Approximately 2:30 am Monday, Driving from Atlanta to Louisville
Approximately 8:40 am, Arrive at Kentucky Juvenile Facility and begin unloading car
1st Young Man: Morning Ms. Allison!
Me: Morning Guys!
2nd Young Man: Can we help you with the equipment?
Me: Sure sweetie. I’ll bring the things in from the car and I’ll need you to take them on into the classroom. Y’all know how to set everything up, just be careful.
Group of Young Men: Ok! Yes, M’am!
(Another young man joins the group)
3rd Young Man: MS. ALLISON!!!
3rd young man: Where did you get that fit? It’s tight! If I give you some money would you get me some? Man, that is the bomb!
Me: Hang on guys, let’s talk after I finish getting everything out of the car.
(I leave the building heading back to my car. Immediately, I grab my phone and call my stepson who is home sick.)
Me: Sweetie, what’s a “fit”? One of the boys just said he loved my “fit” but I have no idea what he’s talking about.
Me: Ohhhhh. Okay, thanks sweetie.
(I re-enter the building.)
Me: So you like my fit guys? I got it from the flea market.
Young Men: Continue to talk to me about my fit as we set up the recording equipment.
For years, I was anemic. If it was anything less than 75 degrees outside I was freezing and I wore sweat suits all the time. My husband, at the time, finally got fed up with the Walmart sweats that I wore and took me to the local flea market. He insisted that if I was determined to wear them the least I could do was be fashionable. We bought thick sweat suits with hoods and some had stripes down the sides. I bought sneakers and some of them even matched the sweat suits. Finally I was warm! But, it never occurred to me to think of my clothes as a way to reach my young juvenile delinquents.
When the young men saw me in these sweat suits, it was as if I’d won the “cool points” lottery. They loved making music and recording CDs with me but seeing me in these hooded sweat suits somehow changed their perception of how they could interact with me. They began to share things about their “outside” lives in ways that they never did before. They always wanted to stay and play on the equipment but now they also wanted to stay and talk to me. It was an eye opening experience for me to say the least.
After that experience I began to pay more attention to the outer me that my students meet. Many times, I’d dress to be taken seriously as a professional for the principal and teacher but realized that that could be a barrier in getting younger people to trust me enough to make art with me. Again, I began looking for common ground and this is where I’ve found it for me. It’s all in the fit.
When I’m working in a middle school or high school, I make sure that the first day I share my love of shoes. Whether it’s my zebra striped boots or my pink plaid peep toes, the teenage girls LOVE them. They talk to me because they want to know where I shop. They stop me in hallways to chat about shoes and ask when I’m coming to their class. They want to know what I do and it allows me to begin a dialogue. I can tell the difference in their initial perceptions of me because sometimes my arthritis flares up and I can’t wear my high heels and then it seems that I have to work harder for their acceptance because they perceive me as old and out of touch.
Sometimes, my clothes actually become part of my lesson plan. Just recently, while teaching an 8th grade unit on the ancient civilizations of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai, I wore a caftan with an Adinkra symbol of Sankofa printed front and back. It’s the image of a bird flying backward with an egg in its mouth. It means “to go back and get it”, the “it” being wisdom. The students and I were able to talk about the Ghanaian traditions of using fabric and symbols to communicate and we did an art project that allowed them to create their own Adinkra inspired fabrics. As we worked, we began to speculate about enslaved Africans continuing the traditions here in the US during slavery and what meaning that could possibly have held.
Those young men crossed my mind again as I chose to wear all African clothing while teaching 3rd and 4th graders in a remote area of Alabama. The children asked me if I was from Africa, why did I wear those clothes, what was that in my hair (beads), etc. In Alabama, I didn’t choose to use my clothing in a direct lesson this time, but I wanted to subtly expose them to the idea that people who dress or look differently that you are not the enemy. They can love you and be nice, they just look different. If not for that long ago experience in a Kentucky juvenile facility, I would never have thought to use my clothing choices as a way of finding common ground in the classroom. Now, in addition to my planning time, I always spend time looking for the perfect fit.
Allison Upshaw is also known as “MzOpera”, and for the last 13 years she’s worked as a Performing Arts Integration Consultant/ Teaching Artist in AL, AR, GA, TN and SC. Her background includes two degrees in Voice Performance from Oberlin Conservatory and Louisiana State University, a union card from the Actor’s Equity Association, years of studying African influenced dance, and a stint as a college instructor of voice and acting. Allison provides residencies, workshops and professional development in arts integration. In 2012, she had the privilege of being selected to present at the 1st International Teaching Artist Conference in Oslo, Norway.
Also by Allison Upshaw in ALT/space:
Finding Common Ground
An entire class was discussing the old places of their town, its geography and the changes they had observed there in their lifetimes. Some were arguing with each other about directions and other minute details of the city. Students were also drawing the landscape of their city on mount boards or creating 3D models.
