Category Archives: Faculty and Staff

Costa Rica – Final Reflection

By Pacho Gutierrez ‘77

Twenty-three years ago I led the first GS student trip to Costa Rica, a country that inspired me not only for its natural richness, but also for its dedication to conservation, sustainability, peace and social justice, among other things.  This was my 12th time taking students to this magnificent country.  As always, I left it refreshed and inspired.

Almost a quarter of a century will bring great change to any country, but it seems to be magnified in Costa Rica since it used to be so pristine.  Its population has grown by 47 percent between 1994 and 2017.  As Ticos gain in affluence, they buy more vehicles, build more roads, and construct more businesses.  This become greatly apparent as one travels the roads, there is construction everywhere.  The modern world is taking over, even a country where simplicity and unhurried lifestyle has been the way of life.

Costa Rica is doing its best to be a world leader in many fronts.  For example, and as was mentioned in the blogs, it was the first nation to reach 100 percent renewable electricity production in 2015, making it a leader in energy sustainability.  Almost one third of its territory is protected in some form or another from development or exploitation.  Ninety seven percent of its population has access to electricity and potable water. Costa Rica has one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America. It enforces conservation laws better than most other Latin American countries.  It provides health services better than most developing countries.  It has low crime and poverty rates.

Progress continues to spread over the planet.  Modern conveniences and amenities are encroaching the Costa Rican countryside.  For example, it used to be there was little or no cell service in rural areas, now it seems like there is WiFi connectivity in every room in every lodge, no matter how remote (Tortuguero).  Those eco-tourists demand their connectivity!

Ticos continue to soldier on with their respect for nature, for wildlife and for each other.  Animals move about unafraid or unconcerned with humans.  It’s like what happens with the GS squirrels, they are emboldened by the way they are left free to roam.

Ticos are humble people with a strong sense of family and solidarity with their neighbors, something that really struck a chord with our students.  The respect and cohesiveness they show with one another is refreshing and awe inspiring.  Sure, they have problems like everyone else, but they have a tranquility about them that is unique.

Ticos say Pura Vida! (literally: Pure Life) for everything: as a greeting, as a response, as an expression, as an invitation to be positive and jovial.  Its contagious, one can’t help to be happy around Ticos.  Pura Vida all around!

I hope they never lose their joy to live their meaningful lives!

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty, Faculty and Staff, Service, Student Work

Costa Rica

by Kim Major 

As we sit on the runway in Atlanta it’s hard to not feel a bit wistful for the trip that is on the cusp of its finale. No gallo pinto tomorrow. No strong and amazingly flavorful coffee. No monkeys, exotic birds, or the deepest of greens all around. No smiles and holas from Erick and Enrique our guide and driver. No new adventures around the corner with sights that make me draw my breath in with a not-so-silent gasp.

No, it is back to life as I knew it. But, really, it’s not. Just like the students with whom I travelled, this experience has changed me. In our reflections, we often asked our students to frame their Costa Rica experience with a series of “what” questions: WHAT did I do (narrative), SO WHAT – how did this experience impact me, NOW WHAT – now that I’ve learned this, what will I do with this knowledge.

The WHAT has been thoroughly and beautifully covered by trip participants throughout the blog. I think the SO WHATs have been scattered with subtle awe throughout as well. For our students, I think the NOW WHAT is still forming – it won’t be until after re-immersion into day-to-day life that the impact can truly be known. As for me, over the course of the last 12 days, the NOW WHATS have come to me in dribbles and then, at times, in waves of what I like to call BFOs (blinding flashes of the obvious). Writing this blog entry gives me the opportunity to try to collect them in some coherent way. So here goes…

I studied French in school a long (very long) time ago. Aside from the occasional adios, I knew no Spanish. So, for months before the trip I tried my best to teach myself the basics of the language. After putting that to practice [some] and hearing it spoken all around me, I realized I want to learn the language not for the trip or future travel but because it is beautiful and I want to be the person who knows multiple languages, not the one who thinks everyone should speak mine. Now what? Now I continue to study the language with greater depth.

