Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 1, No. 9

I don’t usually repost other people’s, but when picturebooks make the front page of Sunday’s New York Times, it seems appropriate. Check out this article that addresses form, function, and economics of Picturebooks for our youngest “readers.”

Note: I got to see a few of these new classics in person last week at my dear friends’ beautiful shop in Asheville, NC. If you’re nearby, stop by the Baggie Goose!

So much to write, no time to write it.

Note to self on things I want to write about:

Little Hands, Big Work, Vol. 2: Angry Bird Erasers

Family History In/On A Box: On When/How to Pass Family Heirlooms to the Next Generation

Pinto Beans in the Sensory Box: Playground or Put-Down

Now back to alternately grading papers and trying to make the most of every moment I’ve got.

Parenting Perk of the Day: Making Halloween Costumes with/for Your Kids

As I wrote this time last year, Halloween is a serious affair at Rosa’s elementary school. This is her final year there and she wants to go out with a bang. It’s amazing to see how far her thinking on the subject of creative costuming has become. This year’s idea was pretty meta.

For the past two years, Rosa and Cora have worn related costumes. Three years ago, Rosa wanted to be something BIG, so she and her mom cooked up a giant jack-o-lantern for her to wear. Since I hadn’t had any brilliant ideas yet, and the costume looked nice and warm, I used some of the extra orange felt from Rosa’s costume and a piece of foam I had lying around to make something similar for Cora. In homage to Rosa’s obsession with mustaches, I gave Cora’s gourd a furry upper lip.


Last year, I was inspired by this tutorial for the most gorgeous DIY wings I’ve ever seen. Again, looking at fabric hanging around in my stash, I decided to make two sets of wings, one for me and one for Cora. I also made some masks and we were transformed into owls. I attached the wings to sweatshirts to make them easy to get on and off and to keep us warm (notice the trend here?). A week before Halloween, Rosa hadn’t decided what to be. She tried on my wings and begged to wear them. How could I say no? I was honored they would be part of her school’s annual costume parade.

DSC_0178Rosa wanted to continue the tradition of dressing up with Cora. Like most little girls I know, Cora has an interest in dressing up like a princess. Fortunately, this hasn’t developed into a full-blown obsession. I don’t think I could handle that. (See: Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein) Watching her sister play dress-up with her friends transported Rosa back in time. She and her girlfriends mastered the art when they were in preschool and kindergarten. They couldn’t last 5 minutes together without disrobing and cloaking themselves in new identities. My favorite was when they would just trade for one anothers’ street clothes. This year, Rosa declared, she and Cora would be princesses for Halloween. “It would be so funny because noone dresses up like a princess in 6th grade.”

So, we headed to the thrift store, where she found and fell in love with a gorgeous Betsey Johnson dress with the tags still on. Price = $89.95. Rosa was floored. “How could they charge so much? It’s the thrift store!” So, we talked about non-profit organizations and their need to make money and the fact that while this seemed expensive for Volunteers of America, really the dress was a bargain. If she were 5 years older and headed to the prom, I would have snatched that thing up in a heartbeat. But, it was Halloween, so I suggested we examine the dress, think about what made her like it so much and a) look for something similar but less expensive, or b) try to recreate it ourselves.

Of course this didn’t go over well because what Rosa wanted to hear at that moment was that she could have the dress. And if I were made of money, I would have said yes. Like I said it was a beautiful dress the purchase of which would surely have won me some stepmom of the year award. But I’m not made of money and I recognized this as a teaching moment.

I reminded her of the fashion camp she attended this summer and asked, “What would Jen Gillette do?” Jen was Rosa’s instructor for Fashion Blasters – a tall blonde who greeted the kids on the first day with her hair teased out and up like a runway model, wearing an outfit she’d made of found materials held up by super high platform shoes she’d bedazzled from top to bottom. She’s gone to study theater design and production at Tulane, but her spirit lives on in Columbus through the folks she inspired during her time as a Creative Consultant at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity. Including me.

We put our heads down and went back to the racks. I found a hot pink cotton tube dress the top of which was a lot like the Betsey Johnson design. Rosa found some curtains that were made of a similar material as its skirt. At home we talked about how to put them together. I’ve always been hesitant to sew clothes – I’m not precise enough to make things fit –  so I was proud of myself for figuring out the sewing aspect. But I was sad that Rosa didn’t feel confident enough to help me. I powered through on my own. And then I realized, While Rosa wasn’t doing the sewing, this experience gave her an opportunity to spiral back to creative thinking and problem solving skills she learned this summer. And, as I reminded her to do so, I was practicing those skills too – setting a challenge and figuring out a way to address it.

Are your Halloween preparations presenting any creative challenges to you and your kids? I’d love to hear about them. You’ll see ours in a week. Sorry, no peaking.

