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Art Works! (To Develop Flexible and Other Kinds of Thinking)

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FLEXIBILITY 

…the ability to change strategies or revise plans when conditions change …

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I recently read an article by art therapist, Lisa Mitchell, about using art to practice resilience, flexibility and nimble thinking. I have been thinking a lot about this. I work with children in grades k-12 who experience challenges in reading and (according to the data) are performing far below grade level. Doing what we have been doing for years, providing traditional intervention (remediation and re-teaching) is not working for these students! If it were – my struggling students in the fourth, fifth, sixth and all grades beyond would have “learned how to read” by now. I truly believe that these students are lacking executive functioning skills (have ADHD symptomatology) and have fallen through the cracks.

The folks at Understood.com remind us that executive skills develop gradually and at different rates for different people. Executive function is a set of mental processes that helps us connect past experience with present action. They are the air traffic control tower for our decision-making. Most children struggle at one time or another with planning, organization and follow through. Executive function skills are developmental and vary from person to person. Children who behave in ways that are inflexible have trouble when a familiar routine is disrupted or a task becomes complicated are an example of ADHD symptomatology (executive function deficit). They get frustrated when a first attempt to solve a problem isn’t successful. They are unable to see new ways to do familiar tasks or to make another choice when the first choice proves unworkable. These behaviors negatively impact their school success.

Neuroscience supports the positive benefits of artistic expression. Through activities that involve creativity, children with executive function deficits discover new ways to concentrate on what they enjoy most and do best, to focus, to forgive and appreciate themselves and to cope with their impulsivity with new tools they can transfer into other parts of their school life (Safran,2002). Making art actually grows neurons that strengthen executive functioning skills and build resilience, flexibility and nimble thinking.

The research shows that making art benefits individuals with ADHD symptomatology when provided sensory motor and neuro-academic activity that is designed to improve brain connectivity. Ultimately these activities lead to improved self-esteem, problem-solving, academic, social and behavioral and executive function skills – the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Author and researcher, Kathy Malchiodi (2002) writes, making art, using their hands, offering children a chance to do something provides a structure … that helps school-age children stay focused and understand the next steps of any problem or task at hand.

Many adolescents with ADHD symptomatology/executive function deficits thrive on out-of-the-box interests. Parents, in supporting their teen’s quest to find activities to pursue enthusiastically should allow all doors to remain open for consideration. Theater, dance, visual arts, stand-up comedy, creative writing, journalism, entrepreneurship and consulting are just a few of the possibilities to keep in mind.

School reform does not often include a focus on creativity and art making at the center of academic success. Perhaps we should rethink and realign our thinking to what the neurologists are now telling us – that art works!

Perhaps, if educators better understood the positive impact that art has on children with ADHD symptomatology, then perhaps, there would be less art teacher’s laid off and more demand for art therapists service for children struggling with lack of access to, participation and progress in the general education curriculum and perhaps we would see an increase in the number of children with ADHD symptomology making typical academic progress and succeeding in the school setting. In this author’s opinion, the area of art therapy and the brain and its application to the school environment needs further study – art is such a hopeful alternative to school failure for students – how can we not embrace the research and run with it. So many children are depending on us.

References:

Malchiodi, K. (2011). Handbook of Art Therapy (2nd ed.). New York, New York: The Guilford Press.

Mitchell, L. (2016). Online Blog located @ http://www.innercanvas.com/2015/10/11/art-practice-resilience-flexibility-nimble-thinking/#comment-34869

National Center for Learning Disabilities (2013). Executive Function 101. Located online @ https://www.understood.org/~/media/040bfb1894284d019bf78ac01a5f1513.pdf.

Safran, D. (2002). Art Therapy and AD/HD: diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsly Publishers.

 

Art Teachers Can Change the World (understanding and fostering creative thinkers)

Drainbowear Hiring Manager,

I am applying for an art teaching position, because like Jean Houston, I believe that art educators can change the world!  My urban public charter school is closed in June 2016 and I have made the decision that I want to get back to I love most! I believe that imagination, play, and creativity are important for human brain development, and the arts are one of the ways students can get that stimulation. Education that is hands-on, sensory-rich, experience-laden, which calls for the whole mind of whole child, can develop our human potential.

I have many academic, work and volunteer experiences and the skill sets that would enhance any team dedicated to creating a school with great learning experiences for ALL children learning well together!

So begins my cover letter as a begin the difficult journey of “career shift” from Public School teacher/administrator to the wide world beyond it.

Here’s the deal … The more I studied “special education” the less I believed in it and instead fully embraced the idea that there is no such thing as a standardized child. Humans are diverse. I like to say that in schools, we grow humans, not corn crops – period. It is dangerous and non-productive to think otherwise. The way we “do school” is changing with each mandated high-stake standard and standardized test created. Textbook companies follow the money leaving thousands of children behind in the wake.

