This is a project I wrote about in Teaching Artist Journal, Vo. 9, 2011 called Strange Bedfellows: Enchanting Space
Space has to be a sort of aquarium which mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of the people who live within it. –Loris Malaguzzi
Homer Philip’s bronze, relief bust greets you as you walk into our school building. Beneath his portrait sits a poem in his honor, raised in bronze letters and written by Edgar A. Guest. Here are the first four stanzas.
If you have the will to learn
Knowledge you can surely gain.
It is near for you to earn, you can
Have what books contain.
All the wisdom of the age waits
For you on many a shelf.
But to know the printed page, you
Must read it for yourself.
None of us knew who Homer Philips was when we moved into this school building named for him. We did some research and found out that this dead, white male was much beloved. He helped form the “Denver Teacher’s Club,” precursor to a teachers’ union at the end of the 19th century and was an inspirational teacher and principal.
Because Denver’s neighborhoods are shifting, my K-8 school had to relocate last summer. Our previous building was in a fast-growing development built on the razed site of the old, Denver airport. In this “new urbanism,” strollers, playgroups, and lemonade stands multiplied fast. Recently, the city realized that there were not enough public primary schools to support this baby boom. Since our small school had only one primary grade per year, we had to move out of our building to make way for a large K-2 school. Although we applied for a grant for a new building, we didn’t receive it. Denver Public Schools moved us three miles away to a beautiful old neighborhood with a waning student population and into the shuttered, Homer Philips school building.
Last August, in the midst of unpacking boxes, our staff started to ask each other questions. Who was here before us? What does it mean to inherit a building? Are there ghosts? What do you do with someone else’s nostalgia? And more specifically, how does one respond to the heroic Homer Philips cast in bronze? Cover him up? Turn him into a school mascot and rub his nose for good luck until it shines? Remain slightly aware of his detached, omniscient presence? Even after we moved in, we felt like strangers to our classrooms, our lunchroom, our schoolyard, our gym, our bathrooms, and our hallways. Our dreams of a new building were over and now we found ourselves as strange bedfellows with Homer.
In this context, I thought Loris Maliguzzi’s words about school spaces and about my role as art teacher. I’m here to help students notice and respond poetically to their environment. We create new things, but always in response to what we have around us. I wanted my students to respond right away to our building, to visually know and poetically embrace it. I didn’t know how, but I wanted each class to become the artistic custodian to some part of the building and to visually introduce it to the rest of the school community. This was a large goal and we were all overwhelmed by the move, so as a baby step, I started with a highly, teacher-directed project.
My 6th grade class seemed the perfect ones to be the custodians of this lengthy bronze poem and portrait. This is because they had the reading skills for the poem, but were young enough for some serious play. How could we enter this poem and illuminate this part of our building? I thought of some practices I learned last summer at the Habla Teacher’s Institute where we poetically entered physical spaces and the written word through collaborative observation, contemplation, and re-mixing. I thought this approach might be a way into this project.
So I asked my students, “Have you noticed the relief carving in the entryway? Do you know who Homer Philips was? Have you noticed the poem?” I told them what I knew about Homer Philips and I printed out the poem. We read it together out loud in several different ways. We took turns with the stanzas: girls first, then boys first, left side of the room, right side of the room. We read it standing up, facing each other in two lines. We read it in sad voices, angry voices, surprised voices, and sleepy voices. We talked about what it meant. We talked about whether or not it was good poetry. Did it show and not tell? Did it have juicy words? Did it flow out of your mouth when you read it? Did it mirror the world with clearly obscure metaphor? Did it make you see or think or feel?
They critiqued it carefully and decided it wasn’t so fabulous. It told too much and showed too little and lacked juicy words and interesting metaphors. I told them the poem was what it was. We were stuck with it. After all, it was set in bronze. I said, if it wasn’t everything I wanted, I could still throw that energy of disappointment into some creative response. At Habla I heard that action called “radical compliance.” So we were going to make something out of this poem.
It helped that my students liked how the poem flowed out of their mouths when read aloud. As orators, they had created a way of saying it together with a driving rhythm. It made me think of all the poems I recited in school as a child with other students. I can’t recall them word for word, but I remember rattling inside of them with my peers.
