Creating a corpse to work as a corps.
Doing arts-based professional development in lots of different places has presented one consistent, universal challenge: How can we explore complex, pedagogical ideas when our art-making materials must be simple enough to pass through airport security? While this is not a deeply critical concern, it does mean that adult students work with materials that have led to outdated “school art” (Efland, 1976) stereotypes being reinforced. I have seen too many hearts and rainbows made by default when grown-ups are frozen by child-oriented tools.
When confronted with those old limitations of markers, paper, and glue-sticks, I have used an Exquisite Corpseparlor game as an exercise for unpacking contemporary teaching and learning ideas with a wide range of professional development communities. The resulting outcome has been an increasing army of grownups who remember that playfulness still has an intellectual role in their serious work.
Exquisite Corpse was named by Surrealists in the early twentieth century as a working metaphor (and drinking game) for synthesizing playfulness and individual ideas with assigned structures and multiple voices. A single piece of paper is folded into three or four sections. A head, body with arms, legs, and feet is drawn or collaged onto each section and it is passed along so that each part is completed by a different person, and a final corpse or body is created. The flexibility of this simple artistic structure has provided a dynamic form for many professional development situations.
Pre-service, undergraduate teacher “corps of creative corpses”, Syracuse University.
I played Exquisite Corpseas a game with education students who were trying to let go of fears about creativity and picture making. The final corps of corpses, or body of bodies, was thrilling because each individual was off the hook for creating something perfect on their own. The emphasis moved from their individual abilities or perceived disabilities and toward their shared roles in the work. Each individual was hunting actively for the parts that they contributed to different bodies. They could not believe that they created something so unique in fifteen-short minutes. This set the stage for a semester of fearless explorations and new ownership of creativity in their future classrooms.
Critical Thinking Corps
While the Surrealists were using Exquisite Corpse as a drinking game, progressive educator John Dewey (1938) was urging school systems to slow down highly-scheduled and standardized school schedules to incorporate more time for contemplation so that learners could reflect on their play or work. Similarly, when I used this game as an exercise in reflective and critical thinking with elementary teachers and teaching artists, we slowed down the process and used it to reflect on a day of study in an art museum.
Veteran teacher and teaching artist “corps of critical corpses”, Parrish Art Museum.
The conversations that took place during each of the twenty-minute collage sections and the final critique were about frustrations teachers and teaching artists felt with school systems that did not allow them to work and play this deeply. Critical conversations emerged about using this as an instructional method for reading concepts, mathematical skills, and human ideals. The method became a possible tool for instruction, but being reminded about a slower pace and depth of thinking was even more exciting for these professionals who finished the day with a renewed determination to push back against efficient schedules and fight for more effective ways to use of learning time.
Communication and Collaboration Corps
Mixed “corps of communicating, collaborative corpses”, Habla Center for Language & Culture.
During summer institutes in Connecticut, Long Island, Florida, and Merida, Yucatan, the combination of participants was so diverse and there were so many individual needs to address, it became hard to invigorate everyone around any artistic method. At those times, Exquisite Corpse has been an artistic metaphor for examining our own identities and understanding the ways that we can communicate and collaborate in diverse learning communities. Whether it was due to the summer “school’s out” atmosphere, or to the intense commitment of teachers, artists, administrators, and cultural workers to figuring out new ways to improve their work, this approach always became a conversational celebration.
During each of these Exquisite Corpse sessions, folks sat around tables, swapping images and chatting about their work, they formed a vocabulary of shapes, metaphors, and symbols. Strangers found common ground. Buddies imitated each other or played off of differences. When we unfolded our final corpses and put them together into a corps of ideas, it was impossible to find a way to end a critique. So many connections to life, and work, and each other emerged, that we often needed to sit together at lunch or head off to a local pub to finish those conversations.
Teaching artists found parallel structures of the Exquisite Corpse in their disciplines: open-ended writing prompts for poets, object transformation for actors, theme variation for musicians. Teachers found a form for better supporting collaborative projects, explaining narrative processes, and modeling formulaic structures in science and in math. We emerged with a nimble method for tackling unfolding issues in our work. We emerged – minds and bodies linked – as a more determined critical, creative, communicative, and collaborative corps.
