What I’m Taking Away from NAEA (2015)

I was too busy learning and exploring to blog from New Orleans as I’d promised. (I did post a lot of photos on Instagram that you may have seen…) It was a great couple of days hearing from some of the most innovative art educators teaching today, catching up with old classmates and mentors, and soaking up the sites, sounds, smells, and tastes of a city that just ten years ago people weren’t sure would survive.

Old meets new.

Old meets new in NOLA.

While we didn’t talk about it much, the convention center where we spent most of our time was part of ground zero during Hurricane Katrina – formally a shelter for national guardsmen, informally for 20,000 New Orleanians waiting to be evacuated. I felt like my entire visit took place in the shadow of that event. While the buidling was washed of this history, the city bears many traces and I couldn’t help think of the flood every time I walked over a water line cover. A sidewalk stencil painting of koi had me imagining fish swimming through the city streets… I’m sure others found moments for remembrance and reflection.

When I wasn’t marveling at NOLA’s cultural legacy and contemporary recovery, I was attending sessions. I learned a lot and came home with fresh inspiration. Here are some of my takeaways.

Build more bridges
A number of presentations got me thinking about forming new and stronger bonds across communities and institutions and encouraging my students to do the same.

  • UFARTED alumna Stephanie Wirt (VA) and Stephanie Pickens (GA) led their high schoolers in an exchange of ideas and artwork using social media. Their enthusiasm inspired me to think of new ways we can use collaborative artmaking practices to connect our online students and get them thinking about how to build bridges between their classrooms. I have some ideas for this summer so stayed tuned UFARTED folks!
  • Art21 Educators Juila Mack (NYC) and Jocelyn Salaz (NM) created concurrent community murals with their first graders and shared the results as a way of teaching them to value their own culture and that of others. The collaboration began with an exchange of mini documentary movies about each school and its cultural context. Students, and those of us in the audience, couldn’t help but be engaged by the stark contrasts and sweet similarities of the students observations.
  • I heard at least three references to Padlet, an app I want to explore with students that allows for collaborative brainstorming using images, text, and hyperlinks. Seems promising and it’s free.

Process as Practice
I am inspired to revisit the way we structure class discussions in our courses – trying to move away from relying so heavily on the (verbal) discussion boards to other (non-verbal) ways for students to demonstrate understanding and application of ideas from our course readings. These sessions provided  some ideas.

  • “Process as Practice” was the title of a presentation by Jack Watson (NC) and Todd Elkin (CA), another pair of Art21 Eduators who share ideas and collaborate with their high school students. Their presentation was a great follow-up to the session we had at school last week with Joe Fusaro. They provided amazing stories and examples of working with their students in choice-based, process-driven, and conceptually-rich settings. They shared strategies for brainstorming and concept development that were really thought-provoking.
  • While I have always advoacted process over product in work with young children on this blog, a presentation on collaborating with children inspired me to think more about my interactions with children as creative processes.
  • Alice Pennisi and Krissi Staikidis presented on their work advising masters level researchers. Much of what they spoke about was familiar but I will keep with me for a long time a few things they said. Alice tells students to think of their research as a self-designed and moderated class about their specific interest. “You are the teacher and the student. Enjoy.” They both strive to address research as an active, ongoing, and reflexive, process. Noone can move from point A to point B in a day, a semester, or even a single degree program. “50% of a masters thesis is about learning to do research. 50% is about that project in particular.”

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
This is one of those maxims I can never hear too often.

  • 8am Saturday morning I walked into a session and saw the chairs arranged in small circles. While I love to talk and often find myself tired of the presenter/audience format of most conference sessions, not all interactive dialogues work in the conference context, especially first thing in the morning. At “Speed Dating with Theory,” presented by five doctoral candidates from ASU assumed the persona of the theoretical framework guiding their research far surpassed expectation. I met remix, third space, postcolonial, relational aesthetics, and play theory and was given a chance to consider my work in relation to them. It was brilliant. One particularly really great moment worth noting, was when play theory asked the other woman sitting with us, “Are you familiar with play theory?” to which she responded, “Uh, well, my dad is George Szekely so, yeah.” The students shared that discussion of educational aesthetics and the art of presentation is a part of their curriculum and I am excited to think more about that.IMG_9756
  • Doug Blandy has been a favorite presenter/scholar of mine for as long as I’ve been going to NAEA conferences. For the past few years, he’s been hosting a local artist whose work represents a folk tradition and this year Mardi Gras Indian Cherice Harrison-Nelson of the Guardians of the Flame was his guest. She broke the monotony of the conference space with storytelling and singing that was engaging, informative, and restorative.
  • Rebecca Belleville (MD), yet another Art21 Educator, broke down in tears as she shared stories from her classroom where she teaching artmaking for social  justice. While I know she wasn’t thrilled to be crying in front of a ballroom full of people, it made an incredible impression and demonstrated the position of passion from which she teaches.

