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The Creative Process in the Arts and Beyond

August 30, 2019

Thanks to Jennifer Taylor, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

It feels like August has only just begun, but somehow it is drawing to a close suspiciously quickly. As a new teacher, this inevitably results in mixed emotions. I - and I believe I can safely say most teachers - spend a good chunk of the summer thinking about and working on my job. I take an online course, review and improve the resources and materials I used for my classes last year, and generally feel very calm, organized, and prepared. As the last weeks of August slip away, though, that calm feeling disintegrates into anxiety. What courses will I actually end up teaching? If it’s a course I haven’t taught before, how will I prepare myself? What will my classes be like? And how in the world am I going to fit all of the curriculum requirements into just a few short months?

Obviously, I haven’t perfected the art of teaching. The thing about mastering anything is that you must do it over, and over, and over again, but as a young teacher I don’t always have the luxury of teaching the same class - or even at the same school - more than once. A challenge, certainly, but it also gives me the opportunity to look at teaching from different perspectives and try out different educational theories. Sometimes, I am a languages teacher, teaching French as a Second Language with a focus on authentic dialogue and action-based language learning. Sometimes I am an art teacher, teaching Visual Art and emphasizing the Growth Mindset while remaining cognizant of the multiple intelligences my students possess. Last year, I taught both at once - French Immersion Visual Art, an art course conducted entirely in French.

During that semester, as well as integrating the previously-mentioned pedagogical theories, I found that the Creative Process was invaluable in helping me structure the course. Though I have only seen it used in this iteration in the context of secondary Visual Arts, it fit in beautifully with the development of language skills, and I think could be used as a framework in other subjects as well. The individual steps will be very familiar, and can be spread out and used over an entire unit of study (as I do in my Art program) or scaled down to fit within a single period. I will give an example of the application of this process - specifically, how I used it to work through a clay relief sculpture unit with my students last year.

Challenging and Inspiring
When introducing a new topic, concept, or project, I try to start here, by inviting my students to be inspired by the potential that exists in our new topic of study. Often, this is dictated by the curriculum; in my case, the curriculum specifies that 9th grade French Immersion Visual Arts students be introduced to the art of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. We therefore examined ancient relief sculptures in caves, temples, on columns, and in burial chambers, focusing on a few key aspects: the level of relief, the textures used, and most importantly what stories are being told, and how they can be interpreted based on the sculptor’s choices.

When it comes to challenging students, the focus is on developing skills based on the topic of inspiration, rather than replicating stylistic elements or subjects. The artistic challenge posed to my students, therefore: how can depth and texture be used effectively in a clay slab to help communicate a story about you?

Imagining and Generating
Before they can really begin to consider how they will carry out the challenge, they must be able to see the possibilities and constraints that exist within it. Only after gaining an awareness of proper processes and techniques will students be able to imagine themselves carrying out the same actions. With clay, there are many physical rules and variables; with an adequate moisture content, it is malleable, but as it dries it becomes fragile and unworkable; if any air bubbles are created as it is being sculpted, it will explode when it is fired in the kiln; if pieces are not attached together using the proper technique, they will break apart during firing. Watching videos, participating in demonstrations, and looking at examples in various stages of completion allow students to imagine how they will manipulate the techniques themselves, and begin to generate their own ideas and do research on how to realize them.

An exemplar I showed my students to demonstrate what the planning and preliminary sculpting stages could look like for the project. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.

An exemplar I showed my students to demonstrate what the planning and preliminary sculpting stages could look like for the project. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.


Planning and Focusing
This is one of the stages that many students resist. Once they have their heart set on an idea, many prefer to jump straight into the final product, without passing “GO” or collecting their $200. It takes some time to convince students that a person’s first idea is not always their best - that sometimes, doing a little bit of planning work and trying variations on their original idea can pay off in a big way. At first, I give students a number of sketches they must complete before choosing one to pursue; but it doesn’t take them long to realize that their first composition is rarely the most successful. By the end of the year, their planning work is much more self-directed and gives them confidence in their ability to carry out their plan in the next stages.

