Writing Pictures and Painting Stories: Creative Acts of Imagination Challenge the Monetization of Public Education

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In Writing Pictures Painting Stories we begin by making connections between people and the planet. I read Italo Calvino’s brilliant story, A Sign in Space, and invite graduate students to imagine the universe. Calvino begins with science as he often does, and he tells the reader “the sun takes about two hundred millions years to make a complete revolution of the Galaxy”. He introduces Qfwfw who when I read to my students I call “Q”. When I read the story to myself Qfwfw is Calvino, an Italian philosopher and literary genius.

Qfwfw draws a sign in space so that he will find it two hundred million years later when he has completed one complete revolution of the galaxy. And it is at this moment that humans begin to think. Before eyes, teeth and noses, making a sign is the first thought.

“What sort of sign?” Calvino pretends we ask. “It’s hard to explain because if I say sign to you, you immediately think of a something that can be distinguished from a something else, but nothing could be distinguished there”.

“As to the form a sign should have, you say it’s no problem because, whatever form it may be given, a sign only has to serve as a sign, that is, be different or else the same as other signs,” but as Calvino explains, “in that period I didn’t have any examples to follow, I couldn’t say I’ll make it the same or I’ll make it different, there were no things to copy, nobody knew what a line was, straight or curved, or even a dot, or a protuberance or a cavity”.

In a few short pages Calvino writes the history of the human race, which reaches the end heaped up with signs and false signs in a universe that no longer exists. But following the story on the first morning, in a conference room that we use as a studio, we begin at the beginning, and I ask the masters and doctoral students in our course to make the first sign in the universe. Later students talk about how challenging it was to make a sign that had no meaning. Students have hours to produce this work. It is a time of deep contemplation. Does life exist without meaning? Is it possible for humans not to mean?

The syllabus suggests otherwise. I won’t repeat it here. In the afternoon students work in small groups reading chapters from Maxine Greene’s Releasing the Imagination, sharing paragraphs that have gained new significance since they made the first sign in the universe. Calvino and Greene make the course magical. Calvino connects our physical existence to the galaxy, for him science, philosophy, and literature are intricately connected. Greene views life on Earth in similar ways. For her, philosophy, literature, and the aesthetic experience are also intertwined. Greene’s writings are not always easy for students to read and they start out hesitatingly at the beginning of the course, but the studio experiences make it possible for them to inhabit the book, and from her writings become part of the artwork the students create.

Quoting Jonathon Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Greene rejects the narrowing of students’ lives and the cul-de-sacs of the dominant decision makers restructuring of schools. She writes of “looking at things as if they could be otherwise”. Greene brings in John Dewey and the idea of imagination as the “gateway” through which meaning is derived, and Hannah Arendt on the “startling unexpectedness” that is “inherent in all beginnings”.

And so we begin. Together the students recreate the universe, in ways that represent all the ideas they are interpreting about signs and symbols, and about functional and aesthetic texts. There are conversations about language, literacy, color, texture, and design, and discussions about emotion and empathy, hopes and fears, as well as reason. At night their research becomes digital as they explore data sets in a different space on the history of writing systems and the human development of social semiotic systems. If you look closely at the photos of the exhibit you will find a laptop with a slideshow. The laptop is a physical object integral to the installation, as well as a gateway to a digital world that signifies a galaxy of visual and textual information.

After a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the students’ studio work becomes infused with symbolic representations that signify ancient and modern meaning systems that connect them to the ethos of the people who created them. Ethos, mythos, and logos are not separated. They become one, a celebration of humankind. In their group installation people and the planet are reunited irrespective of gender, ethnicity, race, or religion. The work is physical and digital, but the one communicative form does not dominate the other.

On Friday when the installation is complete, students trace the evolution of their thinking and the progression of their textual productions. There are no time limits. Students are just invited to speak. Each presentation is a tour de force, and they surprise themselves as well as each other as they tie together their studio work with their philosophical readings and their visit to the Metropolitan Museum.

And all the while the question that consumes us is: how can we create such opportunities for children in schools that are so crippled by the imposition of program and assessment mandates to support the billion dollar industry that public education in America has become? Releasing the imagination of children from the tests that bind them requires creating spaces in which graduate students can imagine the possibilities for a more just and caring world by teaching in the cracks of dominant and dominating schools “reforms”.