Laura Reeder is a teaching artist who interrogates systems of teaching, learning, and social justice through her artistic practice. She trains next generation teaching artists in the Art Education program at Massachusetts College of Art & Design (MassArt). She is completing research on Teaching Artistry as a Critical Community of Practice at Syracuse University and continues to advocate for social change through artistic work in national policy making. Laura keeps all of her passions alive by maintaining her teaching artistry in both Syracuse, NY and Boston, MA. Contact Laura
Also by Laura Reeder in ALT/space:
The Opposite of Anesthetic
I like to show my 80-year-old dancers examples of performances on YouTube in order to inspire them for the work we’re about to tackle. They are typically incredulous that they can see all that movement on my tiny iPhone screen and also of the opinion that “all those twists and turns are fine, but I’m not 25 any more like you!” (I am 66.)
I learned my choreographic technique from training with Mark Morris’s Dance for Parkinson’s format. The idea is to help my students feel like they are graceful, limber, and accomplished, even if they can’t stand up.
When Morris first thought about crafting dance classes for people with Parkinson’s Disease, he went back to his own choreography to see what he had done that might be possible for non-dancers to recreate. Seated dancers can convey a great deal of what the whole body can do (the mourners in a semi-cirlce in Morris’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” for example)—so I always start my dancers with chairs to make them feel secure, even if we end up standing behind them or moving away from them.
Building muscle memory in an older dancer takes time and patience. Students have to be able to imagine the move before they do it. I both show and tell the group what to do (speaking the instructions about a half-second before I demonstrate the step); I use motivating language to get them to try something new; I convey the sequence of a phrase (what comes first, second, or third); and I talk about the musicality of it (“this is a long, slow step so you can take your time and breathe here”). I then put the steps to music and indicate how they go together.
The Dance for Parkinsons training gives TAs tools that help to chunk up the phrases and teach them one at a time. My strategy is to evoke common images, like “picking up your grandchild,” “sweeping crumbs off the table,” or “stepping out of a bathtub” or (my personal favorite) “helicoptering your hand until the propeller falls off.” I teach it first, with no music, and then, as I play my iPhone or ask my accompanist to start on the downbeat “…and-a 5,6,7,8,” I lead the dancers through the phrase and count it out to supply the rhythm.
Most of my classes meet only once a week, which means that any changes I make in the choreography once I have set the dance have to be very simple. It’s hard enough to remember steps and sequences of movement when you’re 20—imagine how tough this is at 80. What I typically do is build a choreographic vocabulary made up of a few very distinct patterns. Then when I want to alter something or add a few nuances, my students are more likely to catch on. I find that the leaders in the group will go over the latest details with their companions during the week when they get together for coffee or a card game and this reinforces the changes.
They often want to discuss what is going to happen in the dance (as though they were ticking off items on a shopping list) before they actually do it, just to be sure they understood me. We’ll have a discussion about which moves come in which place and when they change. Then we’ll run through. I try not to stop them because I feel the sequence and build of a dance is something the dancer learns from doing over and over. Also, stopping is frustrating. Once they’re on a roll, I want the momentum to carry them!
In the video that follows, the dancers knew that I had studied with Alvin Ailey in the 1960s and had a feel for his choreographic style—several of them had seen “Revelations” when the professional touring company came to Philadelphia in recent years. I stripped down one of the songs in the suite and made this a dance that they could perform physically and which also meant a great deal to them spiritually.
In my work, I also look for songs that have the choreography built right in so that the dancers can sing the instructions themselves instead of listening to me. I was taught a lovely tune from Plum Village (a Zen retreat in France founded by Thich Nhat Hanh) that goes,
When I rise
Let me rise
Like a bird, joyfully.
And when I fall,
Let me fall,
Like a leaf
There are only 6 words here that I needed to create the dance: “rise,” “fall,” “bird,” “leaf,” “regret,” “joyfully.” As you can see in the video of one of my classes, not only do the words tell you what to do, but when you know the whole song, you can even perform it as a round, with one side of the room rising with the “bird” and the other side falling with the “leaf” simultaneously.
The amount of excitement and self-congratulation in the studio after accomplishing this is extraordinary. And it should be! I find that the joy, teamwork, and forgiveness for mistakes that go into the learning and performance of a dance mean more in later life when no one—students or teacher— takes anything for granted. We’re dancing; we’re entertaining; we’re having a wonderful time.
