My work as a public artist is specific to the discovery and interpretation of connections between people and culture through interactive, participatory visual art. For the last four years, Green School math teacher Nathan Affield and I have teamed up to create murals that combine art and mathematics to empower students and connect them to their communities in Brooklyn, New York. These projects build lasting relationships and help students realize their strengths.
Our first project took place in the school with two mapping projects that are permanently installed in our school’s hallways. Based on the sustainability principles of the school, the students went out in their community to collect visual data on what was culturally, environmentally, and personally sustainable in their neighborhoods. They mapped out the neighborhoods using zoomed in abstractions, noting the collected data with symbols.
In 2011, Affield and I created a project where a math class surveyed the whole school on how they were feeling, what color that feeling represented, where that feeling fell on a scale between one and 10, and what time of day the data was recorded. The students then aggregated and color-coded the data to create a 150 histogram covering the back wall of the school. In a line graph organized by the time of day and negative space that color–codes the students’ grades, one gets a full day glimpse into the emotions of the students at any given point of the day. At first glance, the mural looks like an abstract, colorful cityscape. It is only when the mural is “read”, that the data can be understood.
Histogram of Emotion
In 2012, we brought the students outside the classroom and into the community where they teamed up with seniors from the local senior center to graph out weather patterns from 1930 to a projection of the future. In class, students had been studying mathematical modeling and how to use evidence to defend a claim. With daily high temperature data from NOAA, two-dimensional graphing techniques and their knowledge of central tendency, students collaborated to reposition their two-dimensional graphs into a single three-dimensional line graph modeling the past weather cycles that they used as evidence to base their climate change claims. They worked with seniors—some who remembered the historical weather patterns the students had graphed—and passerbys, creating lasting connections among each other and the community.
This year we will be visualizing the number Pi on another wall on Graham Avenue in East Williamsburg. The design involves replacing the infinite digits of Pi with color-coded blocks and viewing the irrational number as a shape. For the first time, students will see the negative space of Pi and search for patterns. To focus students on the concept of infinity, we chose to use the Fibonacci or Golden Spiral, representing another irrational number, Phi, as the framework for the visualization. As the space in the spiral gets smaller, the bars of the number shorten. When you first look at the image, you might see a shell pattern or a cityscape. Only upon investigation, will you know that it is a representation of Pi.
Mockup of Visualization of Pi
The act of painting murals is empowering. Once a student makes a mark on a wall, it becomes his or hers. When you walk down the busy street of Graham Ave, almost every wall is covered in random tags. We help the students create public art that means something and has significance. Students living in Brooklyn need this kind of connection to their communities because when the students invest in their communities, the communities invest in them. These murals are also made for the neighborhood. The results are not only beautiful images, but also sparked conversations.
The Kickstarter campaign we created has been a wild success, attaining its goal within 48 hours, which has more than doubled in four days. Money beyond the goal will be invested back into the community to create more public art in the neighborhood. Artist Ellie Balk will manage a grant and call for local artists to create another mural in the neighborhood. A scholarship program for students will also be set up. People still wanting to support this project should know that their investment will go directly to the enrichment of students and their community. Consider backing an educational and culturally enriching project.
I’d say about once a week, I have a seventh grader visit my room at school. I don’t teach that grade, but I knew this student last year. She always comes to my room to borrow books from my classroom library.
Her friend, another lovely young lady, accompanies her as they are walking buddies after school.
The seventh grader gives me an awesome grin and says “You’re the secret source.”Her friend nods knowingly.
I ask “What do you mean?”
She says “You have the best books. You are my secret book source.”
Her friends smiles and says “Now, you’ll know what we mean when we say ‘the source’!”
How cool is that? I’d like to say at the start of my first year I had a measly double digit amount of books. These books took up about 3 shelves-if even- and that’s it. Due to tumblr, I now have a library.
And I am the secret source.
Do you get any visitors in your room? Students or otherwise that come for something? If so, for what?
Ken Robinson: How to escape education's death valley
Ken Robinson: How to escape education’s death valley #TED : http://on.ted.com/eZwu
I need to raise $50 for Pre-K Celebration ASAP, if anyone is interested in donating via paypal or chase epay let me know!
The need for funds is a long story, but know it would be going to our 3 Pre-K’s celebration on the last day of school. We’d like to buy a small spread of food and some resources for the kids to take home.
Please e-mail me positivelypt (at) gmail (dot) com or use fan mail!
After Three Years
I have devoted the past three years of my life to developing my practice as an educator. It has been extremely challenging trying to maintain my personal work/life and my job here. That being said, I have been very appreciative of this experience. I cannot even begin to count all of the profound lessons I have learned about all sorts of things through teaching. I have learned so much about myself, the things I am capable of, my limits, boundaries, and my seemingly endless capacity to love. I learned a lot about my own values, what I truly believe in, the way I think students should learn. I have questioned beliefs that I have held for most of my life about education, schools as institutions, young people, and myself. I did not know, going into this, that I would encounter so many challenges and so many blessings. One half of my heart truly resides in teaching.
I wonder though, with all of the challenges in public and private education, what purpose schools really serve. Are they here to really educate youth? “Educate” here meaning: the cultivation of liberated minds through the acquisition of a diverse range of knowledge bases as well as the skills necessary to navigate and lead through and in spite of the systems of oppression. Do we do this with school? Or is there some other place where this happens? Or is it a culmination of school as well as other lessons learned? Who is responsible for this knowledge?
Or are schools places to train workers? To grow The Citizen of tomorrow, The Employee of tomorrow, The Wage Slave of tomorrow? While it is true that not everyone will grow up to be the CEO of a huge corporation, a professional athlete, or a movie star, we teach our children, somewhere along the line that if they work hard enough, that all of their wildest dreams will come true. So when you ask an eighth grader what she wants to be when she grows up and she says “A model” but has no idea what skills models need to possess, or when a boy responds with “Basketball player in the NBA” and believes that if he wants it bad enough and “does okay in school” that he will achieve it, what are you, as the educator supposed to say back? When we teach our students only to be obedient and follow directions and complete assignments, but then we ask them to be critical thinkers (critical thinking being a rebellion against the status quo to begin with) and they are pained by it, what do we expect? We cannot use school as a tool of oppression to keep children quiet and then in the same breath ask them to change the world for their futures. I struggle with this paradox constantly. We need to teach students to be good people, yes. But in that teaching, in learning social norms, niceties, and “rules”, somewhere along the way, we also teach them that unless they are quiet and obedient, that they will never get anywhere in life.
This generation of students struggles with this challenge more than I have witnessed before. At home they are told to “speak their mind” and to “be themselves” but are not given boundaries either. This is for a myriad of reasons. Some of my students live with relatives other than parents, one parent, parents who work 3 jobs, no parents, are homeless, are in transitional housing, are raising their younger siblings, are struggling with mental and socio-emotional disorders, don’t have food in their homes, experience violence inside and outside their walls, self-medicate, etc. This is not an exaggeration. The numbers are staggering, actually. So how, when nothing about their educational experience or childhood has been “normal”, do we teach them what “normal” looks like or why it’s important to present as “normal” in the rest of the world? When a person does not grow up experiencing love, consistency, and care from their families and communities, it becomes very hard for them to accept any of those things as they become teenagers. We as educators try to give them these things in school, but it often takes a lot of practice for them to accept that love, consistency, and care.
This seems to be the thing I struggle with the most as I crawl uphill to the last two weeks of school, the last two weeks of this chapter of my teaching career.