A Report from Tinkergarten

This is my 8th year teaching for the University of Florida Online Master of Arts in Art Education program. Through the years, I have had the opportunity to work with art educators across the country doing amazing things. I showcased a few in this space with posts dedicated to their capstone projects (See “Time to Brag” and “Creamery Hill Racers,” for example). I intended to make that a regular column, but time got the better of me. Maybe this winter…

As any educator knows, one of the greatest gifts our students can give us is coming back with reports of how a course one taught, a reading one assigned, or a comment one made changed the way they think or behave. And so it was with great pleasure that I found this post on our program’s Facebook page one day this summer.

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Another item on my perennial list of the “things I’ve wanted to do in this space” was to invite students and alumni to share their ideas and experiences. With that in mind I asked Natalie to write something about Tinkergarten. According to their website, “Tinkergarten provides high-quality early childhood learning in the healthiest classroom of all—the outdoors. Families connect with trained leaders in their local community for play-based kids classes that help develop core life skills, all while having fun!” The following are Natalie’s thoughts on the program, drawing on her knowledge and experience as an art educator.

“Natural Education” by Natalie Davis
Sydney darted across the park with her backpack yelling “Miss Betsy! Miss Betsy!”  She was so excited to show her teacher her red galoshes.  It was mud day and my three-year-old little girl was extremely excited to get dirty and start her play-based outdoor classroom, Tinkergarten.

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What is Tinkergarten?
It is not your typical classroom.  In fact, it is the complete opposite of a brick and mortar school.  There are no walls and there are no desks. Children are not required to walk in single file lines.  Use of digital technology is prohibited.  Rather, a Tinkergarten class takes place in a park or other green space in the local community.  The concept is simple: playing in nature and learning go hand-in-hand.  Sticks become drawing tools, mud becomes paint and flowers become collage items. The outdoor play-based activities are not only fun but also cognitively stimulating because they encourage children to explore. The learning environment is as authentic as the surroundings.

Why Tinkergarten?
As an art educator and mamma, I was drawn to Tinkergarten’s philosophy of play-based learning.  I welcomed the opportunity for Sydney to learn through innovative approaches to curriculum I was familiar with from art education like Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, Forest Kindergarten, and Montessori (Tinkergarten, 2017). Like Dewey (1925), Froebel (1887), Lowenfeld (1949) I know it’s important for young children to be in and explore the natural world, and use their biological desire of playing to inspire and enrich their thinking. As an art educator, I followed this philosophy in my own teaching career and witnessed success first hand. I wanted that kind of learning for my daughter.

How does play turn into learning?
The word play sometimes can be misconstrued as useless recreation.  This is definitely not the case during a Tinkergarten class.  The class has a trained facilitator referred to as the Leader. The leader sets up playful invitations and activities designed to enable the children to take an active role in learning.  The children’s natural curiosity guides the learning experience. I strongly agree that these types of activities are “the best way to help nurture kids’ development and ready them for academic success later in life” (Tinkergarten, 2017, para 4).

The Leader’s role is not to ensure completion of the activity as might be assumed.  Instead they are there to help guide children into deeper understanding by capitalizing on situations that excite interest in each individual child.  They use these opportunities for educational enrichment.

For example, my daughter came across a worm and a bug while digging in the mud.  Her discovery led to conversation.  The leader prompted my daughter and the class to talk about the worm and bug.  They discussed their purpose, textures, and colors.  Digging in the mud was turned into making a “worm hotel habitat” out of a mason jar.  In another area of the park, a child found a rock while digging in the mud.  The little boy held up the rock and announced his discovery to the class.  As more children gathered around to see his treasure, he dropped the rock into a large bucket of water.  The Leader seized the opportunity for enrichment and suggested to the group to make a special “soup”.   The Leader’s suggestion led to an outpouring of imaginative responses from the children.  They began discussing the “special soup ingredients” and ran off helping one another to gather them.  They collected  foliage, rocks, and flowers to name a few.  In this moment, the children were working on social skills, motor skills, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving.