Then I panicked. Why was I putting my students inside of this mediocre, sentimental poem? Was it harmful for them to spend so much time with such a weak piece of art? Was I undoing some of the writing instruction they had in 5th grade? Did they notice my impatience with the poet, when I rolled my eyes over especially insipid portions? So, I watched them. They seemed undaunted by my opinion and able to detach from the poem without deriding it. They weren’t totally enamored with the poem, but they were game to go along with it. Their response gave me courage to stay in the game.
We did an exquisite corpse exercise where we added to one another’s drawings and talked about appropriation. Then, I asked them to appropriate part of the poem to make a short poem of their own. I asked them to find 3 words in a row that had some kind of meaning for them. They took the poem and searched through it like a puzzle. A few kids asked for more words or 3 words out of sequence. I insisted only using 3 in sequence. We were in the creative business of transforming our meager lot. It was a problem to be solved. By my insistence, was I squelching creativity or lessening engagement? I’m not sure. Was I pushing those students to exercise their creative problem solving muscles? I hoped so. Out of 26 students, many chose the same three words. Here are the groupings they claimed.
All the wisdom
lies your fate.
What you wish
Give no thought
chance or luck,
him who tries.
for himself decide
destiny shall be
To the crooked
Life is something
you must plan
thoughtless go astray.
I read the poem aloud and had students shout out their words with me when they appeared. This was fun and surprising since a lot of students in different parts of the room discovered that they chose the same phrases. Shouting out increased their ownership of their words. The groups who shared the same words became comrades. “We’re the ‘Chance Or Luck’ group!’” Students who were the lone selectors of their phrase, felt special. “I’m the only ‘Thoughtless Go Astray’ person!” After students chose their 3 words, they went out to the entryway and made rubbings of their words from the bronze. This attached them to their choices even more and they carried their rubbings carefully back into the studio. Then we approached their visual interpretations of the words.
In the media of photo-collage I asked them to illustrate the meaning of their 3 word poem. We looked at pure images side by side. An image of a fire looks inviting next to an image of a “charbroiled” burger. It looks frightening next to an image of a house. An image of tomato looks delicious with a pizza, but takes on a menacing meaning coupled with an image of a singer on a stage. Then we looked at Hannah Hoch’s work and guessed the meanings of her juxtaposed images.
In their collage making, students tried to create meaningful groupings from multiple images. Like many of our projects, they critiqued their peers work midway, using E.B. White’s advice to poets, “Be obscure clearly. Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand.” Did the images clearly give too much away? Were they too cryptic and obscure? Students gave each other feedback towards this goal to balance clarity and obscurity.
They chose colored paper to frame their black and white collages, attached their word rubbings, and chose a piece of yarn to match the frame. Then came the installation. One by one, as students finished their collages, they took their work to the site of the poem. They choose a spot around the poem, mounted their piece, and taped their yarn from their piece to their three words on the bronze poem. Students were proud of their individual collages.
By the end, surrounded by a colorful group of images and a complex web of yarn lines surrounded the bronze memorial. After everything got up, we were all surprised at what a spectacle our collective made. Our work shared a poetic space with Homer Philips and Edgar A. Guest. We suddenly owned a part of our environment, which was illuminated for the whole community.
We celebrated our site-specific installation with a short performance the next week. Small groups of our school community watched as we stood facing our piece. I read the poem and students shouted out their three lines as they came. Some students posed in frozen stances as they spoke. Others added movements. All the while, I had two thoughts….”I love this beautiful experience!” and “What was I thinking?…all this fuss over a really bad poem!” Meanwhile my students cheered and shouted. I guess if my students can sit with that paradox, I can too.
This installation was teacher directed, but I hope that the project fostered creativity in my students, instead of demanding it. It is November now, and we all feel a little more settled in the building. Now that we have a good model, I think I can start to let go and allow students to decide how to transform more spaces. Maybe the 6th graders could choose another space to enchant. I know the kindergartners have already claimed a fairy tree on the playground to embellish. I wonder if another class has ideas for a sad, dirt patch sunk beneath our principal’s window? I’m envisioning a clay garden, but I wonder what they envision. It is now a matter of walking the halls and the grounds one class at a time. What is invisible that needs to be made visible? What is harsh and ugly and needs to be transformed? Little by little, I hope more of our building gets claimed poetically by our children. I don’t know what Homer would think, but I’d like to think he’d be enchanted.
We value space because of its power to organize, promote pleasant relationships between people of different ages, create a handsome environment, provide changes, promote choices and activity, and its potential for sparking all kinds of social, affective, and cognitive learning. All of this contributes to a sense of well-being and security in children.