Monday, May 31, 2004

Teaching Creativity

I have been thinking a lot this week about thinking.

In particular, about creative thinking. Can we teach creative thinking skills, or do we just work to strengthen the abilities of those who already developed that particular mass of gray matter?
I am sure there must be studies to determine weather or not creativity is genetic. I wonder how conclusive they are.

Is it nature or nurture? How much effect does a creative environment play in raising children who will become innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs? In a group of children who have always been trained to follow directions, who are the ones that decide to make their own path? Have they always danced outside of the circle? Did they suddenly revolt one day against the established rules? Or did they slowly discover their creativity while working to make things better for the group?

My experience leads me to believe it is nearly impossible to get innovative solutions or original ideas from some people. I wonder if the ability or desire to create, for these folks, has been neglected or was it squelched? Perhaps it never existed. In the case of suppression, can a resurrection be enabled?

As we look to build the next generation of Cleveland's artists and entrepreneurs, it will be helpful to understand inspiration. How can we foster higher level creative thinking skills in an educational system that is based on rote learning, directed thinking, and teaching to standardized tests?

I would like to hear from people who have been recognized as being creative, as to their own upbringing.
When did you realize your creativity? What motivates you now?

Growing up, I recall being contrary. In school, I was the student who always asked "Why?". I would argue an answer on a test, and blame the teacher for asking a bad question. I would look to solve a problem without following the directions. I still will not follow a recipe exactly as it is written. (Not surpisingly, my kids really like it when we order out)
I have been accused of being innovative and a troublemaker simultaneously. My motivation is maintaining my sanity. If I don't give myself a project to work on, a problem to solve, I start to get bored, which leads to depression. That's scary.

I know many of you who read this weblog.
You are creative people.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Open Space and Meeting Place

George Nemeth organizes mixers, (wine, cheese, and chat meetings) for the RYZE business network, which I became a member of earlier this year. He is certainly one of the most gracious and thoughtful hosts I ever had the pleasure of knowing.

The last RYZE event George organized, incorporated an activity called Open Space discussion, and he's asked (begged and politely pleaded) for our assessment of the evening.
I hope George will forgive my tardiness, as I offer my somewhat belated response to last week's event.

The thing I liked best about the Open Space activity, was the opportunity to get to know people in the small group who I did not get a chance to meet over sushi or sandwiches. One-on-one networking involves quite a bit of discussion about what we do. This group discussion provided insight into what people think. Thought provoking topics prompted fascinating conversation amongst some very bright people. It reminded me of the late 19th century salons I studied about, where artists, writers, and creative thinkers would gather to exchange ideas.

My one and only complaint is aimed at a man who, ironically I, and no doubt millions of other folks, admire.
Frank Ghery.
That room, in the Peter B Lewis Building, has TERRIBLE acoustics. This is especially disappointing, since it was designed by one of the world's premier architects as a meeting space.
Although the building is visually amazing, way too much sound is bouncing around in there. (You would think, teaching high school, I would be used to that)

While Chris Sepher uses the 10 point evaluation scale, I prefer what is known as the fifth digit assessment method:

George Nemeth's Open Space: thumbs up
Frank Ghery's meeting space: thumbs down

Friday, May 21, 2004

Artistic Discovery

Today, while leaning against a wall in the third floor hallway at Max Hayes High School, I discovered an artist.

Some black and white digital photographs, chronicling a field trip, were posted on the wall across from the computer lab. Normally I would not have paid much attention to them, since most of the students pictured were not in my classes, but something struck me.
The compositions were wonderful.
Balance, variety, unity, all of the design principals were there. Portraits were expressive, backgrounds told a story. There was a name...Michele... credited with taking these marvelous photograghs. With a bit more investigation, I discovered that she is a 10th grader, she can write fairly well, and she can be counted on to complete her assignments. My Monday mission will be finding Michele.

Every coach knows that to have a winning team you must recruit top talent. Businesses do it to survive, and private schools and colleges recruit the brightest students, knowing that the school will be credited for fostering that brilliance, regardless of the abilities of the teaching staff.

I have found, in order to keep my edge as a teacher in my subject area, I need to have students who will challenge me. Granted, teaching disadvantaged kids in an urban district is rife with the challenges associated with poverty and emotional baggage. So many of these kids challenge us to simply help them function, to somehow reach the status quo. It is a very different challenge to take a student who already exhibits talent, who possesses natural aptitude, and to nurture that ability, to help them grow their gift.

