Permission to Play: Day II

DSC_0047Following up on yesterday’s post, today, Cora and I built a snow-girl.  I embraced the cold, didn’t check the time for an hour, and loosely followed the rules.  Our frosty chick has a three-part body and two eyes made out of dried Echinacea flowers.  It was a great day for play.

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Parenting Perk of the Day: Permission to Play


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Play seems to be a popular term with many of my art educators these days.

Olivia Gude (2007) brought the term into active contemporary use when she included play in a list of recommendations for revising the principles for 21st century art education.  Her list was a response to calls for curricular guidelines to replace modern, formalist elements and principles of art and design.  Play tops the list and speaks in direct opposition to lessons devoted to color study exercises and linear perspective.

“Students of all ages,” she wrote, “need opportunities to creatively mess around with various media, to shape and reshape lumps of clay or to watch as drops of ink fall upon wet paper and create riveting rhizomatic rivulets…These students have learned the important artistic lesson that artists do not know the outcomes of their work before they begin.  Artists immerse themselves in a process of making and interact with images and ideas as they emerge” (p. 7-8).

How often do we get to do this as adults?  When was the last time you let yourself get lost in a process of pure, and playful, exploration?

If you are lucky enough to have a young child in your life, you have a built-in play mentor.  “Play with me, mamma,” Cora calls to me throughout the day.  While I’m not always in a position to drop what I am doing, I try to fulfill her request as often as I can.  Not all parents take advantage of such opportunities, but we should.

This afternoon Cora and I found ourselves in the basement playing trains.  I can honestly say we both love this activity.  Naturally, she enjoys rolling the trains over the track, narrating as she goes.  However, since Cora’s not quite ready to assemble the track, it’s up to me to determine where the course will bend and curve and where to place the bridges.  I personally work for a unified path that includes some criss-crosses and has purposeful beginning and endings.  Each time is a new challenge.

Such expernences illustrate Peter Gray’s (2008) five characteristics of play.

While Cora is the instigator, my participation is self-directed.  While building the track serves the function of creating a space for us to play, the building is intrinsically valuable. My goals of making the track loop back and close on itself constitutes rules I follow in playing the game.  And while I’m playing I am fully engaged in, but in no way stressed out by the activity.  There is no pressure for me to perform in any particular way.

I’m still wondering about the importance of play in art education, student learning, and intellectual and creative development.  I know, however, that it holds an important place in my own life, and for that I am grateful.

Dashing through the Snow Towards Wide-Awakeness

DSC_0080I don’t particularly like being outside when it’s cold.  I love the fresh air and if I’m dressed right and the light is falling on the snow just so, I can appreciate the winter weather, but generally, I don’t spend a ton of times outdoors December through February.  Our dog used to get me out everyday, come rain or shine.  I loved watching the seasons change with Elsa, strolling our usual paths – past the neighbors’ gardens, through the ravines, down by the river.  She’s gone now, but I have Cora to get me out.

I can only recall one time last winter when there was more than a light morning dusting of snow and we didn’t make it out to play that day.  So, I was determined to get outside when we woke up to an inch of snow today.  No matter that it was only stuck to the grass.  The world was bathed in white as she’d seen in the illustrations for Extra Yarn.  There was enough to pack into tiny snowballs and walk through and make footprints like we’d read about in The Snowy Day.

I suited Cora up and we ventured out.  I loved watching her touch the snow for the first time with the toe of her boot and finally her hands.  She dragged a stick over the snow gathered on the woodpile.  She slide down the snow-covered slide.  She called to me a million times, “Look Mamma!  Look!”

As I watched her I thought of two things.  First, I recalled an incident earlier in the week when I tried to explain to a childless friend the pleasure I get from watching Cora observe things for the first time.  At that time, she was releasing balloons over the second floor railing and watching them float downstairs.  I offered that those kinds of things seem literally magical to her.  Nothing else in the world matters to her in a moment like that.  She is totally absorbed in the event.  Like today out in the snow.

And that got me thinking about a short essay by Maxine Greene that I reread earlier this week.  I was first introduced to Greene’s work while I was studying at Pratt Institute.  I wrote about that time in my education last month.  When I started my doctoral work, I repeated cited Greene as a major influence on my thinking, but it had been years since I read any of her work.

In “Towards Wide-Awakeness: An Argument for the Arts and Humanities in Education” (1978), Greene wrote about what we can learn about living deliberately from the arts.  The sort of consciousness Greene writes about seems to come naturally to Cora.  Her life isn’t burdened by distractions.  She lives in every moment and offers a great example of how to appreciate the little things we often take for granted about how the world works.  So many great works of art have been born of observations like those.  I wonder what she’ll make of them as time goes by.

Cultural Responsiveness Begins at Home: Part II

Many people responded to my post last week about developing a relationship with Christmas as it pertains to my ability to be culturally responsive in both personal and professional situations.  In that post, I wrote a lot about my husband, without whom I would likely never have participated in the holiday to begin with.  But what I left out of that post, was any discussion of Dan’s efforts to learn about and relate to my culture.  And there is much to say on this front.

Flashback: December 2007
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I realize it is a total cliche to get engaged during the holiday season, but I couldn’t help myself.  I had just traveled to Mexico with my mother to celebrate her retirement and my PhD.  I missed Dan while I was away, although I have to admit my mother and I had a wonderful adventure together.  We spent a lot of time talking about our lives and work; she was at the end of a long career as a physician and I was at the beginning of my work in academia.  Naturally, we also talked at great length about my relationship with Dan and what our future might bring.

