Mindfully Foraging Family Time and Holiday Decorations

It’s no secret to those who know me well that I’ve been struggling to connect with the teenagers in my life as of late. I’m about one month into some new experiments, guided in part by The Happiness Project, by which I’m making more fervent attempts to engage them. You might read this as “force them to spend time with me.” That’s basically what it is, but I’m trying my best to prevent them from seeing it that way. (I guess it’s good neither of them actively follow this blog…)

Two weeks ago, they each got to cook dinner with me one night. They decided what we would make and I tried to get be a guide on the side, rather than the master chef. It was good time together, something Rosa and I have done a lot of (see My Step Monster’s Kitchen), just not lately. For George, it seems like a lot of our interactions come down to, “in two years this is all going to be your responsibility,” so you might call this college (or life) prep in the kitchen.

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Thanksgiving day I went out in the garden to gather some herbs. I came in with a fistful of sage, rosemary, time, and parsley. I went around the house with it inviting everyone to take a few deep cleansing breaths. Cora wanted to go out and find more and I suggested we gather some greens and things to decorate the table. Then I thought, we should all go. It was unseasonably warm – thankfully – so it didn’t take too much convincing when I gave Dan and the big kids thirty minutes to get ready for a family walk.

We wandered around the neighborhood for nearly an hour chatting, playing, singing, and foraging. We gathered dried blossoms and branches, berries, and evergreen boughs, pine cones and nuts and came home with an overflowing basket of materials to work with.

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I decided not to do anything with them right away. Instead, we waited for Dan’s mom to arrive. She is a florist so I solicited her to work on arrangements. Rosa helped and it was lovely to see this activity turn intergenerational.

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The finished product was beautiful from every seat at the table, complete with the kitcschy Pilgrims and Native Americans my mother-in-law used to use at her house. We also included a beeswax candle Rosa and I made last year at Christmas-time. (That was part of another one of my concerted efforts to spend time with the teens which I documented in “Holiday Crafting with Teens.”)

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Just after Thanksgiving the latest edition of Rodale’s Organic Life came to the house complete with an article on foraged holiday crafts and decorations. And just like that, I had ideas for next time.

 

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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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Wonder Room, Redux

Lots of museums have creative play spaces primarily intended for families with young children. While the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity’s Wonder Room was designed with children 3 years of age and older (and their families) in mind, it serves as a place for visitors of all ages to engage in creative play amidst original works of art.

Scenes from the original Wonder Room:

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In its first iteration, the Wonder Room included the chance to create giant faces with magnetized household items, make constructions with sticks and rubber bands or plastic dinnerware, build a fort, and more. Our family and friends had a lot of good experiences exploring and experimenting in this room together over the past few years. But, I was happy to hear it was closing for an overhaul this Fall. We were ready for something new.

So it was with bells on that Rosa, Cora, and I went to the members only opening of the new Wonder Room this past Sunday. We had a great time exploring the new space and hanging out with some of the artists whose work is included. But, we’ll need to return a few times before we determine how it will best suit our needs. While the old space was a bit of an all-over design, the new room was designed around the idea of an enchanted forest. Anyone who has ever read The Wizard of Oz, Little Red Riding Hood, or The Lord of the Rings know that enchanted forests aren’t always happy places. The components work well in conveying this idea and presenting lots of great art from the museum’s collection, but I must admit that some aspects caught Cora off-guard and will take her time to get used to. The space feels, overall, darker than it was. In addition, many of the activities seem better suited for older visitors, like Rosa, than in the previous incarnation.

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For instance, Heidi Kambitsch, a local artist known for her Openheart Creatures, created capes and masks and wings and claws for dress-up. They are inspired and engaging, and a little creepy. Rosa loved wearing them but it took Cora some time to warm to the idea of dressing up as a hairy wild beast rather than a pretty princess. Kambitsch’s work is positioned beside Alex Andre’s Metamorphosis Project which invites viewers to position themselves on either side of a revolving wheel alternately made of mirror and glass. As the wheel spins, the viewers see flashing images of themselves – check out the videos on the link, it’s hard to explain. All I can say is, interacting with Andre’s work while wearing Kambtisch’s costumes is a trip. Whether its good or bad is all based on your perspective.