In the planning stages of the clay relief sculpture, students sketched several potential compositions, then chose their favourite (with feedback from their peers and teacher) and added important technical details to indicate areas that would be additive (clay added onto the flat slab) or reductive (clay carved away from the surface) and what textures would be used. This helped them to visualize how they would achieve three dimensions when planning was done on a two-dimensional surface.

Exploring and Experimenting
This step will look very different depending on the skills being developed in any task or project. The intention is to ensure that every student is able to experiment with the materials and skills they will be using before having to touch their final work. Ideally, this stage should be low-risk in terms of evaluation so students can take huge risks in their experimentations. In my clay example, students created a miniature flat slab of clay and were invited to experiment with textures and techniques they wanted to use in their project. If they planned to sculpt a bird, their experimentation could tackle the challenge of how to create the texture of a feather in clay, how to sculpt and attach a delicate foot, or how to create the illusion of depth in the background.

Producing Preliminary Work
Finally, the “good copy”! If all other steps have been carried out with dedication and effort, this stage becomes easy; following a detailed plan that has been generated based on an artistic challenge and explored with proper techniques is simple - in a perfect world. In our world, additional challenges will still arise, disasters will strike, and all hope will occasionally be lost. Luckily, the creative process has not abandoned us - there are still more stages to come.

Revising and Refining
Whether or not all previous steps went according to plan, there are always improvements that can be made. When a student throws their hands up and says “I’m done!” I always ask a follow-up question. How do you know you are done? Is there any part of it you are not yet happy with? If your work belonged to one of your classmates, what suggestions would you give them for improvement? Whether your evaluation tool of choice is a checklist, rubric, success criteria, or something else, students can always go back to it and refine their product.

This is also one of the stages where feedback from peers is most important; if the creator runs out of inspiration for revisions, fresh eyes and a new point of view can be the most effective tools for revising one’s work. As well as improvised revisions with individual students, this is a stage where I also take the time for explicit peer evaluation with specific instructions. In our sculpture unit, I periodically had them stop working for a period of about ten minutes and discuss their progress with a partner, and ask that partner for suggestions. It is important that feedback is helpful without being harsh. A critical statement such as, The nose on your sculpture is too flat, can be discouraging. Advice, with phrasing like, The nose would look more realistic if you added more clay to the tip so it projects more, provides a path forward for revisions.

The final sculpture, ready to be shared with the artist’s group for feedback after it has been fired. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.

The final sculpture, ready to be shared with the artist’s group for feedback after it has been fired. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.


Presenting and Sharing/Reflecting and Evaluating
Presenting their work is another step that my students were reluctant to undertake, so sometimes I blended the last two steps of the process together. In older grades, students might participate in a formal, unscripted full-class critique of each other’s work. In younger grades, I found that preparing a self-reflection and then sharing their work in small groups or partners was more successful. A written reflection on their work not only forced students to examine their own learning - it also made it obvious to me when they did not really understand the criteria. When a student gave themselves 10/10 for something they failed to include in their work (which did happen), it allowed me to determine the extent of their understanding, and also to reflect on how I could improve my teaching of the concept.

With their written reflection as a guide, I ask students to share the reasons behind their chosen composition, where they found success, and where they could have improved. Classmates can then weigh in with comments on what they enjoyed, suggestions for next time, or questions. The important thing about this stage is that it takes place immediately after they complete the project, so students can more effectively internalize the suggestions they receive and immediately apply them to the next project. Often, the creator themselves or a classmate will address the very same aspects that I would give in my evaluation of the work - but the student does not have to wait a week or two to receive the feedback in writing, by which time they have already mentally moved on.

The artist’s reflection on their own work. In this case, they were happy that the levels of depth and the textures looked realistic. If they could do it again, however, they would alter the composition so there was not so much empty space at the bottom. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.

The artist’s reflection on their own work. In this case, they were happy that the levels of depth and the textures looked realistic. If they could do it again, however, they would alter the composition so there was not so much empty space at the bottom. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.


