Morning at the Improv

 

(My Years of Montessori – Part 39)

 

At some point – I assume – every teacher will have a lesson when everything goes differently than their best laid plans. They arrive in class only to discover that some crucial piece of technology refuses to work, or a flu epidemic has halved the class size, or as is often the case with me, they suddenly look at what they prepared and think “This is stupid. I don’t want to do this.”

So they improvise.

And many teachers will tell you that these improvised, spur-of-the-moment lessons can be incredibly fun and much more memorable than the usual fare.

 

I went into my class Monday morning with a plan. We were kicking off a big, school-wide project around the theme of “Art”. Starting the next Monday, the kids would be able to try out different art forms for themselves – from ceramics, to painting, to sculpture, to carving, to weaving, etc. – but beforehand we would be learning about various artistic movements and different epochs in art along with their historical backgrounds, from cave paintings to Picasso, from da Vinci to Banksy. So all their lessons this week, whether World Studies, English, German or even Math, would somehow be connected to the topic of art . . . starting now. This lesson –this moment  – would be the big Kick-Off. I had it all planned out.

 

First I was going to do a general survey of what the kids associated with the word “Art”. Then I had a set of 26 cards based on the book “Museum ABC”. Each card showed 4 very different works of art with some object in common. And these 26 objects each began with a different letter of the alphabet. They had to identify the objects (in English!) and lay them out from A to Z. After that, I would point out examples on the cards from different art movements (Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Art Nouveau, Abstract, Surrealism, etc.) and have the kids come up with differences.

 

So back to Monday. I sat down on the carpet in the circle of kids and announced the official beginning of the project.

And then there was a weird, fairly long silence because I suddenly found it difficult to bring the banal question “What is Art?” over my lips. I knew instinctively that it wasn’t going to work.  Talking about art was not going to edify these kids. To really learn something, you need to experience it.

Time to improvise.

“We, humans,” I said, “all see the world in our own unique way. And most of us want to show or communicate to others how we see things. Art gives us an almost infinite number of ways to do this. I want to do a little experiment with you guys to demonstrate what I mean. Now close your eyes.”

The kids eyed me somewhat dubiously, but then decided to play along.

“Picture a chair.”

There were some murmurs and short requests for clarification. (“What kind of chair?” – “That’s up to you.”)

I looked around the circle of kids with their eyes closed, and added

“As you are imagining your chair, think about a few details . . like, what color is it? What is it made of?”

I waited for a few seconds and then asked, “Does everyone have a picture in their minds?”

After everyone had said yes, I told them to open their eyes, then handed them a piece of paper and said “Now go draw it. You can use colored pencils if you want.”

There was a mild but palpable excitement in the room (which surprised me) and they all spread out.

About ten minutes later most of them had wandered back to the carpet with drawing in hand. I had them lay their pictures in a circle on the carpet around the word “chair”. We all then sat down around them and compared for a while.

“Clearly, we all have different ideas about what a chair is and we used different styles in drawing them. One style is called ‘Realism’ – it means trying to paint the object as realistically as possible – exactly like it is. Almost like a photograph. Which of these is ‘realist’?”

About 11 fingers immediately pointed at Benny’s drawing. He was the only one who had used a ruler and thought about perspective.

“Not all artists draw objects exactly. Instead they show the object the way they see it or feel about it or experience it. Their impression of it. This is called ‘Impressionism’ – which of these looks a lot like a chair, but not like a photograph of one, somehow softer, less exact, more creative, lines that aren’t straight . . .

Fingers pointed at several pictures this time. A discussion started up about one of the choices because it didn’t look enough like a real chair.

“But it reminds you of a chair. Or makes you think of chair without really being a chair, doesn’t it?”

Most of the kids agreed.

“That is called ‘Abstract’.  The form of the object is distorted but usually still recognizable – in this case as a chair. Though . . . sometimes you have to be told what it is before you can see it.”

From there we found something Expressionist (in which the emotion was more important than the object) in Fred’s attempt to draw a dentist’s chair. He had gotten frustrated and scribbled over the part where the patient’s face would be. The result was slightly frightening. We discovered a Cubist chair (a collection of rectangular forms) and Symbolist executive chairs – one of which could be mistaken for a (middle) finger (salute). There was even one slightly Surreal chair (with fluffy looking jetpacks).

I was amazed at how long this little demonstration held their attention and at how they really seemed to get it. Even young Jonathon, who was clearly embarrassed about his own chair and reluctant at first to add it to the others on the carpet. I could almost hear him thinking “Benny’s chair is so good and mine looks so stupid and wrong!” Ten minutes later he was beaming about his cool, abstract style of drawing.

Unfortunately, because this was all unplanned, I didn’t have examples ready to show them right then and there, but I prepared this poster in the evening. The following morning, we ended up talking about it again for almost a half hour as one kid after another asked me questions about one of the movements (mostly the one their own chair drawing was assigned to . . .). Then we finally got to the Museum ABC activity that I had originally planned. It turned out to be way too easy and they were done in two minutes flat. So – Thank Goodness for spontaneous inspirations!

The next time I try this – and I definitely will (!) – I’ll have the example pictures ready to go. But I can say with confidence already that it won’t be the same magical experience. It is also entirely possible that two minutes before class starts, I will suddenly think, “This is stupid. I don’t want to do this.”

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A Round Dance

I should probably do something to make up for my last post. During my three weeks in the States, most of the conversation and the ENTIRETY of the news revolved around the antics of the pwesident and his circular firing squad of cronies. It was “All Twump, All the Time”. He eventually wheedled his way into my blog. But now I am home again and after stumbling through two days of jetlag, I am ready to write about something that has nothing to do with American politics – maybe something European and cultured . . . sophisticated . . . snooty, even.

