Holiday Crafting with Teens

Readers of this blog will remember, I don’t come by Christmas naturally. I learned to live with the holiday because I married a man who grew up with it and who loves the spirit of the season – the Chex mix, the Vince Guaraldi Trio, lots of pretty packages under the tree. I’ve written about my relationship with the whole phenomena before – both as a Jewish parent and art educator (Type “Christmas” in the search bar for all the links. There are too many to list here without boring you which just goes to show I’ve given a lot of thought to the subject.)

A few years back now George gave up on Santa and Rosa wasn’t far behind. Now they enjoy playing up the myth for Cora who is just beginning to understand, as much as the daughter of a Jewish mother can. Of course they still love to tear open presents Christmas morning, but they are no longer waking us before the sun rises to do so.

It seems somewhat ironic that just as I started to embrace the holiday and the traditions we’ve made around them, the big kids interest faded. Making cut-outs used to be something we did together from start to finish. It was a multi-day affair. These days they come in at the final hour to smear a little frosting and shake a few sprinkles on top.

Realizing this isn’t just about lack of interest but also lack of time, I determined to plan ahead this year. Drawing on my skills as an art educator, I devised a plan to capture their interest and lure them back. I set-up a Pinterest board to gather cool ideas for projects and shared it with them. I gathered supplies in advance so I would be prepared with activities on days they were with us rather than having to run to the store. And I made a calendar. On this weekend’s agenda: duct tape star ornaments and beeswax candles. I thought it was a pretty cool plan. I was partially right.

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I wound up making this first round of stars myself but I’m hopeful that others will join me at some point. Both the kids have embraced duct tape as a medium in the past and thought these looked really cool so I’ve got that going for me. I hope we’ll make a bunch so we can spread them out around the tree.

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Rosa has recently been asking to burn candles in her room. She jumped at the chance to make some herself. Watching her melt the big blocks of beeswax and pour the piping hot liquid into old glasses Cora and I picked up at the thrift store was one of those alchemical things, like developing photos in a darkroom. I’m psyched to pass these out to some of the folks on my gift list and I know she is too. She said so on Instagram.

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Our Craftiest Christmas To Date

Ellen Dissanayake (1995) famously suggested that art is the act of “making special.” From that standpoint, I cannot be more satisfied with our family’s crafty Christmas this year. Folks were making things around here for a week and it was wonderful. (Read more about it.) I was proud as a mother. I was engaged as an art educator, facilitating as much as seemed necessary to keep Santa’s workshop operating at maximum velocity. Makes me wish, for the first time in my entire life, that it could be Christmas everyday.

George the Sculpey Charmer

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Dan stole my heart by proving, once again, that he is an artist through and through.
Vintage guitars on wood veneer with freehand drawn detailing.

DSC_0031 Some folks limit their icing color palette for the holidays. We don’t get that.
DSC_0041 Cora’s cookie for Leigh, our music teacher. (Sorry Leigh, I think she ate it.)DSC_0045

Cora-crafted wrapping paper with her personal signature.DSC_0007

The contents of the box. Aluminum foil bead bracelet, from Kid Made Modern.
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Our third (or fourth??) annual handmade gift exchange for adults in the family rocked.
(back to front) Charley Harper inspired sandpaper paintings, wood box, fudge, oil painting of a cow on a slice of wood, guitar magnets, reusable snacks sacks and sandwich wrap, handkerchiefs embroidered with internal organs.

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Parenting Perk of the Day: Making Halloween Costumes with/for Your Kids

As I wrote this time last year, Halloween is a serious affair at Rosa’s elementary school. This is her final year there and she wants to go out with a bang. It’s amazing to see how far her thinking on the subject of creative costuming has become. This year’s idea was pretty meta.

For the past two years, Rosa and Cora have worn related costumes. Three years ago, Rosa wanted to be something BIG, so she and her mom cooked up a giant jack-o-lantern for her to wear. Since I hadn’t had any brilliant ideas yet, and the costume looked nice and warm, I used some of the extra orange felt from Rosa’s costume and a piece of foam I had lying around to make something similar for Cora. In homage to Rosa’s obsession with mustaches, I gave Cora’s gourd a furry upper lip.

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Last year, I was inspired by this tutorial for the most gorgeous DIY wings I’ve ever seen. Again, looking at fabric hanging around in my stash, I decided to make two sets of wings, one for me and one for Cora. I also made some masks and we were transformed into owls. I attached the wings to sweatshirts to make them easy to get on and off and to keep us warm (notice the trend here?). A week before Halloween, Rosa hadn’t decided what to be. She tried on my wings and begged to wear them. How could I say no? I was honored they would be part of her school’s annual costume parade.

