for one big puff, so a man would light the tobacco, fill his lungs, and take one enormous puff which was powerful enough to set his head spinning.

There's a good book by Edward W. Nelson, published in 1896 and now available in paperback, called "The Eskimo About Bering Strait", which has a lot of information about pipes and smoking. I couldn't find it online but didn't have a lot of time to search for it. You may have better luck.

As to your question about pipes being disassembled when not in use, that whole business seems to apply only to the Plains, and even there not everyone is in agreement. But there is a current idea that a Plains pipe, when it is smoked, acts as a kind of "telephone line" to the Creator, and that when one is finished it should be "disconnected". So for the moment Plains pipes are usually stored and displayed with the bowl and the stem separated. This is certainly not the case for arctic people such as the Yup'ik and Inupiaq Eskimo, where smoking is more of a social event."
I am still planning to read the books I ordered from the library, as well as the one she recommends here. This was fun. :-)

Enough of a Challenge

When I'm making art, one of the ways I keep my butt in the chair long enough to create anything is to listen to books on CD, or music. When it's music, quite frequently I choose music that puts me "in the mood"--usually old favorites (sometimes really old). I've found that making art is not the time to try out a new potential muse; if the music doesn't suit or inspire me, it just interrupts my process and takes me out of the "zone" I'm trying to get into.

While my choice of music for making art is very much intentional, my choice of books on CD is not--I simply grab a stack of something that looks interesting to me on the library shelf. If whatever book I'm listening to while making art happens to fit the art that I'm making, it is sheer coincidence.

I don't believe in coincidence. I do, however, believe in the power of the collective unconscious (for you fundamental die-hards out there, translate: "Holy Spirit" if it makes you more comfortable--it's all the same thing to me).

Today I am experiencing just such a coincidence. I'm working on a series called "Patterns of Behavior: Predator and Prey," which centers around patterns from my own childhood and adult family interactions, as well as similar situations in my current work environment. The book that I happen to be listening to made it into the CD drive when I started working on this series, because I was in the middle of it while commuting to and from Goucher College for a class a couple of weeks ago. That's all--I just wanted to finish the book before going on to something else.

The book I'm listening to now is called I Will Not Be Broken: Five Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis , by Jerry White. He is a land mine survivor who started an organization called "Survivor Corps" that originally served to help other land mine survivors in third world countries without the generous means available to most Americans for their recovery. It has grown to broaden its definition of "survivor" to include all manner of physical, emotional and psychological trauma.

I got the book because I love inspiring stories. I was about 3/4 of the way through the book before I realized that I have suffered and survived a whole battery of psychological and emotional traumas throughout my life, and one really big one just recently. His book has been explaining to me why I am a survivor and not a victim, and how it is the choices that I have made that have determined the outcomes and my attitude, and what have tipped the scales from victimhood toward survivorship.

In short, the 5 steps are: 1) Face Facts, 2) Choose Life, 3) Reach Out, 4) Get Moving, and 5) Give Back. (You can read the book if you want to find out what is involved at each step. Click on this link to get the book from I Will Not Be Broken: Five Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis .)

Here is what struck me like a bell today while I was listening to this book and making art:

"It's enough of a challenge to save myself, keeping my own attitudes and life in order. I would just as soon avoid too much contact with whiners and complainers, and give them what they need to move forward. I confess it is much easier to hang out with friends who are already on the survivor path than those on the victim path. If you give of yourself to a victim, you must do so carefully and with clear parameters. If you don't watch out you'll be doing more harm than good...If you aren't vigilant, you are brought into the victim web of rationale and deception...Victims must get what they need. At the end of the day, they are net takers. They draw in more than they give out, and ingratitude is the dominant sin. After all, who has the time to be thankful when we are nursing our own wounds? Beware. Victimhood is insatiable. Feed it and it will grow. Reward it and it will spread like a virus."

Also from the book, the 5 hallmarks of victimhood:
  1. Living in the past.
  2. Self pity.
  3. Resentment.
  4. Blaming.
  5. Taking.
There are many things from this book that helped me to understand that many of the hard choices I've made concerning work and family in the last year and half were good for me, and exactly what I needed to do to be healthy. The ensuing uproar and outcry from those who would "[draw me] into the web of rationale and deception" to feed their own addictions is their problem, not mine. I've been surviving; overcoming; breaking free of the insanity of those patterns and behaviors.

