By Naomi Nichols, Assistant Professor, DISE
Throughout the Spring 2016, and thanks to a grant from the P. Lantz Initiative for Excellence in Education & the Arts, I had the tremendous good fortune to work with two experienced arts-educators (Dr. Loris Beavis and Dr. Brian Nichols) to create a two-week experiment in philosophy and the arts, which we implemented together in July, 2016. The experiment took place across two different educational contexts: a McGill University graduate classroom (Philosophy of Education for the Master’s in Teaching and Learning – MATL – program) and a registered charity called, Brila Youth Projects, led by Natalie Fletcher – a doctoral student in at Concordia University and a trained facilitator in the Community of Philosophical Inquiry approach. Together, Lori, Brian and I developed a reflexive model, which allowed us to play with, think about, and learn from the concept of affirmative art-making (Greene, 1995) as a philosophical practice with children and adult learners, and I designed the Philosophy of Education course to create conceptual and practical links to Brila’s Philosophy for Children program.
Namely, the course was informed by a Community of Philosophical Inquiry approach that seeks to make philosophy accessible to people who lack philosophical training. In pursuit of this aim, for part of each class students led their peers in philosophical questioning and dialogue under the shade of the trees, sprawled out in the grass on the side of a hill, and in the nearby graduate student café. I roamed from group to group and tried my best to simply listen and observe as students gained confidence in their abilities to ask powerful questions and facilitate meaningful dialogue within one another. The other practice we adapted from Brila was the production of individual philosophy “zines” or philo-zines (Fletcher, 2016). The philo-zines served as an artful documentary process to capture the philosophical questions, musings, and moments in the graduate classroom. Unlike Brila’s zines, which range from completely free-form to structured prompts that the children respond to, the graduate student zines were largely unstructured by me. The project was meant to enable students’ personal and artful engagement with the philosophical ideas and practices we encountered throughout the course.
Part I: McGill
We began our engagement with zine-making by exploring a collection of zines I had borrowed from a McGill friend and colleague. From exploring the history and practice of zining, the class engaged in considerable dialogue about the use of zining in a university classroom – was this appropriation? Zining, as a practice, emerged among people who wanted to write, produce and share non-dominant narratives and knowledge. Zining has a history in activist circles as a method of communication that is deliberately anti-institutional and counter-hegemonic. Is this a practice then that we we can ethically bring into a highly institutionalized space like a university classroom. Could these projects be assessed? If so, how?
We determined that our personal philosophical documentary projects would indeed embody the spirit and ethos of zining – they would be home-made, personal, counter-hegemonic representations of people’s engagement with philosophy. But that we would refer to the process more holistically – zining, journaling, or simply documentary work, depending on people’s understanding of the project. From here, we collectively determined the assessment criteria for the project and began working together in this contradictory space to create hand-made books or zines in which we’d document our philosophical questions, ideas, and reactions.
This work began with book-making. We did this work together on our second day of class. To prepare, we had read Fletcher’s article on philo-zines as a way of engaging children in a Community of Philosophic Inquiry approach, and participated in student-led dialogues about John Dewey’s philosophical ideas and practices.
Most people made books in our class, but, in the end, not everyone used these books as the basis for what would become their personal and artful engagement with philosophy. As a group, we then determined the criteria against which these projects would be evaluated. Because we kept the assessment criteria open and generative, people were able to personalize their documentary processes.
As a nod to the history of zine-making, some people chose to create pen and paper, stapled note-book.
One of the four assessment criteria, was the aesthetic quality/impact of the project, based on the degree to which one was able to actualize his or her aesthetic intentions and/or explain how and why these intentions were unable to be realized in the project. Exceptional projects articulated and then reflected on aesthetic intentions that were ambitious, bold and brave.
This creative wiggle-room allowed people to develop and pursue a personal vision for their projects.
Some resembled graphic novels.
Satirical comic books.
A philosophic engagement with Shakespeare, popular culture and sexuality.
A pen-and-ink book.
And a playful garden of philosophical questions and colourful cloth creatures.
With our zine-making/personal documentary projects underway, we continued to read. On day three, philosophically we read about epistemology, education, and the Truth and Reconciliation committee report. We had our first foray into affirmative art-making.
The day prior, as well as discussing communities of philosophical inquiry and philosophy for children, we had engaged with the educational philosophies associated with John Dewey. Day three began with an embodied exploration of Dewey’s thinking about the important role that space can play in stimulating learning. As students walked into the room, they were each given given a different length of string (from 1 to 6 feet) and two pieces of tape and told to do something with it. I was not in the room as the first students began trickling in, but during a debrief later in the class, I learned that students were taken aback by the request. One student walked right out of the room.
When she and others returned to the room, they were simply asked to begin another task. Take a piece of newspaper and begin rolling it into a long wand-like stick. Students were asked to start rolling paper sticks and not stop until they made at least ten.