The present and future of public schooling in this country seems severely challenged
I have never been to an art education convention, nor do I think I ever will be, at which the topic of advocacy has not come up. It seems no matter what labels we attach ourselves to – discipline-based, STEM, etc – we don’t have enough allies outside our ranks making arguments on our behalf. At this conference, however, I heard more than I ever have before from art teachers who feel pinched by public education reforms related to standardized testing and teacher assessment. I was shocked by how many of my friends and colleagues, who work primarily with public school-based art educators, don’t trust those schools to educate their own children.

  • The only presentation I saw in the catalogue that included the name Katrina was sparsely attended which allowed for a really great interactive dialogue between the presenter, Sarah Travis, who was born and raised in NOLA and went on to become a public school teacher there, and the audience of mostly charter school-based art educators. She taught in NOLA before and after Katrina and shared statistics and information about the near total reconstruction of the local school system in the wake of the storm. It is a story at polar opposite with the Reggio Emilia grassroots initiative following WWII in Italy that focused on the holistic development of children and paid special attention to the role of the arts in that process. The story of NOLA schools post-Katrina is a story of charter takeover. One those with money in the game are watching very closely. (For a taste check out the trailer for The Experiment.)
  • 50 years ago art educators hosted a conference at Penn State on the state of art education funded by money from the federal Department of Education. That meeting lead to many developments in our field including the discipline-based art movement. Next year, faculty at PSU will host a similar event. As participants discuss the past and next fifty years, they will have to address whether we have a future at all in the public schools.
  • Trying to end this section on a high note, Alston Wise’s very witty UF MFA thesis project  “Public School Parent” got stuck in one of the final time slots and not even I was there. But Alston’s witty response to the assessment-driven culture of schools today is just the type of smart and eye-catching advocacy we need, and need more of, in order to make ourselves seen and heard.

What I do matters.

Catching up with Shakirah and Bryan.

Catching up with Shakirah and Bryan.

Sometimes its hard to tell in the online teaching environment but the connections and impact we are making with our online students, and they are making with one another, is significant. It is real. It is meaningful. And it translates to our shared lived experiences. My desire to see and talk with students in the flesh was met at this convention. We were able to pick up conversations where we left off on class discussion boards, Facebook, and twitter, and we were able to share more about our personal lives and personalities by sharing space and meals, walking and talking.

So, I’ll see you next year in Chicago.

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See you NOLA: NAEA 2015

So, once again my proposals for the National Art Education Association (NAEA) annual convention were rejected. But this time around I’m not letting that stop me from attending “the world’s largest art education convention.” Last year I stayed home and (kinda sorta) regretted it. I’ll be blogging along the way so feel free to follow along. I’ll also be posting photos to Instagram (jodikushins). I’ll try to tweet (@jkushins) a little but I’m not promising anything. (I’m still just not feeling the love on twitter…)

Sadly, I’m not getting in until after Tim Gunn’s keynote dialogue and “Critique Boutique IV,” but I am bookmarking a wide range of sessions on STEAM, maker culture, young children, art education history, teens, community-based practices, and cyberspace. I also have plans to spend time in the exhibition hall observing and talking with practicing teachers about what they are learning and experiencing from their time with the vendors and their “studios.”

When I talk about the NAEA convention to friends and family I always note the wide range of constituents the event draws; from rural elementary school-based art educators to museum folks from Manhattan, Research I university faculty and arts administrators at community art spaces. This year I hope to sample a little of everything.

I also hope to have a good bit of fun, catching up with old friends, classmates, and mentors, seeing some sites, and walking and eating my way through The Big Easy.

A (Virtual) Visit from Art21

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 7.54.13 PM The University of Florida Master of Art Education online degree program is rounding out its fifth year and it’s taking me about with it. I’ve never had a job this long and it’s nice to feel like I’m grounded someplace. And not just any place, but in a program I’m proud to be a part of.

One of the things that we’ve been exploring over the years, and which I’ve written about here before, is how to work as a community of learners. How can we create a sense of togetherness as individuals with a lot in common, and going through a common experience, but with great distances keeping us physically apart?

My colleague Elizabeth Delacruz created a course on “Globalization, Art, and Education” which includes lots of activities to help students find, create, and maintain their own online professional learning networks (PLNs) using social media (Facebook, Twitter, ArtEducation2.0) and bookmaking tools (Scoopit, Pinterest). The connections students make in these venues bring them together in new ways outside the somewhat stifled space the institution provides for coursework. They also bring them in communication with other educators and artists. Relationships in these venues can be more dynamic, visual, personal. They are, to use one of Elizabeth’s favorite adjectives, robust.

