Thursday, May 31, 2012

Active Learning: Students Are Not Sponges

Four types of students are described in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:18), : the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. The sponge absorbs everything but can't distinguish between what is useful or not; the funnel takes in from one end and lets it out the other with no change; the strainer discards the wine and retains the dregs; the sieve sheds the dust and keeps the good flour.

If learning is an active process between teacher and student, how do we, as teachers, work with different types of students? In the article, "Twilight of the Lecture," Craig Lambert investigates active learning, particularly as espoused by Eric Mazur, professor of physics and applied physics. When we teach a physical craft we are more aware of active learning (or active confusion) because the students in our classes have to apply what they have learned in order to complete a project. The students must digest and process the information to be able to work: hands on. The book has to open. The box can't fall apart. By creating an environment where the information is directly, tangibly applied we can help to create students who are able to learn.
…active learning learning overthrows the 'transfer of information' model of instruction, which casts the student as a dry sponge who passively absorbs facts and ideas from a teacher.
Strangely, the concept of the student as sponge is the one most commonly cited, not the sieve. This may explain why our traditional teaching methods (lectures) are failing. We present a lot of information. From what we teach, we also have to be able to teach students the ability to sort out what is relevant: the good flour from the dust.

On their end, students need to know that they are expected to bring something to the table: their experiences, their willingness to explore, to take risks, to take initiative. More recently I have been seeing students who sit and wait, who want to know what to make, who have trouble finding content on their own. The old model of giving students the freedom and room to create seems to cause anxiety. The key to teaching, then, must be in gentle guidance. This is not new. The question is, even if you change the teaching method, can or will the students be gently guided?

In an online column by Paul Graham called "A Word to the Resourceful," from January 2012, he wrote about what makes successful startup companies. He ultimately found that the idea was not what was important; the people were. The people who were hard to talk to were the least successful. In a "Notes" section at the end of the column a partner of his writes about bad groups of students and good groups of students. It may sound harsh calling them good or bad, but the label is based on how well they are able to learn and the qualities that might enhance or prevent that learning. Bad students have a "glazed over" look when you talk to them. They  have already made up their minds and:
 …everything I say  is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I've said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process…
These students are resisting. They want praise and confirmation, not correction and guidance. Although they are passively waiting for information, they may not accept it. They may not even be like funnels, taking in and letting out again, but more like solar panels: taking in the sun's warmth in order to function. Active learners not only give, but they receive. Give them one idea, one suggestion; you can see their eyes light up and off they go. They make a connection with something that interests them.

How, then, do we create active learners if we have a bad group? Perhaps we need activities where they become the teachers, and by teaching they also learn by doing. And by teaching, doing, and learning, perhaps they will become more successful.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Mirror Business

My ears are  worn with a phrase that I have heard too many times: "I want the viewer to interpret my work however s/he wants." I would argue that any time you look at a work of art you are seeing it through the lens of your own experience. Even the maker cannot manipulate your memories and control what you see. But the artist is still responsible for the work; the artist is not in the mirror business.

It is up to the artist to start with a vision, an intention, a reason, and then to make it tangible for others, to provide the hook, the way in. 

I could put two random objects together and give it a title, but the viewer probably wouldn't stick around very long to ponder the work's deep meaning or to feel much of anything. That would still better than framing a mirror and saying "This work is about you," or "This is about reflection." The mirror is only a mirror in those cases. Nothing has been transformed. 

The question I always ask is, "What Else?" What is the next level? What are the layers? Maybe the mirror is at the bottom of a garbage can; or on the bottom of a shoe; maybe the mirror is on a dinner plate; or broken in a basket covered with a napkin. Where is the work situated? In what context do we find it? These are all important questions. 

The viewer needs enough material to get started. But there has to be a reason to turn the key and start the imagination engine, to compel the viewer to engage with it. The reason starts with the artist. What must you share? Share it, in detail. Connect it to the concrete world. Now, go deeper.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Painting with Words: Haiku & Senryu

I thought I knew American haiku, the three-lined poem(s): five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. But after reading, Book of Haikus by Jack Kerouac, I found an angle on it I didn't know I was missing.

In the early 1950s, Gary Snyder traveled to Japan and brought back Zen Buddhism and haiku to "West Coast  poets" that included Kerouac. R.H. Blyth's first English translations of haiku in a book dating from 1949 were a source of conversation and inspiration for all. In Japanese, haiku came in word clusters or sounds of 5-7-5, but the form could not be preserved when translated into English. Attracted to the essence of the poems and trying to improve on them, Kerouac kept a series of small notepads in his pocket from 1956 to 1966 in order to write his own kind of haiku wherever he went. He thought that they would look best printed three or four to a page with an abstract brush painting to accompany them, and although this small-format book has four haiku to a page and no brushwork, it does contain facsimiles notebook pages that show his process.