Gardening is Magic

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One afternoon last spring, I updated my facebook status to read, “Planting seeds is the greatest act of faith I know.” The words just kind of flew from my fingertips. It wasn’t a thought I had consciously nurtured for any length of time. It just felt true to my experience. It really seems magical how you put these teeny tiny things in the ground and they grow to be bigger, in some cases enormous, things with just a little sunshine, water, and time. The element of time is the most elusive, and possibly most important, ingredient in this equation.

When I was a kid in Hebrew school, I heard a story that put it in perspective. “An old man in ancient Israel was planting a fig tree, when a Roman general happened to pass by. The general says to the man, ‘Don’t you realize it will take twenty years before that tree will grow enough to give fruit, and you will be long dead by then?’ The old man responded, ‘When I was a small child, I could eat fruit because those who came before me had planted trees. Am I not obliged to do the same for the next generation?'”

I didn’t realize until just now the impact that story had on me. But, I like to think I honor its spirit both in my own work in the garden and by teaching my kids to appreciate the power of such actions. When we work the land, we are working for ourselves and for those who come after us.

Yesterday Cora and I planted some spring-flowering bulbs. She did an incredible job following each step of the process and even developed her own system for evenly distributing the different varieties among the containers. Then she went to the rain barrel and filled her watering can. I nearly melted into the ground. It reminded me how capable three-year olds can be when given a chance to do something real and meaningful. It’s no wonder there are so many Montessori schools with gardens.

Together, we put the containers in the shed and covered them with a burlap blanket. She knows they will spend the winter there, I’m just not sure she knows what will happen next. That’s where the wonder, and magic, come in.

I Heart Lists

I love making lists. Really, I love crossing things off lists, but I can’t imagine how I would have gotten where I am today without lists. After seven months with a smart phone, I still haven’t migrated to keeping effective lists digitally. I’m not sure why that is. I think it has to do with the physical act of crossing something off a list. Probably related to my urge to cling to any last traces of paper and pencil-based way of life.

I wonder if psychologists have studied that. They study so many things. Last week the NYTimes reported on some who had studied the effects of jinxing oneself by acknowledging a stroke of good luck and unjinxing oneself by knocking on wood. If they can measure that, and if they took the time to, they ought to be able to handle this. OK. I just Googled “psychology list making” and low and behold, the BBC (The Psychology of the To Do List) and NPR (10 Reasons Why We Love Making Lists) have reports on it. But, since this is a tangent, I’ll let you explore them on your own.

Anyway, publishing a list causes one to focus on it in a new way. Like the trend of posting your weight on Facebook, now people are watching and waiting to see that you have accomplished your goals. In reality, few are really paying attention to your lists and getting the tasks accomplished is really just important to you. But no matter. You are working towards a goal and in your mind, others are counting on you, cheering for you, to reach it.

In that spirit, here are some things I hope to explore and write about in the second year of Art Education Outside the Lines.

1. Combatting the Teenage Wasteland with the Arts and Crafts

2. Creative Strategies for Mentoring Art Education Gradate Students Online

3. Tips for Creative Parenting from Other Art Educators and Arts Professionals
Might organize this as a series of home visits – like Columbus artist Melissa Vogley-Woods Studio Snapshot

4. More on play and art education. I want to revisit literature on Teaching for Artistic Behavior and Creativity.

5. Reflections on Teaching Teva Travelers, Cora’s Hippie Hebrew School for kids ages 2 1/2-7. I’m the parent-leader this year. Lots to consider here with regard to cultural heritage celebration and preservation, identity development, and the role of storytelling and art making in working with young children in this context.

Keep me honest folks.

And let me know if you have any requests for my next list.

What a Difference a Year Can Make

One year (and two days) ago, I started this blog as a space to restore and redefine my voice as a scholar in the field of art education. While nothing I wrote ever went viral, I believe I succeeded. I like to think folks have found something of value in this space. Hopefully something you read inspired you to go out in the world with a fresh perspective.

This project has satisfied so many of the needs I have as a working-from-home art educator:
A space for recording my internal dialogue.
A way to share ideas without having to write a ten page APA-cited paper or traveling to a conference to deliver a powerpoint presentation, neither of which I really have time for or interest in at the moment.
An opportunity to honor people who have influenced me – both through personal and professional associations.
A means of connecting with my students; to share my reflections on interests we share and to model a kind of thinking and writing about art education that is both personal and critical.
A way to share thoughts and philosophies behind the work we do as educators in our homes as parents, in a more developed manner than playgroup conversations generally allow.

I’m looking forward to continuing this work and seeing where it might lead. But for now, Cora’s awake and ready for breakfast. Gotta go.

