Bronx Museum Spring Partnership

May marked a whirlwind Spring partnership with the Bronx Museum of the Arts which ended last week with a final performance and celebration!

I saw three classes from PS 73: a 1st & 2nd grade class, and two 3rd & 4th grade classes. I work specifically with the classes of students who have IEPs, each of these classes was a 12:1:1.

The partnerships starts with a museum visit, wherein I guide the classes (one at a time) through the recent exhibit and prepare activities for them in response to the art.

This season's exhibit is "Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking, and Seeing" It's an amazing study of machines and devices built for aesthetics rather than practicality. 

As the Bronx Museum website describes:

As a reaction to our current times focused on utilitarianism and profit, Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing presents a selection of curious machines created by artists with the goal of stirring dreams, feelings, critical thinking, and ironies; for seeing what microscopes, telescopes and cartographies cannot show; for flying without taking-off; in short, for doing the impossible. Such are some of the uses of art.

Contemporary art installation on a hardwood floor. The art work looks like a 1970’s space capsule, but covered in sheet metal, plants, and bricks. Extension cables can be seen running out of the piece as well. In the background are other photos and statues.

Contemporary art installation on a hardwood floor. The art work looks like a 1970’s space capsule, but covered in sheet metal, plants, and bricks. Extension cables can be seen running out of the piece as well. In the background are other photos and statues.

While the intention and theme is quite intellectually stimulating, my students were all immediately taken by the visual spectacle of the art itself and it was an incredibly fun curation to teach.

My program was an co activity that built on itself every session around the idea of story-making.  I was inspired especially by Stefana McClure’s film and visual poem in the exhibit that she made in response to the George Perec’s Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. Perec famously had a “story-making-machine” with which he wrote the novel, or “novels” as the book opens, Life a User Manual. I wanted the PS 73 students to be their own Story-Making-Machines, creating and then sharing/typing their stories.

On a flatscreen TV gloved hands can be seen with metallic tips on the ends of each fingers. The hands seem to be typing with small, black residue visible underneath the fingers.

On a flatscreen TV gloved hands can be seen with metallic tips on the ends of each fingers. The hands seem to be typing with small, black residue visible underneath the fingers.

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To start, I had the students come up with robots for the closing museum trip activity. They could think back to some of the machines from the exhibit or also use the book Clink by Kelly DiPucchio, which we had read before going down to the galleries, as a kind of mentor text. 

Once the robot was drawn I asked them to come up with a name, then write what their robot was made out of, and finally what their robot could do. By making each description an individual step, I was scaffolding the idea of character development, helping them make robust and well rounded robots (say that 10x fast) for their stories. 

In the first school trip we did a quick warm up, read Izzy Gizmo by Pip Jones, then got to work on our stories. First students hand wrote a story involving the robot characters they made at the museum. Once the stories were finished, they "typed" them up to create a visual poem similar to the Stefana McClure piece on display.

On an art room table, covered in old paint marks, print outs of computer keyboards are taped down.

On an art room table, covered in old paint marks, print outs of computer keyboards are taped down.

Close up of the art room table, the keyboard print outs are now covered by a piece of tracing paper so that the keys themselves are still visible.

Close up of the art room table, the keyboard print outs are now covered by a piece of tracing paper so that the keys themselves are still visible.

To achieve this typing effect, I taped print outs of keyboards to the table and placed tracing paper over them. Giving each student a pair of gloves, I then gave out a dollups of black paint to rub between their gloved hands, telling the students to focus especially on their finger tips. Once everyone was painted up the students typed the stories they just hand wrote as if they were typing them into a computer. It was a pretty exciting activity, so took the groups a couple sheets of tracing paper to get right!

On the art room tables students hands can be seen covered in gloves and black paint “typing” on the tracing paper.

On the art room tables students hands can be seen covered in gloves and black paint “typing” on the tracing paper.

When the story was finished, we peeled off the tracing paper and there was their visual story. Some of them came out so much like the McClure piece it’s uncanny!

Pieces of tracing paper with individual black dots made with paint.

Pieces of tracing paper with individual black dots made with paint.

For my final school visit I brought an old typewriter. I wanted the final draft of these robot stories to be typed up and in keeping with the “Useless” exhibit themes, thought it would be fun to have students explore the now outdated typewriter as a mode of typing.

I have an old, portable Royal typewriter. It was given to me by my uncle during the clean out of my grandmother’s house. I actually thought it was broken at first, but it turned out the keys that were getting stuck were meant to get stuck! (Just had to actually read the manual…which thankfully was still with it)

In prepping for this session, it was a fun exploration to work and tinker on the old machine. I had to buy new ink and learn how to put that in, do a little light cleaning and maintenance on it, and learn how to set and reset all the margins.

Since I only had the one typewriter, for the third and final session I had students use large alphabet stamps to stamp out their story letter by letter onto mural paper while they waited their turn. I did this because I wanted them using their fine motor systems to mimic the typewriter’s mechanics and keep on that idea of them being “story-making-machines.”

The students had a blast with the typewriter! Some of them asking, “ is this what old people use?” or calling out to their friends, “Hey, look! I’m old now!” as they typed. They were also curious about all the little knobs and levers and often, after their turn, they’d linger to watch the mechanisms of the machine as their classmate wrote. The teachers also had funny, nostalgic memories of the typewriter  which they shared with me and the classes.

Black and White photo of a 1970s typewriter. A paper with some typing is loaded into the scroll.

Black and White photo of a 1970s typewriter. A paper with some typing is loaded into the scroll.

At the projects close there was a lot of art to be shared and sorted": the original robots, the handwritten stories, the McClure like visual stories, and the class’ typewriter made story. For the final, assembly for I bound the stories, the typewritten text and visual poems, together with a bit of colorful twine, embracing the DIY aesthetic in the exhibit.

