February 10th, 2014

Creative Listening | Elise May

In many classrooms sitting still and being quiet is the expectation but, to me, it is the death of a class. Certainly, there are times when I need my students to engage in listening behavior, but the key word here is ‘engage’.  Hearing is easy – listening takes engagement and practice.

Recently, I was teaching a storytelling unit to a class of third grade students.  Each student had to retell a folktale in a minute.  I needed to hear all their stories as a baseline.  To try to keep them engaged as listeners, I gave them each a simple rubric to fill out; they were to tally how many storytellers they could hear, understand, smiled, etc. It quickly became apparent that these adorable children weren’t listening to each other.

Some would randomly check boxes on the rubric, while others creatively doodled.  Some started off with good intentions but, after the third or fourth storyteller, would start drifting off.  And there were over 25 storytellers in each class!  As it became increasingly apparent that these children had no idea how to engage a live audience, I shortened the time each child had for their initial presentation.  I was there to teach these students the art of oral storytelling. I realized I couldn’t do this without first working on listening skills.

I needed a plan. I had to get the students invested in each other’s stories.  I separated the class into groups of four or five.  Each group had to learn all of their stories.  The narrator for each story had to direct a set of three tableaux illustrating the beginning, middle and end of their folktale.  All of the students in the group had to be involved in all the tableaux, even if they were part of the scenery.


All of a sudden, creative juices were flowing.

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December 10th, 2013

Exquisite Corps(e) | Laura Reeder


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 While this is not a deeply critical concern, it does mean that adult students work with materials that have led to outdated “school art” (Efland, 1976) stereotypes being reinforced.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.

Creativity Corps


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


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October 15th, 2013

Math Journal Graffiti | David Rufo

In the 1940s photographer Helen Levitt went to Spanish Harlem to document children’s street drawings made of chalk on asphalt, concrete, and stone. In his essay “Children as Visionaries,” Robert Coles described the children as feeling “impelled to make their various marks” on a world “whose children still had some visual independence” [1]. I thought of these scrawled markings and bygone messages as I stumbled upon a crate of old student math workbooks.

I have always been interested in the marks people make: the caves of Lascaux with their galloping sepia and ebony herds, to the libidinous Pompeian inscriptions, and more recently, the cryptic musings of American artists such as Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The marking in the workbooks struck me as being made by children who were searching for some type of visual and expressionistic independence in the midst of institutionalized conventions and constraints. They enacted a hidden graffiti within pages normally reserved for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. American schools have become rife with rules, routines, and rituals, which over time become entrenched within the culture of schools establishing narrow and constrictive frameworks that impede creative potential.

Seven years ago when I had the group of students who made these marks, I was just beginning to wrestle with questions about student agency in the classroom and how that agency informed pedagogical practices, especially in the area of creativity. Since that time my classroom practices have gone through a number transformations and iterations, eventually becoming a space where my students had complete ownership and were free to mark the walls and tables, paint the furniture, or suspend their creations on bits of string or wire from the ceiling.

What I find so intriguing about the early markings is that they were created surreptitiously. Years ago my classroom was a much more restrictive environment. Although the workbooks had the students’ names inscribed on the covers and were kept in their cubbies, they were not the students’ property to do with as they wished. The expectation was that the workbooks were only to be used for math-specific purposes. But the creativity of children is persistent. While doing math, my students also drew symbols of stars, hearts, and smiley faces. They created battle scenes, humorous figures, and abstract pictures. Edges were decorated, pages were punctured, text was crossed out and illustrations obliterated. As with the children who inhabited Spanish Harlem in the early 1940s, it is evident that my students also felt impelled to make their marks upon the world, even if that world was limited to a few pages in a math workbook.