A Task, But Not a Chore

Sometimes I feel like I have been living under a rock the past few years. Under a couple of kids is more like it, but the fact is that this weekend I encountered two cultural phenomenon that made the rounds over the past few years without crossing my field of vision, even as shadows: “Caine’s Arcade” and Oliver Herring’s TASK. Once again, I’m grateful to the super cool folks at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity for bringing me up to speed.

“Caine’s Arcade” is a short film about 9-year old Caine and the arcade he built primarily out of boxes he found at his dad’s auto parts shop. The film has been viewed nearly 4 million times on YouTube alone. Yesterday, in conjunction with the Imagination Foundation (read about it, it’s really cool), the CMA hosted a cardboard challenge to celebrate that group’s Global Day of Play. Dan, Rosa, Cora, and I rolled through asking people about their projects, but we saved our energy for TASK which had been highly recommended during the previous day’s discussion of Play=Art.

Herring has been hosting TASK events and parties around the world for over ten years. (Turns out I can’t completely blame the kids for missing this one.) This is how it works: Herring writes a few directions on scraps of paper and puts them in a bin. Participants retrieve tasks, complete them, and they write new tasks to add to the pool. It’s kind of like DaDa meets participatory performance art. This sampling demonstrates the wide ranging nature of the tasks we encountered:

“Make a string web.”
“Host a talent show.”
“Write 5 tasks.”
“Everyone play dead.”
“Lead a conga line.”
“Ask a child about what they are making.”
“Imitate someone for 5 minutes.”
“Make sushi and give it to a dad.”
“You are a fish.”
“Cut the web.”

Most definitions for the word task include some level of discomfort, a chore one is assigned to complete. I’m sure Herring understood this when he chose that word as the name for his project. For while TASK can be a fun-filled venture that invites moments of play, Herring doesn’t believe play must always be pleasurable. Conversely, he suggests play can be an opportunity to break free of routine, to push one’s boundaries. I like this idea. It resonates with my growing sense that disruption can be a powerful catalyst for play and creativity.

It’s been nearly a year since Dan and I brought George to the CMA to participate in Dispatchwork. That had been such a great experience for our family I really wanted to try another round; this time with Rosa as our focal point. But while we started out collaborating on a task, she wanted to do the next one on her own. And the one after that. And the one after that. Dan and Cora also got involved in their own projects as I fell into a participant-observer role and chatted with some of the other educator-researchers in the room.

Our family has been working hard on home projects lately and this was a welcome break from our regular routine. Dan was reluctant to give up time for his works in progress, but ultimately said he was glad he went, that he took the time out. Rosa has had a few good experiences at the CMA recently, and was less difficult to convince. This came as a bit of a surprise since she is a teenager who values her weekends as time to do, pretty much, nothing. When I asked her how TASK was different from art class at school she told me, “Here you have something to do, but you decide how to do it. At school you have to follow the teacher’s instructions.” For us all, this activity was a task, but not a chore.

(Final note: I’m interested in learning how educators have integrated both of these activities into their work. I think the dynamic of TASK must be much different with a finite and more homogeneous group. I’m still processing. Have you got anything to share? I struggle with activities that expend excess amounts of material with ephemeral results. But that’s a big part of process art which I fully support. For now, I think the Makedo reusable cardboard challenge kit is going to be my new “go to” birthday gift.)

Art and Play: The Center of Creativity

photo 1Anyone who works as a contractor from home knows it is often a blessing, sometimes a curse. I enjoy working on my own, but at times I long for others with whom I can casually bat around ideas on a professional level, without one of the kids asking something of me. Facebook is a nice substitute, but sometimes I long for flesh and blood and voices excitedly exchanging ideas back and forth, cutting one another off as we make connections in real time.

Last night I got that thanks to my colleagues at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity. Cindy Foley and her team put together a rich and spirited conversation on play, art, and learning with guest panelists Flossie Chau (Harvard’s Project Zero), Jessica Hamlin (Art21), Oliver Herring (artist). They filled a room full of early childhood and classroom teachers, university faculty, parents, non-profit arts leaders, museum staff and board members, and policy makers. I could hardly think of a better way to begin the weekend. Until a few of us went for cocktails and dinner afterwards…

Some of the questions we began to explore during our Conversation with ART21: Play=Art included:
What does it mean for art to play a role in teaching for 21st century skills?
How do we know when play is happening? What do we see? hear? feel?
How does play begin?
What is the relationship between play/process/object?
What is one thing you could do tomorrow to promote play in education?

So much of what I heard resonated with what I have been working through with students in my courses and in my experiences as a parent of a toddler and teen-aged children. Here are a few key phrases I took away from the conversation.

“Play is a state of mind.”

“Play requires some catalyst to get it going.” There must be some parameters. “It can’t be infinite or my head would explode.”

“Play is purposeful.”

“Play can be really loud or really quiet.” “Play can be individual or collective activity.”

“Play feels: addicting, releasing, competitive, energized, uncertain, promising, fully engaged…”

“Go back in your mind to when you were a kid. What did you do with materials when there were no expectations?”

