During Week 3 the pace accelerated exponentially. All those profs who were non-committal on the first day of classes had heard good things about us during Week 1, and then scrambled to make plans to bring their classes into the gallery during Week 2, and suddenly we went from slow and disappointing attendance to being really over-full…
Our vision for Week 3 was fuzzy – we had scrapped both the plans for Weeks 2 & 3, and were moving forward one day at a time. Numerous classes had asked for very specific workshops, and we had decided to schedule 2 screen-printing days at the end of the week, one open to the public and one with a group from Community High. This week felt really full of complex planning. Our decision to split the classes and each lead 1-2 instead of trying to collaborate on every single one of these things was good, as it allowed us enough time to actually get things done rather than planning in every single moment of our free time, as it surely would have been if we decided to debate the merits of every single game and exercise. Consequently, I do not have many notes from Weeks 3-4, and memory got pretty fuzzy too. So this report may become more sparse, but you may not even notice because eventually we repeated many of our successful exercises. On the other hand, we got more pics of action-oriented exercises – you will notice that we feel a lot more successful as we finally have some students to work with!
Sep 16: If I remember correctly, no one showed up at all to this session, and we probably spent the first hour just talking shit about the students who seemed to lack even the slightest curiosity about our program…
After they got tired of that Emily, Erin, and Mat worked super-hard to make a banner and a bunch of sashes that said “Water is Life!” to give to people at the next days Appalachian Trail anti-MVP rally. I was pretty burned out from many hours preparing meticulously for these sessions that no one was showing up to, and working hard on the Corporate Person, and so I decided to take a nap. They really cranked them out though – I was impressed by their dedication! In retrospect, I think this extra effort made a big positive impact on how students perceived us – at least the core group of interested students were really impressed by our work ethic, creativity, and commitment and they began attending our events more regularly.
Sep 17: The Anti-MVP rally was brief, small, and not really noteworthy. But we got this nice photo op!
Sep 19: Again no one showed up at the beginning of our Think Tank, but a little later a civil society class called Advocating for the Arts visited. We took them into the big gallery and had a lengthy discussion about community art and collaborative art.
This was followed by an Interpretive Discussion of The True Cost of Coal graphic. This, one of the primary building blocks of our techniques as picture-pop-educators, is just a more elaborate version of the Problem-Posing that was the foundation of Freire’s “culture circles,” where illiterate peasants used pictures to prompt discussions. There are countless variations to this exercise, and it can be adapted to almost any scale. In its simplest form, it involves several groups of 3-6, gathered around a poster or banner, and instructions to each group to look at a different part of the graphic and to discuss elicitive questions such as:
What do you see? (describe the scene, identify characters, symbols, metaphors)
What do you think? (guess at possible meaning, consider options, discuss)
What to you wonder? (how is it connected to other scenes? why?)
What do you see? think? wonder? is such a great set of questions because they work for 4th graders and for 40-year-olds! But depending on context and learning goals, sometimes each group can get more specific questions about their scene, or we can ask questions that point out critical themes. We did some version of this activity a few times during Weeks 3-4, and each one was tweaked a little depending on the needs of the class.
So after giving a little introduction and some instructions, we gave the groups about 10-20 minutes to discuss, and then each group (or just a representative) took a turn sharing what they discussed. We filled in a few details, asked some questions, and it fairly naturally became an emergent yet highly didactic conversation. Sometimes it is necessary to ask questions again during the report-back phase as well. Especially if you are crunched for time and you want to encourage participants to weave together a fairly comprehensive and cohesive story of one of the major graphics, for example, you may want to ask them to identify “Setting, Characters, Symbols, Relationships,” and ask questions like “What is the dominant feeling in your scene?” or “What are the lessons learned in this scene?”
Sep 20: We attended the Gallery Director’s lecture to the “Elder Scholars” (a cute gaggle of retirees who come to a lecture and lunch at the cafeteria once a week). It was here that I began to realize how very hip it has become to host participatory art exhibits (Talia has organized about half a dozen in the last few years), and it was here that I learned of her fondness for her “Co-Laboratory” vision of the gallery of the future. I was impressed, I think she has good taste in art.
And later in the evening, we hosted the school’s only (and very small) environmental group, called Earthbound. They talked about how much they struggled just getting a recycling program at their school. Emily did a good short organizing strategy lesson, then conducted a Spectrum of Allies exercise, where we determined which actors were the groups “active allies,” “passive allies,” “neutral,” “passive opposition,” “active opposition,” and then which were the most strategic to pressure into shifting. Many will be familiar with this exercise, so I will leave it at that, and you may read a very good synopsis here.
Sep 21: I handled a history class about Henry Ford and Fordism. I was unprepared and exhausted that day, so all I could do was barely manage to crookedly hang The True Cost of Coal banner, tell a halting and half-forgotten interpretation of the central industrial scene, meant to be a clever set-up to transition into principles of Fordism and how profoundly they have shaped our world (it kinda worked).