Jerry White is right: that is enough of a challenge. I'm taking it, facing facts, choosing life, reaching out, getting moving, and giving back. It feels good.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Good artists borrow, great artists steal." --Pablo Picasso

Though behind my schedule, I hit the ground running today. I went to bed last night with a lot on my mind, slept on it, had weird dreams, and woke up with my "area of concentration" for my AP Studio Art practice run.

If you are just now jumping in on this blog, click here to catch up on what AP Studio Art has to do with me, what an "area of concentration" is, and why I am doing a practice run this summer.

For the rest of you (or now that you've caught up), here is the area of concentration I have chosen for this series: "Patterns of Behavior: Predator and Prey."

If you are not fluent in the language of art, "pattern" is one of the principles of design. When my students create their AP Studio Art portfolio, they're going to have to choose to submit their work in one of three portfolio categories: Drawing, 2-D Design, or 3-D design. In theory, a student could choose to submit a portfolio in all three categories, but I think that will be a bit ambitious for me and my students in our first year of this exercise.

I have chosen to create my practice portfolio to fit the 2-D Design category requirements. Though my own first love in college was in Drawing (and still is), I also got an emphasis in Graphic Design (all of us got Graphic Design by default back then, plus one additional declared emphasis), I have chosen 2-D Design because of the stated criteria for a 2-D Design portfolio submission. Though there are many things that the readers are looking for when scoring 2-D portfolios, the central and deciding factor in determining its success is how well the student made use of the principles of design in connection with the student's stated objective. (If the stated objective is fuzzy, or the student's idea doesn't translate into the work but the execution and use of the principles of design is good, the readers score to the students’ advantage by ignoring the statement and basing their scores on the work alone).

After reflecting on what I learning in the AP Studio Art training, and reflecting on the work my students have done in the past, I realized that most of their submissions will likely be to the 2-D category. So that's what I decided to focus on.

People who are close to me know that I've been going through a fair amount of.....well.....crap this last couple of years, 99% of which is out of my control. Most of this has been because of unpleasant encounters with family members; but a fair amount has had to do with my work environment. This all came to a bold and brilliant climax resulting from a move from my beautiful Montana to the east coast--a major shock to the system, needless to say.

I am a devoted morning journal writer, and a doodled snake has been side winding its way through my journal pages for about three years now. During the AP Studio Art training he made his way into my class notes, and started talking; just little blurbs, but power-packed.

So, my area of concentration centering on "Patterns of Behavior: Predator and Prey" will connect visual patterns from nature associated with predators and prey to the events which have been snaking through my days, consciousness, subconscious and dreams. On a written and psychological level these things have been very informative. My challenge will be to make them visual, and hopefully they will be art when I'm finished.

Another challenge I will have is that I do not work at a zoo or hang out with poisonous snakes (they have the most beautiful and instructive predator patterns), so I cannot draw these things from observation. I'll have to rely on photos to get the foundations for the images. This is a challenge my students will also face in the fall, so the creation of my own practice portfolio submission informs my teaching yet again: my students need to learn about copyright law concerning visual works of art.

The vast majority of my students think that good art means photo-realistic drawing or painting: if it looks exactly like the photograph or original artwork they were drawing from, then it's "good" art; if it does not, then it is "bad" art. One of my biggest challenges with these students has been getting them to stop calling their near-exact copies of other people's artwork (usually Manga, Disney characters, gaming characters) "good" art. I made some major progress last year when I forbade them to copy anything but a photograph they'd taken themselves. Their art was vastly improved from my point of view, but they still didn't think it was "good" because their photographic compositions were not that great (challenge for next year; progress one step at a time).

Since I will have to borrow images of patterns in nature to do my own series this summer, I thought this would be a great way to teach my students about creating "derivative" works of art:

"To be copyrightable, a derivative work must be different enough from the
original to be regarded as a new work or must contain a substantial amount of
new material. Making minor changes or additions of little substance to a preexisting
work will not qualify the work as a new version for copyright purposes.
The new material must be original and copyrightable in itself."