Imagine the possibilities for social and political change if public schools across America made test days “Writing Pictures Painting Stories” days. This would be a creative act of rebellion against the monetization of public education. On Writing Pictures Painting Stories day, Maxine Greene and John Dewey would be back in the classroom, opening up the possibilities for children to imagine themselves in a world that is decent, just, and full of caring. The great artists, philosophers, and scientists could participate in a digital space that anticipates the future as well as the past. Calvino would be in their classrooms with his stories of science and philosophy, encouraging teachers to resist the false signs of the money makers that have “superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space”, so that there is “no longer any way to establish a point of reference”. He would extol the importance of creative and imaginative human learning, and encourage us to seize this moment, warning us that if we don’t, we will forget what it is like to think imaginatively and do original work.

“Making signs that weren’t that sign no longer held any interest for me,” Calvino, writing as Qfwfw, tells us. “I had forgotten that sign … so unable to make true signs … I started making false signs, notches in space, holes, stains, little tricks that only an incompetent creature … could mistake for signs.”

Writing pictures and painting stories impacts students’ lives, infusing their hearts and minds with life as it could be otherwise. It is always a significant moment when the students disassemble the installation, and then leave without a trace of the remarkable work they have done. It’s August and the students’ art work fills the floor of the atrium, but the few people who come into the building barely notice as they hurry along the narrow pathway at the edge of our universe on their way to meetings to discuss new mandates including the “common core” which realigns faculty as well as graduate students, flatlining us into meritocracy for profit with false signs and little tricks.

We all pitch in and clear up. When it’s done, students say goodbye to their new friends and to me, but they linger, just standing, as if they want to hold on to the moment. At the end of Calvino’s story Qfwfq wonders if space had “never existed”, if it had been just signs “heaped up”. Perhaps in those last moments before leaving the building and going home the students knew that once they left, the universe that they had created would be lost without a trace, as it if had never been. But we have the photos to prove they were there, and it is in more than our imagination their work exists.

This morning as I think back it seems to me that what they created when they painted the sun with a ray for each student was a golden compass, perhaps more primitive that the one in the book of the same name, but a compass all the same. If we are going to find our way forward and share with our children our common humanity, it might be that the only possibility we have left is to incite imagination and transgress in a day of collective creative action, writing pictures and painting stories instead of passively administering mind numbing and dumbing tests.

Now that the intense week of writing pictures and painting stories is over students have one last assignment, which is ten hours of “field work” in which they share with children the inspiration they have gained from releasing their own imagination in an environment that nurtures language, literacy, science, philosophy and art. When the projects, girded by thousands of years of history, supported by scientific empirical research, by deep understandings of the humanities and the arts, and enacted through a pedagogy that is supported by our current knowledge of human development, arrive in defense of the human spirit, the contrast is striking between the creative and deeply intellectual work of the children and young people, and the work that both young children and older students produce when they are restricted by inappropriate program mandates, and by required but indefensible commercial tests. The quiet, thoughtful conversations that take place in the pedagogical environments that the graduate students establish, are supported by a century of research on human development and learning, and reflect the work of teachers in classrooms across the country, who through their teaching, now transgress. The contrast could not be more striking with the false conversations required in classrooms in which teachers are forced to prep for tests that find their genesis in the vitriolic and denigrating rhetoric of the political decision makers pushing privatization of K-12 public education that is a 500 billion dollar industry for corporations.

“It was incredible to see how creative and imaginative she was,” one graduate student writes of the six year old girl with whom she worked. “I barely helped her and it was fascinating to see what she came up with on her own, in terms of every given task. It was amazing to see what she created by sitting calmly in a relaxed setting with a paintbrush in her hand and paints to play with.” She writes of the child’s interpretations of the letter “W” in Braille and Chinese, and of her “inventiveness while creating different patterns”, and “her ability to apply a message from a book to her own life and to express these insights on paper through art”.

“She really showed me the extent of her knowledge,” the graduate student states. “Not only did I enjoy doing this activity with her, she kept saying over and over how she would love to do this every day in school.”

“Just by her statement,” the student reflects, “I have learned that it’s so crucial that all children need to be independent and have the opportunity to sit, relax, use their imagination and create! I cannot wait to better my teaching strategies as I start a new year with my preschoolers. As an educator and simply as a human being, I have learned that creativity and imagination is a necessity for growth, success, and inner peace for us all, especially for our children. Children and adults need to be inspired on a day to day basis. Imagination allows us to tap into our own inspirations.”

Another graduate student in Writing Pictures Painting Stories worked with two high school students. She writes, “First, I read “The Universe” by May Swenson (LINK to poem) and had students try their best to put what they were visualizing on paper.” It is a Calvino moment. Science, philosophy, and aesthetic experience all wrapped up in a poem.

