I’m not updating this blog as often as I used to. If you want to read more about what’s been going in our (home)schooling adventures, please check out the sites for Red Oak Community School and Over the Fence Urban Farm.
Cora’s interest in Shakespeare, which I wrote about a few months ago, continues…
When we went to vote at the neighborhood middle school in November, we saw signs for an upcoming performance of Hamlet. After inquiring, we were invited to attend to a day-time performance attended by Columbus City School students from a few nearby schools.
Cora was excited to see kids, just a bit older than her, acting out the parts. This version was set in the 21st century, and rather than 14th century Denmark, the location was a video game company. The students used various digital technology to share behind-the-scenes memories – prerecorded videos – and conversations – text message screenshots – between the characters to expand the story they acted out.
We had a good time at the performance and Cora left determined to start acting with her friends. Since then, I have been volunteering at her school once a month, playing improv games and reading through scenes from Romeo and Juliet. We’re having fun, but Cora still wants to spend more dedicated time with kids studying and learning to reenact The Bard’s work. I’m on the lookout for summer camps and other opportunities. If we can’t find any, she has asked me to run one. (Please send leads if you have them! I’m not an actor!!!)
In the meantime, Cora got a new book for Christmas; a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, condensed into short stories by Angela McAllister and illustrated with gorgeous paper collages by Alice Lindstrom. Similar in style to Eric Carle but far more detailed, we have been enjoying examining the images and Cora has excitedly shared them with interested friends who come over.
This week I found her elbow deep in buckets of Playmobil figures (which she hadn’t touched in months), making characters she could use to act out Shakespearean plot lines. This is the kind of independent, playful learning I dream about as a homeschooling mom who aspires to authentic, creative education.
Once she had her cast of characters, I read from her new book as she acted the story with the Playmobil. I wish I had more confidence in making stop motion animation to offer to do that with her. I might have to do some re-search…
Tomorrow we’re visiting The Columbus Civic Theater for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). This is one of those times when I’m so happy to be homeschooling. I never studied Shakespeare much myself, so reading the stories with Cora I’ve been introduced to cultural touchstones I see referenced elsewhere and have new understanding of. I’m looking forward to the play as much as she is since this theater is just a mile from our house and I’m ashamed to say I haven’t been there since they opened in ten years ago.
One of Cora’s friends who is also currently hooked on Shakespeare is joining us for the performance. They are going to hang out after and you can bet I’ll be close by, seeing how the play winds its way into theirs.
It’s finally feeling really cold and wintery in central Ohio this week and I struggled to get us outside on at all Monday. This is highly unusual for me – a dedicated dog walker who needs to move my body. While our homeschool days are regularly filled with reading, drawing, and playing (educational) games, hanging out inside all day I got the urge to do something different.
Last month, Cora got a few new Lego-related gifts. I found these by searching the web for “gifts to give kids with too many Legos.” This wasn’t because I want her to stop playing with them. On the contrary we LOVE Lego around here – search this blog for Lego and you’ll find lots of posts on the subject. But I wanted to inspire her to do new things with the bricks she already has. Yesterday we dove into one of the books where we met a real building challenge, for mother and child.
Here are a few things I took away from our lesson, which I went into thinking about as supporting girls and innovation. I’ve touched on this topic before, see for example in this brief post about STEAM related picture books.
The first, and ongoing, challenge is finding pieces that meet the supply list for whichever project you choose. At first, Cora selected a project and started building but quickly found she didn’t have certain specialty gears we’d need. Reminded me of times I have started cooking something new without reading the recipe all the way through only to discover I’m missing an ingredient or specially pot or pan I need.
We looked through the book again together and found a project we seemed to have the pieces to complete, though we had to take a lot of liberties finding substitutes for what was recommended. For instance, the walls of our coin bank are made of a range of colors and sizes, not the specific red and gray bricks the author identifies. This seemed like a good lesson about using and being grateful for materials you have on hand, which the author suggests, though the picture perfect images in the book suggest otherwise.