[1] Levitt, H. & Coles, R. (2002). In the street: Chalk drawings and messages, New York City, 1938-1948. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


David Rufo is an artist/teacher/researcher working on his PhD at Syracuse University in Art Education. With seventeen years experience as a general classroom fourth grade teacher, David’s current research interest is the self-initiated creativity of children in a child-centered environment. In addition to being a full-time teacher, David is also an adjunct instructor at Syracuse University where he has created and taught a course titled, Art Educators as Contemporary Artists. His most recent article titled, “Building Forts and Drawing on Walls: Fostering Student Initiated Creativity Inside and Outside the Elementary Classroom,” was published in the May 2012 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Art Education. His current paintings incorporate watercolor, ink, and antique letterpress to examine children’s literature. Contact David

Also by David Rufo in ALT/space:
Wolfgang Laib, Fourth Graders, and the Openness of the Artistic Process
Swarming Toward Creativity
When Checking Out is Checking In 
Technique Schmechnique: Why Kids Don’t Need to Be Taught How to Use a Paintbrush
Masking Tape: The Artist’s Urge to Wrap
Colored Ice: A Child’s Self-Initiated Foray into Ephemeral Art
Drawing on Tabletops
Ophelia’s Fort
Paint Bomb Girls

October 1st, 2013

The Delicious Math of Comedy | Holly Adams

She enters, pauses, then turns and walks stage right, and Inspector Dreyfus leaps out. She stops. “Why didn’t that work?”

“You have to count to three. A full count. That was just a bit too long, and I think ‘M’ (the boy playing Dreyfus) wasn’t sure when to jump out.”

“Yeah, I thought I was supposed to jump, but you were still there,” the boy adds.

“So, it goes ‘step-think -go, walk 2,3”, then the upstage-right one is the second set?” The girl (‘B’) playing Inspector Clouseau tilts her head, thinking.

“The first grab/miss should be just under three seconds, then three steps, the pause straighten turn go,” I reply.

“Because that’s a three, then there’s the middle one, with the lasso…which is the third one!”


“So,”chimes in M, “I have to go twice as fast to get to the other opening for the pounce.”

“That would be awesome,” I nod.

Image via chowdaheads.blogspot.ca

They go at it again, the above math-like jargon making complete sense to them, and this time, Dreyfus leaps just as Clouseau takes a step stage right, then a moment later, he leaps out again, just as Clouseau has turned toward center stage, then finally he and his lasso erupt out of the center stage…just as Clouseau miraculously had to tie her shoe, and another character is captured.

We are on the cusp of the perfect math, because comedy relies on math—the  number of builds/attempts have to be odd, the beats have to be perfectly shorter or longer than the timing of real life, and the rate of acceleration or deceleration has to be perfect. The length of pauses, of suspension, of delivery…there are often many comic options, but for each option, the pattern is rigid. It’s almost like revealing the flawless beauty of a gemstone—the math of the cut has to be perfect.

They have practiced the routine several times now, sensing the places to speed up, noticing the places where it is almost right. “Holly, this part—what could we do to make it funnier?”

“Well, it’s the second section, so start the third beat sooner—cut a teensy bit off that second moment— and stre-e-etch it out to the last possible second, but don’t have the TOTAL time be any longer.”

“Just beat three,” nods B.

“Yes, and inhale as much as you can on that beat-it creates suspense, because you are suspending the relaxing breath. Then the exhale is the ‘GO’.”

Both youth (they are in middle school) nod and reply, “Ahhhhhoh” in that arc-ing sound that shows that the pebble has landed, the combination worked, the light has clicked on. They happily run up to the stage, and begin it again. Unable to help themselves, the other cast members and assistants, all busy with their own tasks, turn to look…because this time it is perfect. The actors are fast and furious, but the characters are relaxed and nonchalant, seemingly completely unaware of anything but the now, the mathematics of timing so perfect you can’t see it. And..the lasso! The group bursts into laughter and a smattering of applause, and the sweating, panting M and B look at each other and grin. They run up to me, out of breath and flushed with happiness.

“Holly, can we put in more gags?”

imageArtistic Director of Shearwater Productions, Holly Adams is a long time mask maker, stage combat choreographer, and performer with a focus on physical theatre styles. Holly also loves being a teaching artist! Whether she is giving a master class in NYC or at a college, or creating arts-a-the-core inquiry based curricula for elementary and high schools, she is loving every minute of it. She is the recipient of ATA’s Teaching Artist Service to the Field award for 2009-2010,a member of APA, Ed Bloggers, and a board member for NYSTEA. An interview with Holly is here

Also in ALT/space by Holly Adams:
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
A Paradigm of Practice
On Teaching Intimacy
Working with Children on the Asperger-Autism Spectrum
Rigor and Joy
Don’t Stop Believing

May 28th, 2013

A Paradigm of Practice | Holly Adams

Many people of late have asked me about my own history as a teaching artist, when I began, who shaped my initial thinking, what were my first forays into this dynamic field. Without question, my practice continues to change and grow as I strive to learn from colleagues, mentors, writings by Teaching Artists here on ALT/space and elsewhere, workshops, and the groups with whom I work.