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Final Thoughts
A few years ago, in a course in graduate school, I read an article that intrigued me on the subject of technology in the classroom.  The article described a trend among Silicon Valley CEO’s who enroll their own children in nature-inspired Waldorf Schools (Richtel, 2011).  I was fascinated to learn that technology leaders saw value in using nature and limiting technology in their children’s education. I added it to the list of reasons I might pursue such experiences for my daughter.

References

Tinkergarten, 2017, Retrieved from https://www.tinkergarten.com/leaders/betsy.modrzejewski

Dewey, J. (1925). Experience and Nature. Chicago & London: Open Court.

Froebel, F. (1887). The Education of Man. (Translated by Hailmann, W.N.) New York, London, D. Appleton Century.

Lowenfeld, V., & Brittain, W. L. (1970). Creative and mental growth (5th ed.). [New York]: Macmillan.

Richtel, M. (2011, Oct. 22). A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute. [Essay on New York Times]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html

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Art Educator as Ally

Like many of you, I’ve been feeling really blue since November 8th. I’ve been feeling like there’s very little I can do to protect the rights of many Americans I know and even more I don’t know who are concerned that their voices will not be heard and their very presence challenged under a Trump/Pence-led government. Chief among these are my LGBTQ family and friends.

In June, I bought Cora a rainbow flag at the Columbus Pride parade. At the time I felt silly, like I was just supporting the vendors trying to make a buck off the event. But she’s carried that flag to each rally we’ve been to in the past few weeks. Currently, it’s draping the dashboard of my car. Carrying the flag beyond the pride parade I feel like we are making a statement, showing we are allies who support the insanely simple idea that
LOVE IS LOVE.

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Today I had an encounter with a student that confirmed I am making a difference beyond adding rainbows to the visual political landscape.  A gay man living in Texas, this student works as a public school teacher and volunteers with various organizations in his community. Early in our studies together he expressed interest in making art with LGBTQ youth in his area. Today we talked about concrete steps he plans to take to make that happen.

At the end of our conversation he thanked me for supporting his vision and for encouraging him in his pursuits. I am so proud of him and can’t wait to see where this leads. I’m excited for the kids whose lives he’ll impact, whom he’ll help to see that it gets better. With his permission, perhaps I’ll share it all with you someday.

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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.

#MobilePhotoNow Models Participatory Culture

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 1.17.00 PMThe curator’s talk at the opening of #MobilePhotoNow at the Columbus Museum of Art was a whole lot different from similar talks I’ve been to in the past. While the tone was serious, it was also welcoming. The comments were smart, and thought-provoking, but understandable by folks who don’t spend the majority of their time in white boxes with artists and collectors. Attention was also paid to those who might not speak hashtag as well as Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. This is all in keeping with CMA’s mission: “to create great experiences with great art for everyone.”

The night started with a greeting from museum director, Nanette Maciejunes, who was proud to let everyone know that “#MobilePhotoNow is the biggest mobile art show on the planet to date, demonstrating the power of social media as a means of creative expression and connection.” She spoke about the museum’s commitment to creativity and innovation and how this show fit with their goals of celebrating and enabling participation in the creative process.

She went on to remind us of a show a few years ago that CMA co-created with the Jewish Museum in New York called “The Radical Camera.” That was a fabulous show which featured many images from The Photo League, a group of (mostly Jewish) politically engaged photographers who focused their lenses on the lives of everyday people, doing everyday things from the end of the Great Depression to the start of the Cold War. CMA owns a lot of works from artists in this group who not only recorded the lives of others, but in doing so, reflected on their own. The League was blacklisted in 1947 and by the time it dissolved in 1951, it “had propelled documentary photography from factual images to more challenging ones—from bearing witness to questioning one’s own bearings in the world.”

It’s clear to see how The Photo League’s citizen reporting paved the way for our 21st century newsfeed of events large and small. But Maciejunes described a less obvious, but equally salient connection between The Photo League and mobile picture sharing, “the photo hunt.” In this creative exercise, league members selected a theme and made images around that theme to share with one another. Sound like anything familiar? CMA staff immediately related it to communities of interest on social media and so the first, CMA-sponsored, Instragram-supported, photo hunt was launched.