DSC_0178Rosa wanted to continue the tradition of dressing up with Cora. Like most little girls I know, Cora has an interest in dressing up like a princess. Fortunately, this hasn’t developed into a full-blown obsession. I don’t think I could handle that. (See: Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein) Watching her sister play dress-up with her friends transported Rosa back in time. She and her girlfriends mastered the art when they were in preschool and kindergarten. They couldn’t last 5 minutes together without disrobing and cloaking themselves in new identities. My favorite was when they would just trade for one anothers’ street clothes. This year, Rosa declared, she and Cora would be princesses for Halloween. “It would be so funny because noone dresses up like a princess in 6th grade.”

So, we headed to the thrift store, where she found and fell in love with a gorgeous Betsey Johnson dress with the tags still on. Price = $89.95. Rosa was floored. “How could they charge so much? It’s the thrift store!” So, we talked about non-profit organizations and their need to make money and the fact that while this seemed expensive for Volunteers of America, really the dress was a bargain. If she were 5 years older and headed to the prom, I would have snatched that thing up in a heartbeat. But, it was Halloween, so I suggested we examine the dress, think about what made her like it so much and a) look for something similar but less expensive, or b) try to recreate it ourselves.

Of course this didn’t go over well because what Rosa wanted to hear at that moment was that she could have the dress. And if I were made of money, I would have said yes. Like I said it was a beautiful dress the purchase of which would surely have won me some stepmom of the year award. But I’m not made of money and I recognized this as a teaching moment.

I reminded her of the fashion camp she attended this summer and asked, “What would Jen Gillette do?” Jen was Rosa’s instructor for Fashion Blasters – a tall blonde who greeted the kids on the first day with her hair teased out and up like a runway model, wearing an outfit she’d made of found materials held up by super high platform shoes she’d bedazzled from top to bottom. She’s gone to study theater design and production at Tulane, but her spirit lives on in Columbus through the folks she inspired during her time as a Creative Consultant at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity. Including me.

We put our heads down and went back to the racks. I found a hot pink cotton tube dress the top of which was a lot like the Betsey Johnson design. Rosa found some curtains that were made of a similar material as its skirt. At home we talked about how to put them together. I’ve always been hesitant to sew clothes – I’m not precise enough to make things fit –  so I was proud of myself for figuring out the sewing aspect. But I was sad that Rosa didn’t feel confident enough to help me. I powered through on my own. And then I realized, While Rosa wasn’t doing the sewing, this experience gave her an opportunity to spiral back to creative thinking and problem solving skills she learned this summer. And, as I reminded her to do so, I was practicing those skills too – setting a challenge and figuring out a way to address it.

Are your Halloween preparations presenting any creative challenges to you and your kids? I’d love to hear about them. You’ll see ours in a week. Sorry, no peaking.

A Task, But Not a Chore

Sometimes I feel like I have been living under a rock the past few years. Under a couple of kids is more like it, but the fact is that this weekend I encountered two cultural phenomenon that made the rounds over the past few years without crossing my field of vision, even as shadows: “Caine’s Arcade” and Oliver Herring’s TASK. Once again, I’m grateful to the super cool folks at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity for bringing me up to speed.

“Caine’s Arcade” is a short film about 9-year old Caine and the arcade he built primarily out of boxes he found at his dad’s auto parts shop. The film has been viewed nearly 4 million times on YouTube alone. Yesterday, in conjunction with the Imagination Foundation (read about it, it’s really cool), the CMA hosted a cardboard challenge to celebrate that group’s Global Day of Play. Dan, Rosa, Cora, and I rolled through asking people about their projects, but we saved our energy for TASK which had been highly recommended during the previous day’s discussion of Play=Art.

Herring has been hosting TASK events and parties around the world for over ten years. (Turns out I can’t completely blame the kids for missing this one.) This is how it works: Herring writes a few directions on scraps of paper and puts them in a bin. Participants retrieve tasks, complete them, and they write new tasks to add to the pool. It’s kind of like DaDa meets participatory performance art. This sampling demonstrates the wide ranging nature of the tasks we encountered:

“Make a string web.”
“Host a talent show.”
“Write 5 tasks.”
“Everyone play dead.”
“Lead a conga line.”
“Ask a child about what they are making.”
“Imitate someone for 5 minutes.”
“Make sushi and give it to a dad.”
“You are a fish.”
“Cut the web.”

Most definitions for the word task include some level of discomfort, a chore one is assigned to complete. I’m sure Herring understood this when he chose that word as the name for his project. For while TASK can be a fun-filled venture that invites moments of play, Herring doesn’t believe play must always be pleasurable. Conversely, he suggests play can be an opportunity to break free of routine, to push one’s boundaries. I like this idea. It resonates with my growing sense that disruption can be a powerful catalyst for play and creativity.

