Mastering the Art of the Lip Sync

I’ve said it before, Gretchen Wessel is the “best damn music teacher in the land.” A model for all art educators, not just music teachers. She has grown her program to be a vital and integral part of Colonial Hills Elementary School culture. Without the events she produces, the school wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a place for students to spend seven years of their lives. She brings purpose to their days, teaches them the value of hard work and commitment, and helps them mark the passage of time with annual traditions like the 6th grade Lip Sync.

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I don’t know the history of this event, but I know that it is something Rosa has been talking about being a part of since she was in kindergarten. It isn’t a superficial way of integrating kids’ culture into the school day. Gretchen has woven the lip sync into her curriculum. It’s not just a fun time, it’s learning time. Students submit song requests based on a defined set of criteria. They collaborate to choreograph their acts and come up with their costumes. I haven’t seen how she fits this in with what she is “supposed” to be teaching or any state learning standards, but I’m sure she’s meeting quite a few.

As a parent who feels herself growing older and more out of touch by the day, I enjoyed this opportunity to sample some of the music Rosa and her friends are gaga over at the moment. Now I can say I know about the YouTube sensations The Chickeneers and Ylvis.

Lots of schools host lip syncs. But I can’t find evidence of others that incorporate it into their music programs this way. Would make a great research project for an enterprising music education major…

Straddling the Lines

I thrive in liminal spaces. Professionally, I am operating on the edges of my field. Personally, I often find myself straddling borders. I named this blog to honor these aspects of my experience.

The name was also intended to make reference to the artwork of children, my children in particular. As a teacher and a parent, I respect and appreciate young children’s spontaneous creative activities. Cora was just scribbling when I started this blog. Now she’s discovering the lines. I just hope that she never lets them imprison her.

Blogger, PhD

When I jumped on here this morning to post a quick note of praise for Nicholas Kristof’s call for professors to share their knowledge and insights more publicly, validating blogs like this, I had no idea how many folks had decried his commentary. I understand the arguments being made against his suggestion that not enough professors share their knowledge with the general public. Tenured Radical, for example, offers a list of historians, social scientists, and others sharing intellectual insights via social media. I’m not quite convinced, however, by her argument that traditional college teaching is a form of public intellectualism – the audience seems a bit too narrow to qualify.

The Huffington Post has published at least four responses to Kristof’s work at the time of this writing. Marshall Duke, supports the call for more public displays of intellectual activity and suggests new channels for intellectual discourse beyond peer-reviewed and jargon-laden journal articles or mass media cameo appearances on CNN. He wrote: “Every professor worth his or her salt, however, also can write clearly, informatively and provocatively.” If only the first and last parts of this were true.

I have long harbored an interest in the idea of public intellectuals, particularly how artists fulfill this role. I even published a little something on the topic in a peer-reviewed journal a few years back following a conference presentation on the subject. This was before the age of TEDTalks, which Kristof points out, have made “lectures by non-scholars fun to watch.” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were some of my favorite examples of such activity in the early aughts so I found recent news that Daily Show viewers were among the best informed on current events amusing.

While I would never call myself a public intellectual, I’m not that smart, I think it is a useful term to consider with regard to the sharing of our work as trained scholars and researchers with people outside our professional circles. When I started this blog, I yearned for a way to put my education to use, to make my voice heard. I wanted to share my informed observations with others. I sought to bridge my personal and professional lives and provoke thought in the minds of colleagues as well as friends and family. I longed for a place to do all that in a manner that felt creative and rewarding – reflexive for the jargon-lovers reading this. I’ll leave it to you all to tell me how I’m doing in achieving those goals.

With Animated Wishes

A few weeks ago I wrote about my neighbor June and her fascination with The Art of Frozen.  Then, a few days later I received this email:


The message came as validation that all this blogging has been worthwhile. I immediately Googled Charles Solomon. Man does this guy have a resume. Imagining him in his office looking at and thinking about June’s drawings brought me to tears.

It took about a week for the bookplate to arrive and while I’m usually terrible about keeping secrets, I kept this one. Sort of. I posted about it on Facebook, but June’s parents aren’t active there so I knew they wouldn’t see it. Once the plate arrived in the mail, I told June’s mom I had a surprise to share. Today I took Cora over for a playdate with June’s little sister with the bookplate in hand.

June was in bed recovering from her first sleepover at a friend’s house so I showed it to her mom. She was as amazed as I was by the story of a publicist finding my blog and sharing it with the author. She suggested that Mr. Solomon was probably like June when he was a kid – obsessed with the art of the animated films he saw – and her work may have reminded him of his younger self. I like that idea.

When I got back to pick up Cora, June was awake and showed me her copy of The Art of Frozen with the bookplate stuck to the inside cover. I hope she has that book for a long, long time and that she never forgets the special message it holds for her.

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Revising the Writing on the Fence

A few years ago I noticed the emergence of a cultural phenomenon that truly irritates me. Kids were leaving messages for one another in the fences of local middle and high schools, composed of styrofoam cups. “Jane is 16!” “Go Cards.” That sort of thing.

