Anjali Rodrigues is a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This past spring, she was an Artist-in-Residence with Project Zero. She worked at the Urbano Project in Jamaica Plain, where she and her group of teens conducted interviews and took photos to explore themes of identity, community, and what it means to be a teenager. She joined the Out of Eden Learn team because of her project’s similar goals of promoting slow looking, storytelling, and reflection.
This semester, I have had the privilege of working with Out of Eden Learn, and sitting in on team meetings. I was drawn to Out of Eden Learn because of its goals of promoting “slow looking, attentive listening, thoughtful storytelling”. These are wonderful goals and I had similar ones for the students I worked with this spring. However, my experience this semester made me ask myself: to what extent do I do this for myself, as a teacher? As an Artist-in-Residence, my initial goal was to closely examine and understand my students’ experience in an arts-centered classroom. As I engaged with this process, however, I in fact ended up learning more about myself and my own teaching practice-invaluable lessons that I am very grateful for.
When I was a full-time classroom teacher, I didn’t have the luxury of time (or energy!) to do thorough writing or reflection in relationship to my teaching. This semester, with support from Liz from the Out of Eden Learn team, I was fortunate to have that space to write and reflect on key learnings every week. I’d like to share one of those key learnings from this semester because it showed me the value of looking at myself and my own practice in the same slow, thoughtful way that we are encouraging our students to look at themselves, their neighborhood and the world in Out of Eden Learn. In so doing I hope that other teachers will be encouraged to examine their own practice and see where they can ask questions first.
Sky Is The Limit: (if you) Ask Questions First
Mid-way through the semester, I planned a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. I’d been looking forward to it with great anticipation-for one, because my friend and colleague Kabir had put together a lesson especially for my class. Secondly, the museum was hosting the Gordon Parks exhibit, which I thought particularly relevant to my students’ work. Parks’s included work was essentially a photo essay of his life and community in segregated Fort Scott, Kansas during the 1940s. My students’ work very much resonates with this: using photography to capture and share stories of people and communities, in a way that captures the particularities of a time. I’d hoped that through the lesson and through viewing Parks’ work, my students would get a sense of what their art could potentially communicate and accomplish. I thought that viewing an actual exhibit would inspire them in new ways.
What actual transpired during our MFA visit was not at all what I had expected. First of all, two of my students called the day of the trip to say that they couldn’t make it because of coursework deadlines. Upon arriving at the MFA, I saw that my three students were the quietest of the group (we had gone with another Urbano class on the field trip). While the students in the other class engaged enthusiastically in discussion, responding to a Kehinde Wiley painting and thoughtfully discussing a Glenn Ligon painting of a James Baldwin quote, my three students were essentially silent. Two of my students wandered off at various points in the lesson, and one student in particular, Luis, was wandering around the whole time- he did not stand by either of the art works, and barely stood still long enough to listen to even part of the discussion that was happening.
My former teacher self would have been furious. She would have pulled them aside, told them how disrespectful they were being, to represent themselves and the class in the proper way, and to do so immediately. I was certainly disappointed in their behavior-but even more so that the experience that I thought would be so inspiring for them actually caused them to seem the least engaged I’d ever seen them. I was crushed.
After our conversation at the second artwork, the Ligon piece, we started walking towards the Gordon Parks exhibit. Luis walked alongside me, and said, “I didn’t like that at all.”
“Yeah, I could see that,” I said. “Why is that?”
“I can’t stare at artwork that doesn’t inspire me,” Luis said. “I just can’t. If I’m going to look at something for a long time, I have to feel inspired by it.”
I was surprised by his response. I guess I was expecting something more simple, like, “I didn’t like the pieces”. I followed up: “That’s interesting. What kind of images do inspire you?”
Luis pulled out his phone, and proceeded to show me countless pictures he had taken of the sky. They were beautiful – mostly taken in the early morning, with the light cast softly over what looked like quiet working-class homes, always an interesting line or color scheme happening in the clouds.
“People never take time to look up,” he said. “They never look up.”
Luis proceeded to tell me how his favorite time to take these photos is in the morning, on his way to school.
Still walking towards the Parks exhibit, we passed a painting that had what appeared to be a bison skull on it. It is not a painting I would have noticed, and not one I found particularly interesting or aesthetically appealing. Luis stopped in front of it and told me, “this is something I could look at for a long time.” He went on to tell me that he used to ride horses when he was younger, and so anything that reminded him of horses inspired him, including what looked to him like horse skeletons.
Since this field trip, Luis has sent me pictures of the sky every couple of days – in fact, the photo he chose to pair with his interview narrative for our final show was one of those morning pictures of the sky. If Luis had been a student in my classroom last year, I probably would have given him a lunch detention and lectured him about disrespecting guests, or taking opportunities like this field trip for granted. While I am not condoning his lack of attention at the museum, by simply asking a question, and withholding judgement, I learned more about Luis than he’d ever shared with me before. I now know more about what inspires him, about his aesthetic, about his experience. If you had asked me last year, I would certainly have confirmed that knowing about and honoring my students and their experiences was a top priority for me. This small moment with Luis shifted my practice forever. I want to always try to ask questions first -I’m learning that that is what will really get me where I want to be as an educator with my students.