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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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Designing for (Dis)Ability: Children's Books and Blind Readers

August 23, 2019

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

From the Three Blind Mice to Mary Ingalls Wilder, blindness remains a rare -- albeit important topic in children’s literature. In the past, many literary representations presented blindness (and disability overall) as a tragedy or even as a public burden. Fortunately, readers can recognize some progress. According to scholar Donna Sayers Adomat, “In the past ten years, literature for children and youth depicts increasingly positive attitudes towards people with disabilities.” Fortunately, in many newer titles, authors feature blind children in school, with friends, and living fulfilled lives. However, most of these children’s books about blind characters are not designed for a blind reader.

I do not write about disability and the publishing industry without precedent. In Dust, Carolyn Steedman describes how bookbinders and papermakers experienced respiratory illnesses in the early ages of the European printing press. The dust from the paper manufacturing process clogged their lungs, a tangible example of how literacy and disability have been materially connected for generations. With children’s books, the bright colors and flat pages are not, in and of themselves, ableist. After all, many children learn best with visual stimulation. According to Maria Popova, “bright, primary colors are most effective for the very young” because young children “tend not to have the language skills to express in words what they are receiving from an image.” Nonetheless, this visual communication evokes harm when children’s books use traditional illustrations to portray blind characters. In producing blind characters for abled readers, authors ostracize blind children who might otherwise find a valuable sense of community in the book.

Children’s literature relies on sight: bright colors, flat pages, full-page illustrations. Most children’s books featuring blind characters do not articulate self-awareness about their design. One book, Lucy’s Picture by Nicola Moon, positions itself as reflective analysis of blindness and literacy. Lucy tries to decide how she should paint a picture for her grandfather. Lucy isn’t convinced by the red, yellow, and blue paints: “they’re not right.” When Lucy asks if she can “stick things on” the page with glue, her teacher says, “You’ll have to move to a different table. There’s not enough room here.” She moves to an empty table in the corner of the room. Lucy closes her eyes and thrusts elbow-deep into a box of fabric and paper scraps, feeling with her eyes closed. Slowly and thoughtfully, Lucy collages materials into a landscape. Lucy spends her recess collecting sand and twigs for her picture. Finally, Lucy cuts her own hair to replicate the fur of her grandfather’s dog. At the end of the story, the reader finds out that the grandfather is blind and his golden retriever a seeing eye dog. “It’s the best picture I have ever seen,” says her grandfather.

Lucy’s Picture breaks ground by critiquing flat pictures and showing how blind readers can “see” texts in tactile ways. The text demonstrates an awareness of the pitfalls of flat images. This analysis provides a valuable springboard from which we can discuss book production and inclusive literacy. However, Lucy’s Picture centers the abled reader. Lucy’s Picture is produced for the Lucys of the world rather than the grandpas, so to speak. Lucy makes “the most beautiful picture” that her grandfather can “see” through the touch and feel components. Nonetheless, the book itself does not make the same multimodal accommodations that Lucy provides her grandfather. Lucy refuses to use red and blue paint because she understands that her grandfather cannot see these colors; they are “not right.” Ironically (and perhaps hypocritically), a reader’s first impression of this book is the bright color splashed across the cover. The children’s book continues to use these bright colors on every page. Lucy uses multimedia elements so her grandfather can touch and “see” her art, but Lucy’s Picture does not make this same use of media elements.

What does it mean to promote a new model of readership, of accomodation in publishing praxis? First, publishers and abled authors must work alongside disabled people to create multisensory alternatives. Menena Cottin’s The Black Book of Colors serves as an example. The text features Braille translations and full spreads of raised images, tangible pictures of leaves and flowers. Like in a colorful children’s book, these full illustrated pages engage the child and set the pace of reading. However, this book foregoes all color. Flowers and grasshoppers come to life under a reader’s fingertips. Even for seeing readers, these raised images are hard to spot with the naked eye. Seeing readers and blind readers alike find more meaning when their hands study the page. By avoiding bright colors, The Black Book of Colors promotes a similar reading experience among blind and seeing readers; children have a moment of kinship when they share this text. Chamari Edirisinhe, Norhidayati Podari, and Adrian David Cheok created a book prototype similar to The Black Book of Colors. In this multisensory experience, each page has English and Braille translations. Certain black pages are adorned with tactile materials, accompanied by sound, and even highlighted with scent. These sensory cues and reader questions all invite young readers to critically engage in the text. On one spread, a reader will touch a tuft of black fur. The text reads, “Alice’s friend is a playful cat. Did you enjoy it?” A book designed for a blind child may look very different than a mainstream picture book. This book rolls out flat like a scroll, the child moving across the room as they touch and read each page. Such a text demonstrates the ways in which abled bias permeate our reading experience, from character stereotyping, illustrations, audience, and even the codex form. Additionally, we can look at pop-up books, touch-and-feel books, and toy or moveable books to provide inspiration for ways in which we can design entertaining books for blind children.

