Yesterday I attended a day-long workshop, Arts 21 meets Fluxus, at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.  The workshop was geared towards art educators, but the group I went with consisted of me, an English and Social Studies teacher;  two art teachers; a math teacher; a science teacher; and a math and science teacher.  In all there were about 40 teachers attending, and I was surprised and happy to see that a few others besides those in our group were also non-art teachers.  The workshop was everything I look for in a good workshop: a mix of theoretical lecture and discussion, specific teaching strategies, an exploration of new content to bring into the classroom, and that post workshop high where your brain is filled to capacity coupled with feeling refreshed and invigorated and itching to get back into your classroom to try some new things. 

The big idea that I took away from the workshop was "play."  We talked about giving art students time to play, to pass out tons of materials and have them experiment with new techniques.  I thought about applying the idea to my English classroom and having play days for students to experiment with punctuation and syntax and different elements of craft like metaphor and imagery.  Typically, when I ask students to write, there's a specific prompt I want them to answer or there are specific devices I want them to practice using.  Very structured.  But valuable because I need to assess their progress on a particular objective.  But also probably terribly boring when I don't also give them the opportunity to just play with language and write about what they want to write about.  I love playing with syntax.  Creating a rhythm.  Breaks.  I love experimenting with different punctuation to achieve just the type of flow I want.  And I'm a bit disappointed in myself for not giving my students to opportunity to play with language enough to maybe come to love the musicality of it.  And they might hate it.  And not see it as play at all, but as torture.  But maybe if I roll it out after some playful videos and quotes to get them into the mindset of experimentation, there's a chance they might have fun with it.

Play also seems to be a theme in artist Oliver Herring's work, and we watched a good chunk from the Art21 episode on Herring yesterday at the workshop.  The process for a few of his works involved people spitting different colored food dye up into the air and letting it spray onto their faces and shirts.  It sounds kind of gross, but Herring was taking people out of their comfort zones and asking them to do something kind of crazy and wild...and fun.  And the photo portraits of the men drenched in dye that resulted are so cool and colorful.  It looks like the portrait subjects spent the day in a paint fight, running and splashing around, and the portrait captures a quiet moment after all of the excitement died down.  And the portraits, these men covered in color, make you wonder about the story behind the picture.   

Here's a small clip for the Art21 episode on Herring.  You can see the whole thing here:  http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/oliver-herring 
The final portraits (Source:  http://www.pbs.org/art21/slideshows/oliver-herring/selected-artworks):
Herring is also the creator of TASK: part game, part icebreaker, part team-building, part art-making, and all fun and creativity.  You need only a group of people, a box, pencils, some slips of paper, and basic building materials to do it: string, cardboard, paper, markers, crayons, recyclables, etc.  Each person in the group writes a task for others to complete and places it in the box.  Then, each person grabs a "task" out of the box and completes it.  Once you complete a task, draw a new one from the box and write a new one to place into the box.  

I've participated in two TASK events.  The first was on my first day of the 2010 Art21 Educators Summer Program; Art21 and Herring hosted it at a gallery in NYC.  At first, it was really uncomfortable being thrown into this controlled chaos with so few rules.  But once I started in on a task - creating a luxurious spread of treats and devouring them like Cookie Monster - it was silly and fun and playful and comfortable.  And the tasks were so varied: "transport me to Paris" became a huge Eiffel Tower constructed on the wall, made out of black tape; you can imagine what "write 100 different words on 100 different post-it notes and collage them on the window" would look like; and "make a jungle canopy" had strings and paper draped across the ceiling.  The TASK event introduced complete strangers - these 15 educators from across the country - to one another in such a playful, fresh way.  Starting the series of workshops with TASK set the tone for the summer program: open-minded, creative, innovative, adventurous, collaborative, and fun.  We know we'd be out of our comfort zone, that our experience would be an overwhelming, chaotic, intensive 10 days, but that it would be controlled and productive, just like TASK.

That fall, I participated in my second TASK event.  The art teacher from my school, who is also my Art21 Educators partner, and I hosted a TASK event on the first day of teacher workshops before the start of the new schoolyear.  We used it as an ice breaker to get the staff united for the start of the school year and also to get our creative juices flowing and a dialogue started.  As summer winds down, the first day of back-to-school workshops aren't typically approached with excitement and fervor, and so we wanted to do something fun to get our staff excited for the upcoming schoolyear, to wake them (and ourselves) up out of their summer stupor and get ready to take on the year.  Just as much fun as the TASK event in NYC and probably even more uncomfortable for some of the left-brained teachers, but everyone bought into it eventually, showing that TASK isn't just for creative types; it brings out the creativity in everyone. 

"People are more unusual, complicated, eccentric, playful, and creative than they have time to express."  - Oliver Herring

And Herring provides his collaborators with the time and space to be all of these things.  I think all of us need to make a bit more time to be these things more often as well.

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    About Me

    A lover of literature and the arts and an advocate for global awareness and active citizenship, I spend my days with high school English and Social Studies students exploring why it all matters and how they can have a voice in the world.  This is my space to document and reflect on my practice, note happenings in education, and share my appreciation for the arts.


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