Heading Out to Project Zero 2017

I am always on the hunt for new and innovative ways to help my students learn. Not for an end in and of itself; new and innovative do not always denote effective. Heck, I am a classicist; nothing is more evident than how the old becomes new again. Education is terrific for this kind of circus act.

That said, I have always been on the hunt for ways to decentralize my classrooms and shift the responsibility of learning to my students. We teachers can cajole and inspire, but we are limited to this end as we really only have about 1 hour per day, 5 days a week, to get our students to care. So what may seem new and innovative may simply be more about a point of view than an actual trend.

Project Zero, at Harvard, is in its 50th year. Many exciting pedagogical ideas have been born from this space over that time span and many of the cutting edge ideas in education started there and are continuing to spread. For this reason I am heading up there with some colleagues this week to get a closer look. I signed up for several mini-courses – as a participant, you are slated to take four during your visit over the course of the week, that is one a day from Wednesday through Saturday.

I am going to be logging my thoughts over the course of the week reflecting on what I have learned and new ideas that are cropping up as well, so stay tuned for that.

To help get us started, we were asked to post a picture to Twitter (with the hashtag #PZC2017) that “captures an important quality of your context”. As someone who tends to be a visual learner and thinker, this would seem an easy task but it proved the opposite. So many possibilities and, essentially, I cannot generate the meme for my context as easily as one would think. I did settle on a monotype by one of my favorite artists, William Blake. Yes, that William Blake. The guy was such an oddity and an eccentric, in my opinion. I just love his whacked-out world and his body of work. He lived in London his entire life, but his work was extreme in its visionary qualities and embraced ways of life that far exceeded his seemingly limited grasp.

He was considered very odd in his day, some would even say a touch mad. I chose an image he made about Isaac Newton – someone he disagreed with vehemently about regarding a general philosophy on life itself. Although both are God-fearing men, Newton’s scientific approach was regarded as sterile by Blake, who by extension was critical of the Enlightenment. He felt that there was an overemphasis on the material and this would lead to a destruction of the spiritual.

William Blake, Newton (1795-1805), color print, ink, and watercolor on paper.

I chose this image for a couple of reasons – most of which didn’t have a rational set of principles to it. Yes, I love Blake’s visual work – his treatment of both his subject and his technique are uniquely his. Basically, it looks striking to me. There’s more, of course. Most would think, at first glance, that Blake was praising Newton – as we would tend to hold that general opinion today in our modern society, regarding science as the savior of mankind. Yet, his harsh criticism, which is only apparent when you look more deeply at Blake and his views, is a reminder that the Enlightenment was not inevitable. More importantly, it opens up questions about its legacy – was this development completely positive for the world or even Western civilization?

For me, it is a reminder to question everything but also an exhortation for balance. Today, we seem to be running off to make our students more like robots that can perform or throw at them what we think are the “practical” arts; subjects with immediate payoffs. We don’t really develop their sense of self, their depth of imagination, or their play with creativity. Regardless of which side of this debate you come down on, Blake certainly did not possess a dull imagination and the fact that he got there almost by abandoning a complete dedication to the altar of the intellect is something of importance.

At least, I would like to think so.

Between Passion and Purpose: The Need for Inquiry-Based Learning

One of the things I am passionate about as a teacher is helping students find their voice. Teaching Latin, and Art History, are definitely not high on the practical list of things for students to study. That said, both are excellent subjects to really test students on multiple levels – but that is another post for another time.

Most importantly, our students are graduating without knowing what they are passionate about, let alone interested in. They are told what they should study and most pursue that track in their later academic years but many do so dubiously and with a lack of fuel and execution. This is because not only do they not know themselves, but they also do not fully understand their purpose in life either. “Know thyself”, the famous maxim from Plato’s Academy is applicable on so many levels.

Why are so many students unaware of their passion, interests, or purpose? We are so busy telling them what to study but never why. We don’t give them the time to reflect on what they have learned nor dare to inquire about things that are interesting to them. Most of our courses are so jam-packed with things to study that there is no time to stop and inquire.

As a result, our educational system is reliant on extrinsic motivation. Students are “playing” at learning so they can get good grades on their transcripts and then move on to the next educational institution. They will then be on the hunt for jobs that fit their choice of study. We are becoming all-too-familiar with the fact that most of the jobs here today will be gone tomorrow. Our educational system is not preparing our students for their futures but instead setting them up for failure.

Students today need to be able to shift ideas and adapt. They need to be developing a vast array of skills and become focused on a growth mindset and not be stuck in a fixed world. This requires a creative outlook with a hacker’s flair. It is for this reason that I have been seeking further development in trying to shift my classrooms from a traditional, teacher-centered environment into a collaborative one that is student-centered.

I recently (in March) attended the Deeper Learning conference in San Diego and was exposed to even more PBL (project based learning) to help wrap my head around an inquiry-based methodology. This summer, I am also going to be heading up to Project Zero at Harvard to further enrich my approach in the classroom.

The reasoning is simple; students need to be driven by their passions and intrinsically motivated. That said, passion is only a starting point, it is not sustainable. It gets you out the door but any passion should evolve into an interest and eventually purpose. Once passion has turned into purpose, we have a longer game in play and a student will be dedicated to a life-long journey.