This was my latest experiment which focused on getting to know about how these students’ city looked when it was young. I wanted them to visualize the past. One common factor I have noticed while working with students for my PhD research work is that their notion of the past is somewhat related only to the kings and wars. They seem to have never experienced history as an interesting story; the past is always quite distant from their personal experiences and hence history becomes merely a list of events with dates to remember.
Being an artist and an archaeologist I decided to take the liberty of helping these children think more creatively and imaginatively about their past. After all, art is a game of how you imagine and what you see and create. So I decided to see if I could help these students find the art of time. I wanted them to be able to visualize and feel how time acts as its own artistic force, rendering change.
I recently carried out this experiment at Mahatma Gandhi High School in Bandra (Mumbai), for age 12-13 students. The experiment was initially planned in two parts.
I went to this school three times. Every time I went I could sense that students were not so interested. They were bored and resistant to listen to the concept of history, which was by their point of view, useless. Every time I went to the school I hoped I would finally be able to connect with my students and that they might show some interest in what was going on. This hope vanished when I told them about the research project. They clearly did not like it; it was yet one more assignment for them for which they had to study. I gave them one month to gather the stories about ‘old Bandra’. I came back home very nervous. By then I had lost all hopes of getting any good results.
One month later I returned to the school. I was really not very enthusiastic to go because the students’ previous responses had been so negative. When I reached the school the class teacher handed over the students’ projects. As I went through all of them, I realized that the personal touch was missing totally. Instead of writing about their parents’/grandparents’ memories/stories they had simply collected information from the internet. It was then that I realized they had not visualized the past of their city at all. Now it was a challenge for me.
I decided to make this experiment more interactive and interesting. I told them that they would be making a model, illustration or map of their city in their grandparents’ times based on the memories and stories they had gathered. I divided students in nine groups, five or six students in each. Each group was given a full imperial size mount board and asked to make model/map/illustration of ‘old Bandra’. They could choose any format that they liked.
In the beginning students approached me so they could refer to their written projects. I decided not to give them back and instead told them to remember and visualize what they had learnt while gathering the information. Initially students were blank, but they gradually started getting the hang of it. After some time they were totally charged up and the results were amazing! At this point, it was clear that they could connect themselves to changing landscapes that time has drawn on the canvas of history.
Asking them to collect the stories was clearly not enough to help them visualize the bygone era; the moment I asked them to create a model, illustration or map of the information they had gathered, I could see the sense of involvement in them. I realized that visualization of a story into a form is much more difficult for the students than I thought. The prevalent education system only trains them to follow rather than to think, imagine and visualize. I need to take this into consideration and conduct my future experiments in such a way that the students will at least try to incorporate their thinking abilities and will come out with more and more original and innovative ideas on their own.
After completing graduation in sculpture from Sir.J.J.School of Art, Mumbai (India), Anagha Bhat did masters in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology and now is perusing her doctoral research at the Department of Archaeology, Deccan College PGRI, Pune (India). Through her research, she is trying to combine art and archaeology together for teaching students about cultural processes. She believes this will lead to formation of a bond between the students and their environment and further to the sustainable preservation of heritage. She has been awarded ‘Jawaharlal Nehru Scholarship’ for the same. She works as a freelance educator, conducts various lectures and workshops at schools and art colleges. Contact Anagha at firstname.lastname@example.org or visitwww.anagha2102.blogspot.in
Also by Anagha Bhat in ALT/space:
Language Beyond Words and History Beyond Text
The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died, a quote by Oscar Wilde, frames Katherine’s self-portrait, one of the many Pop Portraits that line the hallway on the fifth floor at the High School of Fashion Industries in New York City. In The Picture of Katherine Punteil she writes,
“Sylvia Plath, an American poet, once said, “I know pretty much what I like and dislike; but please don’t ask me who I am.” My self-portrait creates this illusion and mystical feel of the unknown. Its different patterns and bold contrasting colors appear messy, something one may see in a dream or hallucination. My self-portrait is simply not real; my portrait has an unreal emotion, similar to Dorian’s which was the objective of the project in Dr. Sieunarine’s studio class.”
I read the preface to the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in class where one of Wilde’s most famous lines “All art is quite useless,” is written. From Wilde’s perspective, art’s only decided feature should be beauty; never should art strive to make a moral, spiritual, or political statement, and so Wilde believed that art is entirely ‘useless’ if its sole purpose is not to project beauty, like Dorian’s portrait. Thus, I wanted the students to represent youthful beauty in their portraits by looking through the mirror of their souls rather than through the mirrors in the closet. As we discussed beauty and uselessness of art, I continued to read the preface of the book in class.
“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; Preface.
