Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Precious" at the Opera House

Many questions can be raised about our showing of the film "Precious: based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" at the Opera House as part of our Alt-Movie Series this week. Why show a film about inner-city tragedy and dysfunction in our rural hamlet? Why show a film which could possibly further negative stereotypes of African-Americans in the nation's whitest state, where few have access to everyday encounters with racial and ethnic minorities? Why show films which detail poverty, abuse and their effects at all?

Because "Precious" is a complicated, beautifully made film which shows the potential impacts of poverty and abuse in ALL of our communities. It is a story which must be told--as Sapphire knew when she published the book on which it is based, "Push," in 1996. “Ralph Ellison spoke of an invisible man, but girls like Precious are our invisible young women—not seen by their own people let alone white society,” says Sapphire.

The character of Claireece “Precious Jones” Sapphire created and whom director Lee Daniels, along with producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, faithfully renders is so deeply human and fully realized, not only in her misery but in her imaginative, thoughtful processes, that it is impossible for any but the most pessimistic and politically orthodox critics (of which there have been many, both of the book and now of the film) to not be dumb-struck with empathy and compassion for her story. As Sapphire says, her story and this film are "for all the precious girls" in all of our communities. Let's make them visible, and let's all care enough to take action--as so many do in this film, from school principals to teachers to social workers--to offer them the love they deserve and need to chart their own courses from misery.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why STREB?

I've been cross-posting this week from NYC on our Opera House Arts' blog, Curtain Tales. If you don't already follow that, keep an eye on it for the latest words related to our work at OHA and mission, Incite Art, Create Community!

Choreographer--or I think I'd better say movement artist--Elizabeth Streb was one of three panelists on the opening plenary, facilitated by OHA's "our own" critic-in-residence Alicia Anstead, for APAP 2010. Presenting between our lugubrious new NEA chairman, Rocco Landesmann, whose comments re support for artists waxed so spurious one could only yawn; and my fellow Bowdoin College grad Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky (download his app for your iPhone and become your own DJ), Streb--ice-pick thin with a stand-up shock of died black hair at 59--brought the session to life with her remarks on the importance of--well, yeah--movement.

Streb showed a video message she had created when asked if she would send a message to newly-elected President Obama last year. After some hesitation, she did it. Her message is: there is one simple solution to solving the problems you face--war in Afghanistan, an economic recession, a need to overhaul our country's health and education systems. That solution is movement. If you, Mr. President, insist that every American must jump up and down three times every morning, turn around, and throw their arms up in a giant X--slowly but surely our problems would be solved.

It's a dramatic way to make an important point: the human body is a kinetic (i.e., movement) machine, and we as Americans simply don't move enough to function as well intellectually, emotionally, economically, and politically as we need to to face the current challenges the world presents to us. And moving with consciousness through the artistic discipline of dance--and Streb might argue, especially highly physical dance of the type she practices, which can veer toward the NFL--might take us to places we never before knew to be possible.

So, people, let's do it! Stand up and jump up and down three times, now and every morning. Spin around and throw your arms up into the air in a giant X! Let's move it. The new decade is on. -- Linda

Getting Serious About Creativity in the Classroom

I've been cross-posting this week from NYC on our Opera House Arts' blog, Curtain Tales. If you don't already follow that, keep an eye on it for the latest words related to our work at OHA and mission, Incite Art, Create Community!

Following on my concept of "the whole new mind for a whole new decade" posted earlier this week, Thursday afternoon I helped to lead an Education Leaders Institute (ELI) meeting in Augusta. The focus is to create a team of innovation leaders from around the state to re-design public education--moving it from the WHAT is being taught to the HOW of students learning . . . with a focus on ensuring that creativity, imagination, and innovation are primary learning methods for the new century.

This all hooks together with OHA's Kennedy Center Partners in Education program with our local schools, which helps teachers learn to integrate artistic processes and disciplines into their classroom teaching to advance the creativity of HOW their students are learning literacy, math, and interpersonal skills.