We went through a lot of trial and error, which I was simultaneously happy about and genuinely challenged by. I personally had to fight the desire to give up at least a handful of times. Cora started building a few side projects at some points. I had to remind myself, you are a model right now. If you give up, so will she. I remembered the time Cora asked me to make her shoes that could fit a Barbie doll; the confidence she had that I could do it, and my desire to not let her down. And so we persevered, for hours – losing track of time and reaching a state of flow so intense we nearly missed her piano lesson – until we got the coins to roll down the ramps and into the drawer below.
Amy Brook Snider was my friend. Our relationship started as one of student and teacher, but over the 20 years since we first met, we became professional collaborators and personal confidants. She was one of the few people who religiously read this blog. I could always count on her to answer emails, be it 11:30pm or 4:15am. Yet, she constantly reminded me that talking on the telephone is the best way to stay truly and intimately connected to loved ones far away.
Amy passed away earlier this month. I will miss her wit and wisdom. She loved to read and collect obituaries from the New York Times. I’m sorry that I can’t write a review of her life on par with what appears on those pages. She was working on a memoir I hope to read someday, and I hope others will be able to read. Her acceptance speech for the National Art Education Women’s Caucus June King McFee Award in 2002 offers some highlights from her life and work. And here are a few things I won’t forget about her.
Amy never met a person she couldn’t make a friend. She was always telling me about someone new she’d met on a line someplace and wound up having coffee with, making plans for a new project or exchanging family photos. It was the same with her students. So many of us approached her about “possible” studies at Pratt, and quickly found ourselves caught in her web.
While she, somewhat reluctantly, got a cell phone a few years ago, she still had a phone with a cord hanging in her kitchen. It was the longest cord I’ve ever seen, ever. When we would talk, I often imagined her pacing around her apartment with that cord trailing behind her…
Amy kept an annotated list of mystery novels she’d read, complete with a short summary and personal review. She took this to the library with her to help her make new selections and ensure she didn’t take home anything she’d read before.
A lifelong New Yorker, Amy had one of the greatest collection of house plants I’ve ever seen. She dedicated half her living room to it, no small thing in small scale, apartment living.
Amy was an true intellectual. Her interests were varied and she read deeply in many areas. I often described her as an “artist’s art educator” because her passion for ideas, images, and objects, surpassed her interest in academic rhetoric, which she had little patience for.
She was a progressive through and through. The last night I spent at her apartment, she dozed off early but called me into her room when Steve Colbert came on the television so we could watch him dress-down The Lump together.
In 2017 she participated in Handwriting the Constitution, a collaborative study of our nation’s founding document. Amy had distinctive handwriting, and always wrote extensive comments on students’ work. She couldn’t help herself. It was part of her feminist approach to teaching, and just being.
I miss you already. I hope you are somewhere wonderful, watching movies and eating chocolate.
Cora is in second grade now. It’s hard to believe how fast she’s growing up. She’s reading and writing with greater confidence. And, much to my delight, she’s starting to draw more as well. As regular readers know, children’s independent drawings are one of my passions (see, for example, “Thinking Drawings”).
Sadly, even at her tiny alternative school, kids seem all too eager to judge. She has reported one girl repeatedly mocking her work, calling her drawings “weird.” I tell her to ignore this, that “weird” isn’t a very specific critique, that it’s probably just jealousy, but that only goes so far. Alternately, Cora can name the “best artist” in her class, and often compliments her style.
At the beginning of this school year, Cora was drawing a lot of anime-style eyes – a reflection of the graphic novels that are so popular in her crowd. One classmate taught her to draw eyes like those found in their beloved Amulet series and she learned another strategy by copying the work of a friend. With each of these technical infusions, we saw a proliferation of drawing at home.
The most recent addition to her repertoire came from a study of the D’Aulaires’s Book of Greek Myths. We used the D’Aulaires work last year as part of our homeschool studies of ancient history and were all captivated by the imagery as much as the stories. Recently Cora asked me to help her copy some of their portraits. We started with Cronos and moved on to Persephone.
As she worked we talked about the shapes and angles of the features. She quickly accepted that her drawings wouldn’t look exactly like the originals.
