Dispatch from My Stepmonster’s Kitchen: 3 Things I’ve Learned About Working With A Teenage Collaborator

So, it’s been awhile since Rosa and I first launched our blog. I have considered writing about what’s it’s been like, from my perspective, a few times but didn’t make the time. Somehow writing about the cute things Cora is doing developmentally always seems to take precedence. And in part, I’m ashamed that Rosa and I haven’t posted more. Maybe ashamed isn’t the right word. Perhaps disappointed tells it better.

I’m disappointed that the blog seems to mean more to me than it does to her. And I’m disappointed that I haven’t been able to motivate her better. I’m always the one who recommends we work on it. Since I was hoping this project would not only help me explore using social media with students but bring Rosa and I together in a motherly-daughterly way I’m taking this all a bit personally. But in the end, these are issues all teachers struggle with. We want our students to care as much about the content of our classes as we do. We want them to bring ideas and information to us, as well as vice versa. And all this had me thinking about the challenges of creating teaching moments with our students.

Part of my philosophy of teaching has always been collaborative. While I didn’t talk about it in such terms, early on I viewed teaching and learning as an improvisational performance – teacher gives instructions, students receive, interpret, and respond to instructions based on their personal perspective, teacher responds to student’s response, and so on, back and forth. I used to liken it to painting with watercolors. You can control the medium but also need to embrace the ways it is in control, since water tends to have a mind of its own. In retrospect this was probably due on some subconscious to the article “The Art and Craft of Teaching” by Elliot Eisner (1983) which Amy Brook Snider assigned early in my studies with her at Pratt. In that article Eisner wrote about conducting an orchestra as a metaphor for good teaching:

“What we do as teachers is orchestrate the dialogue moving from one side of the room to the other. We need to give the piccolos a chance-indeed to encourage them to sing more confidently-but we also need to provide space for the brass. And as for the violins, they always seem to have a major part to play. How is it going? What does the melody sound like? Is the music full enough? Do we need to stretch the orchestra further? When shall we pause and recapitulate the introductory theme? The clock is reaching ten and we have not yet crescendoed? How can we bring it to closure when when we can’t predict when a stunning question or an astute observation will bring forth a new melodic line and off we go again? Such are the pleasures and trials of teaching and when it goes well, there is nothing more that we would rather do.” (p. 11)

I included this long quotation because I think you need to read it at length in order to grasp Eisner’s philosophy. While his examples speak specifically to the practice of teaching, the concept of paying attention to the ways a project is unfolding and adjusting one’s work accordingly could apply to any (creative) endeavor. In other places Eisner wrote about this as “purposive flexibility” and I can think of few places such practice is more necessary than in parenting or making art.

Even now, I’m not really sure where I want or need to go in writing this post. I guess I’ll end with three lessons I’ve learning so far about working with young people as creative collaborators. I’m hoping they can bolster my work. Let me know if they resonate with your experiences embarking on long-term (social media) projects with teenagers.

Teenagers are goal-oriented.
I’ve often argued that parameters breed creativity. A blog is an amorphous and never-ending project. Knowing my collaborator needs structure, I need to provide benchmarks and boundaries. To start, I want to post once a week and I want to take turns selecting what we make and write about. I need to ask Rosa what she wants.

Some teenagers love to talk, but don’t like to write.
I realize others are quiet, but love to write. In my case, however, I am working with a talker, not a writer. So, I am experimenting with ways of helping her express herself – email me her thoughts from the privacy of her own room, talk to me about her thoughts while I type them out – but I don’t want to let her off the hook. I want her to write even if it’s not easy for her. Maybe some writing prompts would help. Like these, but specific to our blog.

Teenagers may be digital natives, but they are still digitally naive.
While more and more teenagers are wired 24/7, I’m not convinced many grasp the power of the Internet to connect people and ideas. If they do, they don’t imagine themselves as active participants in that exchange. Like most folks, they are media consumers, not media creators, and that’s where we come in. Without getting caught up in specific websites or apps, we need to teach teens how to leverage the power of the Internet to make their voices heard and their visions seen.

Hopefully you’ll be hearing more from us soon at mystepmonsterskitchen.wordpress.com.