Feedback and Reflection
I have mentioned feedback specifically at a few key stages, but what I appreciate about this version of the creative process is that feedback and reflection take place at every stage of a project. This does not mean that I force students into some form of formal reflection at every stage - rather, I encourage students to be frequently discussing their work with their classmates as they work, so that reflection and feedback take place organically throughout the process. One potential challenge is ensuring that constructive feedback among peers avoids being offensive or dismissive of their work. As previously mentioned, in that interest, students are encouraged to give suggestions for improvement rather than critical comments on unsuccessful aspects. As well as improving artistic skills and techniques, they are also developing their language skills - obviously an advantage in a Second Language course, but no less effective in a wide variety of other fields as well.

The potential of the Creative Process has not yet been fully developed. It has been a great guiding tool in teaching Visual Arts, but I see how it can be useful beyond an art classroom, and I will now be adapting this same process into every course that I teach.

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Dear Reader

June 28, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Letters often hold interest for me as a researcher and reader. They demonstrate humanity in ways that other writing cannot. People allow themselves a level of intimacy on paper that is not allowed in other areas of life. I love to write letters and I do lament that they are not as popular now as they once were. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in a collection of letters titled Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. In it, the editors have compiled letters from many famous and successful individuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and authors. One interesting aspect of this book is that the letters are all written to an unknown reader, but yet some of the letters are still startling intimate. These letters, written by successful and interesting individuals, explain how or why books have helped them in life. They all encourage us to read, but the reasons for doing so vary from person to person, and experience to experience. There are so many letters worth reading, but I have space share only a handful on today’s blog. I invite you to peek into the book yourself to better understand what your favorite public figure thinks of reading.

From Ann Patchett (page 242)

“[N]othing that matters in life should be taken for granted, so if you love to read, here’s how you can ensure that the generation after you and the generation after them will keep at it: all you have to do is read books. Sometimes you should read them in public places. At least some of the time read books that are printed on paper and hold them up so people can see what you’re doing. When they say, ‘Is that book any good?’ stop reading for a minute and answer them. The wonder of books is that they are worlds we enter into alone, and yet at the same time they can connect us to other people.”


From James Gleick (page 248)

“[S]omehow you do learn to read. Then, when you open a book, you scarcely see the letters or even the words. They vanish, an invisible blur across the printed page, while the information they encode pours into your mind as if through a fire hose. Look. Listen. Moonlight shining in the window; a mysterious smile glimpsed in a mirror; a muffled cry from a distant room; the squelch of wet shoes on the tile. Sights and sounds rise from the page and mingle with your experience and stir your memories. You fill in the empty spaces. There is no reading without imagination.”

From Anne Lamont (page 254)

“Books are paper ships, to all worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and – the most precious stunning journey of all – into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.”

From Elizabeth Alexander (page 256)

“In the 1920s she [Alexander’s grandmother] wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Helen Fagin (page 58)

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death./ There I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility…./ A knock at the door shattered our dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: ‘Thank you so very much for this journey into another world.’… / Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust./ The pale green-eyed girl was one of them. … / There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Alan Lightman (page 66)

“Keep in mind that information is not the same thing as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means. To do that, you will need to turn off your neurochip from time to time. It is valuable to connect to the world, and it is also valuable to disconnect and listen to your own mind think.”

There are many other inspirational letters in this interesting volume. If you get the chance, take a peek in this book (as well as many others).

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From King to Rankine

January 18, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I enjoy rereading some of Dr. King’s remarkable works. As a culture, we are still coming to terms with his life, his death, and his very beautiful words. Personally, his words resonate with me in any number of ways. Foremost, perhaps, is the fact that he calls for honest (and perhaps painful) dialogue. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for example, is a rational response to eight clergymen who called King’s activities “unwise and untimely.” In this letter, King writes that he cannot respond to all criticism, but he wants to address their particular concerns because he feels that they “are men of genuine good will” and that their “criticisms are sincerely set forth.” This, then, is a necessary prerequisite to any actual dialogue: the open-minded ability to weigh another person’s argument.