Now that I’m sitting down and writing about it I see this as the manifestation of a desire to make their mark on the world around them using tools available to them. The cups are an everyday part of disposable culture they are growing up in. (When was the last time you were in a school cafeteria?) It makes me incredible sad since I’m the kind of person who will decline a beverage on the airplane in order to save the plastic cup it would be served in. You may not know anyone like this but we’re out here. I’m sadder still when I see the messages weeks later – falling apart, blowing away in the wind, waiting to be cleaned up by the custodial staff – no longer of interest to the kids but forever with us as fuel for the global trash heap.

Lots of artists are making interesting work with styrofoam. I wonder if any environmentally conscious art educators out there have used this opportunity to share this work with their students, perhaps harvest the used cups, and make sculptures of them.

For my part, I have a little local intervention in mind based on an idea I found at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) this fall. Organizers left strips of t-shirt jersey by a chain link fence with a simple invitation: “Be Creative: Use the fabric to weave fence art.” The moment I saw it I imagined this process replacing all those cups. The t-shirt material could be gathered from old shirts (stains and holes welcome) and reused over time. Every time I see a new cup message pop up in my community, I feel a small pang of guilt that I haven’t introduced this new fence writing method to kids in Columbus yet.

So, last night, as a very last minute Valentine’s gesture, I made a big ball of red t-shirt yarn and went down the street to the neighborhood middle school. I didn’t come close to replicating the vision in my mind. It was late. It was cold. I realized I would have been better off with multiple shorter and fatter strips than the super long skinny one I brought (with no scissors for alterations on site). But I made a gesture. And I plan to make more as the weather warms up. I hope others might follow my lead.


#EvidenceOfPlay, #KidsWereHere

A few months ago, my friend Melissa posted a photo of some toys laying on the landing of her stairs to her tumblr site with the caption, “evidence of play.” These words have crossed my mind many times since then. It seemed like the perfect descriptor for the signs we find of our children’s spontaneous activity in the land of make believe.

As Cora gets older, there are more and more times when she plays alone, for which I am very grateful. Working from home, I have learned to be very flexible and take advantage of opportunities to work as they arise throughout the day. I love the days when Cora heads to another room and gets deep into something so I can do the same. However, any parent of young children knows the simultaneous joy and fear of a quiet child. What’s she doing in there? I wonder (always in the voice of Tom Waits), and then go back to grading papers, hoping nothing gets broken before I check on her.

These sessions usually end with me cleaning up a mess. Cora is going through a major dumping phase where she tips over every bin of craft materials, blocks, or dolls clothes in her path. This was the result of a recent playdate.


But there are also moments when I find evidence of more thoughtful play. I love to pause and consider what was going on when they were created. Like Melissa sometimes, these still lives send me running for my camera. And apparently we’re not alone.

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In April 2013, a group of 30 professional photographers started kids were here, a monthly virtual installation of images they made of the traces of their children’s playful activity. Early comments to the site showed that others wanted in on the game and the hashtag #kidswerehere took hold on twitter, Instagram, and flickr. Bloggers can add a KWH badge to their blog to show their participaton (check out mine in the sidebar). There is only one rule, “no kids, only evidence that they were there.”

I love this project. I love the democracy of it. I love the conceptual nature of it; “evidence of play” and “kids were here” suggest both presence and absence. I love how this practice puts Reggio practices into the hands of parents, documenting kids’ playful learning at home and around the world.  As one of the featured photographers wrote:

“When I first began this project, I thought it would be fun to document the every day messes my children make.  As the weeks have passed, this project has really become so much more than that.

It’s not really about messes at all, but about the stories they tell.  It’s about traces of childhood I see throughout my home on a daily basis. It’s about the love we share together.  It’s about living and being…creating, making, learning and trying.   This project leaves me a beautiful story each month of the reminders that Kids are here now…and the time, well, its all too fleeting, isn’t it?   We all need to embrace these moments and just live them too; because they really are the best moments of life.”

-Ginger Unzueta, June 2013

[Note: Shout out to Tina Thompson for putting kids were here on my radar.]

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 4

This is a companion piece of sorts. This weekend I finally got Rosa to sit down with me and watch Julie and Julia. We blogged about it on My Step-Monster’s Kitchen. There is so much I love about this film, but Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child is certainly at the top of the list.

This week in the history of art education course I’m teaching, students gave presentations on prominent art educators throughout history. While most of the options are folks who worked in schools, museums, and universities, one student jumped at the chance to report on Bob Ross. Bob and Julia had more in common than long-running shows on PBS. They both put highly refined artistic processes within in arm’s reach of the average person. Want to paint like Leonardo? Watch The Joy of Painting. Want to cook like Auguste Escoffier, watch The French ChefI never really watched either of these show all that much. Sick days home from school, that’s it. But I know these folks made a mark on me, if only a light scribble.

A few years back I found Bon Appetit! (Hartland, 2012) at my favorite children’s bookshop in town. I was on my way out and already had a nice (expensive) stack in my hands, but I had to have this one. One part biography, one part graphic novel drawn in a sketchy style that reminds me of Maira Kalman (whose work you already know I adore) it follows many of the same moments in Child’s life as Julie and Julia.

Bon Appetit!