In short, if I (or my students) copy exactly a photograph taken by someone else, I cannot call that my own work of art and copyright it. I can, however, use elements from the photograph as I am planning to do: reproducing patterns from the photograph as a portion of my new work, such that the part copied from the photograph is "different enough to be regarded as a new work or must contain a substantial amount of new material." Since the patterns I will be borrowing and placing in my own artwork will only be a small part of a larger new piece, and they will be altered significantly, I can use photographs I find in my research as references for my new artwork.

I can't underestimate the importance of this lesson for my students! This will likely be a week-long lesson in what is / is not OK when using reference photographs to draw things that aren't readily available in our home/school environment.

As I was working through all of this and thinking about how I will teach it to my students, Picasso came to mind: "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." Of course Picasso wasn't promoting larceny. What he was talking about was the way in which great artists are informed by the art of other great artists; the way in which we participate in a dialogue, a conversation, with many artists from both the present and the past, and even the future, when we study the work of other artists, and create our own. If it were not true that we are all participating in this international time traveling conversation, then what is the point of Art History, or museums, or galleries? We learn from each other, and we respond. That's what my students need to understand about derivative works, and when it's OK (or not OK) to copy.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pipe Information Pipeline

Though I still don't have all the answers concerning that little Inuit pipe at the BMA (Baltimore Museum of Art), I've learned a lot more and can now make a prediction of the outcome: I think the placard is mostly correct, and the pipe may actually have been a leisure item rather than sacred artifact.

My prediction is based on information I've gleaned from reliable sources available through the Internet (since I'm still waiting for the three books I've ordered through inter-library loan), as well as my own powers of deductive reasoning. Since I can't find any references to sacred tobacco use by the Inuit, and since all of the sacred pipes I found at various museums, galleries and auction houses all date to the late 19th century, I think it is likely that the reference to smoking as a leisure activity on the BMA placard is correct. If that turns out to be the case, then it would also not be a mistake for the pipe to be assembled.

I did get an email back from the NMAI (National Museum of the American Indian) saying they were referring my question on to a curator who is an expert on Inuit collections. I'm looking forward to hear what she has to say.

While I've been waiting, I got an email from a NAS (Native American Studies) colleague who was intrigued by the problem, and she did a little research on her own. Here's what she had to say:

"I found tons of photos on the Internet with Inuit smoking pipes, including women and children. Almost all were smoking much simpler, non-carved pipes. I finally found a blurb in a book I have suggesting that tobacco was introduced by Europeans and it became a valuable and somewhat rare trade commodity. They draw on the work of Edward W. Nelson, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ethnologist in the late 1800s, to suggest that Inuit people prized tobacco for the euphoric, altered state it produced. This book, Inua: Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo by Fitzhugh and Kaplan, suggests that carving pipes (and drill bows whose pictographs look similar) happened after European contact but admits there is some archaeological evidence to the contrary. For the drill bows, they contend that the scenes depict hunts and sometimes a tally of what the hunter has captured. No mention of spiritual function. One thing these authors raise (something I agree with entirely) is how hard it is to obtain accurate information. Most of the collectors who first obtained these items were not really interested in their significance or social function. I think your idea to make this an assignment would be fascinating, partly because it shows students conflicting accounts and should lead to the conclusion of the limitations on knowledge through evidence at hand."

So, just like on "History Detectives," we still need more information. Another cliff hanger! While you're waiting, check out these other beautiful Inuit pipes that I found on the web:
I have to warn you about something, in case you catch the Inuit pipe bug and go Googling for them. I wasn't finding enough images using the search terms "inuit pipe," "inupiaq pipe," inuit tobacco pipe," "sacred pipe," "sacred tobacco pipe," etc. I'm such a purist about using the correct terms/names to refer to Native American peoples and artifacts that it took me a long to time to realize there are probably a lot of results under "eskimo." Of course I tried it and found out that I was right.

Here's the warning: one of my first searches gave me way too much information, and yielded a kind of "eskimo pipe" that I'd never heard of before, and could have lived the rest of my life without knowing about! (Just one more reason to call the Inuit by their proper name, and not "Eskimo.") So, if there are kids interested in this, you parents are going to have a lot of explaining to do if you let them search on their own.

On that note, enjoy the "Inuit pipe" images, you find; or better yet...just click on my links--it's way safer. ;-)

Quality, Concentration, Breadth: Good Art on Time!