However, my core frame, my nutrient-rich context into which the seeds of all things arts/education/community are sown, is a gift from my mother, Barbara Lucia Adams.

Let me quote her. “I had a passion for theatre, but more importantly, I saw what it could do. I could see theatre was beyond just doing the plays, that it impacted people in their everyday lives, that it was pretty magical and powerful. I saw that even when I was in high school. So I decided I wanted to teach theatre.”


My mother, a passionate, delightful, creative and dare I say somewhat mischievous person, got her Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre (with an emphasis on Children’s Theatre), with the additional majors of English and Psychology, although she says, “It wasn’t really like it sounds; some of the English and Theatre classes counted for both.” She also got a minor in Education and became certified to teach high school Theatre and English, and, at first, taught creative drama with 6-12 year olds for a summer program in Sterling, Illinois.

In truth, her own mother was an accomplished pianist (and quite the rabble rouser in her youth) who returned to teaching kindergarten when she was widowed. My mother was nine years old at the time, so the idea that arts and teaching, change, hard work and delight all intersect was a part of her own growing-up.


My mother again: “Then I decided to get my Masters in Social Work so I could work outside the confines of an educational curriculum.” So she did, having to justify in an interview why and how an undergraduate degree in Theatre prepared her to even enroll in an advanced degree in Social Work, let alone become an excellent social worker. She then got accredited by NASW, and licensed in New York State as a clinical social worker.

Into this context, I was born.

The mother I knew directed community theatre plays, made puppets and did shows in hospitals for very sick children, developed a use for creative drama and puppets in her practice at a time when the phrases ‘Play Therapy’ and ‘Drama Therapy’ did not exist, as the fields were so very new.  She worked with youth in juvenile detention and residency centers.  She worked with severely traumatized children, children in foster care, civil rights activists, the list goes on. She was about taking purposeful actions of empowerment and healing, always with a sense of social justice and social well-being as an intricate part of emotional and physical wellness; her practice was always activist as well as compassionate, often humorous, and taking no guff. Although retired, she is still a force to be reckoned with, volunteering for projects that unify arts, community, and the well-being of children.



Is it any wonder that I believe the arts are how we process our lives, our most powerful tool and matrix for discovery and transformation—of self, other, and community, of paradigm and process, of social structures and values? I believe that art is how we really connect to, process and understand our world, each other, our communities, our learning, our living, and our dying. Art has the power to make us think and make us invest emotionally.  Making art together makes meaningful change, and I am one piece of the conduit.

This paradigm has informed my seeking and growth as well as my practice. It’s not that I ‘bring’ these ideas into a classroom, group meeting, arts activist project, clown therapy program, script or stage — they are where I come from. 

Thanks, mom.

imageArtistic Director of Shearwater Productions, Holly Adams is a long time mask maker, stage combat choreographer, and performer with a focus on physical theatre styles. Holly also loves being a teaching artist! Whether she is giving a master class in NYC or at a college, or creating arts-a-the-core inquiry based curricula for elementary and high schools, she is loving every minute of it. She is the recipient of ATA’s Teaching Artist Service to the Field award for 2009-2010,a member of APA, Ed Bloggers, and a board member for NYSTEA. An interview with Holly is here

Also in ALT/space by Holly Adams:
On Teaching Intimacy
Working with Children on the Asperger-Autism Spectrum
Rigor and Joy
Don’t Stop Believing

In this space, Teaching Artist correspondents from around the U.S. and the world bring you stories of their work at the crossroads of art and learning. ALT/space is a project of the Teaching Artist Journal, a peer reviewed print and online quarterly that serves as a voice, forum and resource for teaching artists and all those working at the intersection of art and learning. Individual online subscriptions of the TAJ print journal gives you access to a very useful, easy to access, 55-issue archive--the only such archive of its kind.