I envision public school as a giant vice grip. As we turn the handle, the sides of the grip narrow and children keep popping out right and left as we scramble to label them with one of the thirteen federal categories that document eligibility for specialized services. These categories for which students can be evaluated and made “eligible for services” drive federal funding (and national budgets), not local school teaching and learning. In reality, teachers need to get to know students’ individual strengths and weaknesses of the students sitting in front of them in order to create the on-ramps (specialized learning and classroom accommodations) to the grade-level-common-core-curriculum. In my experience, in most urban public schools there is just not the capacity to do this job well. Creativity is often left out of the equation. As a special education “resource” and “intervention” teacher, I have had more than one principal direct me to, “pull them out of art or music to teach them reading or math basic skills.” In other words, they can miss those classes without dire consequence!

I am leaving special education as a job inside the school-as-institution box and trying to make the leap outside the box to better align with what lives inside me. I am a constructivist reading teacher by training and an artist and social-reconstructivist by nature.   Using what I know about learning and creativity I want to do my best to develop human potential (especially children with diverse learning, language, and behavioral needs). Numerous studies highlight the loss of creativity that happens to students during their time in schools. We cannot let that continue: we need the arts in schools, on a consistent basis, for all students. If you haven’t watched Sir Ken Robinson make his entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an educational system that undermines (rather than nurtures creativity) watch him @ https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en.

We write common core standards that dictate whether or not a child is making typical growth in reading, writing, and language and then use those scores to subjectively measure the teacher’s teaching skills in order to determine whether or not that teacher should continue teaching. I have grown weary with this system that is not sensitive to measure growth such as a tenth-grade student reading at the third-grade level moving up one grade level in a semester. I have no doubt in my mind that the one level increases that child’s potential.

Emily Wheling argues for the need for creative minds on the blog @https://www.rubicon.com/field-notes-understanding-and-fostering-creative-thinkers/ that creativity is a critical 21st-century skill necessary for successful problem solving within the current economy and workplace. She goes on to say that according to the Harvard Business Review, the creative sector of the U.S. economy currently employs more than 30% of the workforce, or over thirty-eight million architects, artists, designers, educators, engineers, entertainers, scientists, and musicians. Corporate recruiters are visiting art schools around the United States looking for innovative talent, “…because of abundance, businesses are realizing that the only way to differentiate their goods and services in today’s overstocked marketplace is to make their offerings physically beautiful and emotionally compelling.”  Check out what she has to say about more ways to foster creativity. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning  offers an extensive study that includes key actions to help enhance student creativity in educational contexts and beyond:

Perhaps my path to out-of-the-box educator will lead me to a position as an art teacher, or art therapist (with further study), educational consultant or as a member of a team that designs another school. The path is not yet charted (and probably not paved) but I am packing my bags and getting ready for the journey. Wish me Bon Voyage!

Standing for ALL our Children

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I came across this article that I wrote in 1996 … these are the roots of my work as I finish the hard work of of designing and growing a new public charter school in Midtown Detroit (which is the reason for my silence in this past year). In three weeks, we will have successfully completed one year (and celebrated with our 346 students and their families) at Experiencia Preparatory Academy. Cheers to beginning year two! 

Standing for All Our Children

— Sasha Roberts

On June 1, 1996, the largest demonstration for children in U.S. history took place in Washington, D.C. More than 300,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the first ever Stand for Children Day. The words of a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock flashed through my head:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won.
Many stones to build an arch, singly none, singly none.
Any by union what we will, can be accomplished even still.
Drops of water turn a wheel, singly none, singly none.

As I rounded the corner from the elevator to the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I encountered a sea of color: Hundreds of thousands of people from every nationality, state, race, religion, age, sexual and political persuasion and social class were gathered.

It stretched from the very steps where I stood with my two sons, Alexander six years old and Ramon four years old, all the way to the Jefferson Memorial on the horizon. It wasn’t until this moment, from this perspective at Lincoln’s feet looking out onto rather than on the ground level looking into the multitudes of people who had traveled from as far as California, that I felt the reason we were all here.

Ramon woke suddenly from napping in the stroller (the reason we’d taken the elevator and not the steps) with the exclamation “MAMA! look at all these people.” I replied, “And you know why they are all here? Because each and every one of them cares about children.”

He then asked, “All of them?” An African-American grandmother who has custody of her six grandchildren smiled and replied, “Yes baby, all of us here.”

Silently taking in this visual, powerful promise of hope, I made a mental note that I would never have to feel alone in this struggle.

Yes, we heard Marian Wright Edelman tell us that each person can and must help–and not hinder–our children growing up safe, healthy, educated, productive and moral, and that each citizen must ask whether our personal, community, business, and public actions make it easier or harder for children to grow up safe and well.

But the challenge Edelman put before us was “the most important way citizens can stand for children is to struggle (and it is a challenging task) to live in-deed what we teach in words. We must also work together to weave a web of family, community and government support at all levels that leaves no child behind. No one raises a child alone.”

June 1, 1996, was a seed in my garden of hope. And those of us who rode through the night on the eight buses from Detroit to the National Stand (thanks to generous support from UAW Locals 22 and 600), who worked to organize, publicize, raise funds for scholarships enabling mothers and children and homeless teenagers to attend, who talked to youth groups, elder groups, religious and civic groups, and who held rallies, meetings and walkathons in conjunction with the Stand for Children (more than 250 across the country on June 1) have begun to build a “Community of Hope.”

