Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Cindy Sherman Project and Stereotypes in Photography

It's not my job, as a teacher, to tell students what to think. It is my job to show my students HOW to think, and then let, or require rather, them to think for themselves.  The thing about good art is that it opens the door to higher order thinking skills through engaging conversation.  In enters, Cindy Sherman.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1973
Cindy Sherman is a photographer, who is known for her self portraits. In the 70's she'd dress up in costumes and pose as though she were a character in a movie. Each black and white piece had titles such as Film Still # 21 or Film Still #15.  There was no film, of course, but it made the viewer wonder what had happened before and what would happen after the moment portrayed.  She doesn't beat you over the head with a message, but some of her work is considered to be feminist because her pieces show women in stereotypical roles, as reactionary, rather than the source of action. Others see it as empowering, since she was able to reinvent herself many times.

When I talked to my students about common stereotypes today, I got some interesting responses, especially when asking about the stereotypes people have of them.  "People think teenagers are troublemakers. That we drink and do drugs and are violent."  "People think that rednecks are racists. That's no true. I'm a redneck and look at who my best friends are." "People think that Blind people can't do anything." I was surprised how often students complained about people confusing their disability with deafness. I know some teachers at the Academy for the Blind have people, when they find out where they work, say, "So you must know sign language." And one of my students had someone ask him if he could teach him American Sign Language.  "I don't know it. I have a visual impairment, but I'm not Deaf."

One student in a wheelchair said people who don't know him, won't approach him, but instead talk to the teacher or parent who is with him. "What would he like the drink?" restaurant servers will ask. "I don't know," the companion will say. "Why don't you ask him."  For his stunning, and somewhat disturbing portrait, he chose to have his eyes and mouth covered because that's how he feels some people see him.

Similarly, another student said, "People think that introverts don't talk.  I talk. I just don't like to be around a lot of people." He taped his mouth for his portrait, showing the viewer how silly people are for imposing a stereotype on him.

Other students took a completely different approach, one posing with a a spatula and frying pan, to prove that just because she is blind doesn't mean she can't cook. Another used a cap and diploma to show all those, who didn't think it was possible, that she can graduate from high school. In fact, she will this month!

I was surprised at how many of my students who are mildly intellectually disabled (MID), seemed immune to negative stereotypes.  "If someone who had never met you, saw you on the street and all they knew about you was that you were a black teenager, what might they assume about you?" I asked one student.

He answered, "That I'm smart and that I'm cute." And when I ran down a list of superficial characteristics, for them to respond with first thoughts, they were pleasantly nonjudgemental. Each student could, however find a time when they  misjudged someone and they vowed to be more careful in the future.

All of us unfairly judge others from time to time. Sadly, even many bright adults make the mistake of believing every thought that comes into their mind. If racial/,cultural, and ideological diversity or, at the very least, critical thinking skills were taught at an earlier age, we might all be more comfortable with people who are different than ourselves.

My goal in introducing my students to the art of Cindy Sherman, and having them do this project, is to help them be more careful in their thinking and to be able to more effectively self advocate.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Japanese Relief Prints and Haiku Lesson

Printmaking and Japan are both very dear to my heart, which is why I was surprised when I realized that I hadn't taught this lesson on Hiroshige wood cuts for five years. I read my favorite Japanese counting book, "One Leaf Rides the Wind" as a way to introduce my students to haikus and Japanese culture. I lead a slide discussion and offered students artifacts from Japan to handle before letting them dress up in a kimono and posing in front of a backdrop of a rock garden, Mount Fuji, and cherry blossoms. Then we looked at the 180 year old ukiyo-e (floating world pictures) .  Edo (now Tokyo) was becoming a growing city as merchants were moving up in class and had money to spend on night life. Hiroshige documented women in kimonos, koi fish wind socks, and fireworks in his well composed wood cuts.

I used hot glue to make the reproductions tactile.  One student thought a geisha was wearing roller skates instead of okobo shoes.