Yesterday was the last day of the AP Studio Art class, and my brain is full to bursting with information and ideas for teaching all of my art classes next year, not just the AP Studio Art class. This was one of the rare classes I have taken that I felt would actually make me a better art teacher.

For those of you who don't know what AP classes are, AP stands for Advanced Placement. High School students who take these classes and pass the AP exam at the end of the year can get transfer credit when they go to college.

For those of you who know what AP classes are, but might be wondering what the test is for AP Studio Art, it's a portfolio review. There is no written test, but the students have to submit a portfolio of work that meets very specific stringent criteria.

The class I took was all about helping our students to submit a portfolio that would meet the requirements, and seeing the artwork of students who have gotten passing to outstanding scores. The work was really fantastic, and it made me a little nervous--the skill level of my students is not anywhere near that of the students' work I saw this past week. A challenge, but not an impossible task. I'm just going to have to set the bar higher, and my students are going to have to work harder! We/they can do it!

I already mentioned in a previous blog post that I am going to try to create three new pieces of artwork that meet the requirements each week this summer. I promised 3 new pieces by tomorrow, but I'm already behind! I'd be losing points if I were a student in my class, so it might be time to pull one of those old-fashioned all-nighters! Or maybe I'll plead with the teacher (me) and see if I can get her to extend the deadline by one day. ;-) Regardless, I'll have something to post by tomorrow evening so you can follow my progress.

This reminds me that one of my favorite blogs is "A Painting a Day," by Duane Keiser. (Click on his link in the "Blogs I Follow" list, on the right). Maybe I should shoot for one finished work a day, and that way I'll have a lot to choose from. Needless to say, I'll be working very small.

Regarding what I'll be painting, I'm taking my cue from the AP Studio Art training also. There are 3 criteria on which students are scored: quality, concentration, and breadth. The concentration section is the most difficult, because that is where the student has to develop a theme and a statement about the work. I'll be using a strategy we discussed in the training, and I'll tell you what mine is and how I came up with it in tomorrow's post (I'm still thinking about it).

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Pipe Dreams and History Detectives

This week my life and energy are specifically focused on learning how to teach AP Studio Art in the next school year. But that's not the only thing I have going on this summer. I'm also preparing to teach American Indian Art Survey (NAS 551) for Montana State University this fall. I wrote the curriculum, taught as an undergraduate course by Dr. Kristin Ruppel, as part of my graduate work when I was working on my MA in Native American Studies at Montana State. I'm thrilled to be teaching this class, since it combines three of my great loves: Art, Native American Studies, and educational technology (specifically, distance learning).

On Wednesday those of us in the AP Studio Art seminar at Goucher went to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). The purpose was to develop strategies for incorporating field trips into our AP Studio Art class. I've been to the BMA many times, and can go any time I want since I live here in Baltimore (many of the teachers in the class are from Virginia and Pennsylvania, and one is from New York), so I decided to combine purposes and get a jump on preparing for my American Indian Art Survey course in the fall. The BMA has a small but pretty good collection of Native North American Art.

It was delightful to discover that they have one piece of Maria Martinez black ware, and one piece by Blue Corn blackware also. But the real prize for me was a little Inupiaq pipe I found in the case containing the Alaskan Native artifacts, because it generated all kinds of questions that I wanted to find answers to (which is the singular thrill of the academic--we're ALL history detectives at heart!).

Here is a picture of the pipe, along with the accompanying placard:

Hmmm..... My eybrows went up. When I was working on teacher certification coursework as a post-bac at Montana State University, before I entered the masters program in Native American Studies, I took a course called American Indian Religions, taught by Dr. Nate St. Pierre, a member of the Ojibwe tribe (who went on to become the Dean of Students at the Stone Child Tribal College on the Rocky Boys reservation in Box Elder, MT, and is now the interim director of the Ojibwe Ne-i-yaw-h Initiative). We learned a lot about both the purposes and designs of sacred pipes in that class, and looked at many of them from a lot of different North American culture groups.

One of the things that was made clear about pipes in this class was that they were always built with two pieces (the bowl and the stem, or the body), and should never be assembled until they were being used. Being sacred objects, to have them assembled when not in use for sacred purposes would be disrespectful. Also, assembling them turns the power on, so to speak, which should only happen for purposes of ceremony. The pipe that I was looking at was fully assembled.