I have led service trips before with another school, but never internationally. In fact, aside from Canada (and sorry, dear husband of mine, Canada does not count) I had never before traveled internationally. Before this experience, I thought my top travel destinations were typical sightseeing spots in Europe or pure “fun” beach or ski vacations. But after visiting the cloud forest in Monteverde and the remote beaches of Tortuguero, and after immersing myself in the culture of a community off the beaten path, what I really want in future travel is to go to the places not as well traveled. To see flora and fauna that may not exist if we do not care for the environment. Sure, I want some time reading a book on a beach, but just as much, I want to look for more eco and adventure travel experiences – particularly those that, like in Costa Rica, serve to both enhance the local economy and provide resources to protect the environment.

Speaking of the environment, I was blown away by how Ticos and Ticas respect the environment. Ticos practice an environmental stewardship model of environmentalism by conserving, appreciating and valuing nature as ancient cultures did. I love George School, and we do an OK job with recycling but we have so much more we can do—particularly in the dorms. As a dorm parent, I want to do more to encourage my residents to consistently recycle. I have always cared for and about our natural resources, but I know I can do a lot more.

A more subtle NOW WHAT came through reading student journals. Students often remarked that they thought they would do more service on the trip, and then later noted all the learning about themselves and the outside world that had taken place. A big lesson for me is that if I have the opportunity to chaperone service learning trips in the future (my hand is already raised to volunteer), I can do a better job of framing the goals. In reality, in an 11-day trip, the total impact of the service a group our size can do is small. Minuscule, really. But, that does not mean it doesn’t matter. However, the purpose of the trip is not just service in the community—it is promoting shifts in thinking. If our students push themselves out of their comfort zones, they expand their worldview and may be more likely to stretch themselves to help others in the future. If they gain deeper understanding of and appreciation for different cultures and communities, they are more likely to reach out to strangers because they have seen firsthand that the differences between people really are not as vast as they might think they are on the surface. If they stand in awe of nature in a new way, they are more likely to work to respect and steward the environment at home. Sure, beach cleanups, playground rejuvenation and school visits have meaning, but I argue that the most far-reaching change that comes from trips like ours is the change inside each of us. I hope to do a better job of articulating that on future trips.

I am sure that for me, like our students, more lessons will come to me as the summer progresses. Parents, I encourage you to talk to your children about their NOW WHATs. Ask them to go beyond the store of photos in their phones. Ask them to describe the trip beyond the lodge reviews and review of the sites. Ask them about the impact on themselves. I know I will continue to ask myself what change will come in me from the trip. For now, however, I am so grateful that George School views experiences like this one as critical for students, I am glad I was able to participate in THIS trip, with THIS group, at THIS time. It was magical. And, I am certain of two things. First, I will return to Costa Rica. While I know I saw, experienced, and appreciated so much, I also know that the next time around I will see, feel, appreciate, and respect the country and its people even more. Like reading a great book, in the first pass you see it in broad, beautiful and inspiring strokes. The second? You notice the details, the nuances, the hidden beauty and deeper meaning you missed the first time. Costa Rica inspired me to see its details and, if I am lucky, more of the details in the world around me at home.

The other certainty? By the end of the summer I will find the winning gallo pinto recipe….

Thank you, George School, and 2017 Costa Rica service learning trip participants for a trip I will never forget!

Leave a comment

Filed under dorm life, Faculty and Staff, Service, Students

John Streetz: Teacher, Mentor, and Friend

DSC_0004.JPG

Friends,

I am deeply sorry to share the news that John Streetz, former George School teacher, coach, and a most beloved and devoted friend of the community, passed away on Saturday, March 18, 2017 in Oakland, CA.

George School’s first African-American teacher, John was hired in 1950 by Head of School Dick McFeely to teach Chemistry. Over the next sixteen years, John also coached track and cross-country and lived in Orton Dormitory with his family. He had a profound and lasting effect on his students, his colleagues, and the school; he was a legend in his own time.

In addition to his legacy within each of us who knew him, John’s presence will continue to be felt on campus every day. In 2009, several of John’s former students funded the construction of a new faculty home on campus, Streetz House. John and his late wife Jackie were the class sponsors for the Class of 1961 which, on the occasion of their 50th reunion, presented George School with a wonderful gift to the endowment, The John and Jackie Streetz Scholarship Fund. These generous gifts are fitting tributes to John that will support and nurture George School students and faculty for years to come.