Luckily, it just so happens that I went to the opera yesterday. “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi. And not just in any ol’ opera house – but one that had been built outdoors inside a huge stone quarry:

As we took the roundabout walkway that descended into the quarry, the impressive stage slowly came into sight. And when we took our seats, I was happy to see that the ones directly in front of mine were empty for four rows – leaving me a perfect view. The stage itself was at least four times the size of a normal one, and having no ceiling, it allowed for dramatically large objects in the stage design.  The natural rock wall behind it was integrated into the backdrop and light show. The sound system surrounding us would put us deep inside of the music:

 

 

The sun set and the opera began. The sheer enormity of the stage props made the players seem tiny at first – but that might fit well with one theme of the opera – the general smallness of people. They scurried around the stage like insects while huge projected images loomed over them. (Only their singing voices were large enough in dimension to compete.)

For those that don’t know the story (as I myself didn’t until reading up on it during the two hour drive to the quarry), Rigoletto is a court jester serving a womanizing Duke whose most profound statement is that love must be free (and apparently, fleeting). He then proceeds to seduce (ruin) one girl after another with Rigoletto’s help. The jester’s reward is the kick he gets out of ridiculing the girls’ husbands and fathers once the deed has been done. However, when one of these offended men puts a curse on Rigoletto, it begins to haunt him obsessively – to the point where he considers paying to have this father killed. It is a glimpse that somewhere inside him, there might be something like a conscience. Why else would this curse get to him so badly? For one brief moment, he seems to realize that as a person, he is not much better than a hired assassin. He uses his tongue as his sword while aiding and abetting the juvenile, narcissist/playboy in charge, possibly against his own character. I couldn’t help but think of all those rep . . . (nope, no, not going to go there, back to the plot . . .)

Rigoletto’s most human quality is the love he has for his daughter whose existence he has kept a secret from everyone. (You see where this is going now, don’t you?) Oddly enough, he also keeps his real name and what he does for a living a secret from her – as if he asked himself “How could I look my daughter in the eye and say I support this man?” (Oops, darn it! back to the opera.)  Of course, he wouldn’t want his own daughter anywhere near the Duke, much less, god forbid, alone with him.

 In a Shakespearean-style, implausible mix-up, Rigoletto ends up unwittingly helping in the kidnapping of – you guessed it – his own daughter who then becomes the Duke’s next conquest. Enraged, Rigoletto returns to the assassin and this time goes through with the deal – but with a new target: the Duke. When his daughter tells him that she still loves the man, he forces her to watch the Duke go after his next conquest and then sends her away. She sneaks back and sacrifices herself to save the Duke. She manages to stay alive just long enough to be discovered by her father, sing a (fairly long!) aria and apologize, as if it were her own actions and not her father’s that brought all this about. Then she dies.

Things never seem to go well for the female characters in operas.

But that is not quite the end. Rigoletto holds his dead daughter and screams out something about “The Curse!!”  In other words, “look what has been done to me!” rather than “look what I have done!”

Aahhh, 19th Century morality. Gotta love it. Those were the days. So great. Wish we could be (made) so great again . . . (oops, sorry!) . . .

No, I did not think about Twump and his minions all through the opera. In fact I didn’t give them a second thought. They came slinking back today as I wrote this post. Thankfully, last night the music and singing and stagecraft were so wonderful, that they allowed me to suspend the present and shake off my modern feminist and political sensibilities for three straight hours (which went by in a flash!) I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of this horrible horrible story.

 

PS. The cool fireworks afterward helped too. You don’t get those in a dumb ol’ opera house.

      

Seedy Alley Surprise

This must be my 20th trip to Milwaukee, so it was nice to find a little hidden treasure just a five minute walk away. At first site, it is nondescript and uninviting little side alley, that makes you stop and consider taking the long way around:

 

But once you enter, you find yourself surrounded by this:

Here was my favorite part:

Saturday Matinee

My best blog buddy, Lyart, does a weekly thing where she introduces artwork or a particular artist to her readers. I am stealing her idea today, to show some of the work of my sister. In addition to writing and photography, in the past few years she has been having fun creating cool and quirky 3-dimensional pieces. On my second last evening here, she pulled out her USA puzzle and I spent over an hour having so much fun with it.

USA puzzle

 

She had researched each State to come up with something of historical significance that happened there – and not just the good and patriotic stuff. The darker chapters of US history are not glossed over. As you put the puzzle together, the best and worst parts land side by side to create an honest and multifaceted whole. Each puzzle piece is a miniature work of art, a history lesson, and a quiz question all rolled into one. A few examples:

Area 51 alien autopsy meets the origins of Miranda rights
Area 51 alien autopsy meets the origins of Miranda rights

 

Brave and non-violent civil disobedience borders on its exact opposite
Brave and non-violent civil disobedience borders on its exact opposite

 

What these pictures don’t show well is the attention to detail. To take in each puzzle piece, you have to view it from all different angles:

Rosa in the window
Rosa in the window

 

The beginning of the end of segregation
The beginning of the end of segregation

 

It occurred to me how fabulous this would be as teaching material for US History. I even contemplated for a while how I could steal it when I leave here for my other home in Austria tomorrow. Unfortunately, it is a bit bulky. I think my sister might notice. Maybe I’ll just slip this one piece into my suitcase:

Proudly a Cheesehead (despite McCarthyism)
Proudly a Cheesehead (despite McCarthyism)