From campus, Craig Roland and Michelle Tillander host summer studio courses (taught by studio art faculty) peppered with collaborative artmaking challenges. Students often speak of their weeks on campus as one of the most transformative aspects of the program. This is attributed in part to the quality of the classes and opportunities they provide these busy folks to focus on themselves as artists for a moment, and in part to the time they have with their peers, people they have gotten to know online but have not been, and may never again be, with in person.

They also plan annual lectures (on campus and online) that bring us together in new ways. Some of these have been on campus lectures shared through a live stream, others presentations have been planned specifically for us and delivered through out virtual meeting space. Over the years, we have heard from Olivia Gude, Oliver Herring, Terry Barrett, and just this week, Joe Fusaro – senior educational advisory for the PBS contemporary art series Art21.

Craig crossed paths with Joe at a few conferences and was eager to bring him in contact with our students. In addition to his work with Art21, Joe is the Visual Arts Chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York. This combination of activities, building on more than two decades in the classroom, made Joe the perfect person to speak to our students about “Teaching with Contemporary Art.” He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk.

For many, the idea of sharing contemporary art with students seems daunting, if not dangerous. Such work can be confusing for people unfamiliar with it since it often doesn’t look like art at all. And oftentimes, contemporary artists challenge normative society in ways that make parents and administrators uncomfortable. Rather than seeing these as excuses for leaving it out of the curriculum equation, my colleagues and I see them as reasons to include them. But sometimes students, like children, need to hear from someone other than their teachers, their in loco parentis.

Joe spoke with passion about the artists he works with on Art21. He beamed as he shared his students’ work with us. It was as if he were demonstrating a principle I have tried to convey to students – teaching new artists and ideas is engaging for educators, not just our students. I’m personally looking forward to building on Joe’s talk in my classes and with students working on related capstone projects. He gave us lots of great questions to consider and strategies to try out. The occasion also inspired me to dig deeper into the resources available on the Art21 website, articles in their e-magazine, and to watch episodes of the program I haven’t seen yet. (It’s kind of hard to believe they are on their seventh season). Thankfully summer recess is just a few weeks away.

Creative Connections: The Kitschy Kat Alphabet Book

Last summer I met Nancy McKibben when she was assigned to write a story about my urban farming project – Over the Fence Urban Farm. During our time together for interviews, Nancy and I shared our mutual interest in picturebooks and she shared her plans to put together an ABC book made of postcards, for children to create with the help of loved ones far away.

In the fall Nancy sent me an invitation to support Kitschy Cat Alphabet Book on Kickstarter. (It’s now available on Etsy.) With a four-year-old at home in Ohio and family all over the country, there was no reason to refuse. For my donation towards the project’s start-up costs, I received the full set of postcards.

I love perpetuating the idea of snail mail, and am trying to give Cora ample exposure to the joys of writing and receiving handwritten notes. I think it’s catching on. And why shouldn’t it. There’s little more magical than sealing an envelop, sticking it in a box, and then receiving a letter from the recipient in response. One of the projects on my to do list this spring is to create a mail station for Cora per recommendations from Playful Learning. Kitschy Cat will have a special place in the setup.

IMG_9031I sent the postcards to my mom along with 52 stamps and the introductory note Nancy included for participants and then we waited. Mom let me know when the package arrived, told me I didn’t have to send the stamps, and proceeded to laugh as she apologized in advance if somewhere along the line she forgets about the whole thing. But then the postcards started coming. And her notes are thoughtful and clever!

photo 3

photo 4I love that she is referencing where she lives, asking about where we are, telling stories from the past, and making suggestions for the future. Previously, when I asked my mom to write to Cora it didn’t always happen. No shame, no blame. She’s just not that kind of grandma. The point is that the parameters and creative starts offered by the alphabet themed cards gave her the encouragement and support she needed. Suddenly I was seeing this as a creative invitation for my mom, perhaps even more than for Cora.

Of course we’re trying to find ways to extend the activity on our end. Using the letter of the day as a prompt for writing practice. . .

IMG_9045And drawing invitations. . .

photo 5

R is for Rabbit

In addition to my mom, I’ve been trying for what seems like forever to get my niece, who is in first grade and has the sweetest penmanship, to write to me with little effect. But my mother brought some Kitschy Cat cards along last week while she was visiting my brother and his family last week and guess who signed the last two letters we received?

photo 2I’m grateful to Nancy for sharing this project with us. For me, it’s turning out to be so much more than the sum of it’s parts. I’m not sure what we’ll do when it’s over.

[Postscript: Art educators might get inspiration from Nancy’s project for exchanges within their districts – I can imagine elementary and high school students exchanging cards, for instance. They can also draw inspiration from mail artists like Ray Johnson and On Kawara or contemporary correspondence projects like Post Secret. And then there are sites that offer mail art challenges you can join with or without your students. (Honestly I didn’t even know how active the postal art community was until just now.)]