While the history of disability representation has changed for the positive over time, educators, authors, and publishers alike can adopt a better design model for all young readers. By working alongside disabled creators, we can create new texts specifically for -- not just about -- disabled children.

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Second Grade Haiku

August 2, 2019

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

With the new school year just around the corner, I thought it might be fun to offer up a poetry lesson for elementary school. I find this lesson on haiku fits well into the second grade curriculum with a focus on syllable count. I like to include games and art as a way to make syllables a little bit more fun and interesting for the young student. Below are the notes behind my lesson plan which I hope will be useful to those teachers interested in incorporating poetry and art. (Also, I have used it with high school students in the past and had excellent results! Haikus are timeless, easy to introduce and fun!)

Part One: What is a haiku?

First, I describe the characteristics of a haiku. It will be important that they remember three key elements: syllable count, line structure, and that it conveys an image.

Typically it is a poem with three lines. The first line has 5 syllables. The second line contains 7 syllables. And the final line has 5 syllables again. This pattern mimics the way that we speak. Also, three lines is short enough to remember, but long enough to paint a picture. While syllable count is important, it is not very strict. Sometimes, a haiku will have 3-5-3 or 5-3-5. Also, a haiku often describes a thing, paints a picture, or gives a concrete description of something. It may convey a single idea, like a bird in flight, or a baseball player at bat.

Part Two: Is it, or is it not, a haiku?

This game is meant to open up the idea that poets are often playful. As often as they adhere to strict rules, they break the rules and that can be fun too. For the game, I show five to eight haiku examples. The first haiku follows all of the rules. In my game, I increasingly move into abstract examples and often end with a favorite haiku of mine by Cor van den Huevel which consists of one word: “tundra.” Kids should try to count the syllables to see how closely each poem follows the rules. They can discuss and argue about syllable count and make a decision as to whether or not the poem is a haiku. At the end of each poem, I have the kids vote Yea or Nay.

Part Three: Imagery and art

Because the next phase of this project incorporates materials, I preface the art project with the idea that words are materials. I explain something like:

I like to think of words as a kind of material. Words build important things. Each sentence weaves a tapestry, paints a picture and cements a wall. We physically create communication. Sentences are the buildings that structure ourselves and the information that we want to communicate. All materials work this way. All materials convey meaning. They give information. They communicate. They have strengths and weaknesses.

Depending on time, have the students brainstorm: construct sentences, write down ideas, use venn diagrams, etc. If you do not have time for it, skip on to the project!

Part Four: Art and Poetry project

Materials: cloth (felt, silk, burlap, patterns with animals or sports, etc), cardboard backing, cardstock, string, glue, scissors, markers. Use anything that gives a tactile experience but can also be glued. I often add tinfoil, wax paper, shredded paper, wood chips, pipe cleaners, etc.

Procedure: I allow the kids to choose to start with either the art project or the poem.

For the art project: have them use the cardboard as a background which will hold their designs. They can glue the fabrics on in any shape or design that they want. I love three dimensional projects, or one which uses movement such as flapping fabric. By using the strings, they can make it into a purse, a rocket, a tapestry, etc. Or they can simply create a one-dimensional scene such as a garden or pattern.

For the poem: After finalizing the a rough draft, find space on the art project to write or attach the poem. This can be done by writing it directly onto the cardboard, or by hanging it from a string. At the end of the lesson, the students will have created a piece of art that speaks to or reflects their poem. The poem should resemble a haiku, ensuring that they are also practicing syllable counts.

Total lesson time is about 1-1.5 hours.

I am a huge advocate of incorporating art into the classroom. This project can be done with minimal supplies and fits into any time of the year. If you use this lesson plan, please let me know how it goes! Enjoy the new school year!

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The Form of Sound

July 26, 2019

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

Forms have recognizable shapes. Typically we speak of visible forms, such as the difference between smoke and a cloud. These two share commonalities, but also have some very recognizable differences. Sound also has a shape of its own, though it is rarer to discuss forms of sound than visual forms. Musicians, however, are tasked with the goal of modeling sounds which create recognizable forms for the listener. I love to listen to film scores in order to gauge the shape of a movie. These scores give hints about the emotional content of the film. More than that, however, they often shape the film for the viewer – as if able to encapsulate roughly two hours of content into a single melody. In order to better understand how this is possible, I will focus on the way that musicians have demonstrated the form of water.