It’s been nearly a year since Dan and I brought George to the CMA to participate in Dispatchwork. That had been such a great experience for our family I really wanted to try another round; this time with Rosa as our focal point. But while we started out collaborating on a task, she wanted to do the next one on her own. And the one after that. And the one after that. Dan and Cora also got involved in their own projects as I fell into a participant-observer role and chatted with some of the other educator-researchers in the room.

Our family has been working hard on home projects lately and this was a welcome break from our regular routine. Dan was reluctant to give up time for his works in progress, but ultimately said he was glad he went, that he took the time out. Rosa has had a few good experiences at the CMA recently, and was less difficult to convince. This came as a bit of a surprise since she is a teenager who values her weekends as time to do, pretty much, nothing. When I asked her how TASK was different from art class at school she told me, “Here you have something to do, but you decide how to do it. At school you have to follow the teacher’s instructions.” For us all, this activity was a task, but not a chore.

(Final note: I’m interested in learning how educators have integrated both of these activities into their work. I think the dynamic of TASK must be much different with a finite and more homogeneous group. I’m still processing. Have you got anything to share? I struggle with activities that expend excess amounts of material with ephemeral results. But that’s a big part of process art which I fully support. For now, I think the Makedo reusable cardboard challenge kit is going to be my new “go to” birthday gift.)

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.

A Photo a Day: Little Hands Doing Big Things

DSC_0047Those who know me know that I love to sew. I came to this later in life, as a way to pass the time in graduate school. Like doing dishes, it was a way to keep my hands busy with little things while my brain was processing big ideas. Over time I’ve taught myself to read patterns and, eventually, experimented with how to alter them. I’ve taught Rosa and George how to run my sewing machine and even Cora has pushed the peddle for me from time to time. As I’ve written about here before, I don’t think it’s ever too early to instill an appreciation and love of hand-crafting in kids.

So, I was absolutely delighted today when Cora picked up some felt, needle and a thread I’d set by my side and began mimicking the running stitch she’d just seen me using. She excitedly held up her work to show me how she stuck the needle through one side and pulled it out the other end. And I excitedly ran to grab my camera.

Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten, used 20 activities to introduce young children to a variety of skills. He called these “gifts.” Sewing cards were number 12. Watching Cora today, I understood the real meaning of that label. She was so pleased with her work. She knew that she was on to something big. And I can’t wait to help her do even more.

A Photo a Day: Fashion Blasters! @ CMA

I am out of practice writing so I decided to start my next few posts with a photo, one from each of the past six weeks since I was last writing with regularity.

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On the catwalk. Rosa, third from the right. Instructor, Jen Gillette, second from right.

Finding things for older kids to do in the summer can be a challenge.  Ensuring these things are meaningful and engaging ups the ante a notch. And finding things pre-teens are so excited about doing that they don’t mind getting out of the house before 9am for, nearly mission impossible. So it was with GREAT satisfaction that I met Rosa’s response to my query about her fist day of Fashion Blasters! camp at the Columbus Museum of Art last month: “I can’t wait to go back tomorrow! I don’t want to go home….”

This camp had it all. Pop culture hooks, introductions to a wide range of media and techniques (without getting too technical), and space for personal exploration and expression all delivered by a hip young instructor who openly shared her own passion for fashion and unique means of approaching getting outfitted. Jen is the kind of art educator I wish I could be. Creativity seems to ooze out of her and, in our conversations, she showed an authentic interest in sharing that with Rosa and her peers. I wish I could write more about the particulars of what went on each day, but I wasn’t there and teenagers aren’t that great with details.

Like many of the art camps we’ve sent the kids to over the years, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It will likely never be offered again.  Lucky for us, the art museums in Columbus have a tradition of curating fresh collections of workshops each summer, dictated, in part, by the interests of the artists they work with. Maybe some future iteration can set itself apart by directly targeting boys… *

Like most of the weeklong camps the kids attend, this one ended with show-and-tell Friday afternoon. But this time it wasn’t a static display of drawings and paintings on a wall. This was a full-blown fashion show complete with a runway set between rows of neatly aligned black folding chairs and music perfect for prancing in high heels. It felt special to walk into that space as a viewer. And it was evident that the girls felt special as they paraded down the isle, striking poses for the cameras at either end. With this, Fashion Blasters! created just the sort of spectacle art educators ought to be creating to gain attention for our programs.

*While the workshop was advertised as co-ed, no boys enrolled.