Experience taught me that often these kids are unaware of their creative artistic abilities. Guidance counselors might not place them in my classes, so I have learned to search for them. I look on the walls of my colleagues classrooms-at the book reports that include a drawing, the science fair projects, the social studies posters, and I ask these teachers, "Who doodles? Who draws? Who's good?". I recruit.

Lately, quite a few people have asked me how I've managed to build a successful art program in a trade school. My response is; there are talented artists and creative thinkers all around us. The problem is, often they don't even recognize their own gifts. Occasionally all that is needed is for someone to point it out to them, and place these people in an evironment that will encourage them to use their creativity.
That's my gift.

What I cannot do is create talent, or nurture the nonexistant. Neither can I leave it up to chance that talented people will walk through my door. So I search for talent. When I find it, I work diligently to build a relationship that will help that student discover their own potential.

And when they do...they make me look good.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004


Only 21 more days 'til school's out for summer. As much as I look forward to that first, blessed summer morning in June that I lie in bed and think about not getting up at 5 AM, I curse these last few weeks of year end reports.
Why, oh why did I cut that typing class in high school? In my youthful idiocy, I thought that particular act of rebellion would save me from a career of feminine servitude.
I didn't want to be a secretary, I wanted to have a secretary.

In college, I learned the art of negotiating trades.
With my sculptor's eye, I discovered that I was pretty good at cutting hair. I began bartering barbering for typing. All of my term papers were tapped out by poor, penniless, boys who liked short hair.

Now, I have nothing but envy for my colleagues whose fingers fly as fast as thought, for I shall be spending way too much time at my keyboard. Pity, I don't get paid by the hour.

I will try to pull myself away from my tasks to post a few thoughts here. They certainly will not be more than several words, for I will, most likely, be typed out.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

"According to the theory of aerodynamics, as may be readily demonstrated through wind tunnel experiments, the bumblebee is unable to fly. This is because the size, weight, and shape of his body in relation to the total wingspread make flying impossible. But the bumblebee, being ignorant of these scientific truths, goes ahead and flies anyway--and makes a little honey every day."

Sign in a General Motors Corporation plant

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Thank you

I've never liked to listen to my voice on a recording. I have always been camera shy, and video recordings make me the most squeamish.
To have to watch myself on such a large screen, in such a large theater, with such a large group of people, was akin to my own personal "Fear Factor" episode.
Having just lived through that struggle with my self-consciousness, I walked up on the stage to give a speech which I had prepared, but couldn't see without my reading glasses. For vanities sake, I didn't bring them, I was trying to avoid the school-marm look.
I amazed myself...all that adrenilen in my system must have pumped some extra blood to my brain. I didn't forget a thing.

For all of my friends and colleagues and members of the arts and the education communities who came to the Ohio Theater to congratulate and wish me well, I thank you with all my heart. Your kind words meant so much to me. I am still amazed at all the recognition I've received for doing something that is so much fun; something that I love to do.
I am so very grateful for your support. You make this job a joy.


Saturday, May 08, 2004

Afraid to Go Home

I had my back to the door.

I was busy shuffling papers on my desk, and trying to recall the color of the Formica surface I was attempting to uncover. Feeling the presence of somebody behind me I spun around into the chest of a very big man.
"Hey there!" I was greeted by a deep voice and a bear hug that made me feel very little.

It was Sam Jones.
Sam was a student of mine many years ago, when I taught Art History at the Cleveland School of Science. When he was a kid, he always reminded me of a young, lanky, Magic Johnson.
I became reacquainted with Sam several years ago as I headed down a stairwell at Max Hayes High School. Sam was coming up the stairs dressed in the ochre colored leather gear and mask of a welder.

"What are you doing here?" we exclaimed in unison.

Sam was unaware that I had changed schools, and I learned that he was taking the adult welding class, just down the hall from my room on the third floor.
Although he is now a certified welder, he occasionally stops by to say hello. We catch up on each other's news, and reminisce.

Today, we talked about the old Cleveland School of Science, and we remembered the most terrible day of school, for either one of us.


It began as a typical day at the School of Science. It was Sam's senior year. I'd been teaching visual art at the 6th-12th grade magnet school for a few years. It was lunchtime, and I recall sitting in the teachers lounge engaged in the witty banter which was commonplace amongst the most creative and intelligent faculty I've ever been privileged to work with.

We were interrupted by loud pounding on the wooden door.
"Help! Please help! A boy just jumped out of the third floor window! He's laying in the parking lot...He's not moving!"

We dashed out the door.
Several people ran through the backdoor to the parking lot. I bolted up the three flights of stairs to the wide open window on the top of the landing, and looked down.