By identifying some of the key features used to imitate water I realize that I am ignoring the fact that sound can represent many things simultaneously. I do this only because I wish to trace a single thread, namely, the way that sound literally shapes an idea. Furthermore, the shaping of an idea (such as water) carries emotional connections which music ably conveys. While I focus on contemporary music due to time and space limitations, I do also understand the very healthy and necessary historical understanding of why and how sound evolved. If this topic interests you, I encourage you to look into the more historical elements of sound for cinema, the form of sounds, and emotional response to sound. Finally, I just want to note that the many links embedded in this post may appear tedious, but the soundbites are worth the time if you are at all interested in my argument, sound, and/or film scores.

First we must ask about water’s essential characteristics. Water is often moving, it is liquid, elemental, often depicted as blue, though we also know that water can be dark, muddy, green or sparkling. We sometimes describe water as: tinkling, running, falling, rushing, rough, swollen, winding, flowing, gushing, gurgling, brackish, fluid, murky, etc. In order to visualize water, we think in terms of waves and crests, rivulets, riverbends, droplets. Water can also be calm, choppy, ferocious, salty or fresh. Different types of animals live in freshwater versus saltwater. This abbreviated list alone demonstrates how water can be many things. If it assumes so many forms, how is it possible to know - and represent - its form?

And yet, water does have an essence. The following movies focus on water’s force in one way or another, as is reflected in their soundtrack. I made a few notes about the musical elements that caught my attention, but it is interesting to listen to these songs back to back in order to hear a possible version of the shape of water.

1] James Horner’s “Hymn to the Sea” from Titanic

It begins with a peaceful, calming human-like voice. The bagpipes indicate the tradition of a funeral hymn. Why is it titled Hymn to the Sea? Was the Titanic a sort of offering? Does this hymn personify the sea? Is the voice meant to be human or sea or ship? Is it meant to be female? The bagpipes incorporate the melody, and then many voices sing out in chorus. There are no words. This is a burial at the hands of the sea.

2] Alan Silvestri’s “Main Title” to The Abyss

It also begins with siren-like voices similar to the beginning of Horner’s “Hymn.” The voices gain force crashing into drums. What do the drums represent? Horns end this main title, accumulating into a clash of elements. It feels unsettled and gives the impression of the heartbeat. How does the music move from one element to another? How does this one incorporate ideas of water? Is water tied to fear?

3] Roque Banos’s “A Thousand Leagues Out” from In the Heart of the Sea

Intense from the beginning, a little percussion underscores the intensity and action. Ideas of size, perhaps of the whale, are implied. The music moves through all sorts of depths very rapidly, demonstrating change of water, emotions, situations. The music is meant to convey the spirit of depth, the unknown, mystery, fear and perhaps power, moving in and out like waves.

4] Johann Johannson’s “Into the Wide and Deep Unknown” from The Mercy

Piano music over a driving beat demonstrates both action and emotion. Then higher notes tinkle across the top, much like in Finding Dory, which implies a bit of love, hope, light, or whimsy. It ends with the lower notes on the piano and a sense of foreboding.

5] Thomas Newman’s “Main Title” to Finding Dory

Often watery sounds are expressed by the higher notes on the piano and/or keyboard, as heard here. The tinkling piano sounds seem to imitate the way that sunlight reflects off of water. The music also includes a structure that may refer to a whale song, or the sound of things that live in deep water.

6] Mark Isham’s “Haunted by Waters” from A River Runs Through It

Strings underscore a back and forth movement. Does the sound move over these strings in the way that water runs over rocks? It is as if the strings carry us, willingly, across the terrain. Does the fly fisherman’s hand and string move in a way that resembles water, and if so, are the sounds of water literally connected to the fisherman? The haunting of this song feels much less dangerous or fearsome than with some of the others, perhaps that is an essential difference between deep ocean water and rivers. The track title mentions haunted, but perhaps it is a necessary or beneficial haunting, as in the way that rivers define human lives.

7] Alexandre Desplat’s “Main Score” from The Shape of Water

An electronic human-like voice washes in and out of the melody. It comes and goes, not quite an eerie sound, but not fully human either. Voice and piano move up and down the scale in tandem for a short section of the score.

What is the essence of water? Does this list help to understand the way that humans see (or hear) water?


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