“…all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” Albert Einstein

In order to get to this space in the classroom, we need to drastically rethink how we teachers work. We need to put less stress on being the content experts and more stress on being coaches to help students acquire skills. Those skills should be based on inquiry where students seek out areas of interest on their own and report back on what they have found using credible evidence. Nothing today may be more important than teaching our students how to vet credible evidence from the incessant streams of information that are available to anyone with a connected mobile device. We need to let go of control and instead put our students at the center of their learning.

I will be posting more substantive ways of achieving this in future posts. Rather than just update what I am doing at the moment, which tends to be a lot as I do get very busy (and not a lot of time to post much!), I am also going to be sharing what my targets are and how I am going to strive to accomplish them. If nothing else, it helps me to hold myself accountable and provides me a reflection space for all to see!

Curriculum Vitae Update Coming Soon

It’s been a few years since I have updated my curriculum vitae – something of a standard practice for professionals in the field. With some time here at the start of summer, I am looking to be responsible and get some of those details on my CV. I have been a busy boy these past few years and I would like to share that with the rest of the world! Stay tuned!

Completed AP Art History Reading 2017

Another year, and another week in Salt Lake City, Utah pouring over thousands of student essays for AP Art History.

This year, we had over 27,000 essays among some 120+ readers from around the country to score. It is easily the best professional development that one can have because, unlike other subjects, you get to be trained and read over several different prompts as opposed to one prompt the entire week.

Larger subjects like AP US History or even AP World function this way – the numbers are so massive that it is unavoidable; the ship may be too large to turn around and train on other questions.

AP Art History is light enough and nimble enough to be able to achieve this. For this year, I assessed essay on three different prompts (there are 6 essay questions total for the exam). What I walked away with is that the students, collectively, are able to write more substantively about diverse topics than in years past.

The “legacy” exam tried to get students to learn to read artwork from outside the European/Western canon, but it was done rather tangentially and with difficulty. A few years ago, the committee decided (regardless of the concerns) that they would adopt a more global perspective with their art images and that this would suffice.

As for the teachers, we were very concerned at the onset as last year’s courses fell into the redesign and we were being told that although it is a global course, the 250 image set would assuage any fears. The problem is, that the burden on us teachers was that we had to quickly become experts in areas that we were unfamiliar with while also sufficiently training out students to read images from alien cultures and perform on the exam. After a second year under our belts, it is evident that we have done a better job shoring up weaknesses and the students performed better.

Now, the 250 images in the image set is actually more like 400 images total – when considering “sets” built around architectural sites, for example. At 20 minutes per image for instructional time, it adds up to a break-necked pace. It was admittedly a challenge this year to give each image its due. The scoring of the essays reflected this, too.

Although overall better, the student scores were low for the “African mask” question for question 4. Attribution, although a definite skill that is required of art historians and trained on with the students, the content that is available and perhaps properly divested among the teachers, was somewhat lacking.

As I have had experience teaching AP World History, and will be called on to teach the course again this upcoming school year, the historical training and background proved to be very beneficial when trying to contextualize the artwork from around the world. I am currently mulling over various projects to not only help share my knowledge, but also make a vital contribution to the field so that others can benefit as well.

That said, the training is top shelf in that it really helps you see the various nuances and approaches a question can take on. The multitude of responses helps sharpen your eyes regarding what you should be looking for and what you are assessing students on.  There is also the added benefit of touching base with your peers and getting some new ideas about how to approach your class and its content.

AP Art History Tours New York City 2017

Two years ago, I “inherited” a group of students in my first year at Pine Crest to take to New York City to tour the major museums for our AP Art History class. It was a terrific experience and it was one I was looking to repeat each and every year with my students.

Sadly, last year, due to the terror attacks in Paris – and heightened security alerts in New York City – we had to cancel the trip. I did try to create an alternative to Chicago, but there just wasn’t enough time to really get the trip fully mapped and planned out.

This year, we started early and got the trip together. The students who were in AP Art History last year were also invited onto this year’s trip – and with 29 students, we packed our bags. We toured the MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Met, and the Frick collection while also seeing “Sunday in the Park with George” on Broadway, starring Jake Gyllenhaall.

We started with guided tours at our first two stops – the MoMA and the Guggenheim – to help give our students an overview of what the museum experience could be like. It is important to invite students to look at art but to taper expectations – there is no reason to expect to see every single work of art in any museum. As the saying goes, museums are like libraries and you wouldn’t expect to read all of the books in one visit.

We packed a lot of art in our tour of NYC – walking around 20 miles in our time there. We stayed at the Blakely on 55th and walked through Central Park to our destination, the Guggenheim on our 2nd day in the city.

We also made a stop across town to lower Manhattan to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on our 3rd day, which was a very moving experience for everyone. We all have our stories to tell; the students were mostly very young when the attack occurred but their interactions with the museum helped shape the event for them from a passing thing into something more tangible. What was at stake, I hoped, was the concept of a museum and what role it could serve. At what point would we be memorializing an event, and doing it service, and at what point could we go to far?

After the dust settled, the students made it back to sunny Fort Lauderdale with a grander experience to build on. The artwork that we had been studying all year long became something real and tangible and, in some ways, was like meeting a celebrity in person. The works were larger than life and they were free to get a closer look and a feel for the work as the hands of the artists were there to share their stories. We will look to do it again next year and, maybe, in bigger fashion.