Twelve years later the picture in my mind is as vivid as if I had just now turned away.

There, at the spot barely beyond where concrete met asphalt, lay Andre Cooper.
He was a smallish boy of about 12, short hair, and dark brown skin. Although I'd not had him in my class yet, I recognized him from the halls. I'd heard about him from other students and teachers. They told me that he had excellent drawing skills and that I should look forward to having him as an eighth grader.

On his back, his knees were bent, his eyes closed....and blood.
More blood than I had ever seen before....pooling around his head....the puddle growing larger..past his shoulders ...his waist...
Good God where was the ambulance?...Where were the sirens?
Keith Coolick and Bill Dimateo knelt at his head talking, talking, comforting.
Somebody got a blanket.
Still no ambulance.
My eyes were riveted to Andre's chest...was he breathing? I could see a little movement...barely...
He was breathing.
The puddle of blood continued to grow...Still no siren.

By this time students were crowding the windows, looking out over the parking lot.
Sam was one of those faces.
Some staring silently, some weeping openly, and then there were the others.
These were the children who were laughing. Laughing and mocking, pointing and joking. I could hear them from my post at the top of the stairs. I was horrified, and angry, they were driving me to disgust...far beyond driven. Ready to explode....
But, but, ...was that the sound of a siren?


The paramedics were there. Andre was carried into the ambulance and whisked away to the trauma center at Metro.

Remaining on the asphalt was that puddle...more blood than I had ever seen before. I watched as the custodians came out with the hoses and washed it away.

I called my sister-in-law, Leslie, a pediatric nurse. She worked the ICU at Metro. What could she tell me?
"Brain dead" she confided. "He's not expected to recover."
Andre died shortly after.

The events of that day overwhelmed me. My son, Ben, was the same age as Andre.
I drove home in tears. When I walked in the door, I grabbed hold of my children, and held them tight.


What happened ?

From what we could gather the story went something like this:

Andre was no stranger to the principal's office.
He seemed to have a problem controlling his temper, and had a record that year for getting into trouble. He'd just returned to school, back from several days of suspension. While in math class that morning, he created a disturbance and was asked, by the teacher, to leave the classroom. On his way out the door, he hit the window and shattered the glass. The security guards took him to the assistant principal's office, where he was given another 10 day suspension, handed an RTA bus ticket, and told to go home.

He took the ticket, left the office, and went into the boys rest room down in the basement. A short while later, two of his classmates walked in on him. He was crying and slamming his head repeatedly against the ceramic block wall.
"I can't go home!" he wailed. " My father will kill me!" Andre lay down on the floor. "He said if I got in trouble again at school he would kill me. I'd rather kill myself!"

With that, he stood back up and headed out of the restroom, around the corner, and up three flights of stairs to the window at the landing on the third floor. He pushed open the window and was climbing onto the sill, when his classmates caught up with him and pulled him down.

"C'mon man, you don't wanna do that." They grabbed hold of each arm and led him away from the window, down the stairs, and toward the second floor.

Andre seemed to relax.
"Hey, you can let go now, I'm cool." he said, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. The two students released their grip. The three of them stood together for a moment silent, relieved...when, suddenly, Andre bolted back up the stairs, and dove head-first through the open window.


Several weeks later, the detectives, the counselors and the psychologists where gone. School had resumed its routine. I was in my classroom, discussing abstract expressionism with a group of 11th and 12th grade students, when I caught a glimpse of a woman through the window of my door. I stepped into the hall, and asked if I could help.

I recognized her from the funeral. It was Andre Coopers mother.
She was alone in the hallway, crying softly.
"I came to the school to see the place where it happened." she said quietly.
"The woman in the office told me he jumped from the third floor. Which window?"
I gulped at the insensitivity of the administration, to send this woman up here, alone.

"Here, I will show you."
I put my arm around her shoulder, and led her to the window on the landing, now nailed permanently shut.

Together we looked down at the spot where the concrete meets the asphalt, and grieved for the boy who was too afraid to go home.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

"We cannot always build a future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the fututre."

Franklin D Roosevelt.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004


The guitars are huge. The length of a car.

My friend Danny Carver from The Cleveland School of the Arts brought two of them to Max Hayes today. He will be working with a couple of his students from the School of the Arts here in our shops. These are the giant Guitarmania sculptures that are decorated by Cleveland artists, displayed around the city, and eventually auctioned off at a benefit.

It may sound goofy, but I do get excited when I have the opportunity to introduce new people to this school--especially artists. This place is, truly, a dream come true for a sculptor.