Traditional haiku often refers to the season, not necessarily by name, but by what is blooming, or what is found in nature: frogs, strawberries, rain, leaves. It leaves a big space for the reader to fill between what is first presented and the last word(s). If you read too fast, it might seem random or nonsensical. Take it out under a tree and think about it again.

Here are a few traditional haiku from the book edited and with verse translations by Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa. Japanese versions have indents, so the English mimics its form.

    The oak tree:

not interested
    in cherry blossoms.
(Basho, p. 17)

     They end their flight

one by one—
     crows at dusk
(Buson, p. 89)

     One human being,
one fly,
     in a large room.
 (Issa, p. 167)

Kerouac tried to emulate those three master poets. A few of Kerouac's that caught my eye (and he often writes about his cats):

The white cat
      is green in the tree shadow
Like Gaugin's horse
(p. 116)

Full moon in the trees
     —across the street,
the jail
(p. 113)

The summer chair
     rocking by itself
In the blizzard
(p. 36)
A story can move forward when Kerouac writes and revises one haiku as shown on pages 134-135:

Walking down the road with a dog
—a crushed leaf

Walking with the dog on the road
—a crooked leaf

Walking down the road
with dog—
a crushed snake

Walking down the road/a crushed snake.
Red trees—

Red trees–
the dog tears at
an old itch.

In addition to working with nature like traditional Japanese haiku, Kerouac also wrote haiku that referred to people and that was philosophical, what he called "pops," or American haiku. Haiku that refers to humans are usually called senryu. It may be hard to tell haiku and senryu apart, particularly when people are part of natureKerouac also declared that American haiku should have no more than three words per line (although if you start counting up his lines you see he used one to five words). But we are all free to make up our own forms, aren't we?

Examples of Kerouac's pops:

Concatenation!—the bicycle
     pulls the wagon
Because the rope is tied
(p. 73)

Bird was gone
     and distance grew
immensely white
(p. 94)

The link between the bicycle and the wagon could not happen without a person creating it: tying the rope. Distance, as a concept, does not exist without someone being there to observe it: the link between the bird and the absence of the bird. The two pops are both active picture-makers. 

An unlikely senryu (although it is called a haiku in the book) is found in Chapter 11 of Ian Fleming's 1964 James Bond novel, You Only Live Twice: 

You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face 

Although it still paints a picture as it is, what might be added to the last line is "and live." The ending refers to turning one's life around, rebounding from death or another's death. The novel was the last book Fleming completed before his own death, several months after it was published. In the novel "Bond's" poem is referred to as a "failed" haiku. The picture is a bit blurry.

You can find some nice haiku and senryu online in the Haiku Society of America's journal Frogpond.

A big story is presented in these tiny poems. An action. A desire. A longing. A philosophy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Transforming Through Objects

I'm always interested to find an object as the focus of a written work. Usually, the object is described in detail and is central to the plot. Often, the main character is changed by it. Just as an artist transforms an object, the object transforms a character. The story works well when the object is shown in detail and provides emotional side effects; the reader begins to connect with it.

In Paul Auster's 2006 book Travels in the Scriptorium: A Novel, the object is a typescript. The main character, who remembers nothing, must find out who he is. He is called Mr. Blank. At the beginning of the story he wears blue-and-yellow striped pajamas and is located in a white room with a camera taking pictures of him every second. Anna comes in and dresses him in white. The furnishings are spare and are labeled with white tape: lamp, desk, etc.. He discovers the typescript on a desk and reads about a detailed life and a history; the story in the typescript (story within the story) is more vivid than the story of Blank in the white room. 

The questions begin. Did Blank write the story? Is it true or fiction? But if Blank is fictitious how can the story be true? Why is Blank in this room? Is he a prisoner? What is the connection between the story and Mr. Blank? The walls stay white, like blank pages. The plot is mysterious. The creative writing process unfolds. I started feeling that I, the reader, had to add and create the details. Auster planted a mirror between many of the pages. He had a concept—metafiction—about the writing process. The typescript's story holds most of the action. Blank's story feels removed and sterile. (Someone told me later he thought Auster's work was "bloodless.") Ultimately, the typescript becomes the catalyst that changes the character. But along the way the reader is not invited to feel very much.

I went back to try Auster's first book (1985), City of Glass (New York Trilogy), and realized many of the characters from that novel were referred to in this one. Although it wasn't crucial to know, on reflection it helped me understand the later book. It also showed me that Auster's favorite subject appears to be the process of writing. In City of Glass, Auster introduces the character, Paul Auster, who is also a writer: Auster the writer writing about Auster the writer. Truth stands on its head.