Judith Sachs spent her early adult years as an actor and dancer in New York; then switched directions to write about preventive healthcare and teach corporate executives how to pitch ideas with passion. After a hip replacement at 60, she decided she desperately needed to dance again and trained as a Dance for Parkinsons teacher with founding director David Leventhal. She has been part of this program in Philadelphia since it began and uses the class format in her own ANYONE CAN DANCE program, designed for older adults and those in wheelchairs and walkers. In addition, she teaches a Dance for Dementia class at an Alzheimer’s facility in New Jersey. Judith is a member of the Lifetime Arts Teaching Artist Roster. Visit her site or contact Judith.
Also by Judith Sachs in ALT/space:
The Birth of an Elder Dance Teacher
I listened quietly to another in-service presenter talk about project-based learning. This talk is everywhere these days at my school — the idea that learning happens best in authentic, cross-disciplinary situations designed around real-world problem solving. Education buzzwords flew by too fast for me to catch. My mind wandered back to the studio.
The ceramics studio has been a mad buzz of activity lately. In classes, my students are preparing one or two more pieces before we make final preparations for the winter art show. Outside of classes, student potters are making bowls for our annual Empty Bowls event. Working as a community, we will make over 800 bowls for a fundraising dinner in January. The full proceeds from the dinner will go to an organization that works with the homeless in our city.
There are few projects about which my students and I are as passionate as Empty Bowls. I believe that when one develops a talent, that talent comes with the responsibility to seek ways in which it can help someone else, or make our world a little better. This talent-responsibility narrative becomes part of my teaching script as soon as my students can throw a decent bowl. I don’t force them to make pots that they will give away at a fundraiser. But once I have them considering how their talents might fit into a bigger picture, it does not take much convincing for them to do so.
We work for hours, before school, after school, on weekends, with alumni and siblings and parents and friends. We take bisqued bowls to a church basement in the city, and glaze them alongside some of the homeless men for whom we are fundraising, before sharing a meal the students make from scratch. We solicit advanced students and local artists to donate work to a silent auction at the event. Seven seniors - all of whom have been involved with the project for all four years of school - serve as student chairs who guide most of the strategy and decision-making for the whole process.
As the speaker continued talking about new trends in education, I thought about last Friday’s workshop with the freshmen. On a special community and service day, groups of 20-30 freshmen come to the studio for one hour, to underglaze bowls and learn about the Empty Bowls process. I tell them that the bisqued bowls in front of them have been made by their peers. I show them how clay - prior to the bisque - can be recycled and used again and again. But after the first firing, those pots will be in the world for thousands of years. There’s no turning back. The marks these students make on the bowls will be part of pieces that will outlive them.
Most of these freshmen have not worked in the studio before. Many consider themselves ‘bad’ at art, and I don’t have enough time in a one-hour slot to significantly change that perception. Instead, after a brief introduction to Empty Bowls and a condensed version of the talent-responsibility script, we always just handed them brushes. My upperclassmen students and I watched as they fumbled through painting, and sighed at the awkwardly painted bowls left behind, adding gentle touch-ups so the pieces would appeal to our general audience of Empty Bowls guests.
Last Friday was the twentieth freshman workshop we’ve hosted, in six years of doing the Empty Bowls process. This time, I rehearsed a small but significant change to the script with my student chairs prior to the freshmen’s arrival. They liked it, so we proceeded.
This time, I told the freshmen that I didn’t expect them to have developed any talent in the studio yet. I told them that I hope they will figure out their talents as they go through school, always trying new things like what we were going to ask them to do today. We handed out sponges instead of brushes, and demonstrated how to dab on the underglaze instead of painting. It was foolproof. The freshmen were enthusiastic. My critical upperclassmen noted that the pieces looked so much better, no touch-ups needed. And we even had time at the end of the session to do some closing reflection.
Back in the cafeteria meeting space, I tried to focus on the presentation. With so many proposed changes to how we should teach, I often find myself feeling like a complete beginner. Experts at the podium propose radical changes (“design a whole unit around the zombie apocalypse!”) Yet, I wonder if what we do in the studio might already have some of the best practices of project-based learning. My students carefully consider process and product, and we work hands-on every day. We allow time for critique and revision, but we acknowledge that some choices are permanent. They write and speak about their work; they publicize and promote; they budget time and resources. My students’ future plans might not directly align to the pottery studio. Yet learning to create, to follow through on projects, to manage time, to evaluate work, and to apply one’s talents to big challenges like poverty and homelessness are skills I want them to be able to apply in whatever directions they might follow.