“Play is real, school is not.”

I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation, finding new ways to define the role and importance of play in education, and seeing how play manifests itself in classrooms, museums, and home learning spaces.

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 1, No. 8

Hector called to all the people,
“Come and share my treasure trunk!”
And all the silly sightless people
Came and looked…and called it junk.
-from “Hector the Collector,” Shel Silverstein (1994)

photo-1Last night was a live session for the curriculum course I’m currently teaching. We generally have three of these meetings over the course of each eight-week session of the program. The first is like the introductory overview and discussion one would get on the first day of any graduate level course. The other two are generally filled with hurried student presentations. I inevitably leave these sessions feeling like there’s never enough time and not the right space for engaging in one another’s ideas or carrying out any kind of substantive dialogue.

For this session I tried to slow things down a little. To go deeper rather than try to cover everything. Part of the session included an introduction to our next project and I decided I needed to try to model some of what I wanted the students to do; the processes of brainstorming and planning I hoped they would engage in their own work. I presented my own small unit of instruction dedicated to the idea that “artists give new life to old things.” I am going to see if I can run a version of this with Cora’s preschool class or our new creative play-group, so more on it later.

For the purposes of this post, the important thing is that I started my presentation by reading “Hector the Collector” from Shel Silverstein’s (1974) Where the Sidewalk Ends. I primarily read the poem as a way of demonstrating the role children’s literature can play as an introduction to the study of visual art, but it wound up seeming like something more than that. Reading a story aloud to the class gave us something to focus on as a group. Though we were as far away from one another as Las Vegas and Miami, I like to think we were united for a moment by Hector and his treasures. Like I’ve written here before, I think sometimes even grown-ups just want to hear a story.

I’m not sure I was successful in furthering my students’ understanding of backward design and essential questions through this presentation. (Perhaps some of you will chime in here… for extra credit??) But, there’s something I really like about the image of a distance learning teacher sitting in her house, reading aloud from the pages of a printed book to her students across the country. There’s something comforting about that to me. Something concrete in a virtual, and at times surreal, learning environment.

Parenting Perk of the Day: Vicarious Flow

Cora has been so busy lately it’s been hard to keep up. Even harder to find time and mental space to sit down and write about anything that’s been going on. She’s at this truly amazing stage where everything is interesting to her and once she sets her mind on something, she will pursue it with her full attention until she has exhausted her interest in it, or I cut her off because it’s time to drive her brother and sister to school, mow the lawn, go to bed… She has become a process artist.

In art education, we often talk about process versus product. In short, what we learn and experience while creating things isn’t always evident in the final product. This is especially true for performance artists and young children. The work of Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci, to site some well-known examples, cannot be understood through a single image or description of their performances. They mean and are experienced differently by each viewer of, or participant in, their projects. Similarly, a piece of construction paper covered in glue and cottonballs made by a toddler means much more as evidence of a process the child engaged in than a work of art of itself.

DSC_0119Shortly after Cora’s first day at school, I was raiding the basement for new materials to experiment with. I pulled a set of brightly colored rolls of tape out and she immediately ran to another corner of the room and pulled out an empty wrapping paper tube. She told me she wanted to put the tape on the tube. She sat for at least 40 minutes taking small strips of tape I cut for her and covering the tube with them. Turns out she got the idea from some kids at school who had done something similar. So, while I had to admit this wasn’t her original idea, I was still impressed that she was able to tell me what she wanted to do and then to execute it with such focus. In retrospect, I think it was really important for her to act out something she’d only watched others do. To experience it for herself.


Like so many toddlers, Cora’s creative work is mostly about process. Marilyn Kohl (1994) writes in an authentic and informed manner on this subject in her introduction to Preschool art: It’s the process not the product which is full of ideas for initiating process art with young children. Many of these ideas could be scaled up for older audiences. 

Cora’s not concerned with the look of a drawing when she is finished with it so much as the processes she engages in making them. For instance, the other morning, she dumped out a bin of crayons and oil pastels then picked them up one at a time, made a mark on her paper, then lined them up. It was like the rules Jenny Bartlett sets for herself while painting. I have long been a fan of process art so I find this really amazing to watch. It also, reminded me of Helen Molesworth’s exhibition for the Wexner Center Work Ethic (2003) which highlighted artists who tested the definitions of what it means to work as an artist. Cora rarely makes a drawing of anything. Rather, her drawings provide a record of something she was doing.

When a toddler is involved in process art she is experiencing the state of flow creative practitioners strive to maintain. It brings us peace and pleasure to be so absorbed in an activity that we are focused only on the moment at hand, on the process we are engaged in. Watching Cora in flow brings me to a parallel space, engaged by her engagement. Next up, finding more opportunities for me to find such moments for myself.