She said she wanted to copy the D’Aulaires entire gods and goddesses family tree, but I anticipated that idea would loose steam. I was happily surprised to see her quickly move on to making her own characters, drawing from a few basic graphic strategies she learned from the D’Aulaires’.
All this reminded me of Paul Duncum’s (1988) survey of ongoing debates about copying in art education. Duncum outlines at least five positions on the copying debate in art education, citing literature and drawing out intermediary positions between the traditional polarities of to copy or not to copy. He writes, “According to one position, copying is utterly undesirable under any circumstances. Indeed all forms of graphic influence are bad” (p. 204). Limiting all forms of graphic influence would be impossible, of course, unless a child is raised in a cave with no outside stimulus. Certainly, children growing up with picturebooks and cartoons and museum visits (or just in the 21st century culture of constant media bombardment) are exposed to various styles of representation, some of which will make it into their own doodles and more formal works of art.
Duncum cites others who advocate copying as a “necessary part of learning to draw because all drawing is based on previously acquired representational schemata” (p. 205). Brent and Marjorie Wilson (1982) and Olivia Gude (2004) have argued that some copying, referred to respectively as “borrowing” and “appropriating” which both sound a lot better and more thoughtful than copying, can build confidence and provide children with fodder for their own creative inventions. My husband concurred in a recent commentary on Cora’s work: “I freaking love the confidence in her lines. Go for it Cora Lena!”
Well, it’s been another long stretch since I posted anything in this space. It’s not for lack of thoughts of desire. I just need to make time for it again. I did write a personal essay for a journal that was based, in part, on my work in this space. Maybe if the feedback on that is positive it will motivate me.
In the meantime…
Following up on my last post, I’m back to part-time homeschooling with my daughter, who was the initial inspiration for this blog six years ago. Cora just turned 8 and is a second grader at Red Oak Community School the days we aren’t together. This fall we’ve been spending time with William Shakespeare. This was largely inspired by her first trip experience with Shakespeare in the Park late this summer. The magic of sitting outside as the sun went down and actors ran around (on and off) the stage at an Actor’s Theater of Columbus presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream captivated her immediately.
Cora talked about the performance for days following. This coincided with my reviewing notes for second grade homeschooling in A Well-Trained Mind (AWTM), one of the tools I use to help determine what to focus on during our homeschool days. This year’s social studies (see Story of the World: Volume II) and literature curricula include Shakespeare, though not until the end of the year. Since I’m the teacher, striving to embrace a a student-driven learning pedagogy, I decided to follow Cora’s interest. I used the resource guide in AWTM to identify materials for kids about Shakespeare including the amazing series Shakespeare Can Be Fun by Lois Burdett. While I take issue with the series title – why imply Shakespeare isn’t fun?! – the content is amazing.
Burdett wrote the series while teaching elementary school in Canada. There is surprising little about her or this work online, though it is clear she gave it her heart and soul. The books are layered with content starting with Burdett’s abbreviated versions of The Bard’s plays written in language kids can understand more easily than the originals, but retains his poetic voice. I believe she used these with her students to stage performances which are documented in photographs at the front and back of the books. Cora and I have been working together to interpret the meaning behind some of the lines like this one from Hamlet, “You don’t know how I feel. My pain these mourning clothes conceal.”
In addition to Burdett’s versions of the stories, each page includes drawings by her students (ages 7-10) and their own writings in response to the story. These include cleverly composed diary entires and letters written in the voices of the characters. There is a list of recommendations for these and other extension activities in the back of each book. The homeschooler in me is a little jealous of how well the kids seem to write for their age. But, I also noticed the handwriting looks pretty similar across student authors and I’m wondering if that was something the publisher had a (heavy) hand in…? Or is this just the result of lots of practice?
The drawings demonstrate close study and understanding of period dress and settings. The art educator in me would like to know more about her process for guiding drawing assignments. I’m sure the kids were using reference images in some way, which I am not at all against. Though I curious how she introduced this strategy, how she fit it into her curriculum overall, and how she guided the kids through multiple drafts of their work. I think I’m going to send her an email and see if she can share more information on this and the project in general.