I want to share with you an excerpt from the email sent earlier this week by Dick Brown to his 1961 classmates:

We have lost an exceptional person, a man who inspired us, comforted us, and often made us laugh. John was the heart and soul of our class inspiring us with his own accomplishments, challenging us with his intelligence, delighting us with his humor, and always taking pride in our accomplishments. We encourage all classmates to attend the memorial service when it is scheduled. 

With apologies to Eleanor Hoyle:  Quos valde amas numquam vere moriuntur … those who we love deeply never truly die.

As of this writing, there is not yet a date for a memorial service, but we will post new information on this page as it becomes available.

Please join me in holding John’s daughter Pamela ’70 and their family in the Light. I hope that you will share your remembrances and words of comfort here—in this community space dedicated to John Streetz and his remarkable life.

Karen Hallowell

April 20, 2017 editors note:  News of the death of John Streetz in March has left many in the extended George School family mourning the loss of our beloved teacher, coach, colleague, and friend. We will gather to honor John’s memory and celebrate his life at George School on Sunday, May 21, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. in the meetinghouse. All are welcome.

17 Comments

Filed under Faculty, Faculty and Staff, Musings from Faculty

Photos and Videos from Nicaragua

dsc_0638dsc_0635dsc_0633dsc_0630dsc_0622

A video of the group can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyJKlDLT_gQ

Leave a comment

Filed under A Day in the Life, Faculty and Staff, Service

The Opposite of Hazing

2016-10-03-24

Photo by Jim Inverso

by Amanda Acutt, school counselor and Paul Weiss, athletics director

Last spring Amanda and I presented a concept during assembly that we described as “the opposite of hazing.”  Our intent was to challenge the community to engage in purposeful behaviors that we called “Friending.”  Essentially, we asked the community to embrace the concept of engaging in pro-social, empathetic, and sometimes uncomfortable, leadership behavior. We were trying to communicate the behaviors and feelings that underpin being in a safe, supportive, and mindful community of Friends.

Most people are generally familiar with the definition of hazing. Traditionally the term is applied to ritual abuse used as an initiation rite in fraternities, sororities, military settings, sports, or clubs.  The actual definition of hazing has recently expanded to include “any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment, alienation, or ridicule, and risks emotional and/or physical harm to an individual, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”*

Many institutions provide community education and resources focused on identifying, reporting, and preventing hazing, and we believe this is an important part of culture creation.  However, our intent is to address culture creation in a different way.  We would like to start a dialog about an intentional approach to creating a safe, mutually supportive, and empathetic school culture or as we like to call it, the opposite of hazing.

This proactive approach to culture creation is consistent with many of the fundamental elements of a Friends community. The George School Mission (found HERE) says the following: “Students learn about the tension between the individual and community, that fairness and justice are inherently tied to each other.  They learn to express themselves without trampling others…” and “…in what seems a fitting fulfillment of our mission, George School students joyously go out in the world comfortable in their self-awareness and confident that they can make the world a better, kinder place.”

Our mission is not simply to educate academically, it is to perpetuate the values inherent in a Friends community, and for George School graduates to carry these values with them. When we ask if there is hazing in our community, we are asking the wrong question.  Instead, we should ask interconnected questions like:

  • What does it mean to intervene, to be a hero, to champion someone else, to be empathetic?
  • How aware are you of how others feel, of whether someone feels excluded, unheard, unseen, or uncomfortable?
  • What can you do, individually and collectively, to take responsibility for each other?

One of the things that is lost when we talk explicitly about hazing is the proactive ways in which we can do more for each other and our community.  The higher-level expectation is to seek out opportunities to connect with each other, particularly individuals and groups in the community who are most likely to feel different, disconnected, alienated, misunderstood, or invisible.

There are many examples of George School students exhibiting behaviors that embody the opposite of hazing. Here are just a few.

  • The student who sees a new student in the dining hall looking around nervously and calls out “come sit with us!”
  • The student who stops another student in class who is disrespecting a first year teacher.
  • The student who sees another student is upset and walks them over to the Student Health and Wellness Center, stays with them, and offers to let that student join her group of friends so they feel less alone and more connected.
  • A student who sets up a meeting with the school counselor to ask for tips on how to help a friend through a difficult time.