Another key piece of this in Maine is the MLTI laptop program, which in many communities has been a huge gift for how their students are learning and taking off with the innovative skills demanded by our changing economy. Deer Isle hasn't done as well with MLTI as we might, and therefore we are including technology integration as an art form--digital media arts integration--in our Kennedy Center offerings. The importance of the MLTI program to creativity brought Apple's Jim Moulton to our Thursday ELI meeting. Jim is a fantastically innovative thinker, especially around education. Check out this piece he wrote back when he blogged for Edutopia's Spiral Notebook, "It's Time to Get Serious About Creativity in the Classroom." -- Linda

Monday, January 4, 2010

For the New Decade: A Whole New Mind

I see from my Facebook page early this morning that everyone is off to the usual new year’s resolutions: exercise and weight loss.

But what about our brains?

Some of the most interesting research and policy recommendations to emerge from the decade just past have to do not with the benefits of physical exercise, but rather with the social, political, economic and yes, personal benefits of understanding and exercising our brains.

I therefore propose we consider the value of pursuing whole new minds for this new decade.

Both brain research and first-hand documentation of the experience of stroke victims, such as brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s, have increasingly brought us the news that our emotions, behaviors, learning capacities—and resulting social and economic successes—are as much about choices we make, and educational opportunities we are offered, as about innate genetic or biological factors.

In short, the ways we learn to understand the world and to express ourselves are the result not of uncontrollable tissue but of the conscious development and nurturing of specific neural pathways: pathways which throughout our lives can be re-shaped and re-developed, even in old age, even after devastating brain injuries or stroke. Having trouble holding a job because you can’t control your anger? You can learn to consciously re-direct the habitual flow of neurons when you react to something, and change your seemingly uncontrollable responses. Are fears and anxiety keeping you from the family life or career you want to have? The focus of most meditative practices is to shift the locus of understanding from our task-oriented left brain to our right, which experiences connectedness and wholeness and can reduce the power of our daily anxieties.

Alert educators and parents have known for some time that intelligence and achievement are not all about biological I.Q., but rather about the stimuli the brain is offered—say, the number of words to which an infant is regularly exposed; the aspirations and expectations that are set for and by us; and the encouragement we receive for different types of behaviors. But how much of this new brain knowledge, moving us away from the old worlds of I.Q. tests, has made its way into our public policy, public schools curricula, and, more importantly, our daily lives?

For adults, integrating current knowledge of brain development into our lives and the lives of our children can take several forms.

On behalf of our children, researchers increasingly recognize that our public education systems are too “left brain” focused: our classrooms are good (sometimes) at teaching facts and basic math and literacy—all functions governed in the left hemispheres of our brains—and much less good at teaching problem solving and the type of creative and innovative thinking being demanded by the U.S.’s position in the global economy. Teaching creativity and innovation requires development of the right hemispheres of our brains: sectors most effectively developed through learning in and through artistic practices (the performing and visual arts). Best-selling writers Daniel Pink (author of the recent Drive and A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, from where I borrowed my title) and Thomas Friedman (Hot, Flat, and Crowded) have been consistently and loudly eloquent on this subject and its importance to U.S. competitiveness in global markets: but are we working to change our local schools, and parenting, accordingly?

And with the new understanding that the brain is in fact a lifelong learner—plastic and flexible throughout our lives, “allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding,” according to professor Dr. Kathleen Taylor in a recent New York Times Education Life story—are we adults keeping our brains and communities as healthy as we might be? Research shows our more mature brains hunger for learning that is not merely about taking in more stuff, but rather that which challenges our perceptions of the world: a kind of stretching of the brain beyond its comfort zone that breaks it away from established connections, thereby encouraging the growth of new pathways. “If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections,” Dr. Taylor concludes.

Taking new routes to work; learning new languages; having conversations with those different from us as well as those who share our world views; experiencing the arts and ensuring our children do as well; meditating: these are new year’s resolutions which will, in the long term and as importantly as physical fitness, benefit our national health as well as our personal well-being. Whole new minds for the new decade.