As I was looking at this pipe at the BMA, it suddenly occurred to me that we did not really discuss pipes in Alaskan Native culture groups. I was sorting through my mental files trying to place the design of this pipe and couldn't find anything. The design inscribed on the pipe at the BMA seemed to tell a story of hunting, which made sense. Sacred pipes and tobacco were used by Native Americans in what is now the contiguous US for sacred purposes. It would make sense that someone might smoke tobacco while praying for a successful hunt.

Then I looked at the placard, which said smoking tobacco was an affluent male's leisure activity. This did not sound right to me, though I had no evidence to the contrary since I couldn't pull up a single mental note card concerning pipes in Alaskan Native culture. But I wanted to know more about sacred v. leisure use because there are a number of campaigns to "keep tobacco sacred" in Native American communities. Smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes of the non-sacred variety is not the same thing as smoking a ceremonial pipe in Native American cultures, and the health problems associated with smoking are a real problem in Native America. What I read on the placard at the BMA is the first reference I've ever seen to non-sacred use of tobacco, outside of the modern problem of nicotine addiction. So I became a history detective and started digging.

On a recent trip to the NMAI (National Museum of the American Indian) I discovered their SIRIS database which is accessible online. It contains a catalog of every artifact in the Smithsonian's collection (although I think they are still in the process of entering items, so the cataloging of items may still be in process). I searched for "pipe," "sacred pipe," "Eskimo pipe," "Alaska native pipe," and so on and came up completely empty.

Next I went directly to the NMAI website and clicked on the "Collections & Research" link, then on the "Research" link, and nothing--on both of those pages there is information about research for the museum, but nothing about how to do research online. So I typed "pipe" in the "Search" field that shows up on every page, expecting to come up empty again. I hit the jackpot--the first item in the search results yielded a list of every pipe in the NMAI collection, complete with thumbnail images.

I found a pipe nearly identical to the one that I had seen earlier in the day at the BMA website on page 3 of 4 in the search results. I clicked on the link and got additional photos of the pipe, as well as information about the pipe. Click here to see photos and the catalog entry on the NMAI pipe. Again, jackpot!

If you clicked on the link you can see for yourself how similar the two pipes are, the only major differences being the quality (the NMAI pipe is better) and the bowl. Though the catalog entry for the NMAI pipe did not tell me anything about the purpose of the pipe, it did provide me with additional information: the date range in which this type of pipe was created (circa 1885), and the culture group that it came from (Inupiaq). There is a "Contact" button in the catalog entry for the NMAI pipe, so I sent an email telling the story I've just told you, and requesting additional information.

While waiting to hear back from a curator at the NMAI, I posted my little find on facebook, hoping one of my NAS (Native American Studies) buddies might know something about these pipes and clue me in. One friend did a little digging of her own and found this video: "Canada Vignettes: Inuit Pipe." The pipe is nearly identical two the other two pipes, and on this one the bowl is more generic (like the BMA pipe), although much more carefully crafted and of better quality.

Nice video, but we still don't know anything about the pipe, so I'm still digging. I hate to make this blog entry a cliff hanger, but I'll post another entry when I have some answers about the pipe.

Meanwhile, it occurred to me that what I am doing now with this pipe could be a great assignment for my American Indian Art Survey course. I think it will be a great exercise for each student in the class to become an expert on a Native American artifact, and then teach the other students in the class what they have discovered. So this blog entry is will serve as an example of how to start investigating an interesting artifact.

That idea spurred me on further. I realized what I am really after has to do with social life in Inuit culture. So I did some more digging and found the following books on the topic:
I have already put in an order for these through my local library, using inter-library loan. They should make for interesting summer reading.

At this point I've done about all I can do while I'm waiting to hear from the NMAI curator. I'll be sure to let you know what I find out.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Manuscripts on LSD

Today I found out that I would have to make an altered book instead of a visual journal for one of the assignments for this AP Studio Art class that I'm taking. I've made altered books, but I don't like to make them. Not my medium. Don't enjoy it at all.

I do love making visual journals, because I love to journal. I love the thrill of the blank page; unexplored territory; infinite possibilities; the evolution of a single mark into a whole page full of connected images and messages. Art! Love it!