Small changes can have significant outcomes, and maybe much of this educational progress involves considering how we can simply tweak our process to make it more authentic. In the case of the freshman workshop, my message (‘develop a talent, then find ways to use it constructively’) was not aligning with the actual process (‘here’s a brush you’ve never used, I know you don’t know how to paint, but please paint a bowl that will last in the world for thousands of years’) I needed to acknowledge that the students were beginners, and to invite them into the process with more sensitivity. A subtle change - offering tools that met their talents at a very novice level - made all the difference.
With clay-splattered clothes and messy hands, and feeling like anything but an expert, this beginner is trying to find her way into a big discussion about how education is evolving. We need - I need - to acknowledge that teaching expertise is at the end of a long road that keeps getting longer as more theories and buzzwords emerge. In the meanwhile, my adjustments to my teaching process might seem small. Yet the simple, deliberate change of brush to sponge was significant to my students, to our studio, and to a big project that will culminate in a little over a month.
At an Open Studio over the Thanksgiving holiday, a few freshmen brought their parents to the studio and taught them how to use sponges to apply the glaze. These new experts had developed a talent and a way to share it. I couldn’t be happier with the results of a subtle change.
Our Empty Bowls event takes place on Martin Luther King Day - Monday, January 20, 2014. Cheer us on at mpemptybowls.com - or, if you’re local to southeastern Pennsylvania, come join us!
Kate Plows teaches ceramics and graphic design at the high school level in suburban Philadelphia. During summers, she is Assistant Director of the Blue Ridge Summer Institute for Young Artists (BLUR) in Virginia. Kate holds a Bachelor in Fine Arts in Drawing from St. Vincent College, and a Masters in Art Education from The University of the Arts. She is interested in the intersection of craft and technology, and exploring social justice through projects linked to the arts curriculum. Kate makes and occasionally exhibits functional pots. Blog: teachingcraft.wordpress.com
Also by Kate Plows in ALT/space:
A View from Somewhere
Considering Hands and Making
Worth the Mess
Of all of the courses that I teach, Dance Composition II has always been a class where, year after year, profound things occur. This course focuses on different forms of group choreography with an emphasis on the students creativity, movement invention and performance quality. At my institution this class takes place in the fall of one’s junior year. This is a point in students’ careers when they have finally gotten past the first two years of just figuring out the expectations of dance in college. It also seems to be the moment when they become aware that their college days are in fact numbered. Every year, students in this class show me that they have matured enough to be open to making drastic shifts in their artistry.
It’s about 11am on a Wednesday, late October. My composition class has been working on a choreography project for about the past hour. It’s a simple project really—they are choreographing duets. I ask them how things are going and the overwhelming response is: ‘This is hard.”
I hear this a lot from the dance majors in this class and it amuses me. I wonder (sometimes out loud) who told them or when did they decide that choreography was supposed to be easy?
This particular project is a duet, but there are some rules for how they should shape them. Each dancer must be absolutely essential to the choreography at all times. This could be done a number of ways—there could be partnering work, or their relationship to each other in the duet could be defined in such a way that it renders them essential, or focus or spacing could be altered to affect this goal. Each student must continually work at expanding their own movement vocabulary. Because there are only two dancers, they must have a clear relationship to each other, so the choreography can not be unison. There must be unity and variety between the two dancers phrasing, along with contrasting elements, such as dynamics, rhythm, and use of space. They have to consider transition and the overall sense of a beginning, middle and end of the work.
The students finish their first drafts of the duets and they prepare to show to each other their work. After each student shows their choreography, the rest of the class gives constructive feedback before I do. Because of their work in Composition in previous years and earlier in this semester, their feedback is really getting quite good. It is objective, well thought out and really intuitive. It makes me very happy that they are picking up on a lot of the same points that I would make.
After each student has shown their work, they take their list of feedback and begin to work on their revisions. In the beginning of the semester, when told they would have to revise a project, they act as if they are being punished—they make faces, grumble and mutter under their breath. At this point, they have gotten so used to it, that they just get to work. They have begun to realize that it is a very rare occasion when the choreography comes out phenomenally the first time.