These examples are real. These students did not know they were being observed, and had no motive other than their belief that their behavior was the right thing to do.

Perpetuating a culture of treating each other as Friends is not limited to students interacting with each other.  This is one of the reasons we call everyone by his or her first name; we try to foster an environment in which every individual has intrinsic value, and making sure we see, hear, recognize, and care for each other is the shared thread in the fabric of our community.

The call to action is simple: strive to be intentional, externally aware, and empathetic.  Thinking about what behaviors not to do is a start, but leadership and positive culture creation is a deliberate process.

When the intent to do the “opposite of hazing” is shared by many, the effect is powerful.

*paraphrased from www.hazingprevention.org

Leave a comment

Filed under A Day in the Life, Faculty and Staff, Students

Spring Service Learning Trips

4229717_orig

This week forty-seven students, faculty, and staff will be departing on annual service learning trips. This year’s destinations and projects are:

France—March 2 to 18

Departure: Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 6:00 p.m.
Return: Saturday, March 18, 2017 at 9:25 p.m.

Started in 1957, this relationship represents the longest running student exchange program between an American and a French high school. George School students work as teachers’ assistants in a variety of educational settings and live with local host families. A trip to Paris is one of the highlights. Students also join their host families for local sightseeing. French students, in turn, visit George School several weeks later.

Mississippi—March 5 to 19

Departure: Sunday March 5, 2017 at 5:30 a.m.
Return: Sunday, March 19, 2017 at 2:25 p.m.

Students work with Habitat for Humanity, helping to build affordable houses alongside those who lack adequate shelter in northern Mississippi. The group also enjoys potluck dinners with current and future Habitat homeowners and other members of the community. Students build relationships with the community as they build homes. There are also opportunities to explore local sites of interest in northern Mississippi.

Nepal—March 5 to 20

Departure: Sunday, March 5, 2017 at 5:30 a.m.
Return: Monday, March 20, 2017 at 8:45 a.m.

George School students will assist the school community in laying the foundations for two new classrooms for Janapriya Primary School. The school is located near Dhampus, 200 km west of Kathmandu. Following the service learning work the students hike into the lower foothills of the great Annapurna massif, walking for four days through traditional Hindu villages to enjoy spectacular views of the mountains. The trails explore lush oak and rhododendron forests, and students camp in serene locations that showcase dramatic views of the Annapurna Range.

Nicaragua—March 3 to 18

Departure: Friday, March 3, 2017 at 6:00 a.m.
Return: Saturday, March 18, 2017 at 10:48 p.m.

Students work as teachers’ assistants in our sister school in Barrio Riguero, a working-class Managua neighborhood. Other service opportunities may include repairing and upgrading schools and health clinics in impoverished areas. Students stay with host families who speak very little or no English. Cultural excursions typically involve visits to artisan markets and historic sites, as well as the lakes and volcanoes for which Nicaragua is known for.

Washington, DC—March 5 to 17

Departure: Sunday, March 5, 2017 at 9:30 a.m.
Return: Friday, March 17, 2017 at 10:05 p.m.

Students volunteer at Martha’s Table, So Others Might Eat (SOME), DC Central Kitchen, and a local mission. Martha’s Table assists children and families with food, clothing, and education. SOME is an interfaith, community-based organization that exists to help the poor and homeless with food, clothing, and health care. DC Central Kitchen recycles food, provides culinary career training for unemployed adults, and serves healthy school meals. Using Hostelling International as home base, students will have the opportunity to visit museums and explore our nation’s capital.

Leave a comment

Filed under A Day in the Life, Faculty and Staff, Service

Religion or Religions Department?

_mg_9283-002

by Tom Hoopes ’83 Head of Religions Department, Assistant Dean, Coach

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked this famous rhetorical question, and school children for generations have used it as a foil for considering the power and meaning of words and names.