I passed around large block of carved wood, brayer, and ink before doing a demonstration of a relief print.  We drew into foam for our prints, but the idea is the same: ink sticks to the top part and the printed image is a mirror of the original. After students wrote (and Brailled) haikus, created and printed several of their own images, these were mounted and shared.  One student, who is about to graduate, is missing a friend who would have been in this graduating class had she survived cancer as a middle school student. She reflected on that friend for her project.  This poem and print will be framed and placed on an empty chair at graduation in a couple weeks to remember LaStacia. Her mother will then take it home and hopefully understand that we remember their family at this time. This is the power of fine arts: they make it possible to teach so many subjects (ie. social studies and language arts) while also allowing for personal expression and a means to touch the hearts of others. 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Smile and Nod!

I usually enjoy public speaking but a couple weeks ago I had the terrifying experience of giving a speech in front of a small group of thirty-odd strangers, half of whom were either judging me (literally with judging sheets and a stopwatch) or competing with me for Georgia Teacher of the Year. The thing that frightened me more than anything was the three-minute time limit. It is nearly impossible for me to fit a biography, teaching philosophy, moving story, and a bunch of statistics into less than five minutes, without feeling rushed and anxious.  As soon as I started talking, however, I saw a small woman sitting behind a name tag that said, "Ann."  She looked at me, smiled broadly, and nodded constantly, as I spoke, as if to say, "Yes! Yes, children learn best with hands on projects! I agree; creativity belongs in school!" Nothing is more calming than a friendly reassuring presence in the audience. And it wasn't just for me; she smiled and nodded for every speaker, including the Georgia Power executive who welcomed everyone to the luncheon.

The moment I sat down, I decided to be like Ann for the speakers that followed me, so I made a conscious effort to use my body language to cheer each competitor and help them feel at ease. When the speeches were finished I tapped Ann on the shoulder to thank her, but before I could say a word, she turned to give me, a stranger, a big hug and tell me what a great job I'd done.

In a world where hyper-criticism is hyper-present, we need more Anns:  accepting, reassuring, radiating beams of positive energy in human forms. We can be that light for those in our lives, even those in our lives for a brief moment on a stressful afternoon.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Visions of Inspiration exhibition at Macon Little Theatre!

Who inspires you? That's the question I asked each of my students to prepare for our Visions of Inspiration exhibit. They wrote a paragraph about someone who makes them want to be a better person then drew something that represented that hero.  One student chose Jim Henson and drew a bunch of puppets, another choose Little Cesar and drew pizza slices.

Matthew Forrest of Georgia College, used grant money for most of the frames and created silk screens from these drawings, which were printed onto paper silhouettes of the students.  Then the students used watercolors, crayon or colored pencil to enhance the prints. We mounted and framed the prints and viola! A show was born.

My rendition of Anne Sullivan and the magic word
The most moving pieces included a middle schooler whose "Papa" died a month earlier. He drew all the tools that the two of them used to work on cars together.  Another student talked about the time he flatlined as an ten year old.  He wrote about being taken to a blue room by Jesus and looking out the window back to earth, where he could see surgeons working on him, and his parents crying in the waiting room.

One student chose Helen Keller as her inspiration, and I chose Annie Sullivan, her teacher.  This worked out perfectly because we were asked to have an art show at Macon Little Theatre during their production of "Miracle Worker" which tells the story of Annie and Helen.

Student work with special symbols to represent their inspiration. Helen Keller is represented by roses. Hugs and kisses for mom, brushes and bats for a cousin who is missing an arm, coins for a grandma who taught the artist how to count change, and monsters for Jim Henson.
Matt had the student's stories printed  on a banner and my media specialist friend, Kim Smith embossed sticky plastic with Braille, which  my students helped me attach.

I made the title cards for each piece on print (glued to foam board) and Braille.
But attaching it to the carpeted wall was going to be a trick until someone gave me a tip to use velcro.  The prickly side of velcro worked perfectly!

"Annie Sullivan" and I at the dress rehearsal
 The director was kind enough to invite the school to see a dress rehearsal of the Miracle Worker! It was completely wonderful! All the students were engaged and the time flew! If you get a chance, go see it. It runs from May 3rd-12, 2019 at Macon Little Theatre.

 The two adult collaborators, Matthew Forrest and myself lead the way with student work to follow