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Philosophical background to the Forage Series: Mastery, Mentorship and Chirality

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The bait ball sculpture created by students for Forage III

Reflecting on the "Forage III: Arts-driven instruction" experiment that Ed Martinez and I continue to elaborate, the current focus of my thinking is on how best to extend this workshop series so that we reach more students and provide usable models for integration into regular classrooms. We’re set to launch Forage IV: a two-dimensional art exploration, where classes get the opportunity to take the environmental awareness and activism we were encouraging with Forage III to a new level, to really think hard on and plan how to bring about real social action that will further the environmental restoration which needs to be done to restore forage species to health.

In this iteration, Ed has enlisted the aid of Taylor Reinhold. The aspect of this planning which fascinates me is how to ensure that the projects that students work on reflect their own interests and ideas. One of the startling realizations that I've come to through working on this experiment with Ed is how important the shift in my thinking about arts-integrated instruction has been. When we began the project, Ed made it very clear that his priority in executing the construction was that the result would be a piece of fine art of museum quality about which the students could feel an authentic pride. My own orientation, as a non-artist who manages to imbue a handmade, homemade funky flavor to all my creations, has always been that the artistic quality of the product is irrelevant. Art-making for me as for most elementary students is a process-oriented activity, where we don't expect to have to meet the standards of a fickle and unforgiving commercial art world.

Ed is himself a successful commercial artist, and it's that perspective of mastery which he brings to art-making which I want to highlight now. Ed wants his art to stand alone as beautiful and inspiring, and also to have the art he makes have an impact on the lives of its viewers and the community from which it springs. Similarly for his students, he wants them to experience the pride and sense of accomplishment which comes from creating a work with lasting and intrinsic value. Without the mastery of an artistic medium to enable such lofty aspirations, I've always been satisfied to think of the art experience I offer to students as most importantly about process, without being particularly concerned with making aesthetic judgements about the products or trying to measure the impact or durability of what students produce. If they are happy with their work, if they have something to bring home and show to their parents, that's enough for me. But Ed is setting higher goals for the students, and it's the authority he brings to the situation from being a master artist that gives resonance and credibility to those goals.

It's that mastery that also helps to make him an effective mentor to students who are forming their sense of what is possible for them to achieve. I can't model for them what it might mean to become a successful artist, because I'm not. I can encourage them to try art, and reassure them that it doesn't matter if they fail or if others don't appreciate their work, because it's the process that's important. But that kind of encouragement doesn't produce real courage. Having a role model who has tried and mostly failed is not inspiring. An authentic mentor can motivate unusual effort and help students to overcome our culture's pervasive fear of failure because she can model both striking success and how to cope with its lack.

So the personal stature and authentic voice of an accomplished practitioner in any field can bring them to be regarded as masters of their craft, but those qualities alone will not guarantee that a particular master will be an effective mentor. Mentorship has a crucial affective dimension--the mentor is empathetic, has tools with which to establish rapport, and knows how to balance challenge and acceptance in giving students feedback on their work. The mentor is not always or even mostly a teacher of skills in their field. Most of the work is about building relationships, establishing trust, and facilitating good communication. Then the task of the mentor is to foster or awaken the sense of possibility, of opportunity for success in the chosen field of the mentee. How exactly to teach mentors to fulfill that role, beyond general exercises in developing empathic and communication skills, is not obvious nor clear. It is this conundrum which leads me to the third point in this dialectical discussion: chirality.

Chirality refers to things which are handed, in the sense of having some form of bilateral symmetry, but where the mirror image of either side cannot be superimposed on the other. It is the sometimes subtle differences between the two sides which are important in this context. The duality of so much of our thinking, its polarities – right/left, male/female, practical/romantic – tend to exaggerate difference and obscure commonalities. The point about chirality is that there is an overwhelming symmetry and at the same time some important differences. It is this inherent contradiction in our approaches to duality which I think makes chirality a potent ground for developing fruitful ways to acknowledge mastery without denigrating efforts which fail, and to educate both mentors and students in how to interact for mutual benefit.

There is an inherent inequality in the associations we have with a relationship described as master to apprentice or mentor to student. Yet the goal in each case is to reach equality, to enhance the experience of the less powerful member of the dyad so that her skills and understanding begin more closely to approach that of the other. Recognizing that there are areas of commonality between their two characters--that they can, in fact, relate, and find connection--must occur on each side. We often call the process of exchanging ideas about a shared experience as a process of "reflection." I want to highlight the mirrored sameness of the images that first come to mind associated with that word. Yet to be of value to the other, the content of a reflection must point out some difference. Learning to see and acknowledge samenesses and differences is a perpetual negotiation, a recursive process which is at the heart of education.

So I return, finally, to one of the great "Ah hah!" moments I had during the Third Space Conference in St. Louis last summer. A crucial task for us in recovering the agenda for repairing our badly wounded public education system is to elevate the field of mathetics--the study of the way people learn--to an even higher status that that which we accord to pedagogy, the study of teaching. The over-emphasis on teaching in our approach to education has created a poisoned landscape in which right-wing privatizers have co-opted the terminology of educational "reform" to push the bizarre notion that technology and scripting can "teacher-proof" instruction, and the deadening spread of test-driven regimes and commodifying "value-added" teacher evaluation schemes have removed all heart and spirit from both students and teachers. We need to ignore the specious calls for "rigor" and instead return vigor to our schools. Our students need arts-driven curricula, not data-driven drivel. We need students who are truly engaged in and capable of managing their own learning, because they've been empowered to become lifelong learners and mentored by empathetic adults who have achieved both mastery and compassion. Bringing art back into learning--not as a frill to be restored but as a core which should inform every area of the curriculum--STEM to STEAM!--is key to that process.

Soon we'll be posting more information on how Forage IV will be rolled out....

 

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