I have always been bewitched and fascinated with Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The astuteness of the parody of life attracted me to the book, coupled with the innate radicalism with reference to beauty and youth, life and the purpose of art. I thought it would be a great idea to make connections with Dorian’s portrait since we are currently studying Portraiture in my 10th grade painting class. The objective of the project was painting self-portraits, and since one of the novel’s themes glorifies art, beauty and eternal youth as personified through Dorian’s painted portrait, what better way to charm the students to paint youthful portraits of themselves? And, at the same time give them something new to think about within the frames of portraiture. I wanted the students to be both the painter and the sitter - to expose the secrets of their souls.
“…every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; Page 7.
At this stage, I wanted to challenge the students’ conventional perception of beauty and portrait painting; they often overtly complain of the mundane method of looking into a mirror and drawing themselves or having to sit for a partner, and then critically defame their drawings as being ‘ugly’. We brainstormed as a class to find alternative ways of replacing realistic portraits and came up with Pop portraits based on Roy Lichtenstein. Their assignment was to capture a glimpse into their youthful beauty like Dorian Gray’s portrait but using Lichtenstein style of brightly beckoning colored Pop portraits with inserted messages. In conjunction with the portraits the students had to write an essay titled: The Picture of (insert their name) and write a quote to represent their portraits (not necessarily from Oscar Wilde).
The finished portraits with their captions reflect Wilde’s statement that art should serve no purpose but beauty. While Criselle agreed with Wilde in the caption of her Pop Portrait: The Creation of Beauty is Art, Katherine however, disagreed with her, Wilde and society (in her essay), which she believes propels the saying, “All art is quite useless.” She vehemently believes that:
Art is life, which indicates art is everything. There are many forms of art such as: religion, or the way someone solves a mathematic equation, or yet simply the way someone breathes. So why can’t painting or sculpting be considered a useful art? Society puts this mental, robotic mindset into our generation and we are forced to do things in order to survive. You must be an accountant, you must be a lawyer, and you must go to school. It shouldn’t be that way for any human in this universe filled with unknowns.
Talking of the unknown, Karla’s pop portrait asks the passerby “Hey, Do you even know where you are going? Because I don’t.” This speaks again of Katherine’s unknown. Keya’s, Art is Life also seems connected to Katherine’s opening statement, but Keya believes that life is what we do by living pieces of it everyday like a puzzle, and then we put those pieces together, so art is life. Francesca’s portrait reflects that puzzle neatly fitted together. Alexander’s political statement, “Freedom is what we believe in” deflects Wilde’s projection of art and beauty, but his work becomes useful for his message, since he believes that we should be free to express ourselves through art. The innocent beauty in Jennifer’s portrait takes me back to the beauty of Dorian Gray’s portrait.
The Pop Portraits that line the fifth floor of The High School of Fashion elicit raving compliments of beauty from the passersby. While some of the students and Wilde believed that beauty is the deciding feature in art, some still assert that the usefulness or uselessness of art lies in the eye of the beholder.
Androneth A. Sieunarine attended Brooklyn College where she graduated with a Bachelors degree in Studio Art /Art History, a Masters in Art Education and a Doctorate in Art Education from Columbia University. She is the curator and arts coordinator for New York City Art Teachers Association and a delegate for New York State Art Teachers Association. As painter and a cultural researcher Androneth teachers visual arts at The High School of Fashion Industries in New York City.
Also by Androneth Anu Sieunarine in ALT/space:
Bicycles in Studio 529
The Children of Abentenim
From Ghana to New York: Forming Art Communities
Has slavery ended?
That was the opening question for the most recent unit of inquiry in the middle school Humanities department at my school, the American International School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over lunch one day I had a conversation with the grade eight humanities teacher about his Modern Day Slavery unit. It was a topic that was bigger then he had imagined and he felt that the way the students demonstrate their understanding needed to go beyond a simple report or a PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote or any number of other common presentation tools.
My colleague introduced the question at the end of last year to segue between the topic of legal slavery in the U.S. and the modern era of slavery. He could have ended his study of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, as is often the case, but living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he knew that the answer was much more complex. This year he wanted to go further, but he was struggling with exactly how.
I’m the theater teacher and have a background in developing drama units across the curriculum so I asked, “What if?” What if instead of a poster or a PowerPoint, students devised a theater piece to demonstrate that they understood modern day slavery?
There was silence for a moment.
I had been down this road before. Arts integration is a fantastic idea as long as it doesn’t require any more work and doesn’t disrupt the pacing of the core curriculum. More than once I was told that a class didn’t need any more drama, because they had already done skits.
“You mean like put on a play?” he asked.
“Well, not exactly a play like you might be thinking of, but something theatrical.”
Up to this point in my career I had incorporated drama into a variety of classes and situations; usually the topics were more academic or meant to enrich the experience, but I had never worked on a piece with so serious a topic.