This same element of discussion is being embraced throughout America in a number of ways. I recently listened to an OnBeing podcast of a discussion between Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute, and Krista Tippett. My favorite moment of this discussion is perhaps also one of the more uncomfortable moments in which Krista Tippett takes for granted the idea that in the ‘70s or ‘80s American society had moved past race. Claudia Rankine interrupts her and says, “Don’t say ‘surely we were past this.’” She means to say that the more nuanced elements of racism linger in ways that outsiders can hardly imagine and so while some people saw progress, others were still seeing perpetuated injustices like disproportionate incarceration rates. The moment is slightly uncomfortable, but the result is a shared understanding, which to me is the greatest achievement of dialogue. Not all moments will be successful or transcendent, but these small moments work toward a greater good. The transcript of this section reads:

Ms. Tippett: Well, right. But I think there are reasons to feel that, to be nervous. And it’s interesting, because there aren’t that many people, even just given this conversation - there aren’t that many people like Eula [Biss], saying, let’s talk about whiteness. Let’s talk about whiteness. There was actually a moment in that conversation with her where - two white people talking about whiteness, and we both agreed that it was mortifying and embarrassing and messy. Part of it is, you feel like, surely, we were past this. We shouldn’t be having to have this conversation at this advanced age. She talked about how —

Ms. Rankine: Krista, don’t say that. Don’t say, “Surely we were past this.”

Ms. Tippett: I think that’s one reason people feel awkward, because we’re still getting over from this cathartic five years —

Ms. Rankine: No, but you know: mass incarceration — you know what’s happening.

Ms. Tippett: I know.

Ms. Rankine: So not “surely” — I mean, those things were always happening.

Ms. Tippett: They were, but I think people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s were born into a world in which they were told that yes, sure, it wasn’t perfect yet, but we were inexorably moving past it. That’s an instinct. And now we’re having to unlearn and say, actually, we weren’t anywhere. We just made baby steps. That’s what I mean.

Ms. Rankine: OK, OK.

I appreciate Claudia Rankine’s persistence and care with speech, and also her patience to understand Krista Tippett’s response. I also appreciate Krista Tippett’s ability to explain what she meant and how she meant it. Subjects such as racism are personal and offensive and often instill hateful rhetoric. To me, this conversation demonstrates necessary elements of reason, patience, and open minds.

It is important, perhaps vital, to note the moments when people disagree. As a leader of conversations, I try to take advantage of those awkward moments, which is not always easy (or successful). The conversation between Rankine and Tippett reminded me, once more, of Dr. King’s words. More than anything, he is frustrated by the “appalling silence of good people.” He writes that “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

This conversation deals specifically with elements of race, but dialogue is a necessary aspect of all human relations. I find that the more we practice open-minded listening, the better we will become as a society.

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What's Your Sign?

January 11, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Let’s listen with our eyes and not just our ears. That would be the ideal.” -Christine Sun Kim

Early exposure to language seems to be the key in all languages. The key to what? Success in that language, or with language in general? Or in society? What is the bar for success and how is it measured? With today’s blog, I want to better understand how language expresses thought, particularly through the lens of sign language.

Most of us have some experience with a young, non-verbal child (your own, someone else’s, or even through movies, etc) in which the child wishes to communicate. Think of the crabby one or two year old demanding something by screaming or crying, body language and/or facial expressions. Also, think of the parents’ joy at their child’s first word. It really is amazing to have these tiny humans mimic words at such a young age. This seems to be proof of an innate desire to communicate with others. Even if it is mimicry at this stage, they come to grasp the idea of language and communication, which still leaves me wondering how far language is learned versus innate. The child simply sees adults talking, or perhaps older siblings, and they want to join. Spoken language has existed for over 60,000 years, making it difficult to differentiate natural from learned behaviors. However, a lot of superb scholarship is currently coming out of sign language due to two facts: a) it is a relatively new language and b) sign language is not linked with verbal language. These differences offer some key insights into how languages act.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), sign language relies upon visual cues alone. It creates language with bodies and space. Though there is an alphabet, it is used mainly for spelling new words or names. While there are a number of popular sign languages, today’s blog focuses mostly on American Sign Language (ASL).