But making an altered book begins with destroying someone else's work. Maybe it's because I like to read so much that I have trouble with the whole altered book process. That didn't stop me from tearing apart and rearranging two different books today in pursuit of the altered book bliss. Didn't happen. No joy. Just two destroyed books and a lot of frustration.

Never mind that I don't really understand what in the world creating this altered book has to do with learning how to teach AP Studio Art. I think the main source of my frustration is that I am really good at being prepared and following directions. Last week, in preparation for this class, I downloaded the syllabus and read it all the way through, so I knew what would be expected of me this week. One of the assignments for the class is "Journal entries: visual and textual investigations--5% of final grade." This translates in art teacher speak to "visual journal." Also, under the "Expectations of Students" section it states that "Assignments must provide evidence of knowledge of the material covered in the course."

Excellent. Now I know what to expect. That translates to: "Your visual journal must contain evidence that you learned the material covered in the course." Except.....

The instructor is not following his own syllabus. Unfortunately, he is also not giving us any guidelines as to what is expected of us. It's a "do as I say, don't do as I do" situation. He told us on the first day that it is really unfair to our students to not give them very clear guidelines and expectations and then just spring assignments on them. But of course that is exactly what is happening to us in this class. I have no idea how anyone else feels about this because I've just been grinning and bearing it, and killing books as creatively as I can all the while.

So I updated my facebook status with, "Ceilon Hall Aspensen does not enjoy making altered books. They're a FAD! But I'm doing it anyway....and I'm putting on my happy face..... :-) See? Happy face...."

This elicited a funny response from a friend who is not an artist: "I'm really out of the loop...What are altered books--manuscripts on LSD?" Altered mind states. Altered reality states. Altered book states. This gave me a pretty big chuckle, but caused me to realize that altered books are a kind of insider art for artists. It's not something that the average person would think to do if s/he is feeling creative and wants to make something.

If YOU are wondering what an altered book is, it is a regular book (any kind of book) that you change into something else. It's kind of an art book and a scrap book in one that you make from an existing book. A way to recycle books, I guess. NOT my medium. HATE making them. LOVE looking at cool ones that other people have made. My students like to make them; I do NOT.

Altered books are not something you can create and do a good job in a few days; not if the objective is to communicate a specific and clear message (i.e., evidence of what I learned in this class). Effectively connecting a message with a medium and making it art requires a bit of thought. It's not something I can just whip out overnight. Maybe other people can, but I can't do it and make anything but a big mess.

But all is not lost. Goucher's women's restroom has some of the best graffiti I've seen in a long time. This is what is on the back of the door of the first stall in the women's restroom on the first floor of Merrick Hall:

Now, that's art I can understand! ;-)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Additional Rigor for the Teacher

Today I started my AP Studio Art training. I'm excited about teaching AP Studio art this year, because the class will provide my more dedicated and advanced art students with some additional rigor, as well as a few worthy goals: college credit for a high school art class, and development of an outstanding portfolio they can use to apply to some great art schools.

There was another teacher at our school who taught AP Studio Art before I came along and agreed to do this, but she quit doing it because she said the students weren't able to meet the requirements. My silent, internal response to this was, "I think they CAN meet the requirements. They just need guidance and motivation to get there. I think I could help them do that." I filed that thought away and went about my business.

This year my supervisor asked me if I would consider doing the training and I said that I'd been thinking of doing it anyway, so of course I would do it. They registered me for the course, and here I am. I've been looking forward to this for about four months.

So I get into this training, and we're going over the portfolio requirements and the review process, and suddenly I'm feeling like I've set myself and the students up to fail. Our school only offers AP classes as semester-long courses, rather than year-long courses, and my first AP class will be offered in the spring semester. The semester doesn't end until mid-June, but the portfolio submission deadline is early May, which means my students will only have 14 weeks to produce a minimum of 24 pieces of artwork, and so far even my best students have produced, at most, about 10 projects in an entire semester.

Not only do they have to submit a minimum of 24 pieces, but they have to submit 5 actual artworks (packaged and mailed into College Board) that "demonstrate mastery of design in concept composition, and execution," 12 slides of works that demonstrate a "body of work investigating a strong underlying visual idea in 2-D design," and 12 slides of works "that demonstrate a variety of concepts and approaches in 2-D design." So, the 24 pieces have to be really, really good, and satisfy a very specific range of criteria.