Cora has been making some of her own drawings while we read (see below). They aren’t nearly as detailed as Burdett’s students but represent her way of making sense of and representing the texts visually. We might try looking up some fashion history as inspiration. If we do, I’ll try to report how it goes.
Of course we started our deep dive into the works of William Shakespeare with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After that we moved onto Shakespeare Retold (Nesbit and Caparo, 2016) which offers short, narrative versions of 7 plays. We have a short stack of Burdett books we look forward to working through and Cora is starting to talk about whom among her friends might be good acting partners. It’s been a good start to the year.
Next month, my friend Amy Brook Snider and I will be sharing the latest installment in a series of presentations we’ve given at the National Art Education Association Convention. The subject of our presentations has spanned a range of enduring topics of interest throughout our relationship and conversations on the telephone.
“Indivisible: A Consideration of the Picturebook, Past and Present” will include a slide show on some great moments in picturebook history. We’ll share criteria for identifying great picturebooks and some of our personal favorites. We hope our session will remind art educators of how the picturebook functions as works of art, one readily available to children and worthy of attention in the art room.
Preparing for this session has led me, quite happily, back to the picturebooks section of the library. As I shared in the fall my daughter (and co-captain in life the past seven years) Cora’s attention span for listening to stories is astounding and she will sit for hours being read to from chapter books. As her capacity to listen longer and her hunger for more complex and developed stories developed, we largely moved away from picturebooks. But as Amy and I reaffirmed through our conversations and investigations, great picturebooks are not just for children, and everyone in our house is happy to have them around again.
This fall, Amy reminded me of the D’Aulaires, a couple who emigrated from Europe to the U.S. in the early 20th century and went on to write and illustrate more than two dozen books. Their books were also included in a classical homeschooling curriculum we’re playing with this year. Cora and I started with their Book of Greek Myths (1962). (Note: We also LOVED Aliki’s Gods and Goddesses of Olympus (1994).)
The D’Aulaire’s storytelling is vivid and their detailed illustrations are captivating. They captured the most essential aspects of their plotlines through detailed drawings that could stand on their own as works of art. First depicted through 4-color lithography and later layered drawings on acetate echoing that process, these images are sure to stick in readers’ minds.
We currently have at least half a dozen of their books out from the library including Norse Myths (2005) (initially published as Norse Gods and Giants (1967)). We started reading it on a snow day last week (which felt appropriately hygge) and have been devouring it. We are having fun using the glossary to pronounce the Norwegian names. And we’re findings lots of characteristics in the Aesir that mimic the Greeks and other literary characters we know.
While my days with Cora have been filled with Odin and the Aesir, my nights have been spent watching Game of Thrones. The parallels are astounding.
I was not the kind of kid who read fantasy growing up. I never collected crystals or played Dungeons and Dragons. As an adult, when friends first started talking about Game of Thrones I tuned them out. But as a parent, I’ve been given a second change to engage explorations of good and evil through more recent mythologies like Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings.
Game of Thrones is intense. I didn’t have any idea what we were marching into when I suggested to Dan that we turn it on a few weeks ago. I was immediately drawn to the costumes, settings, and characters, at the same time that I was repelled by most of their behaviors. But reading Norse Myths, their intense embrace of all parts of life, death, war, sex, food, etc. makes more sense. The northerners in the story are clearly designed after the Norse, such as that depicted in this story of Odin’s heroes. After fighting to their deaths in Odin’s name, they were granted flown to the world of the gods by beautiful maidens to an afterlife full of all out feasting and fighting (and quiet time with women when their mood allowed).
The D’Aulaires’ share stories that have formed the touchstone of many Western literary and artistic projects. I’m grateful to be reading them so closely now, wishing I hadn’t waited so long.
[Note: Apologies to loyal readers who have missed updates from me through this space these past months. I have thought of this project often, but been pulled in other directions. In case I fall off the map again, come look for me at overthefenceurban.com and http://www.redoakcommunityschool.org/rocs-blog/]