It is a question that we in the Religions Department recently considered in a searching, deliberate process. You may have noticed in the previous sentence that I said “religions,” with an “s” rather than “religion.” If so, good catch. You might be wondering, “what’s the difference?” I am so glad you asked! Allow me to tell a story…

Some years ago I found myself in a hospital bed, having experienced a grave illness which was not diagnosed at first. (They not-so-jokingly called me “the House patient,” referring to Dr. House on TV, who takes the presumably unsolvable cases.) I felt deep, abiding gratitude for the care I was receiving from myriad professionals, including many doctors and nurses as well as the people who took my temperature and blood pressure and changed my IV tubes, the people who brought me food and those who changed my bedding. I was there for two weeks, so people came and went with regularity.

People were consistently friendly to me, and engaged me in light conversation. I decided this was the perfect opportunity for an experiment! Usually the question would come up, “what do you do?” I noticed a pattern emerging. If I said, “I teach religion,” they would politely acknowledge my response, and then gently change the subject or fairly quickly find a way to end the conversation and get on with their work and out the door. By contrast, if I answered with, “I teach world religions,” the response, almost uniformly, sought deeper engagement. People would say, “oh, that sounds interesting, tell me more” or “World Religions was my favorite subject in college” or, “which religions?” The variety of their responses was as diverse as the people.

Given that this was a large, urban hospital, I encountered a full gamut of skin tones and people visibly presenting as members of at least four different religious denominations known to me (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu), and numerous more discovered upon further conversation.

“What is going on here?” I thought to myself. Recognizing my vulnerability to confirmation bias and selection bias, I did my best to control these in the few days I had remaining in the hospital. Upon my discharge, I have continued this experiment in multiple venues for the last several years, with complete strangers at baseball games, weddings, shopping malls, parties, and anywhere else I may go. My results in the hospital have been replicated with extraordinary fidelity.

What I have determined is that the statement, “I teach religion” was consistently getting interpreted as a statement of my efforts to promote one doctrine or dogma at the exclusion of others, and many people find it to be a conversation stopper.

So do I. And so does George School. Our work in the Religions Department is to create a safe, stimulating and open context for students from all backgrounds to try and make sense of the dizzying array of knowledge claims they encounter on a regular basis in their lives. Learning about some of the major religious traditions of the world—including their symbols, practices, rituals and representations of the divine—is a wonderful portal into the discipline of becoming a world citizen. Alongside the rest of a George School education, courses in the Religions Department help our students to learn about their world and themselves, thereby equipping them to let their lives speak in ways that engage other people.

We do not “teach religion”—we do not teach what to believe, nor the right (or wrong) way to think. Rather, we teach the beliefs and practices of many religions, and we invite critical inquiry, so that students learn to appreciate and value the wisdom traditions that have come down to us through the ages, while reconciling them with their own experiences and family traditions. I have yet to have a student in class that did not learn a substantial amount about their own family’s spiritual and religious traditions; and in most cases the experience has deepened their appreciation for those traditions. Indeed, I would claim that most of the students at George School who identify as religiously faithful see me and the other members of the Religions Department as strong allies for their journey. May that continue to be so.

When we gathered to consider possible alternate names for our department, we considered a variety of options which are visible at other high schools that include, Religious Studies; Religious Thought; Contemplative Studies; Religious Life; Quaker Studies; and various combinations of each of these. While each of these has compelling justifications, as a team we were able to reach unity in support of “Religions,” because it had the greatest virtue of accuracy and inclusiveness for almost all of our courses. This includes Theory of Knowledge, which can be taught as a cut-and-dry philosophy course, but at its best it is fundamentally aligned with the Quaker mission of George School, to seek truth and to invite students to let their lives speak. While that may not be “religion,” per se, it is certainly congruent with the overall mission of the Religions Department.

Going forward, the Religions Department looks forward to the Quaker discipline of continuing revelation. In the last several years, we have begun to offer the following courses: Religions of the African Diaspora, Feminist Theology, and Spirituality and Sustainability. I am considering augmenting my current Peace Studies class to create one more explicitly focused on spirit-led non-violent direct action. A fundamental precept of Quakerism is the importance of staying open to new Light, and keeping the dialogue going. If you have ideas for courses that you think might be offered through the Religions Department, or other thoughts about this blog post, I look forward to hearing from you.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni, Faculty, Faculty and Staff, Musings from Faculty

Blast From The Past: Gleeson Zooms In

bball.png

(Photo by John Gleeson’ 65) One of the many fruits of Coach Gleeson’s new photographic passions: “Kevin Newbert drives by Zach Treadway”

by: Sumanth Maddirala ‘18

“George School was a wonderful place to work and raise my children. I left with many fond memories. I knew, however, that sooner or later I would get restless and need a new avenue of pursuit. I have found just that.” 

