Thursday, July 29, 2021

Use Your Talents to Serve Your Community

 Summer ended for me last week, as I started pre-planning at my school on Monday. Between working camps, teaching a class, and taking a big trip, there wasn't any time for my own art or home improvement projects, but I did manage to fill my final minutes and days in a meaningful way: with volunteer service.

Monday evening my husband and I taught a drawing class to a group of 18 young, single adults from central Georgia. There was a wide range of confidence levels starting out, but with just a few pointers, everyone was able to make something they could feel good about.

The Young women from church had their annual camp last week. This was my daughters 6th and last year attending. My husband also started attending 6 years ago. I joined them for half the week, and loved to see the creativity the girls used as they stenciled t-shirts, wrote and performed skits, played thinking games and just came up with photo shoot ideas. I loved to see them bonding with each other and growing as individuals.

We go to college and we gain skills not just to earn money, not just to make a name for ourselves or to boost our self-esteem, but to reach out and help others. There are an infinite number of needs in this world and an infinite number of ways to fill those needs. Our youth need to be able to work with their hands, to experience the natural world, to spend time with mentors whose presence lets them know they have value. They need time with peers. We all need time with other people. In the end, it's the relationships that may matter more than anything. In the end, those who seemed to have accomplished the most in terms of money and fame, may have sacrificed family and friends to do so, if it doesn't bring you happiness, then what good is it? 

Schedule time to give time. Grow your talents by sharing them. Create joy by creating meaningful relationships. I am convinced that the most meaningful and happy lives are the lives that are filled with service.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Creativity in the Classroom

 They say that doctors make the worst patients and teachers make the worst students, but I love to teach career teachers in Wesleyan College's Master's of Education program, and help them find ways to make their classrooms places where creativity thrives.

Teachers are always creative problem solving, but it is surprising how few of them see themselves as creative people. It is partly because no one explicitly taught them how to be creative, just like no one explicitly taught them to how draw. You tell a kid to illustrate their poem, but don't give them the tools to observe, to break objects down into simple geometric forms, and to measure proportions. It's not fair. 

I recently saw a boy who was about 11 years old break down in tears trying to draw a picture of a person. His five-year-old brother jumped to his rescue and drew a well proportioned stick figure. "See?  It's easy!" he explained. The problem is that in a few years the younger brother will realize that stick figures don't look like real human figures and will be just as frustrated as his older brother, unless someone gives him some hints and tools.  That's what I tried to do with my teachers, with our limited time: build their vocabulary, give them a few ideas about how to make something look more real, and give them lots of extensions to the standards they are already teaching, that will allow their students to use their imaginations without fear of getting the wrong answer.

Within 9 hours we completed 10 art assignments, 9 games and exercises, had several meaningful discussions, which just goes to show that EVERY teacher has time for their students to exercise creativity within the boundaries of the  learning standards.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Shoestring Road Tripping 101

I just got back from a 20 state, 20 National Park family road trip in 24 days. All the odds were against us this summer: a record breaking heatwave, overcrowded parks, sky high gas prices, and a continuing global pandemic, but it was an unbelievable happy experience and we did it all without breaking the bank.  Here are a few tips and take aways from my latest excursion.

Enjoy the natural world! This trip took us from the hottest place on earth to the arctic glaciers. We saw the highest and lowest spots in North America, the tallest trees, and the deepest lake. We saw hundreds  animals in their natural habitat: grizzlies, whales, sea lions, seals, moose, caribou, antelope, cayote, and roadrunner, most of which were in national parks.  I love National Parks because I get excited about nature and history. Plus, hiking lends itself for good bonding with the family. I love that everyone, no matter socioeconomic status, can enjoy the parks equally. There are no fast passes for rich people to not have to follow the simple kindergarten level rule of waiting their turn. I enjoyed hiking Zion as much when I was an impoverished college student as I did when I was married to a college professor. These are America's parks for all Americans.

BUT it sounds like the most popular parks are getting too crowded this summer, some people are waiting for an hour, in dangerous temperatures, for a picture with an iconic arch, or famous overlook. This ruins the experience for everyone. Instead of a national "park" consider going to a national monument, historical site. Or go to a state park. Some are just as nice or nicer than well known national parks and there are hundreds of them! Even city parks have wonderful natural features and local flavor. Find out where the locals go to take their senior pictures or have a bridal photo shoot, and you'll find something special.