Love and concern for children, hard work, and unity of purpose made June 1 an inspirational and historic day and will make our movement to “leave no child behind” a success. In Detroit, we are already moving forward. Some are focused on volunteering, others on lobbying or writing letters; some who have never been involved in a child-related cause before will “walk our talk.”

Across the country, there are many examples of groups coming back from the National Stand and getting to work. In Detroit, many of us who attended the National Stand continue to meet at the First Unitarian Universalist Church to plan future actions. On September 5 Erma Henderson, lifelong political activist, and community leader organized a coalition to support her annual Conference of Concerns at Cobo Hall focusing on our tasks of Standing for Children. And on October 5, 3500 of us stood on the State Capitol steps in Lansing renewing our commitment to the work of standing for children, every day.

This campaign has instigated a new level of consciousness on the plight of our children and our determination for change. We will change this country person by person, group by group, community by community, state by state until no child is left behind.

To quote Marian Wright Edelman, “If each one of us every day lights our small candle, it just might be the one that sparks the movement to save our children.”

(For more information contact Stand for Children, 1832 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington D.C.; fax (202)234-0217, email TellStand@aol.com; or call 1-800-663-4032.)

The Politics of Language and White Privilege

It is easy to underestimate the importance and power of sociopolitical aspects of language… Interaction, negotiation, interpretation, intended meanings, misunderstandings, and pragmatics all underscore those roles.  When such considerations are extended into communities, regions, nations, and continents, the political side of language becomes evident (Brown, D. 2001 Teaching by Principles P. 115).

As a white speaker of standard English, who grew up in a white suburban neighborhood, and not ever having much contact with any people of color or English Language Learners, my white privilege was invisible and unknown to me.  I was not conscious of it until I moved away from home, and consciously made friends and business associations with people of diverse race and cultures.  At first, I was shocked and unbelieving that the incredible injustices that happened to my friends on a regular basis, could be happening.  I didn’t understand how anyone could treat another badly – based on a difference in race, language, sexual orientation, or age.  The only comparison I had – was the gender bias I had experienced growing up in the early sixties.

Many years before becoming a teacher, I met Louie, a full blood Lakota, the same age as me, living in between Ann Arbor and South Dakota, a foot in each culture, simultaneously.  Though our friendship, I embarked on a personal journey of understanding the language and cultural barriers of being Native American.

Louie was raised in a mission school.  The children were taken away from their families to be schooled by nuns who hit them with rulers when they spoke in their native language.  Louie told me that on the weekends the children were let loose into the canyon, and as their families had no means of transportation, they were cut off from their families, culture, and language. They were not embraced or welcomed into the white mainstream culture. They were made to feel powerless. There has been little written on this subject of Indian Mission Schools, in spite of the fact that so many individuals were deeply scarred by their experiences. This is a subject worthy of another post, but for those readers who are interested there is a powerful movie called Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School (2008) – that is worth watching! Producer Gayle Ross gently but purposefully exposes the practice of assimilating indigenous children into a foreign white culture, and the devastating effects on these young people as well as on generations of Native Americans to follow.

On the reservation, Louie was a spiritual leader, a singer for a medicine man and an artist – a maker of wooden flutes and prayer pipes. There were few to no paying jobs on the reservation so he left for Ann Arbor, where he worked for minimum wage, buffing floors on the midnight shift at K Mart.  He felt foreign and uncomfortable in both worlds and belonged fully to neither.  He never graduated from high school, and viewed himself as not being able to read or write well and I inferred that he doubted whether he could do any better.  He knew that his lack of a high school diploma is what kept him from getting a higher paying job, and felt that his job working the midnight shift at K Mart was better than having no job at all.  He could find no real home in either place, culturally or economically.  He was caught between two different worlds, which affected him socially, economically and politically. I listened painfully to stories Louie told me of moving back and forth between “the Res” and Ann Arbor. I don’t know where Louie is now. It seems he has vanished. I have a sketchbook that he gave me for safe keeping, that I’d like to return it to him. I am grateful for the lessons he taught me, which opened my eyes in a very personal way and have shaped the kind of teacher I have become and I’d like to tell him.

This relates to something I read recently, suggesting the very democratic idea – that in a limited sense, all human languages can be said to be both equal and perfect.  It is a principle I agree, but it is an idea, which is not extended into communities, regions, nations and continents. It is perhaps, what I am striving for and the very reason why as an urban social-reconstructivist teacher I find myself teaching reading in a school with diverse culture and languages.  The personal experiences of many of my friends have taught me that if in our hearts we believe this “equal and perfect principal” to be a universal truth, it fails to hold water in the real world of white privilege.

Teaching reading and writing is a political act.  As teachers of conscience, we can’t ignore the sociopolitical aspects of language – we must always consider them. This is the hard work and hidden curriculum of being an urban teacher. We must roll up our sleeves – there is so much to be done!