During the heart of spring 2009, among the blooming flowers and towering trees surrounding the George School fields, two men walked into the batting cage of the baseball field: an avid athlete and his dedicated coach. The young man stood at the plate, ready to swing at the ball with all the power he had. The coach stood at the other end of the cage and pitched a baseball to his student, who was eager to show his coach the fruits of his efforts. The batter swung at the baseball, which soared through the air and ricocheted off the sturdy walls of the batting cage. However, within moments the ball crashed into the side of the coach’s head, causing his body to collapse onto the hard-packed dirt below. That coach was a man who had dedicated his life to his students and athletes and went by the name of “Gleese.”

Before long, “Gleese” was saved by a passing student skilled in the art of CPR, who happened to be Tyler Campellone, the son of the head grounds man Vince Campellone. With Juana Moody’s assistance, the students were able to get “Gleese” to St. Mary’s hospital, where he discovered his heart was “a ticking time bomb” with five major arteries nearly sealed. Within hours “Gleese” went through bypass surgery and within months he came back to George School. While this may have been a chance for coach “Gleese” to end his career with “a bang,” he chose to keep going and continue his teaching for as long as he could.

Forty Seven years was the number of years that George School was blessed to have the loyal alumnus, athlete, coach, and literary scholar John Gleeson ’65, as a member of its faculty. Between being the head of the English department, serving as the head coach of Varsity Football for thirty years, raising his two children, and nearly dying from a baseball crashing into his head, Gleeson has captured many memories of George School for years to come. However, Gleeson’s eyes, which have watched over the George School community and peer into the heart of its community, have decided to switch focus and look through a different lens.

That summer, John Gleeson decided that it was time to relinquish his title as “the living legend” of George School and pursue other interests. When the leaves of the George School tree turned to red and yellow this fall, Gleeson himself decided to turn a new leaf and pick up the camera. As of now, Gleeson has returned to the sports field but instead of coaching, he is capturing the action and enthusiasm of the game with his camera as full time sports photographer for Suburban One Sports, a website that covers the ins and outs of Bucks County sporting events. In addition, Gleeson also continues to write a column for The Advance of Bucks County, which allows him to continue his passion for writing outside the classroom.

Gleeson had been longing to invest time in photography, a dream he had held for thirty years. Reflecting on his new life Gleeson says, “[I]t is nice not to have classes at eight in the morning and a seemingly endless string of evening meetings.” While Gleeson is not as stretched as he was at George School and is much more independent, Gleeson is still hard at work behind the camera, stating that he is “experimenting with [his] ritzy Nikon camera and discover[ing] its full potential.” Gleeson had been longing to invest time in photography, a dream he had held for thirty years. “With his additional leisure time Gleeson says he has been able to enjoy literature that he had been longing to read, saying, “I just finished the 800-page novel Redemption by Leon Uris, a great book capturing a good deal of Irish history but far too weighty and lengthy to fit into a high school course.”

In the end, having been a member of the George School community for fifty-one years, Gleeson still holds the school in his heart and soul. Gleeson and other retirees have often, “mix[ed] reminiscences about George School with the life [they] are living outside of George School,” reflecting on what has changed in their lives. Gleeson misses his students and their sense of companionship the most saying, “I rarely talk to my subjects but just try to capture them as they perform. George School is a complex place but there is a warmth and sincerity about all the people who make up the school that is hard to find elsewhere.”

With each passing year more of George School’s most dedicated faculty and staff will retire, leaving a hole to fill in the community. However, with each passing year the community is blessed with the presence of new faculty who will go on to succeed their predecessors and ensure that the community will continue to “mind the light” the way they always have. Most importantly, though, the teachers who have dedicated their lives to George School impart a final gift to the community upon their departure: a reason for their students to succeed and become good citizens of the world. Ultimately, though Gleeson himself no longer walks across the George School campus, his legacy lives on through the students he inspired and the athletes he encouraged.