In class today we looked at slides of sets of student work from previous portfolio reviews which received the highest scores, next-to-the-highest scores, mid-range scores, and lowest acceptable scores. I found myself thinking that I had never seen any work even approaching these standards in my school or my school district. How in the world will I get work that satisfies even the lowest acceptable score out of my students in the quantities required with only 14 weeks to do it?

Then I found myself thinking that all of the work in the highest and next-to-the-highest score categories were better than some of the work I did in college. In fact, I won "Best in Show" at the senior student exhibit just before I graduated from college, and while that work was pretty darned good I didn't think it was better than the work I saw today in the two high scoring categories. In fact, the work I saw today was as good as, if not better than, a lot of the college work I've seen anywhere; and even in my senior year we didn't have to meet as many requirements in our senior thesis project as my AP Studio Art students will have to meet in this portfolio review.

I was approaching the level of panic. For me, the cure for this is to get busy, so I started planning and preparing my unit and lessons right there in the classroom today.

Frequently, when I am planning a really neat lesson that I think the kids will enjoy but may find daunting in the beginning because it's something new to them, I will create a sample piece to show them. You'd think that this would intimidate them, but it actually inspires and challenges them to do better work. One teacher I talked to a few years ago when I was thinking of trying the sample approach said, "Don't do it. They'll never be able to do work as good as yours, so they'll quit before they get started." I was bummed. I had thought it was such a great idea. Then I shared my idea with one of my mentors who has 30 years of high school teaching experience and he said, "That's a great idea! Go for it!" So I started creating samples.

My mentor was right. The kids' response to each sample for each project was, "Whoa! That's really cool! You did that?" Suddenly I was more than just a teacher to them. Suddenly I was an artist. Whoa! Cool! The mentor was right--it did inspire the kids. Sometimes they did seem a little daunted and claimed that they could never do that, and that the only reason I could is I'm an artist and I have talent. This just gave me an opportunity to dispel the myth of inborn talent. I explained to them that the only difference between me and them was that I had decades of practice and I actually tried to do the project. They could do the same quality work if they would just get started, and do their best. For some reason they believed me and my kids made great art work.

But not great enough to submit to the College Board portfolio review process, I realized as I was reflecting on it and looking at these slides of awesome high school art work. It occurred to me as I was thinking this that I sounded just like the kids. It also occurred to me that I sounded a bit like the Cowardly Lion: "Whatta they got that I ain't got?" Seriously--how are my students any different than these students who did the awesome work that I'm looking at now?

Well, actually, I could write a book on the ways that my students are likely to be different than the students who earned these high scores (socio-economic status, for a starter). But if you strip everything away but the student and the teacher, why can't my students do just as well? I found myself wondering how I could create a sample work to show them. Then realized that it wouldn't work because it's primarily the idea and the execution of the idea that they are being scored on, and there's no real way to create a sample of an idea. And some of my students' only problem is that they waste a lot of time and work really slow (because they can--I realized today that I've never required them to work any faster than they were before I came to the school). Their major objection would be, "It's too much, Ms. Aspensen! Too many pieces! Not enough time! We can't do it!"

And then it struck--the BIG idea: What if my sample project was an entire portfolio that meets all of the requirements of the College Board portfolio review? How cool would it be to lead them through the explanation and demonstration of what is required of them, allow them to make their objections, and then whip out my freshly created portfolio of new work that I did over the summer just to prove that it could be done? HA! Very cool, indeed.

I quickly looked at the calendar to see how many weeks are left before school starts. Crimony! Only 8, and that's if I get started right now! 24 pieces in 8 weeks! That's 3 pieces a week! Yikes! Better get started right away!

So, I decided then and there that that's what I'll do. My most ambitious sample yet. When they complain that they don't have enough time, I'll remind them that they have nearly TWICE as much time as I had to produce the same number of works. Objection obliterated.

I'll post my first 3 pieces here on the blog by this Sunday (July 12) so you can see how I'm doing. I'll also post my artist's statement (something the kids have to submit with the portfolio to College Board). Even though I feel a little overwhelmed at the thought, it's been a LONG time since I set this kind of goal or deadline for myself concerning art production, so I'm pretty excited. Bonus: by the time school starts I'll have 24 new pieces of artwork to put in my eBay store. Nice. I LOVE being an Art teacher! :-)