First, let’s start with fingerspelling. This is the process of spelling a new word, such as the name of a person or organization. But it could also be some new piece of information. According to this lesson plan on ASLU, many flowers lack specific signs in ASL. Therefore if you want to say daisy, you would fingerspell D-A-I-S-Y. In further explanation of the utility of fingerspelling, the instructor continues: “How about food? While there are quite a few signs for various food items, there are thousands of types of foods that have no established sign. Hold on to your chair when I tell you this - there isn't even a widely accepted sign for burrito. (As opposed to a burro, which is a small donkey. We do have a sign for "donkey," but try showing a picture of a both a donkey AND a mule to 10 different Deaf people and watch 'em tell you ‘mule is spelled.’) And a mule is a relatively common animal -- don't even get me started on ‘ring-tailed lemurs!’”

Another use of fingerspelling is when you have a common name like John or Bob, you can fingerspell the name, but refer to a particular space in front of you which will equal “Bob” for the rest of the conversation. So, as a shortcut, you can point to that space to indicate Bob, rather than fingerspelling the name each time. There are some instances, however, in which a name does have a particular sign. Think of names like Dawn or Penny. These are somewhat common names which also have a corresponding sign. In this case, you would fingerspell the name to explain that you mean to designate a proper noun and not the concept of dawn, for example.

In fact, names offer such a rich area of study in terms of sign language. There is an entire culture dedicated to naming things in sign language. Names often depend upon a person’s characteristics as decided by the Deaf community. This short video from My Smart Hands gives a little more understanding into how names are assigned.

SignSavvy.com (among others) explains:

“Fingerspelling your name can seem a bit impersonal, especially among friends. So, members of the Deaf community often give each other sign names. Your sign name is often related to something about you (a characteristic). For example, if you have curly hair, your sign name may be a combination of the first letter of your name and the sign for curly hair. Culturally, it is not appropriate to pick your own sign name and only Deaf people assign sign names. When you first use a sign name in a conversation, you would fingerspell the name and then show the sign name. Once the people know who you are talking about, the sign name makes it easier and more personal to refer to the person during the conversation.”

Many cultures have not been able to control their own language due to outside oppression and/or language mixing. While French sign language and ASL do share a common history, today they are distinct languages. Due to the unique nature of the Deaf community, it is not clear (to me, at least) to what extent an outside force could actually affect or alter a particular sign language. (For more on this, check out Nicaraguan Sign Language or the fascinating Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language.) It makes sense that the Deaf community prefers to assign their own signs for names, since much of sign language relies upon a cultural understanding of how to use space, body language and gesture itself. In the same way that typing in all capital letters looks like shouting, some subtle body change (such as pointing, shaking your hand, or raising an eyebrow) may greatly affect the nature of the word that you mean. The artist Christine Sun Kim explains that “In deaf culture, movement contains sound.” (She explains the concept of full-body language in this TedTalk.) Signs can express irony, sarcasm, anger, humor, etc. just as capably as voiced speech. Understanding humor or sarcasm in a second language, however, is one of the greatest challenges of learning a new language.

Due to the way that sign language involves full body language, I find that it is an extremely emotive language. While the Syntopicon does an adequate job of outlining topics related to Language, I find fault that there is not a cross-reference for Language in terms of Emotion. I believe there is much development to be made between the cognitive associations of language making, language preferences, language learning, memory recall and emotion. Since memory and emotion are both contained in the limbic system of our brains , it would make sense to pair language recall with memory and/or emotion. (To Adler’s credit, he does suggest a link between Memory and Imagination). There is room though, I believe, for exploration regarding emotion as it relates to language cognition, use, and development. One other area of great interest to me is the bridge between Language and Art (which Adler does address in the Syntopicon). (For more about the deaf experience in the world of art (and sound), check out artist Christine Sun Kim’s exploration of noise.)

I also wish that there was a cross-reference between Language and Nature. Is language natural? In what way(s) does the early language-learner express a natural tendency to communicate? If the young child desires to communicate, is this concrete evidence that natural language exists, that language is natural to humans? What does it mean to say that language is natural? And finally, what can a developing language such as sign language tell us about language itself?

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