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty, Faculty and Staff, Life After George School, Students, The Curious George

Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone

By Amedeo Salamoni

_dsc8707-2I was asked to give a presentation on how I encourage and teach through failure. My initial reaction was not to do so. When asked what was holding me back, I thought, what if I messed it up… How ironic!

This summer at Maine College of Art, I took a class about working with new technologies and how they can be used as tools in the visual arts. What I came away with was not a vast knowledge of computer-aided design nor a comprehensive understanding of the software programs, but instead a greater empathy for what our students sometimes feel when faced with learning something new or getting outside their comfort zone.

Here I am in a class of ten art teachers from around the country, looking like a deer in headlights. While I had already incorporated 3D printing and other technologies into my classroom I wanted to learn more. But I still had a feeling of inadequacy. My instructor Bennett said something to me one day that I always tell my students. In response to a question I had about the automated CNC router and if it could be used to draw with a brush and ink he said, “I don’t know, let’s try to find a way and figure it out!”

Through a collaboration with Bennett and several other art teachers we figured out that we needed to turn off the spinning function of the router so we wouldn’t get sprayed with ink. When I wanted a variable thickness to the line Bennett suggested we alter the path speed, and so on. This is how new ideas and techniques are generated, through trial and error.

One of the things that students learn early on in my classes is that there are many ways (and techniques) to do something. I believe that the best art, design, and teaching come from people who embrace their ability to be flexible, adaptable, and vulnerable. I approach all of my work with a speculative curiosity and live for problem-solving and empirical learning. This is how I work alongside my students in class.

For those of you who have not visited the arts classes I encourage you to do so at some point, and you will see this collaboration in action, not just in my classroom but others as well.

I believe that to become proficient at making art, or anything for that matter, you need to push yourself to the point of failure to be able to learn from your mistakes. When working with clay a student needs to know and understand the material before they can make something.

I remember one time when I was in my studio in graduate school and I was working on the potter’s wheel making a series of pots. My girlfriend, now my wife, Diane was watching me work on one pot after another. She would say, “that’s good, that’s enough.” Ignoring her advice, and one pot after another, I would push the clay to the point of collapse.

This was my way of understanding the limitations of the material so the next time I made a vase I would know when to stop. It is this type of hands-on approach to a material that I teach to my students.

I incorporate many techniques and styles into my demonstrations. For example, in one of my Advanced Ceramics classes you will regularly see me ask my students questions about their project rather than give them the solution. The solution I might offer up may not be the only way to do something. Instead when a student asked if she should put a handle on her piece, my answer was “Where would you put it?” Because I answered her in this way, it prompted a conversation about balance, which led to discussing options on “how” to attach a handle.

I try to lead my students through a list of educational and artistic questions that they answer for themselves, thus instructing them to revisit and enhance the techniques they have learned. I am also encouraging them to take full ownership of their artistic work, rather than simply telling them how I would create the piece.

In my Advanced Ceramics class, this does not mean that I simply sit back and watch students grasp at straws as they tackle new projects. What it does mean is that I carefully demonstrate the techniques or methods for students to work on — ones that might not have only one possible approach. I then give them the space and the skills to work through the challenge and reflect on their process and struggles as they go. Powerful learning occurs when people have to struggle through challenging material and have the opportunity to fail a few times along the way.

My interest in focusing on this type of productive struggle in my class comes from a strong belief that people learn more when allowed to fail than when provided all the answers.

This type of learning forces us to put ourselves and our ideas out there in front of everyone, becoming vulnerable—Just like I felt in that workshop in Maine. One of the things that I do to try and make my students feel more comfortable is to do my own work right along with them in the classroom. This approach to my teaching has enabled my students to see me fail!

I encourage my students to experiment, and not be afraid if they do not succeed at first. I remember so clearly when I was working on one of my pots in the studio and I was trying to lighten the form by carving away some clay, I went too far and carved through the base of the pot, but I noticed the tool that I was using left a neat pattern in the surface of the clay. It was this accidental discovery that led to the texture and surface carving I do in my work today. It started as a mistake that I took one-step further.