In the 1937 story, "Spring" in the collection Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (published with The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories) by artist/writer Bruno Schulz, Bianca, the girl of the narrator's affection, wears a white dress. Another blank slate, perhaps? The girl is one object of focus. This story is drenched in details and colorful imagery all centering around a pocket-sized stamp collection. The stamps become tiny portals to larger worlds that take the delusional narrator into a story of his own creation, (another story within a story) perhaps so he will have confidence  to try to win Bianca's heart. This narrator/character is quite a startling contrast to the white Blank of Auster's making. Schulz creates a world, both inside and outside the stamp collection, that is visceral, specific, and rich. The stamp album feels tangible.

Both writers worked with the idea of myth and reality. What is real? What is fiction? Who is writing? Is the author in control of the narrative or does it seem that the character is creating the story? Auster's book demonstrates how writing works from the inside out, layer by layer: with lists, and memories, and rewrites; Schulz's story shows a character making up a detailed fantasy. By his vivid metaphors, juxtapositions, and word choices Schulz welcomes us into a far more interesting and imaginative world. Although he presents his concept well, Auster just doesn't give us enough details to care for long.

The stories each use a book to propel the plot, and each book transforms a character and the reader. Auster is clever. He changes our view of writing by twisting the story into a mobius strip. Schulz is imaginative; we join the character's fantasy and take on his desires. Auster plays with the intellect. Schulz works with the heart. Intellect vs. heart. When is it fair to compare?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Berkeley Poetry Walk on Addison Street

Seems I missed this when I was looking for poetry walks in April. In 2003, the city of Berkeley applied art and poetry to Addison Street between Milvia and Shattuck Avenue, in the area referred to as the "theater district," since Berkeley Repertory Theater moved there. The poems are long and you must linger to read them. When a friend and I stopped on a warm May day, we were the only ones soaking in the words, and it was garbage day so some of the panels were covered by cans. 

The poetry was chosen by former Poet Laureate Robert Hass and appears to have local connections: either the poets lived here, wrote about here, or wrote about theater, dance, music, or writing. The street holds the poem, "Cotton in a Pill Bottle," by Dean Young as well as a poem I mentioned earlier called "Moment" by Hildegarde Flanner. If you can't get to Berkeley, you can still read the poems in an anthology compiled from this project, Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley's Poetry Walk

At the Milvia end, a street tree features artful metal roots. At the Shattuck end, lines from the song "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" from the musical Oklahoma are stamped into the pavement. (Click on image to enlarge, as usual.)

Turn the corner onto Shattuck Avenue and a man that matches the color of the sidewalk asks for money.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Birds on Things

I take pretty much the same walk every day, but every day the walk is different. Cars move. Signs are put up. Graffiti appears and then it is washed away. I see the man with the pug. I hear the two women talking in accented English. I see new blossoms, new landscaping, new construction, new destruction. Or I don't. Repetition and revision. Jazz every day.

Seen May 10, 2012 on Menlo Place, Berkeley, California. 

The title for this post is a reference to the Portlandia sketch, "Put a Bird on It."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Making a Cigar Box (4): Finishing

This is the last installment of the hinged box tutorial. Here we cover the inside of the box, apply bookcloth to the underside of the base, and add an image to the recess in the lid.

Tools: pencil; metal ruler; bone folder; PVA; glue brush; magazines for scrap paper; scissors; long strip of scrap paper for measuring
Materials: bookcloth; decorative paper; box base with attached lid

Take a long strip of scrap paper and place it inside the box base, resting at the wall furthest from the hinge, bringing it up the opposite wall and over the hinge and lid, stopping just before the absolute edge of the lid (it will cover the turn-ins already there). Use this paper strip for a guide to the length of decorative paper you will need. The width is measured as just a tiny bit smaller than the inside of the box base, side to side.
Apply glue to the back of the decorative paper. I used a paste paper frottage I had made on a different day. (See p. 107 in Painted Paper: Techniques & Projects for Handmade Books & Cards for instructions.) Position and press down inside the box and over the hinge and lid.
Use the bone folder to smooth the paper into the box base and into the grooves between the base and the lid.
Cut a piece of bookcloth just smaller than the outside of the box base. It should overlap the turn-ins already there.
 Apply glue to the entire back of the book cloth.
 Press the bookcloth into place, centered.
 Smooth the cloth with a bone folder.
Apply glue to the back of the oval or shape or title strip you will put in the recess on the outside of the lid.
 Press the shape into the recess and smooth it down.