A city park in North Little Rock

Crater Lake is the only place this trip that felt crowded
Off season travel is another way to beat the crowds and congestion. Seriously, it is just not fun when a place is over run with people. In 2013, my family did a 21 park, 21 state, 21 day road trip in which we camped at the biggies like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but it was in May, before many families were out of school, and there was no post-Covid rush. IF you must go to the popular parks during peak season, maybe consider going super early in the morning and/or taking the hikes that are off the beaten path. A little research into special, lesser known spots, can make for a happier experience for you...and all the less creative people who don't want to share their parking spot.

Be frugal! I figure if I spend half as much, I can double the length of the trip, or take twice as many trips. There's so much I want to see in this world!  My kids are now old enough that they care about being healthy and choose to drink water at every meal. What we saved on restaurant soft drinks probably covered a night at a hotel, so cut costs where you won't miss them. Don't get to he point where you feel deprived, but put your money where you'll enjoy it most.

For this trip, we spent 7 nights in the homes of family and friends (free), 8 nights camping (very inexpensive), and 8 nights in hotels (not too pricey). Seeing friends and family are part of the reason we travel. All five of my siblings live in different states and it was a real treat to get to see the homes of three of my sisters for the first time. (We usually meet up somewhere for reunions.) Camping can cost as little $15-$20 at places where nearby cabins and hotels run $300+ a night. When we splurged for hotels, it would usually be far enough outside a popular destination to be reasonably priced.

For the sake of our wallets and waistlines, we try to only eat out once a day. This works better when the hotels serve breakfast. Actually, we only reserved stays at hotels that include breakfast in the package, but this was still a Covid-y year so they all backed out, which meant a lot of days we ate two meals out, but never three. It's best to keep lots of car & picnic food on hand: trail mix, oranges, bananas, nuts, veggie sticks, granola bars, peanut butter sandwich makings-whatever your family is willing to eat. I found that more than once, we'd be on the road, looking for a good lunch spot, and had to drive for hours before finding a small town with a restaurant. Hangry family members can ruin the day, so keep everyone fed and be preventative when it comes to hunger

Know your pace. My family is made of hardcore road trippers but not the kind who will drive 30 hours straight to get across the country, only stopping for gas. When I was young my parents used to pack us in the car at 5:00am so that they could make 5 hours headway by the time we'd wake up and 7 hours by the time we'd stop for lunch. They'd limit the road hours to 10 in a day so that we could be at our destination early to mid-afternoon and have time to enjoy the place. Splitting the days between driving time and sightseeing helps make progress without feeling like you're missing half the country. My husband and I might go 12 or 13 hours from departure to arrival in a day, but we'll stop and get out to see the sights along the way. Toss in ice cream breaks and hikes and you end up getting to your destination by dinner time without feeling wiped out.

Plan layovers. It helps to have two nights at one place, every few days, for the luxury of not having to pack up every single morning, and so that people can have a place to regroup/ hang low between activities or while others go out. We did three long driving days, then break day, two long days, then break day. The break days can be just as rigorous if you want them to be: we did a lot of sight seeing between our two nights in San Fransisco, but we did manage to fit a cat nap in the afternoon because we had a place to rest. I like to use cities as our "lay-over" days. If you can stay someplace down town, then you can walk to the sights and save the headache of parking.

Be flexible and spontaneous! A couple of times we saw brown signs for sites and my husband would immediately pull off the exit, while I would look up the distance to the sight from the exit. We hadn't planned on going to El Malpias nor Petrified Forrest, but they were right there!  When my brother found a birch syrup factory tour sign in Alaska, we couldn't pass it up. It's best to have a little extra time built into your schedule for surprise gems like these. But it goes both ways and sometimes you have to let some activities go undone. I like to keep a list of places and possible activities and just throw out ideas to see what people are in the mood for. You can't do everything, so don't be too rigid. Check in with people's feelings and see what sounds good a the time.

Expect things to go wrong.  On weekend college get aways, my friends and I would say, "It's not a real road trip unless the car breaks down." We usually said this as we were waiting for a tow truck, but knowing ahead of time that there will probably be bad weather, heavy traffic, sickness, closed museums, or reservation mix-ups will help you deal with less than perfect conditions when they arrive. Keep a sense of humor and know that it is just par for the course. 

Think small. You don't need to plan and save for years to make memories. There are people traveling from all over the country to see something in your city or your state. Why not enjoy the sights that are near you? My family can drive three hours to the ocean or three hours to the mountains and be back home the same day. Or we can plan one overnight to make it feel like a real get away. Either way, it doesn't take clearing a month from the calendar to enjoy travel.