“What is it about the universe, the universe about us stretching out?” May Swenson asks. She writes, “We, within our brains, within it, think we must unspin the laws that spin it.”

“We think why because we think because,” she responds in verse. “Because we think,

we think the universe about us.” A physicist or philosopher could take these lines and “spin” a book. A literary critic could “spin” the poem. It could become the basis for a conference on people and the planet. For sure, it is as complex as any human thought can be, and yet it is written with simplicity and the high school students seize the moment.

“I asked them to think about the relationship between the universe and humans,” the graduate student explains, “and how we created the concept of meaning.”

“I was surprised to find that neither high school student asked any questions before or after we read. It seemed that they had seen the paint, pastels and paper in front of them and just knew what they wanted to do. As soon as I stopped reading, I expected blank stares, but instead found that the students went right to work, hands grabbing for paints and brushes before I could even find any more instructions to give them. I kept quiet and started my own artwork to keep the creative energy of the room flowing.”

“When it came time to share, one of the high school students held her artwork up and began to talk about how she’d watched a program on Stephen Hawking once in physics class and had found a way to connect it to the poem. Her discussion focused on the idea that the Big Bang started with just a single point. This point accumulated as much density and energy as it could before exploding and continually creating the universe. The strokes of color signified how energy occurs in cycles, moving through various forms until you can’t trace where or what it had been before. The black edges represented the knowledge that we do not yet know, but are aware that we do not know and search for.”

Maxine Green would smile and nod, and possibly say, “Yes, that is how I imagined it would be.” In the concluding paragraph of the paper on her field work the graduate student writes,  “Maxine Greene states, ‘it is imagination—with its capacity to both make order out of chaos and open experience to the mysterious and the strange—that moves us to go in quest, to journey where we have never been’ (1995, p.23). This class has helped me to learn the power of imagination and what it has the capacity to do within the classroom.”

“I have learned so much from this experience, and hope that I do get the opportunity to infuse these ideas into my own classroom one day,” she writes. “It is vital that as teachers we show our students how important their imagination is, and that we allow them the time to use it, reflect on it, and grow from it.”

Again she quotes Maxine Greene: “Imagination may be a new way of decentering ourselves, of breaking out of the confinements of privatism and self-regard into a space where we can come face to face with others and call out, ‘Here we are’” (Maxine Greene, 1995, p.31).

“As Maxine points out over and over again,” she continues, seizing the moment, “imagination is a tool of empowerment, something that helps us to exceed our expectations and travel to places that we would not have dreamed of. …This should be what we strive for as we create our classroom communities. Amidst the textbooks, skill and drill, and standardized testing, students need the opportunities to let their creativity flow and let their own colors shine through into the world.”

“With the first days of school approaching,” another graduate student in Writing Pictures Painting Stories writes, “I’ll meet all my “little ones” and remember the creativity you inspire through acceptance and celebration. You seem unconcerned or worried about an end product and guide an amazing, open process that allows for, and encourages the unexpected. I loved and learned from the journey, grateful to have been “orbiting” with peers.”

In Writing Pictures Painting Stories I try to give to my students what great educators, both scholars in universities and public school teachers, have given to me. From one generation to the next we evoke the human spirit, and create classroom communities that are caring and compassionate. We create intensely intellectual spaces in which students, who are often marginalized in American society, are nurtured, supported, and succeed in re-imagining the possibilities of their lives.

It is forty four years since I entered the classroom, and in that time I have never administered a test, and yet students learn and have no difficulty understanding the importance of hard work in any worthwhile human endeavor.  In these troubled times I teach to transgress, and will not participate in any initiatives to teach teachers to test. I reject the idea of “value added” which is borrowed from economics, and I challenge the government mandates that impose a “common core”, and I refuse to accept the imposition of mediocrity on teachers, children, and American society.

In her ninety sixth year Louise Rosenblatt, the renowned teacher and scholar, wrote in an email to me of the “generosity and bravery” of teachers. She wrote, “Those who sit back and wait are, I believe, ignoring the children whose lives will be affected. To minimize the bad effects on good schools as well as the poor ones, we must try to influence what is happening. If we fail, as well we may, we shall at least have spread the ideas, have educated some who will continue the resistance.” Louise never gave up. She was writing letters to Congress in her hundredth year. In her memory, in honor of Maxine, and in the spirit of Calvino, I hope we can find the courage to organize and transgress, and to write pictures and paint stories instead of administering another test.