Thursday, December 10, 2009

Unschool in Kids' Books: Willow


Without at all trying to, we have stumbled upon many library books that depict school as an arid and rule-bound environment that squelches children's creativity. Maybe a disproportionate percentage of creative children who were unhappy in school grow up to write kids' books!

The art classroom at Willow's school is neat and orderly, and the children face front in tidy rows... all but Willow, who is reprimanded by the art teacher for turning around to gaze out the window. The teacher assigns art tasks (such as drawing a green tree) and Willow is scolded by the teacher and mocked by her classmates for the pink tree or blue apple she paints instead of following the model pictures. Willow brings her book of Famous Paintings to show her teacher paintings like hers, but the teacher merely mutters "Horrid little girl" under her breath!

For Christmas, however, Willow gives her beloved art book to her teacher. We see the teacher studying the book, then drawing and painting with increasing abandon. Her hair comes loose, her clothes are spattered with paint, her pictures are scattered all over her classroom floor. When the children return after the holiday break, they enter a room flooded with color and a woman they don't recognize, their transformed teacher, invites them to help her paint murals on the walls.

It's a bit didactic, I suppose, but what I liked about this book was that Willow gave her art book to her teacher not to prove a point, but to open up a world of creativity to her teacher; it was an act of generosity on the part of a child who wanted to share something that gave her pleasure with someone who was clearly unhappy. The image of the uptight schoolmarm is a bit sexist, and I wasn't terribly pleased by the visual representation of her transformation in the shift from her austere hair pulled back in a bun to a much prettier, happier woman with loosely flowing locks. But I like the book's basic depiction of the value of creativity, of the two-way street of education as the teacher learns from the student, and of a school environment transformed by child-led learning.

Drawings, Fall Semester Edition

Here is a small selection of the zillions of drawings N. has made since September. As I have mentioned before, he likes to draw every day.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Old Buildings, Fall Semester Edition

N.'s deep interest in old buildings has continued and developed all this fall and winter. For example, he has learned about the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. Thanks to the Random Encyclopedia Entry, followed up with library books, he learned about International architecture, which he enjoyed very much, though he still says he prefers old to modern. Thanks to our National Geographic subscription, he studied Angkor Wat intensely for a week. He has also become acquainted with Indian temples, primarily through the Taj Mahal. My sister and her boyfriend took a trip to Athens and we had been studying a bunch of books on the ancient buildings of Athens, so N. loved seeing those buildings show up in my sister's photos. Every trip to the library nets books about buildings, whether cathedrals or skyscrapers. One day we were looking at a picture of a building designed by Renzo Piano and I reminded N. that he was one of the architects of the Centre Pompidou; N. shouted "Renzio Piano Building Workshop!" and began excitedly paging through a book on skyscrapers to the final page, an architect's rendering of the London Bridge Tower (apparently also derisively referred to as The Shard), upon which construction began in 2009. He loves making these kinds of connections.

A colleague asked me what exactly N. likes about cathedrals and old buildings, what draws him to this study. I found it difficult to answer because I am really not sure myself, and that is not the kind of thing he could articulate if asked. I think part of the appeal is taxonomic, as with his earlier (and ongoing) passions for construction vehicles and trains; that is, he seems to really love to learn categories and types. He can tell you whether a cathedral is Norman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, or Neo-Gothic, and he knows a cathedral's different parts, from nave to apse/chancel to transcept, etc. He also seems to enjoy the interplay between type and variation, in other words when a building has most of the features of one type, but departs from type in a few details. This is especially true in his daily drawings of buildings, the seemingly infinite variations of cathedrals, churches, factories, etc. he comes up with (photos of this fall's drawings coming in a future blog post). And I think he enjoys thinking about and trying to understand the idea of history. He's commented repeatedly that buildings that we think of as old were new when they were built. It is exhilarating to begin to grasp the scope of the past.

Throughout the fall, wherever we go, we have been looking at old buildings:

Train tracks leading to abandoned tobacco factories in our city. We walk among these factories regularly because N. is fascinated by them.

A bit of very old cobbled street near the old tobacco factories.

The entrance to the grand Art-Nouveau headquarters of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, built in 1929. This 22-story building was the tallest in the South when it was built, and it was designed by the architects who went on to build the Empire State Building. (Incidentally, it is now for sale!) Last year, the receptionist wouldn't let N. and me in the lobby to look at the Christmas tree set up there and made us look at it through the street windows instead. The lobby reeked of stale cigarette smoke.

Salem College, the oldest educational institution for women in the United States (1772). I think this building dates to the mid-19th century, but I can't remember for certain.

N. was very intrigued by these typical Old Salem windows that are neither Gothic nor Romanesque.

The underside of a modern bridge built in the style of the late eighteenth-century Moravian settlers of Old Salem. N. and I regularly argue (in fun) about whether it is old or modern.

Entrance to what is now the Sun Trust building in Durham, NC.

Duke University Chapel.

Another view of the Duke Chapel.

One of N.'s drawings of the Duke Chapel. (There is a cloister on the side that you can't see in the above photos.)

The American Tobacco campus, now redeveloped as office space. I like the mixture of buildings in this photo.

Court House in Durham.

A church in downtown Durham that N. liked.

The old Kress department store, downtown Durham.

The Library of Congress, Washington D.C. N. LOVED this! It was so fun to take him to it!


The Old Post Office, Washington D. C. Another one N. really loved. We went up into the clock tower for a great view of the city. (Architectural style: Richardson Romanesque)

Side-view of the Old Post Office.

The National Cathedral, Washington D.C.!!!! (Neo-Gothic)

Another view of the National Cathedral.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Purity of Speculation

In J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003), which I am teaching this week, the title character discusses experiments performed on apes in 1917. In one experiment to determine mental capacity, food is withheld from an ape named Sultan, a bunch of bananas are hung on a wire three meters above the ground in Sultan's pen, and three wooden crates are brought into the pen.
'Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one's thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought -- for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor? -- is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?' ....

'At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied....' (p. 72-73)
Such a poignant vision of what behaviorism looks like to its subjects as they must limit and reduce their thoughts to meet the low and limited expectations of their trainers! The account of Sultan's first "wrong" thoughts reminds me of one of my mom's methods of punishing misbehavior: we were told to "go to your room and think about it," and we later joked as a family that of course what we thought about during the brief banishment was anything but our actual transgression. Thoughts are wayward.

The experiment on Sultan is not meant to be a punishment; it is meant to measure what he knows, his powers of thinking. But he experiences it as punishment (What have I done?), as a withdrawal of affection (Why has he stopped liking me?), as a profound misunderstanding of his nature (What misconception does he have of me?). Given this account of the experience of behaviorism, I was so saddened by the recent light article in the New York Times about parents who apply Dog Whisperer tactics to their children as if they are merely animals to control. I don't know a thing about dogs, but I suspect Elizabeth Costello would find the use of such tactics on both dogs and children unjust.

I want both in my university classes and in my parenting not to create situations in which there is a single "right" thought or response, but to foster "the purity of speculation." Just as Elizabeth Costello calls for us to sympathize with Sultan, I want to sympathize with my students and with my son, to be open to all their ways of thinking.