Our trip ended just as Chanukah was beginning and I spent the first few nights of the holiday at my folks’ house before returning home.  During that time, Dan sent me the following message:

“Hi Baby, We kicked off in style last nite.  We didn’t have the traditional Hebrew candle lighting words so we made up some sh*t about not being assimilated.  I quoted some stuff from Star Trek on the topic.  Finished with Peace Out.  Wished you were here.  Ate some (curried sweet) potato latkes that were not too bad, if I may say so.  It was fun.  Gotta go get the kids up and ready for the day.  I hope your trip back was OK.  Hearts, -d”

And that was it.   I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life this man; a man who could make me laugh, a man who could cook curried sweet potato latkes, a man who would light the Chanukah candles even when I wasn’t home and he wasn’t Jewish.  The next time we spoke, I told him so and the wedding plans began.

Present-day: December 2012
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For the past six years, I’ve attended the “holiday” party at Dan’s company and criticized its Christmas-centricism.  There was really nothing ecumenical about it.  Each year, just before everyone bowed their heads to thank Jesus Christ for the meal we were about to eat, the executive staff sang Jingle Bells.  And each time I would lean over to Dan and ask, “Do you think this will be the year they sing I Have a Little Dreidel?”  The first time he shot me a look as if to say, “Don’t be ridiculous.  And, please, don’t embarrass me by shouting out a request for it.”  But this year was different.

As the the holiday season was getting under way, Dan came home and told me about a discussion in his staff meeting.  Some folks had decorated the office and one proudly announced that it was now Christmastime in the department.  Dan tried to correct her by suggesting it was The Holiday Season to which she balked, “What do you have against Christmas?”  He suggested that while he loved Christmas, it wasn’t right to assume that everyone in the office felt the same way.  No effect.  So, he reminded her that I am Jewish, and tried to help his co-workers understand my perspective this time of year, the way I have historically felt like an outsider when conversation turns to Santa and the baby in the manger.

I’m not sure his message made an impact on that woman or anyone else in the office that day.  But the story made an impact on me.  It let me know, again, that he respected where I came from.  It showed he had been listening all those years when I told him I was uncomfortable.  And, it proved that culturally responsive teaching can impact students of various ages, not just young children in our nation’s schools.

Cultural Responsiveness Begins at Home

DSC_0394So, I grew up super Jewish.  Well, not super Jewish by New York standards, but compared to most of the Jews I’ve met since I’ve been in the midwest, my family was VERY conservative.  When I was a kid, December 25th meant only one thing, Mom’s birthday.  Christmas didn’t have anything to do with it.  My interaction with Santa Claus was relegated to seeing him at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and on the rooftop of a house in an nearby neighborhood.  I felt absolutely zero connection to the fat man in the big red suit.  My husband still can’t quite believe that Christmas wasn’t part of my consciousness, but then, I haven’t brought him to Great Neck yet.

Dan and I met in the month of November and Christmas was fast upon us.  He LOVES Christmas.  He loves shopping and he loves people so buying gifts to make people happy around the holidays is a win-win for him.  There’s no Christ in his Christmas which made it easier for me to accept on the one hand, and difficult to appreciate on the other.  The anti-consumerist is me has a very hard time with all the conspicuous consumption that goes seems to count for Christmas, or as we refer it in our house, StuffMas.  What was the meaning of all this stuff if it wasn’t tied to a big birthday party for Jesus?

When I decided to spend my life with Dan, it meant making room for Christmas.  This didn’t come easily for me.  I am often the only Jew in the room, which I am fine with, but this makes me feel like I should be more Jewish, that I should actively work against assimilation.  The first year I lived with Dan and had to share my living room with a (dying) tree for the month of December, I felt like I was in some parallel universe.  I was sure my grandparents were mourning for me, wherever they were spending the afterlife.

But I was determined.  If I was going to live through Christmas, I was going to have to find a way to embrace it.  Like Charlie Brown, I was looking for a meaning to the holiday.  And though I didn’t realize it at the time, I did just what Lucy Van Pelt advised Charlie Brown to do to find that meaning.  “You need involvement.  You need to get involved in some real Christmas project,” she prescribed.  While I didn’t learn about Christmas at Hebrew School, I did learn about making traditions.  Through my love of cooking and crafting, I made peace with Christmas.  This time of year my desk is covered in felt, jingle bells, googly eyes, and thread in the process of becoming ornaments.

Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time educating others about Judaism.  This happens when you are part of a minority culture.  I don’t intend to give that up any time soon, but, I hadn’t really thought about how much I could learn from to be opening myself up to experiencing aspects of the the dominant culture that I had missed growing up.  In order to be a culturally responsive teacher, I need to have an understanding of my students and their experiences.  Most of them celebrate Christmas at this time of year so while I am happy to share Chanukah traditions with them, I also need to be able to appreciate what they are experiencing.

Culturally responsive teaching is a buzz phrase in education at the moment, so it seemed obvious to connect this to my relationship with Christmas.  But, I also realized I need to prepare myself to be a culturally responsive parent. When I started to orchestrate ornament and cookie making sessions with my stepkids, we were able to share experiences that would not have been open to me had I stayed holed up in my own culture.  And now that Cora is on the scene, a 50/50 mix of me a Dan, I have to accept that part of her is genetically predetermined to Christmas.  I’m still not sure how I feel about indoctrinating her into the Santa story, but I’ll be there for her with construction paper and cookie cutters.