I love giving the "nickel tour" and showing them around.
We can do so much here. The Art studio is 3,200 square feet with 80 feet of 10 foot high windows. We can see the lake and the skyline downtown.
Across the hall from me, students are welding.
Down the hall, they are building houses inside the class room. There is one shop downstairs where they can build 2, two-story houses, side by side, indoors.
We have machine shops, where for the last three years, the students have been building robots that compete all over the country and win.
We have shops upstairs and down, where the kids are maintaining and rebuilding cars. Another shop for body work and finishing. It's always fun to see the expressions on people's faces when they notice the cars on the second floor.

One of the ideas that I've been promoting since I came to work here, has been artists in the shops.
As artists, we are trained to solve problems creatively. By exposing the trades students, who are technicians, to artists, and having them work together, we can bump those thinking skills all the way to the creative top of that blasted Bloom's Taxonomy. The artists also infuse a new type of energy, or spirit, into this hulk of a building that looks more like a factory than a school.

Danny and his students will be working here for the next couple of days. They will be using the spray booth for painting the guitars, and taking advantage of the large studio, which gives them space to work. We are talking about doing a collaborative project next year, that would have students from both of our programs working together. Of course we will have to find money to do it, but hey--we're Cleveland teachers, we're used to hustling for stuff.

I wish more people would take notice of the really cool things that are going on in the city, especially in the schools. We do a whole lot more than just babysit the thugs, or teach to the proficiency tests, or sit around complaining in the teachers lounge... while the taxpayers pay our salaries. We have been challenged to build a skilled and creative workforce, and against the odds, we are working to do just that.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

"a momentary lapse of reason,
that can change a life for life"

Pink Flloyd

Lets Talk About Sex

The other day as I was strolling around the tables full of students working, and offering advice on composition and layout, I overheard two of my girls discussing birth control. I was shocked.

"My doctor suggested that I start using the patch. But if you have a patch, boys think your gonna have sex with them. I don't want to go around having sex, but my doctor said I should be ready in case I change my mind. I'm supposed to decide on something else."

Wow...that had to be the most responsible thing I've ever heard coming from the mouth of a teenaged girl. Ususally the conversations are something like this:

" Did you hear Maria (or Jennifer, or Shanay) is pregnant (again)?"

Two years ago, in the spring, fully two thirds of our eleventh grade female population was pregnant. Most of these girls drop out of school. A few will, eventually, get a GED.
Often, they come by to visit with their babies. Occasionally, they bring along the 'baby daddy'. I muster up a grin. I issue the compulsory "Ooooh, she's soooo cute." and "Ahhhh, how sweet." What I'm really thinking is, "Damn, you're so young! This is going to be really, really hard for you."

I was also a 'too-young mother". But my 'too-young' motherhood happened when I was in college as opposed to high school. Even now, as I look back, I can still recall the fear and the loneliness and the struggle of those days.

I was not allowed to return home to my parents house with the baby. I had no place to live, no job, no car, and very little money in my bank account. I had to put my little son in a foster home. I cried until the tears would literally, no longer come; my tearducts had dried. I somehow mustered up the last bit of strength I had left, to climb out of the blackness of a post-postpartum depression pit that nearly swallowed me.
Everything I ever learned about research as a college student I began to use to find help for my child and myself. ADC, WIC, Birthright, Womankind. friends. I found a house, and brought my son back to Cleveland. I found a babysitter on the Cleveland State campus, and rode the RTA with the baby until I finished my degree.

This was a part of my life that formed the person who I am today. Did it make me stronger? Probably not...I was always hard-headed.
Did it make me more compassionate? Absolutely.

But would I have done things differently if I could go back in time and make some changes?
This is a tricky question to answer, because I love my son. Ben is like an extension of my soul. We are so much alike...he understands me as no one else can. Yet, I missed the other things that would have been a part of my twenties. I didn't go to graduate school. I never went to Europe. I never had time to paint or write. I was thrust into mommyhood before I had a chance to discover the bigger world.

I hate the phrase "it's just sex"
"Just sex" can have huge consequences.

In today's Plain Dealer, Regina Brett has a third essay in a series of columns she's written this week about child support. Her remarks are honest and relevant. I will be printing out this series and passing out copies to my students.

I realize that the topic is not a part of my curriculum, but in teaching a studio art class I have the luxury of multitasking. One can talk and paint or draw or sculpt all at the same time. I can have a discussion with my students about any topic we choose, while we work. I try to take advantage of my bully pulpit to get them to think about important issues.

Monday's topic: Sex