The CMA strives to be a participatory museum (Simon, 2010), in the context of a participatory culture (Blandy, 2011). “Connectors” appear in many of the galleries offering visitors opportunities to reflect on and respond to what they see through an activity; a game, a puzzle, a drawing prompt, a wall of post-in notes and a question. For The Radical Camera, CMA staff crowd-sourced images through a series of photo hunts and displayed their favorites. Maciejunes recalled that when she walked into the opening for the show and didn’t recognize anyone, she knew they were onto something big. They were connecting with a new audience.

The CMA Photo Hunt helped bring together mobile photographers in and around Columbus. Seeing the exhibition brought to light the potential of social media to inspire artistic practices that are at once personal and collective. But, at the time, I still didn’t have a smartphone so the whole thing was somewhat lost on me. Now I get it. Little did I know that for more than two years members of the jj community were pushing one another to make art, and share it everyday. What art educator wouldn’t like the sound of that?

Recently, in connection with a course I’m teaching, and in expectation of #MobilePhotoNow, I started using Instagram and following the #jj daily challenge stream. It’s intense, and beautiful. These are not a bunch of poorly-lighted selfies and half-eaten meals, they are (on average) well-designed, artfully composed, and intentional images shared with pride and purpose. See for yourself. Here’s something that showed up last night.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 9.12.23 PMIt was a response to the day’s theme:

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 9.14.58 PMThis is a kind of formalist invitation (similar to black & white or group shots). Others are more conceptual (where I live, tourist trap, the night) or object-oriented (cars, the beach, woods). It’s a nice balance really. So often art educators struggle with questions of focusing on form or content, agreeing in the end that a balance is ideal. I only scrolled through a few weeks of challenges to get this collection of examples but it suggests a pretty well-rounded “curriculum” to me.

Everyday, people from around the world tag between 5 and 10,000 images with the hashtag #jj. This means anyone who searches for jj in Instagram will be able to find their image. When jj founder Josh Johnson spoke at #MobilePhotoNow, he expressed his personal love for the community he helped create. In a shaky voice he described Instagram as a place where “this buttoned up preacher’s son could be himself.” He reminded the audience of the connection between dopamine and addiction, how we respond emotionally to immediate response and gratification. Try 30 second feedback. “Powerful things can have pluses and minuses. Some of us spend too much time taking pictures. But if you have to have an addiction taking pictures isn’t really a bad one to have.”

CMA partnered with jj community to organize and manage #MobilePhotoNow. They hosted 4 challenges in one month this fall: street, portrait, black & white, and community generating 45,000 submissions from 5,000 photographers in 89 countries. A jury process through the jj community yielded about 600 images with 320 finalists selected by the museum staff. The images were printed locally, for free, by a graphics company supportive of the project whose name I should credit here but can’t recall.

Jennifer Poleon, CMA Digital Communications Manager and organizer of the CMA Photo Hunts introduced contributors in the crowd from Sweden and Iran as well as an older women, who looked to be around 70 years old. Her son, a photojournalist in town, got her on Instagram and soon thereafter she showed up at a CMA “insta meet.”  This is like a flash mob where strangers all show up at a designated place to share some experience. There she met other photographers who welcomed her and offered her tips. I loved this idea. Putting mobile photography in the hands of older folks and encouraging them to take pictures and participate in a community of creators. It’s an idea I want to push my students working with aging populations to seriously consider. For house- and institution-bound folks in particular, Instagram can offer a forum for rich connection, taking them across the Earth and back.

Kevin Kuster, who helps run jj described it as a modern day pen pal project; one which yields responses everyday. “The virtual world is not virtual,” he suggested. “It is deep and personal and when you do meet, you already know one another.” Kuster came to mobile photography after burning out in the world of professional photography. He described this as “the best time in the world for photographers. And the worst time to be a professional photographer.”

The enthusiasm throughout this session was palpable. It ended with a declaration from the museum’s contemporary curator, Tyler Cann: “I want to say. Yes, this is photography, and you are photographers. And I hope this exhibition creates more photographers and more radical eyes.”

An online gallery for the exhibition should be available tomorrow. Google it.