“So how would that work?” my would-be-collaborator asked.
Having been here for just over a year I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a history of arts integration using the arts specialists to take the lead.
“I’m not sure. But I have some ideas.”
I went back to the magic “if”: What if they took the research that they were gathering in humanities and brought it to drama class? What if I came into his classroom and co-taught a few lessons with him? What if we could get the students to devise a piece of theater that would not only incorporate what they learned about modern day slavery but also support our school mission of working towards a “just and sustainable society”? What if I could tie it together with Augusto Boal, Frantic Assembly, Living Theater, and other techniques of theater creation? What if….?
There was another pause. I had probably said too much. Was too eager.
“You would have to lead that. I’ve done skits before, but not like what you’re talking about.”
“Are you interested in trying to make it work?”
“Do you think the kids would go for it?”
Here was an opportunity, an opening. This might be a collaborator who could put aside ego, I thought, someone who is willing to accept ambiguity and step outside of his expertise, who is ready to work as an equal in the classroom. Finding the right collaborator takes time but when you find the right one the possibilities are endless.
And that lunch conversation is how the Grade 8 Humanities and Drama departments embarked on a multi-week experiment: melding traditional humanities topics and research methods with experimental, movement-based, devised, social justice theater. At the start we had no idea what we would end up with, but I knew I had a collaborator who was willing give it a try.
Jeff Redman is the middle school drama teacher at American International School Dhaka, Bangladesh. He founded the Ivey Award winning Workhouse Theatre Company in Minneapolis where he served as Artistic Director for six years. Jeff leads workshops for educators and was invited to present his workshop, Injecting Drama! at the NESA conference in Athens, Greece. He holds a B.S in Theater and M.A. in teaching. Jeff is currently working on connecting ex-pat students to local Bangladeshi artists.
Last time I was teaching at the prison, the writer I was working with showed me a meticulous list of the 98 poems he had written. “All my poems are dark,” he said. He read me three of the ones he had gotten published; they traced the scars on his body and mind through an absent, addicted mother and her abusive surrogate: foster care. They described the mental illness that works against a brilliant, eager mind and the numb no man’s land of psychotropic intervention that brings some silence if not relief.
Since it was a one-on-one meeting, I asked the writer what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to write something different. Poem 99—a sliver of light, maybe even hope. The problem, he explained, is that he lacked the material and attending emotion to speak of anything other than pain and loss. I thought back to the impromptu memorial service we had a few years ago for the man named Bumpz. No one in class knew him very well, but a few writers felt the need to honor his life—which had ended that morning of “natural causes”—with some thoughts on paper.
In the discussion on death and dying in prison, someone had said, “We only write when we are sad or angry.” I knew this man’s comment was worth remembering—that it was telling me something I needed to know as a teacher about the why and the what of his experience as a poet. But, in my distraction, I managed to scribble it into my notebook incorrectly; in my notebook I scrawled, “We only right when we are sad or angry.” When I got home, and saw my transcription error, I realized my mis-quote was telling me something I needed to know as well—something about the way well-intentioned audiences read the work of incarcerated writers, something about what we expect to hear from men and women behind bars.
So I have the post-it note of my mis-quote next to my desk. It helps me remember that there is a script of sorts for prison writing that expects, and inadvertently encourages, stories about loss, pain, poverty, absence—sadness and anger. These stories are important. And need to be born, both to the writer and to their communities inside and outside the prison. But other stories need to be born as well: stories of everyday minutes, pet lizards, kid memories, and small bits of laughter that speak back to the unrelenting chaos of life in prison.
I asked the Writer of 98 Dark Poems if anything good had ever happened to him. First he said no, then he said yes. And wrote for twenty minutes. And smiled at what he had found. And read aloud with shoulders back. Then seemed worried that Poem 99 might negate some of the legitimate horror of Poems 1-98. I promised him it did not. I promised him that turning on a flashlight in a dark room hurts our eyes, both when it flicks on and when it flicks off. Flashes of light can make the darkness darker. But flashes of light also humanize, connect us; they give us cause to keep our eyes open, even when it seems there is nothing to see.
Working with this writer reminds me that sometimes art making is about calling out the light—digging, digging, digging to find it. Not to placate, cover-up, dismiss, or feign salvation. But because light is there. And it feels good to be warmed by it, at least for a minute.
Anna Plemons is a guest teaching artist at California State Prison-Sacramento, where she works with groups of writers under the bureaucratic umbrellas of mental health services, inmate self-help programs, and protective custody. She is also a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Washington State University where her primary research interests revolve around teaching and writing in prison, and the complications and implications of such work. Contact Anna
Also by Anna Plemons in ALT/space:
The Teacher’s Chair
The Worst Teacher Ever
Working in Impossible Places