Even though this class is a choreography class, the work has to be performed for each other. We focus a lot on how the works they create are performed, noting especially that a change in performance quality can change how the choreography is perceived by the audience. This work on students’ performance quality really helps to draw out their voice and their artistry.
Another aspect of the choreographic process that is stressed in this class is the continual expansion of one’s ‘movement vocabulary’ or the movement and language of that particular piece of choreography. It is in assignments where this is the focus that I also often hear “This is Hard!” This is at least the third course that the students have had that deals explicitly with this concept and at this point I think that they are really starting to grasp how the tools that have been provided to them can really help with the process of expanding their vocabulary. This expansion is evident in the work that they are producing. It is obvious to me that they are no longer regurgitating ‘steps’ that they learned in some dance technique class years ago. I can see that they are exploring and creating ‘new’ movements and they have created a language that is appropriate to the ‘intention’ of that piece of choreography.
It is the ‘perfect storm’ of these elements that comes together in this Composition course. Through their culmination of experiences, these students find their artistic voice and begin to hone and shape it. They are on the journey moving from pre-professional to dance artist.
Angela M. Gallo is Artistic Director of Sapphire Moon Dance Company and Associate Professor of Dance at Coker College. Performance highlights include: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland; Dance Theatre Workshop, White Wave Cool NY Festival, The Dancenow Downtown Festival, the Fringe Festival of Independent Artists (Toronto), the Piccolo Spoleto Festival and others. She has danced with numerous companies and has often been sought after as a guest choreographer and instructor. Angela holds an MFA in Dance from the University of Michigan and a BFA in Theater and Dance from Central Connecticut State University. Angela’s work is influenced by her dance and somatic training. firstname.lastname@example.org | www.sapphiremoondance.org
Also by Angela M. Gallo in ALT/space:
Exploring the Line, Part 2
Exploring the Line, Part 1
White-board crammed with (numbing) educational responsibilities.
Arts education philosopher and social activist, Maxine Greene often says, “the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic” as a way to remind us that art is often misunderstood as something purely decorative in our lives. In my years as a teaching artist, and as someone who trains teachers and teaching artists, this misunderstanding has emerged as a roadblock to using art in educational situations. Real feelings, ones that make our hearts beat harder, have become difficult to imagine in our classrooms for so many reasons.
Greene used that quote in 2007 to grapple out loud with the imaginative powers of terrorists who dreamed up and carried out their vision of an airplane as a weapon on September 11, 2001. I used that quote and story in a room full of slouching, exhausted, elementary school teachers during a professional development institute on Long Island, hoping for an enlightened response. We were beginning a year of collaborative work that would involve teaching artists co-designing and implementing arts-integrated methods in their classrooms.
“No surprises there!” said one of the teachers. The others laughed.
“Well, it’s no surprise that an imagination can dream up all kinds of good and bad stuff,” said another teacher, “our students come up with very imaginative ways to avoid the hard problems we give them. But, we don’t have the luxury of letting them come up with happy artsy solutions because we have real work to do.”
“Yup, no songs or dances are going to help my very imaginative students to settle down and be better readers. But, maybe if it is fun enough, it might stop them from drawing guns in the margins of their papers.” The first teacher was saying this amid nods of agreement.
My role in this institute was to help teachers and teaching artists work together to make more room for artistic thinking in their work. These teachers were dealing with new Common Core standards and teacher evaluation systems, and now they had been assigned by administrators to try this silly arts thing. They wanted less frivolous and sensitive activity, and more efficient ways to meet requirements. How could we address “guns in the margins” at the same time as story structure? How was I supposed to invigorate this inertia?
The teaching artists in the room had been engaged as sympathetic partners in this enterprise. But now, they were exchanging covert looks of concern. How could their deep-breathing exercises or dance tableaux be understood as anything less than playtime to these weary, wary teachers? The moment was packed with resistance. Teachers had their arms crossed. No artist could make their work easier with reflections, or songs, or performances.
I remembered Maxine Greene. The opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic. The opposite of numbness is feeling. Anesthetic is not used to alleviate pleasant feelings. It is used to numb pain. What if we used our aesthetic abilities to acknowledge pain and frustration instead of circumventing it? Could aesthetic or “artsy” learning be of greater value? Was there room for not-so-decorative, but deep and real feeling here?
With nothing to lose, we detonated a Syrian bomb in the middle of the room.