I always refer to these as “happy mistakes” to my students. Taking risks can often improve one’s creativity. Taking a risk and going outside your comfort zone knowing that you may fail with your artwork is how new ideas are generated.

I read an article from the Washington Post about a teacher who told her students that failure is not an option, it’s a requirement. Too often teachers are told that all material must be “scaffolded” for students. While in the classroom, it is sometimes taken to mean that all material must be broken down into such small and simple steps or chunks of information that students are all able to be successful every step of the way. If a significant number of students in a class are not able to immediately find the answer, this is often seen as an indication that the teacher did something wrong either in presenting or breaking down the material.

Students, as a result, often get the message from very early on in their education that if they do not immediately grasp how to solve a problem or get the right answer, they must not be very smart or good at that particular subject. With years of training in this way of thinking, it comes as no surprise that students often respond to challenging work by either immediately asking the teacher for help or by giving up.

My main concern with this approach to teaching and learning is that it simply is not authentic to either the practice of art or just about anything else in life. Most real-world problems are complex and do not come with clear steps to follow to reach a solution.

If we are not equipping students with the skills to tackle such problems by supporting them in struggling with challenging work in our classrooms now, then we are simply pushing the issue farther down the road when students will come up against bigger challenges in future classes, in college, or in their careers.

Providing our students with the confidence and skills to approach challenging work without an overwhelming fear of failure, and the mindset to see the failures they will have as opportunities to learn something is far more important and transferable than any set of facts we could teach them.

Another aspect of my teaching has been building my students’ group work and process skills so that they develop their abilities to collaborate, try multiple approaches, and reevaluate an approach that is not working.

In my Sculpture class I usually assign a group project in the last term. I introduced the project to the students and let them run with their ideas. Students are assigned to small groups and allowed to brainstorm their ideas for the sculpture. Each group then has to submit their design proposal, just like a professional artist would when applying for a commission. Selected faculty and staff members serve as jurors on the design committee.

Once the design is selected, the project becomes more challenging. The entire class works together to solve problems of balance, construction, and cost. Working in smaller groups, based on each students particular skillset or talents, the fabrication process begins with delegation of responsibilities. All this is student run, with only gentle nudging or guidelines from me.

This project enables my students to put into action all the skills, techniques and methods that were taught in the first two terms. I provide them with opportunities before and after each significant group work activity to reflect on how their skills are growing.

As they are working, I have to be continuously mindful of my tendency to step in and redirect groups that are taking unexpected approaches. When I step back and allow my students to work through these problem-solving issues the most interesting student learning and work products have usually come from those groups.

While all of us at some point in our lives experienced the discomfort that can come with struggle, we’ve hopefully experienced the investment in solving challenging problems, the “light bulb moments”, and the deep learning that comes with struggle as well.

I have already seen the value in tilting my classroom more towards one focused on the skills of tackling complex questions. That of course does not mean that content does not matter, but simply that it does not exist in a vacuum away from the struggles and challenges that helped people discover it. If I want my students to tackle some of the big questions in art (or science, or math, or history, or anything), they need to be prepared to approach complex and challenging issues and to learn from their failures.

So, in the end I am glad I put myself outside of my comfort zone to tell you how I feel about teaching art.

Leave a comment

Filed under A Day in the Life, art, Faculty, Faculty and Staff

Our Final Day in Beijing, and China

Our last day in Beijing and our last day in China. We woke up and headed out for breakfast outside. Given the choice between Chinese breakfast and a bakery, almost everyone chose the bakery. After breakfast, we rode over to Coal Hill, a small hill strategically located just south of the Forbidden City. The hill is just high enough to give a wonderful overview of the Forbidden City, a view afforded nowhere else. After going up and down the hill, we headed out to 798. This old factory was turned into artist studio and gallery space several years ago and offers a wonderful viewing and selection of modern Chinese art. After wandering around there for several hours we headed back into the city to meet a number of Chinese George School families for dinner; typical Beijing cuisine. Since we had to get up so early the next morning to catch our flight, we called it a night around 8 o’clock.

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty and Staff, Service, Students