On a different note, the environmentalist in me will have to think more about some of the activities that use consumable materials. One of the things I LOVED about the first Wonder Room was the way it presented opportunities to engage in process art without producing waste. As I wrote in my review of Oliver Herring’s TASK, I have trouble fully engaging activities that create lots of trash; part of my mind gets lost in the landfill. Time will tell if visitors can create nests and niches that seem (to me) worthy of the materials they are made with. In the meantime, we’ll be heading back to the museum again soon to play with sticks and stones and cardboard squares. Hope to see some of you there!

Serving time in the StoryCorps

While this makes two posts in a row that feature George, he and I haven’t had a lot of quality time together lately. So, it was with great excitement, and some anticipation, that I told to him about our invitation to participate in the StoryCorps project last weekend.

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I was excited because I LOVE StoryCorps – a ten year-old “independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” Over 50,000 stories have been recorded so far, most archived at the Library of Congress. Excerpts from select stories are aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on Fridays. Some girlfriends and I routinely listen and then send each other text messages with our reactions. Some are funny, others endearing, many heart-wrenching.

I was anxious because the interview would be 40 minutes long, and I couldn’t remember the last time George and I spoken for that long. Couple that with the fact that our appointment was for 9 a.m. on a Sunday and George is 14 years old, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Luckily, George was intrigued by the idea: “Cool! We listen to NPR everyday,” he said cheerfully. Hearing we were among a small group of folks who were invited to participate in this series of recordings at the Columbus Museum of Art also appealed to him.

StoryCorps sent representatives to the museum as part of their award for winning a National Medal from the Institute of Library and Museum Services. George and I were invited because of a project we participated in last fall called Dispatchwork. (You can read about that here.) I thought we would be talking about that as part of our interview, but upon arrival and introductions, we learned we could talk about pretty much anything we pleased. We were given a list of questions on a range of subject to help keep our conversation moving.

George and I went back and forth asking one another questions and sharing our memories, ideas, and lessons for life. We both asked questions the other wasn’t prepared to answer, including some I have been harboring for a long time like, “Do you ever imagine what your life would be like if your mom and dad stayed together?” and “Do you ever wish Cora wasn’t around?” Perhaps, now that the door is open, we’ll revisit and respond to these queries in the future.

I don’t think our interview will ever make it to the radio, at least not on a national level. But I’m so grateful for this opportunity to practice the art of conversation with George. I know he will never forget this encounter with oral history, and who knows, perhaps someday his great-great-great grandchildren will listen to our conversation on a trip to Washington, D.C.

Farewell, Mr. Maynard.

DSC_0130George played trumpet with his high school marching band tonight at the state finals. Dan, Cora, and I made it into the stadium just in time to catch the set. (Seriously. If we had been 30 seconds later we would have been shut out by the “no entry during performance” rule.) I haven’t made it to many of George’s band events this year and I’m glad I didn’t let the cold, wet weather keep me home. I’m generally not so brave.

The show was smooth and, as always, brought tears to my eyes. It’s amazing to see all that work come together. Mostly I just drive the minivan and get the 3-5 word report on how things are going, but tonight I got to see what George has been up to every afternoon and weekend since August.

Cora and I did intentionally showed up early for pick-up one day this week and got to watch a practice. Sitting in the stands, I watched and listened to the band directors critique – through their on-field microphone and amongst themselves. Training a group of 160 kids to perform a musical arrangement is so far removed from any teaching experience I’ve ever known. I could feel the pressure to make all the parts flow together.

Tonight, halfway through the performance, Dan poked me and told me to check out the band director, Mr. Maynard, rocking out on the sideline just in front of us. He didn’t just sway back and forth on his heels. He strutted around, proud as a peacock.

Maynard is retiring at the end of the year so this was, in effect, his curtain call. Tonight he was off-duty. His role as a teacher was over and the kids were on their own, on the field. There was nothing left for him to do but sit back and enjoy the show. It was an honor to witness.

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: 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.