A dinosaur grapples with technology's place in education

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Great Expectations

In the discussion of teachers and teaching, little recognition is given to the  energy, planning time, and sheer work it takes to pull off a successful learning project.  For a performance or visual arts teacher it may be doubly so.

From the outside, hearing teachers talk about a lack of time may seem ridiculous or indulgent. How hard can it be to 'entertain' kids?  Examine a teacher's schedule. Perhaps the built-in planning time could be replaced by teaching time, reducing class size and therefore minimizing teacher hiring, thus saving important funds for technology or buildings.

Granted- a bad teacher simply wastes planning time or uses it as personal time, perpetually relying on canned or previously used tactics and materials when working with students. Under this model of teacherdom the initial year is a living hell- one plans and implements all manner of lessons, and from there it is a long, slow unwinding towards the golden finish where one collects the best paycheck and does the least work.

I well remember the epitome of this teacher, an English teacher on the verge of retirement when I started high school teaching in Maine. I ran into him in the teachers' lounge (a place of which I have never been fond), the day prior to the students' first day. He had a massive box of xeroxes, neatly compiled groups of 25 sheet cross-hatch-stacked busy work. That, he beamed proudly, gets me to Christmas! This was a man who, when he found I was tackling my personal favorite Great Expectations, rushed to his 'teacher closet'with eager excitement, fumbled in its dusty recesses, and pulled out a triple cassette VHS. BBC version...not half bad...and it is six, six! hours!

My friend and fellow teacher Dwight Blue often reminds me that teaching done right may be one of the most underpaid and challenging jobs extant, but as practiced by- what? a majority? a certain population?- one of the slackest. Tenured babysitting with decent benefits and summers off. Think back on the 16 or so years of schooling most of receive. The two or three memorable teachers probably fell into that first realm of practice. One where no matter the planning time allotted it never could have sufficed; you knew these teachers were sacrificing their weekends and vacations, staying awake considering the needs of their students, pursuing new discoveries in their field, reading, thinking, reflecting.

The rest? Well, most of the others fell into some kind of middle ground- doing a workaday job, trying to balance teaching with a family life, or else simply getting a little more tired as the years went by, run down by the constantly changing barrage of directives handed down from powers above, by disgruntled and oftentimes spoiled students, by hectic schedules and poorly coordinated support.

Then there were the truly abysmal papier-mâché Mephistopheles like my colleague in Maine, counting his pension pennies as his days wound down. Most likely we have all experienced such a type. As student, they simply meant a boring or frustrating year, something to be worked around and endured, a  'slack class'. As a parent we have gnashed our teeth and cursed such types (along with their administrative twins who turned a blind or lazy eye of their own).

The premise of Liger is realizing the future of a promising child. The promise of The Liger Learning Center hinges on the efforts of great teachers. Jo Masterman is certainly up to the task. She has an international career that spans from aboriginal kids in the sticks of Australia, to the Sultanate of Brunei, to running the art department at the highly prestigious Western Academy of Bejing. Over thirty years of experience shine through in the thought, care, and preparation she brings every day to her work with the children. On the weekends she trundles about Phnom Penh in a tuk tuk, ferreting out deals on rolls of paper and tiny mirrors, haunting the markets and alleyways where few westerners venture. She snatches up bits of refuse and chaff, turning a shipping box into a puppet theater stage, garbage into storage containers. When Jo has 50 kids for three hours, it is no one-off entertainment. Rather it is a jigsaw piece in a process puzzle, one skill building to the next, a specific endpoint in mind further down the road.

Here she is setting up on the deck for a portrait project the students completed just before heading back to their homes for Pchum Ben holiday.

Jo had already done weeks of portraiture build-up exercises. Here we worked as a whole school (all staff were invited to join in), so the project not only served an individual artistic function, but it built authentic community in a way no schlocky 'educational program' can match.

The stack of photos and pictures in the middle are exemplars. Jo always leads with a varied array of possible directions to head off towards. Though she is self-deprecating about her art, Jo always models the steps of a project for the students as well. Showing how to take risks, how to let go of fear self-consciousness. That blue head peeking out from underneath is yours truly, done by Jo.

With the requisite materials in place, each individual given space, all that is left is the unfurling of creative imagination. For that, Jo has a remarkable sense of needed time.

Importantly, for Jo art is not some mushy free-for-all. It is not throwing macaroni or shapes randomly on paper. Some might see her boundaries as constrictive or too 'grown up'. Though the students are young, Jo's expectations are serious and elevated. She takes the students' ability to focus and perform with gravitas; she has a deep sense of the purpose and possibility of arts education. Though Jo promotes self-directed learning and student ownership, as the process rolls forward Jo is not averse to nudge forward and guide. If a student simply decides to ignore the parameters of a project, Jo is not averse to bringing them back. Her projects are not anything goes.

The students respond by producing deeply reflective, considered work. They are absorbed and focused for hours.

         That does not mean that the time is devoid of camaraderie or joyless.

                                               Far from it.

But it is certainly not silly child's play.  The students accept her constrictions because they trust her. She never violates the integrity of a student's work. Further, Jo's efforts are not about Jo's ego. 
They are about authentic work.  Remarkable.

Tellingly, Jo often reaches out to the administrative and support staff to partake alongside the students. Here are two of our cleaners, an intern, and someone from the office.

     And our operations manager, an amazing person in his own right.

After the students got to a certain point in their portrait, they added 'thought bubbles' stating an appreciation for some aspect of the school.

For certain students, not to have an artistic outlet in their schooling would be the equivalent of starving.  Some students revel in any given space and time to create visually.  Every student finds a measure of success.

                  They are deep wells, these Liger students.

  Naturally, Jo builds in time for group observation and reflection into her work.

I have worked with many teachers armed with the latest educational lingo and formulas, who know how to put on a suitably professional demeanor. Yet the ones kids talk about twenty years later, the ones who enable kids to know what they can do given the opportunity and a push, the ones who impact lives most deeply, are the ones like Walter Rosenberry, my 9th grade history teacher, from whom one spare compliment meant more than a thousand gaseous praises, the ones like my son's drama teacher at Oceanside High School in Maine, Alison Machaiek, who took him over four years from the drummer in the pit to the lead in a searing tragedy.
Demanding. A little daunting at times. Dedicated.

That's Jo Masterman,  master teacher.


  1. What an awesome idea for a community project! This is definitely one I'm bookmarking for use in the future. Well done :)


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