Practice recognizing beauty every day. If you don't appreciate the beauty of the sunset in your own neighborhood, what makes you think you'll appreciate it in some other part of the world? I cleared out the photos from my phone the day before our trip and that evening I took a picture of our neighborhood lake, which reminded me that there is beauty everywhere, including, or maybe even especially, at home. When it comes to finding love and happiness, I always start looking within the walls of my own house, within my own skin. Then I can take that joyful heart on excursions. 
The time and effort spent traveling pay off three ways: it is fun to plan, it is fun to discover things first hand during the trip, and it is fun to look back and remember.  If you do it right, travel will change you in some way for the better.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Summer Program for Visually Impaired

The three month summer for teachers is a myth. I finish my  post-planning in June and start pre-planning in July. So it would stand to reason that I would want every week possible to recover between school years, but I can never say "no" to working the school's summer program. It gives me a week to get to know students outside the classroom and to get to see them have experiences that they may not ever have if they didn't come.

My visually impaired students touching a turtle at a petting zoo

This year's theme was literacy, and I was one of the two literacy teachers who taught daily classes to three groups. I loved helping students gain writing skills through teaching character development, transitions, and how to write a good hook. I was really impressed at how much they cared about their fictional characters from an innocent mother in prison to a Parisian teen in Nazi occupied France, who falls for the enemy. They were able to come up with some really powerful opening paragraphs and played with changing the tense and point of view on each one.

But there were lots of opportunities for real life, hands-on, fun activities such as going to the petting zoo, swimming in the pool, playing air hockey, "blind table tennis," disc golf, and riding pedal cars.

We had field trips to a rock wall and to a Macon Bacon baseball game with all you can eat food.  It has been such a hard school year with COVID hanging over every day and every activity. The summer program was like breathing fresh air again with getting back to normal life.


Academy for Fine Arts Center at Wesleyan College: Summer Camp

I wasn't sure it was going to happen, but our Wesleyan College Fine Arts Camp met in person this summer and it was a huge success! We were still taking Covid precautions, which included making it a day camp instead of residential and it was only 3 days instead of our usual six. I taught the printmaking class, which everyone took, even the music and theatre people, so I decided to just do a quick introduction to several processes in printmaking.
Day one we made monotypes. Each person rolled ink onto a piece of plexiglass. Then then rubbed away at it with a Q-tip, or paper towel. Some students were just making white line drawings on a black surface, while others created more balance through wiping out more ink to create shapes. Just learning to tear, soak, and blot paper, was a good lesson, but of course the exciting part is running the paper on top of the plexi through the press. The sandwiched ink transfers to the paper in a mirror image. A few students were surprised when their letters came out backwards, but that's the nature of printmaking. Mind your p's and q's!
Another day we made transfer drawings. No time to come up with an image and work out the drawings. This was just an introduction. I got out books of the masters for them to trace a favorite painting onto tracing paper. The tracing paper was taped along the top edge of good, printmaking paper. Then students rolled ink lightly onto a piece of newsprint paper and placed it down on the good paper before flipping the traced drawing on top. As the drawing was traced again, the ink transferred onto the good paper. It's tricky not to get finger prints all over the finished piece, so I encouraged  everyone to not put ink on the edges of the newsprint so they'd have a way to hold it down with one hand on the edge, while tracing with the other.
The third day some students chose to do transfer drawings again, while others cut stencils out of paper to create screen prints. Three types of printmaking in three short sessions. Chances are slim that anyone will build a career out of these processes, but you never know. In the mean time it's opened their eyes to new ways of creating images. 

Other activities included an art tour of campus and learning about the curation process. There were drama games and exercises in character development in theatre. An afternoon class made short claymation films. I loved that process! 

The Confucius Center leaders taught our students how to make dumplings for lunch, how to make traditional cut paper art, and how to make traditional brush strokes with sumi ink. And a science professor took us on a nature walk in the arboretum to teach the budding fine artists about the importance of observation and listening.

Friday's finale was a field trip to down town where we went into several galleries during exhibit openings.

Triangle Art, is an up-and-coming artist community. It was fun to hear the founder explain the vision of the place and how he'd done similar things in poor areas of Detroit and Atlanta. The stories were amazing. When I told him that I taught Art at the Academy for the Blind. He pulled out a painting by my former (she had just graduated two weeks earlier) student that he bought at one of our Goodwill Shows a couple years ago!  That was fun!
 We went out for Indian food before going to a really impressive theatre performance of Once on this Island! Everyone had a great time and learned a lot. Being the Assistant Director of the Center for Fine Arts Academy is a lot of work, but it is rewarding work.