Two books handmade books side-by-side on a table. Both are tied together by a bit of twine, the front of them have typewritten words that are indistinguishable at the photo’s distance. Behind these front pages are pieces of tracing paper with blotches and dots of black paint.

Two books handmade books side-by-side on a table. Both are tied together by a bit of twine, the front of them have typewritten words that are indistinguishable at the photo’s distance. Behind these front pages are pieces of tracing paper with blotches and dots of black paint.

To close, the classes did a little Be-Bop Beat, as described to me, while I sang the story out loud. It was a lot of fun, and cool to see how proud the poets were of their work!

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Sonnet Challenge

For Valentine’s Day I challenged one of my workshops to write sonnets.

This was my first time teaching a form in any of my workshops. I’ve done haiku scavenger hunts before, but those were more about the experiential nature of haiku than any of the form’s diction and thematic restrictions.

To start this sonnet lesson I explained that some poems have rules, which piqued the attention of a couple poets in the room right away. We’ve been writing together as a group for almost two years now and in that time I’ve pretty much let them free write, the exceptions being group projects like our holiday cookie tags, so this was something new.

I had Sonnet and the numbers one through fourteen listed downward on the board as a visual for everyone to reference. I decided to start with the basic rule, that a sonnet is a poem with fourteen lines. While rhyme and meter play a big role in the Shakespearean Sonnet (which is the form I was basing this introduction on) it didn’t quite feel right to dive into that. I wanted this to be a challenge for the poets, but not overwhelm them. Furthermore, I wanted them to be engaged and intrigued and bogging them down with all the details of form would have dimmed the excitement.

on a white dry erase school board the word Sonnet is written at the top with a vertical stack of numbers 1-14 underneath it. All the writing is in blue.

on a white dry erase school board the word Sonnet is written at the top with a vertical stack of numbers 1-14 underneath it. All the writing is in blue.

Next I talked about the theme, sonnets are about someone or something you really like. I got a lot of “blehs” from this as the thought of writing a love poem, or “love letter” as one of the poets said, was off putting. I told them though that it didn’t have to be addressed to someone, it could simply be fun and addressed to a video game the loved, a show, a book, anything is sonnet worthy.

Once that was established and no one felt like they had to write a love poem, the poets set to work and it was amazing! They tackled the challenge so well! Even the poet who was so opposed to writing “love letters” started with Sonic, but ended with an amazing ode to family, friends, and school.

One note, I started off just letting them free write, but it became quickly apparent that encouraging the poets to number one to fourteen down the side of their paper (like I had up on the board) provided a good frame of reference. Aside from this addition to their papers and occasional encouragement from the teachers and therapists supporting the group not much scaffolding took place.


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Workshopping the Workshop

Today marked the start of a new project with one of the workshops. Rather than building a collaborative poem off of a few lines from each poet, we're writing, revising, and (eventually) publishing full, individual poems.

Image of a poem written in black marker on a school white board. Photo editing has given everything a slight burnt tint. The poem’s title says “Tornado Brain” by Donnie. Parts of the poem are circled in orange, and brown other lines have writing around them in blue and purple ink.

Image of a poem written in black marker on a school white board. Photo editing has given everything a slight burnt tint. The poem’s title says “Tornado Brain” by Donnie. Parts of the poem are circled in orange, and brown other lines have writing around them in blue and purple ink.

Before summer break, every poet wrote a full piece on the prompt Tornado Brain, myself included. In introducing the idea of editing and revising I wanted to use my work rather than make any one post feel picked out. This not only takes away the anxiousness of having a poem critiqued, but it gives me the chance to model, as facilitator, the way to accept and process feedback. It also allows the poets to tackle this new subject as a group and use the collaborating, social skills they have in place from the group writing projects.

The idea of finding something to change was initially off putting to some of the poets and, admittedly, I don't know what I would have done in school if a teacher gave me a lesson saying, "okay, what would you change about this poem I wrote?" Two strategies I found that worked: asking the poets to identify what they like and have them circle it and asking them to make additions to the text.

Circling was a good entry way into the text because once they showed me what they liked they were more equipped to talk about what they didn't. Whether that's because it helped them identify their preferences or because it's socially easier to give someone a compliment sandwich, I'm not sure.  In either case, it helped lead to productive conversations and, as you can tell in the picture, even the circled favorite of one poet proved an area of critique for another.

In asking for additions instead of changes, a couple poets were able to interact with the text and give it a personal sense of completion.  Once the additions were made, it was easier to talk about the full text, including their suggested additions. The explanations for why their additions made sense often highlighted elements of the piece they did or didn't like and served as nice opportunities for myself, other facilitators, and peer poets in the room to interject or agree.

Another technique that seemed to work for this lesson was having  every student use their own color marker at the start. While some overlap eventually happened (best laid plans...) this was nice while it lasted! It not only let me see the work of each individual poet, but it made it easy for them to see what each other thought and, in turn, to respond to each other's comment. Next time I'll try and keep the colors a little more carefully coordinated!

After the success of this, I was hoping the poets would be ready to edit their own pieces, but that was definitely a rushed thought. The poets hesitated and rightfully so. Not only is this something new, but it's something a lot scarier than any reading and/or writing exercise we've done. I think workshops are scary! I just know that the end result is a much better, tighter draft and these poets need to see that pay off before they put themselves out there.

I was focused on having this be a summer project, ending with a summer school publication, but I need to step back and enjoy the process. Next session I'm planning to bring my revisions so that they can see how I've accepted their changes and maybe I'll have them go at it again to get some more practice in and, hopefully, see that it can be a good thing to have other poets read and interact with your work.

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