 

 

#mobilephotonow

Sitting in the auditorium at The Columbus Museum of Art for a curator’s talk on a new exhibition. “Mobile Photo Now” brings together Instagram photographers from eighty-some odd countries. It is the latest installation in a series of crowd-sourced shows at CMA.

Due to familial duties I didn’t get to the museum until now, 1 hour and 15 minutes into the members’ opening; 15 minutes before the talk. I didn’t come downtown to sit in overflow seating, starring at a screen, so I’ll have to check out the show another day.

Teaching about globalization, art, and education this term has me pinning and posting all over, using hashtags like never before. I’m still trying to figure out what I think of it all but I like the way Instagram, like twitter, promotes interaction between like-minded strangers.
Just last week I posted this:

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“Composition in Compost” which lead me to meet the compostess, who identifies herself as a NYC master composter. This is one of those specialized interests you just don’t intersect with everyday. When she liked my photo, I felt understood.

More and more our students at UF are reporting on experiments with social media and their students. They find that asking their students to post their artwork on social media,  tagging it in meaningful ways, helps them and their students experience what it is like to put themselves out into the world in ways they never imagined.

I’m excited to hear how mobile photo now came together and consider its implications for art education. But for now, the talk’s starting. Gotta go…

Being Online, Honestly

I hate posts by bloggers apologizing for not blogging. What could be more boring. My friend Amy always told me not to apologize (so much).

I just find it kind of ironic that while I’m teaching a course this term that requires LOTS of social media work, I haven’t been posting much here. Over the past two-plus years, blogging has become my medium of choice for what might, surprisingly, be seen as long-form writing by Internet standards. Nowhere approaching the academic guidelines I was trained to follow, my musings are generally around 500-800 words. While they might not be developed enough for a peer-reviewed journal, neither are they fit for the 140 character tweet. But tweeting is just what I’ve been doing. And pinning, and scooping, and hashtagging all over the Interwebs. Along with my students. They are the reason I’m giving it all so much of my time.

Art educators have more ways than ever to connect with one another (all the world around), with the families of the children we work with everyday, and the communities we serve. We haven’t had this much public exposure for our work since. . . probably ever. We have the tools for our own ever more important advocacy literally at our fingertips. And inherent in those tools are reasons why art education is important.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, why isn’t every art teacher on Instagram? A blog for every artroom ought to be our goal for 2020.

The truth is, there are lot of busy teachers working “in the trenches” who don’t know enough about Web2.0 to see how it can serve them. And they don’t have time to find out either. Some fear the risks they might expose themselves to  by being online, connecting with their students. They haven’t had a chance to consider how they might leverage these tools to engage their students. How being online with other art educators might invigorate their practice and inspire new content and methods for instruction in their studios-in-the schools.

So I’m happy to have this time with them, to be exploring some sites lots of folks take for granted. As we navigate and explore, we are sharing our observations about what’s working, what could work better, how we ought to be and with whom we ought to connect in this place or that. It’s sort of simple stuff, but stuff that takes time to sort out and could have important ramifications for their work, and our work as a profession, moving forward.

With that, I leave you with a question. How are you using social media to share your teaching, and your students’ work, with the world? Where do you find the best opportunities for exchange with colleagues? And how do you use the Internet to stay fresh?

“An Invitation” to Keep Quiet While Mommy’s on the Phone For Work

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Got a call from my chair yesterday that he wanted to try to have a late afternoon meeting on Skype with another (new) colleague. Anyone who lives with a pre-schooler knows that is just about the witching hour when you can’t be sure if you’ll be in the company of Dr. Jekyl or Mr. Hyde. Some quick planning was in order.

I took a cue from TinkerLab and set up an “invitation” for Crafty Cora to try to engage her in some quiet and creative play while I was in my meeting. It worked like a charm. She came into the room, took one look at the table I set up, and got busy. The next time you need your little one to keep herself occupied while you are otherwise engaged, consider taking a few minutes to “set the table” for her to occupy herself.

Ironically, my meeting was delayed so I got to shoot a few pictures. And by the time we got to talking, she was on to something new…

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