Amy Brook Snider, PhD: Teacher, Mentor, Friend

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.

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NAEA 2018 Preview: A Return to Picturebooks through The Land of the North

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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.

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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).

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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/]

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.

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?

Dispatch from My Stepmonster’s Kitchen: 3 Things I’ve Learned About Working With A Teenage Collaborator

So, it’s been awhile since Rosa and I first launched our blog. I have considered writing about what’s it’s been like, from my perspective, a few times but didn’t make the time. Somehow writing about the cute things Cora is doing developmentally always seems to take precedence. And in part, I’m ashamed that Rosa and I haven’t posted more. Maybe ashamed isn’t the right word. Perhaps disappointed tells it better.

I’m disappointed that the blog seems to mean more to me than it does to her. And I’m disappointed that I haven’t been able to motivate her better. I’m always the one who recommends we work on it. Since I was hoping this project would not only help me explore using social media with students but bring Rosa and I together in a motherly-daughterly way I’m taking this all a bit personally. But in the end, these are issues all teachers struggle with. We want our students to care as much about the content of our classes as we do. We want them to bring ideas and information to us, as well as vice versa. And all this had me thinking about the challenges of creating teaching moments with our students.

Part of my philosophy of teaching has always been collaborative. While I didn’t talk about it in such terms, early on I viewed teaching and learning as an improvisational performance – teacher gives instructions, students receive, interpret, and respond to instructions based on their personal perspective, teacher responds to student’s response, and so on, back and forth. I used to liken it to painting with watercolors. You can control the medium but also need to embrace the ways it is in control, since water tends to have a mind of its own. In retrospect this was probably due on some subconscious to the article “The Art and Craft of Teaching” by Elliot Eisner (1983) which Amy Brook Snider assigned early in my studies with her at Pratt. In that article Eisner wrote about conducting an orchestra as a metaphor for good teaching:

“What we do as teachers is orchestrate the dialogue moving from one side of the room to the other. We need to give the piccolos a chance-indeed to encourage them to sing more confidently-but we also need to provide space for the brass. And as for the violins, they always seem to have a major part to play. How is it going? What does the melody sound like? Is the music full enough? Do we need to stretch the orchestra further? When shall we pause and recapitulate the introductory theme? The clock is reaching ten and we have not yet crescendoed? How can we bring it to closure when when we can’t predict when a stunning question or an astute observation will bring forth a new melodic line and off we go again? Such are the pleasures and trials of teaching and when it goes well, there is nothing more that we would rather do.” (p. 11)

I included this long quotation because I think you need to read it at length in order to grasp Eisner’s philosophy. While his examples speak specifically to the practice of teaching, the concept of paying attention to the ways a project is unfolding and adjusting one’s work accordingly could apply to any (creative) endeavor. In other places Eisner wrote about this as “purposive flexibility” and I can think of few places such practice is more necessary than in parenting or making art.

Even now, I’m not really sure where I want or need to go in writing this post. I guess I’ll end with three lessons I’ve learning so far about working with young people as creative collaborators. I’m hoping they can bolster my work. Let me know if they resonate with your experiences embarking on long-term (social media) projects with teenagers.

Teenagers are goal-oriented.
I’ve often argued that parameters breed creativity. A blog is an amorphous and never-ending project. Knowing my collaborator needs structure, I need to provide benchmarks and boundaries. To start, I want to post once a week and I want to take turns selecting what we make and write about. I need to ask Rosa what she wants.

Some teenagers love to talk, but don’t like to write.
I realize others are quiet, but love to write. In my case, however, I am working with a talker, not a writer. So, I am experimenting with ways of helping her express herself – email me her thoughts from the privacy of her own room, talk to me about her thoughts while I type them out – but I don’t want to let her off the hook. I want her to write even if it’s not easy for her. Maybe some writing prompts would help. Like these, but specific to our blog.

Teenagers may be digital natives, but they are still digitally naive.
While more and more teenagers are wired 24/7, I’m not convinced many grasp the power of the Internet to connect people and ideas. If they do, they don’t imagine themselves as active participants in that exchange. Like most folks, they are media consumers, not media creators, and that’s where we come in. Without getting caught up in specific websites or apps, we need to teach teens how to leverage the power of the Internet to make their voices heard and their visions seen.

Hopefully you’ll be hearing more from us soon at mystepmonsterskitchen.wordpress.com.

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 1, No. 4

There have been a lot of times when I sat down to blog and felt like starting with, “I can’t believe it’s been so long since I posting anything to this space.” Mostly that seemed like a lame beginning, an excuse, and my friend Amy taught me a long time ago that you shouldn’t live your life apologizing, so I usually don’t start that way.  But today it seems apt, since one of the primary reasons I haven’t written here in a few weeks is related to what I plan to write about – gardening.  Before I moved into this house I never would have identified myself as a gardener. In fact, I routinely joked about having a black thumb and couldn’t keep a houseplant happy.  But these days, it is one of my primary pastimes.  Over the past few years I have removed a sizeable percentage of the sod in our yard to make way for new vegetable and perennial beds. I don’t feel quite like a member of the Food Not Lawns movement yet, but I aspire to that title. I’ve updated my Facebook status to complain about incorrect weather forecasts and the lack of rain 3 times in the past 5 days.  I have spent too much of my last few paychecks at the garden center – even found myself wondering why’s there’s no pre-tax savings plan, modeled after health savings accounts, for landscaping and other environment-enhancing endeavors.

So, I can totally identify with Liam, the main character of The Curious Garden (Brown, 2009). Liam lives in a dreary city where nothing green grows.  One day he makes his way up to an abandoned train track and finds a small patch of fertile ground.  He tends it back to health and watches it spread over the tracks until it reaches into every corner of the city. People living nearby get a taste for living amongst the plants and flowers and eventually the city is covered – from the tippie-tops of skyscappers to the cracks in the sidewalks – with mosses, flowers, bushes, and trees. We learn from the dust jacket that Liam’s garden is in fact the New York City High Line, a model for urban public gradening clubs worldwide.  

My yard isn’t the high line, but over the years I have not only learned to take care of the plants that were here when I arrived, all planted by my husband’s grandparents who lived here before us. I’ve divided and moved them around the yard, spreading them into places previously occupied by less than vibrant grass and weeds. I’ve added new plants, many given to me by friends and neighbors, each with its own story to tell. And then there are new edible bushes and vines – blackberries, blueberries, and grapes – each bearing more and more sweet fruit each year.  Every corner of the yard is now blooming – which means there is a lot for me to do this time of year. I haven’t been blogging, but I’ve been busy painting the world around me with soil and seeds.

Here are a few other picturebooks inspired by spring that you might enjoy:

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