Then I facilitated a series of critical thinking exercises. This part went well – though the content felt a little dull compared to some of our other sessions, I think that this was the first time where I accurately gauged the level of the students, and asked them questions that were accessible yet challenging. Basically, this session was meant as a kind of coaching in how to apply the study of history and theory to the real world. The format was reminiscent of Function Machines (used to teach math basics). The fundamental question was “Why does history matter?” and the common-sense yet truly profound answer was “Because it determines how our world looks today.” Though I do not have photos of this session and the content was not very exciting, I would like to explain this one in depth because I felt that it was a successful experiment in training critical thinking and connection-making, and the persistence and creativity that are necessary to understand the relevance of seemingly distant topics.
I used 3 charts. The first was just two lists: Principles of Fordism (pertaining to Things), and Principles of Fordism (pertaining to People). I saw a few light bulbs flickering as we compared “standardization of parts” with “standardization of people” and discussed the dynamic created by “specialized tools v. unskilled workers.” This was meant to confirm that they were actually paying attention to their reading, just a first baby step. Next we turned to a chart with 3 columns: “Idea” – > “Practice” – > “Outcome” (with a cute cartoon cloud, conveyor belt, and cardboard box). We transferred each of the ideas that were listed on the “Principles” chart, then went into greater depth about the details of subsequent practices (ie, “standardization” led to mindless repetitive work, “low-cost materials” led to massive extraction to ensure economy of scale). This alone was challenging for these students, who could not imagine a time before conveyor belts and consumerism. Once this part made sense, we began to draw conclusions about possible consequences, such as alienation, massive extraction, and a society in which humans are mere “consumers.” We also discussed large-scale consequences both intended and unintended, such as the introduction of public schools and the rampant off-shoring of factories in the era of globalization. Again, this was very challenging – most students’ opinions of the principles of Fordism were basically, “Duh, of course that’s the right way to do it, everyone knows that” – so I had to really push them to try to calculate causes and effects and to know the difference between the two. Stepping it up one more notch, we then turned to a chart titled “Fordism in Our World” with just two columns: “Before” & “After.” I drew conveyor belts on this chart as well and claimed that the sociological factory of Fordism, when applied to every corner of life, had essentially manufactured a new type of society. We went through a few examples, like food, schools, hospitals, prisons, mines. First we did a few all together then they split into small groups, each with one topic to look into a little deeper. This is where their ignorance of history really showed, but because we had gone through the previous steps, they were no longer incredulous at the idea that schools, hospitals, and livestock once looked very different than they do today, and some of them managed to do some pretty impressive analysis (others did not – the group tasked with “mining” came to the conclusion that Fordism did not affect mining and that nothing at all has changed in the last 100 years). After only about 5 minutes of small group discussion, we gathered back together and very briefly shared. This session was very fast-paced (50 minute class) and so most students enjoyed the activity well enough, though it felt a little elementary and tedious to me. The professor was very pleased, as critical thinking was clearly new territory for most students, and also because studying the history of a single man tends to exclude big-picture analysis.
Immediately after that, Erin facilitated a series of Mind-Map discussions with a Sustainable Development class. There was talk about what development means, especially in the context of a colonial world order. This session also involved an Interpretive Discussion element, but I cannot remember.
Sep 22: I brought some fancy coffee into the Environmental Writing’s breakfast class. We had a brief discussion about the MVP and expressed some general feelings about it, then I invited everyone to attend the Graphics for the Commons workshop that would be held later that afternoon. We did a lengthy Go-Round where students listed numerous reasons that the project should be opposed – basically we were trying to answer the question “How can we convince more people to fight and stop this idiotic plan?” There were many specific and conceptual objections, they had obviously been thinking about this lots. So then we did the Sticker Democracy game, where everyone gets 6 (or more) dot stickers and places them next to the ideas they like the most. They can put 1 sticker on each of 6 ideas, or all 6 stickers on 1 idea, or anything in between. This exercise generated results that really felt like a solid consensus of how folks in the room were feeling, with enough breadth to accommodate a diversity of perspectives but a few priorities very clearly more weighty, and everyone felt satisfied by this exercise. This list was later used to kick off a metaphor ideation session in the Graphics for the Commons workshop.
When that was finished, I rushed to the gallery to observe Emily facilitating a Public History class. She did a great job, and I wish I could honor her work by recalling it here, but at this hectic point in the process my memory gets spotty. I do recall an excellent Spectrogram about truth: “Ignorance is the main problem in the world today,” “If people only knew the truth, things would change,” & “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer used to shape it – Bertolt Brecht.” These are great prompts to pose before a history class! She had good follow-up questions, and good discussion followed. I think that this was also the session in which she facilitated a 5-Minute Book Report to demonstrate that the Beehive Collective is not the only group of folks making radically critical art – groups of 3 flipped and skimmed through a few large picture books, and were instructed to pick one artist/group/project they thought was interesting, and to share it with the full class. Simple, fun, and effective in reaching its goal.
Immediately after, Erin hosted a session with another poli-sci class called Human Security. It was the same professor as the Sustainable Development class, and as I recall it was a very similar format, a series of Mind-Maps, maybe also an Interpretive Discussion element, but I cannot remember the details.
This was a crazy-busy day at the end of a maxed-out week. But it was not over yet, oh no! The next two sessions were some of our best and they deserve their very own chapter, so follow the link and read on!