A (Few) Photo(s) a (To)Day: We Make Things

“Whether you’re three or seventy-three, the act of assembling disparate materials into a new object is a profound one. In a world of ready-mades, it seems almost magical.
Today, if you need a new chair, you go out and buy one. If you want a shirt, you take a trip to the mall. For many of us, life is filled with countless objects that have lost the connection to their source. We no longer have to make out of necessity, so sometimes we don’t do it at all. But there’s a hidden loss within the efficiency of our postindustrial times: process.”
– Sarah Olmstead in “Out of the Dirt”
from imagine childhood: Exploring the World through Nature, Imagination, and Play (2012)


Dan, in the process of building a banquette for our new dining area. The wood is old floor boards he harvested from the room this one replaced. That floor was installed when his grandparents first built the house (c. 1947) and wheat-pasted on the underside with the official stamp of the Carpenter’s Union (see below).


A brick patio I made for Dan out of bricks that previously lined our garden beds. When I replaced those edges with urbanite from our old patio, these bricks made themselves available for new use.

A brick patio I made for Dan out of bricks that previously lined our garden beds. When I replaced those edges with urbanite from our old patio, these bricks made themselves available for new use.

One of the things I love about Dan and my life together is that we make things. At times we do this alone. At times together. Sometimes what we make is ephemeral, sometimes long-lasting. Sometimes original, sometimes following a pattern. We use materials we have on hand and we make frequent runs down the street to Beechwold Hardware.

The projects in these pictures are from late-June. While Dan was inside working on a bench of his own design, I was just outside the windows (sweating my ass off) working on the patio following a plan I found online. When I wasn’t working on the patio, I was advising a few grad students for UF. Two were working on projects that addressed material culture studies and art education and their work provided me space to reflect on the home Dan and I have been shaping together for the past 7 years. Shout out to Holly and Miranda!

In part because our house has been in his family since it was erected, we feel tied to it. Whenever we make changes, we try to keep the past in mind. Case in point, Dan building the bench out of old floor boards. We appreciate looking around and seeing upgrades Dan’s grandparents dreamed up (like the fake drawer in the kitchen Frank used to hide cash or the bookcase he turned into a wall cabinet in the basement) and we have made many changes of our own. These are our family heirlooms.

Holly and Miranda both read an article by Marice Rose (2012), an art history professor about her use of family heirlooms to teach students “the importance of context and making connections between art, individuals, and history” (p. 51). I love how straightforward these learning objectives are. They seem to speak to the most essential reason for studying art history. I still haven’t read Rose’s article myself, but it’s on the list…

You don’t have to live in a historic homestead or be a master carpenter to help your children understand the value of objects in their world. But you do need to find ways to talk to them about the special objects in your home and how they came to be counted as special. Keep in mind, special is not the same as expensive. (See Ellen Dissanayake’s work for more on defining art as making special.) Then, find simple ways to make your own mark on your environment, to make it special, and find ways for your children to do the same.

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 1, No. 6

“So I asked my mama, Mama, dear….
And SNIP, SNIP, sew sew… New skirt, hello!” – I Had a Favorite Dress

“Tom was so pleased that he wore that bow-tie in sunshine and in snow, in rain and wind. He ran and jumped and splashed and rolled in it.” – The Blue Coat

Baby Elizabeth and Weezy led us away from the potty for this storytime.

Baby Elizabeth and Weezy enjoyed this week’s stories as much as we did.

Regular readers know that I am working hard to pass on my passions for creative sustainability to my kids. Crafty Cora‘s lessons started early as we used her 3-6 month old clothes to create new fashions for her (mostly-handed-down from big sister Rosa) baby doll collection. Recycled dolls, upcycled clothes. Double win.

This week we happened to bring home a book from the library that helps support this message. Upon reflection, I realized I Had a Favorite Dress (Ashburn & Denos, 2012) wasn’t new to us. It follows the same trajectory we’d read a million times before as the Yiddish song-turned-story told in Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (Taback, 1999) and “The Blue Coat” (Lupton & Fatus, 2001). You can find the latter in a collection called The Story Tree: Tales to Read Aloud which I wrote about last week.

Here’s how it always goes down: Character X has a piece of clothing s/he loves more than anything. Said article gets worn out and X is very sad. Someone helps X to salvage the garment by turning it into something new. X loves the new item and wears it ’til its threadbare. And the cycle continues a few times. Each time, a refrain like those at the top of this post repeats, pulling the reader through the story as if by needle and thread. In the end, X is left with nothing to wear, but a beautiful story to tell about how how to find new uses for old things.