Completed Piece

The Bones of Crows, 2012

Monday, May 14, 2012

Making a Cigar Box (3): Attaching the Lid

This is Part Three of the Four-part series of instructions for making a box with a hinged lid. Once three sides of the box base are wrapped, you can cover and attach the lid.

Tools: pencil; metal ruler; bone folder; knife and cutting mat; scissors; three scrap boards for measuring; PVA; brush for gluing; magazines for scrap paper; long strip of scrap paper for measuring
Materials: book cloth; partially wrapped box base

Take a strip of scrap paper and measure just over the edge of the box base to just over the edge of the lid, leaving a gap between the two.
Cut a piece of bookcloth that is the height of the paper strip and 1 - 1 1/2" (2.4 - 3.6 cm) wider than the lid. Apply glue to the back of the bookcloth and press the lid into place (if it has a recess cut into it, place it recess side down). The lid should have an equal margin of bookcloth on three sides and a long tail (this is not a technical term, but this is what I'm going to call it).
Flip the wrapped lid over and use a bone folder to press a groove into the recess.
Trim the top two corners at least 1 1/2 board thicknesses from the corner to the cut.
Place the wrapped lid on the work surface, face down. Place the box base (unwrapped side, not bottom, down) on the extra tail of bookcloth. Use three boards to measure the distance between the lid and the box base. Remove the box base and draw a line where it will go.
Place the ruler against the box lid and draw a straight line out to the edge of the tail. Repeat for opposite side of the tail.
Cut along the straight line, stopping at 1 1/2 board thicknesses from the corner of the lid.
Place the lid, rightside down, on a piece of scrap paper. Apply glue to the longest flap.
Press into place and tuck in the both corners. Apply glue to each of the shorter flaps and press them into place.
 Apply glue to the tail.
Press the box base into place along the line, leaving the three board thicknesses in between it and the lid. Make sure it is centered and that the lid will close.
 Press into place along the underside of the box base.
Use the bone folder to crease the hinge on the outside of the box.

Next up: Part Four, Finishing (covering the inside lid and base, the underside of the base, and adding an image for the cover recess)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Making a Cigar Box (2): Wrapping the Base

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been asked many times how to make a box with a hinged lid. Here is the cigar box I designed, based on a real cigar box. After you build the box base, wrap it with bookcloth. This method is very similar to wrapping the tray for a clamshell box (p. 235 Making Handmade Books.) This is part two of four. Note: these are live photographs, taken as I worked.

Tools: pencil; metal ruler; scissors; PVA and glue brush; magazines for scrap paper
Materials: bookcloth, box base

To measure how long the book cloth needs to be: take a long strip of scrap paper and wrap it around three full sides of the box bottom and overlapping a bit around the corners. (The two shorter sides and one long side, as shown.)

To measure how tall or wide the bookcloth needs to be: take another strip of scrap paper and place it just under the box bottom, wrap it up the side, over the edge and down into the bottom of the box.

Trim the strip, leaving a bit overlapping onto the inside base.

Use the two paper strips together as a guide for measuring the long strip of book cloth.

Apply glue to the back of the bookcloth, leaving a slight margin at the left edge and at the bottom.

Place the box (one of the short sides, open part facing away from you) on the bookcloth, aligned with the glue.

Apply more glue to the bookcloth. Walk the box onto the glue. Apply glue and press down the third side as well.

Trim the open corners on both sides, leaving at least 1 1/2 board thicknesses between the box corner and the cut.
 Cut triangles at the closed corners.
Place the box on some scrap paper. Apply glue to the back of the longest flap of bookcloth.
Press the cloth into place on the bottom of the box.
On the open edges, make a straight cut just inside the corner wall, stopping about 1 1/2 board thicknesses away.
 Make a diagonal cut up to meet the straight cut.
The shape of the cut looks like this (please pardon my ragged edges). Repeat the cuts for the other open edge.
Put the box down onto a piece of scrap paper. Apply glue to the little flap at the edge.
 Press into place around the corner.
 And press down over the top of the corner as well.

Make cuts just inside the box bottom corners for the longest side of the box.
 Apply glue to one of the flaps on the shorter side.

Press the cloth up the side of the wall, smooth the top edge, and down into the box.
Smooth the cloth into the corners. Cut slits to relieve the tension of the cloth if the material seems to be bunching up.
On the parallel short side, apply glue and smooth the cloth as well. 
Apply glue to the long side last. This piece should fit into the box exactly. Check it before you glue. If it extends beyond the corners, trim it a tiny bit. You want all your seams at the corners.
Press the last flap of cloth into place. Trim the corners of the cloth before you press them into place if it bunches up.
Smooth it down with the bone folder.

Next up: Part Three, Attaching the Lid