Some students happily began creating sticks. Sitting on the floor together in small groups or alone, chatting or silently rolling. Others began reluctantly and grumbled lightly that they did not like arts and crafts. Still others expressed their inability to effectively do the task. The request to engage in a process without a clear outcome was clearly unsettling to many. And despite a collective review of the syllabus and discussion of the artistic aspects of the course, it was unusual for people to begin a graduate course with what seemed like an elementary school making-task. Throughout the paper-wand-making, Lori, Brian and I simply contributed to the process – engaging in wand-making, tape distributing and conversation with the people in the room.
As students completed their ten paper wands, they were asked by Brian to get into groups and make something with the sticks. The first group began to create an object, which ultimately became a border to the classroom.
The student who had entered the room, only to walk back out was part of this group. I listened with interest as she and her group members articulated and began to execute a plan to create an entrance to the class, which was to be reminiscent of the love-beaded doorways of the 1960s and 70s. Later during a class debrief, she spoke to this personal transformation, as she allowed herself to just be in the activity and let go of her initial reservations.
One by one, groups came together and began discussing and executing plans for their structures. They used the floor, walls and ceiling. The classroom filled with boats, houses, tents, and cubes.
Lori and I kept rolling papers as periodically Brian called out a new instruction – for example: “join your group’s work to another group’s work.” When the entire room was filled with paper structures, we turned off the lights and used our cellphone flashlights to walk the room in silence – letting the change sink in.
We chose to remain in the semi-darkness for our debriefing discussion of the experience. Brian, Lori and I asked questions, which the group reflected on and discussed:
- What was your experience?
- When did you become defensive, shut down or critical of the process or of others?
- At what point did you buy in?
- How does changing the space change the student/and impact the learning?
- How does the teacher’s role change when students have impact on the environment?
Students identified their initial reservations – especially the first students to arrive that day – and also the moment when their reservations dissipated and they began to enjoy the experience. People talked about watching the classroom change and how the change in the space changed the energy in the room. We sat in the dark and imagined doing projects like this in high school classrooms. We talked about what it means to be present in a space and with our students and what opens us up (or shuts us down) to this experiences of groundedness with others. We circled back to Dewey and looked forward to Greene. And then the group posed a question to us: What were goals were for the workshop?
Lori and Brian talked about how this was a chance for them to gauge the willingness of the group to engage in play. They also wanted people to have chance to make something together before we engaged in a full class of making art together towards the end of the week.
We kept the room as it was and took a break.
When the students returned, we returned, as a group, to a discussion of epistemology and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report. Lori lead us in a discussion of the report and its significance to people’s roles and responsibilities as teachers. We continued to explore the epistemological, political and pedagogical themes of the report through the visual art of a number of Indigenous artists before moving outside to student-led philosophical discussions of the readings.
Two days after our initial art-making endeavor, the group gathered again in a new space to engage in four hours of affirmative art-making as an entrée into Maxine Greene’s philosophical ideas and practices. By this point in the course, we had read about and reflected on existentialism, phenomenology and hermeneutics (among other streams of philosophic thought), and so we were well-positioned to read about and apply Greene’s ideas about the arts and art-making as enabling the presence or “wide-awakeness.”
Based on our conversations with Natalie, the executive director at Brila, we knew that the children there were meant to be exploring the concept of revenge on the day we were set to be with them. So Brian and Lori designed an activity that would allow participants (the children at Brila and the graduate students at McGill) an opportunity to play with the concept through story-telling, theatre and visual-art-making and compare the experience across three sites (one at McGill and two at Brila).
Beginning with a collective recreation of a 17th Century version of Jack and the Beanstock, where revenge figures prominently, we invited groups of students to write plays that embodied the characteristics of a traditional hero’s tale. For the next three hours, students worked in small groups to write simple plays, and then create costumes, props and puppets using the branches, birch bark, bones, feathers, paint, glue-guns, boxes and other art supplies laid out in inviting patterns across a large central table. We hadn’t imagined that the students would create costumes with the art supplies and so we changed our method mid-flow. Rather than that requesting people give away the props and plays to another group to perform – as a way to invite improvisation and play rather than performance – we watched in amazement as people fabricated costumes, puppets, large and small sets.
While some groups opted to transform the classroom into fantastical sets, others headed outside into the green spaces around the Faculty of Education to rehearse their plays.
While their classmates sat and watched, students performed puppet shows, narrated stories, and improvised theatre in the classroom itself and under the shade of the trees on gently sloping Mount Royal, where McGill’s Faculty of Education is situated.
Like we did earlier in the week, we ended with a large-group discussion. Seated on the floor and in chairs, back in the classroom, we talked about the process, asking people to share and reflect on their observations and experiences of the affirmative art-making process, and then extend these observations and experiences to reflections on teaching and learning more specifically.
From here, they contrasted the previous day’s experience doing analytic philosophy with the arts-based approach to philosophical inquiry we engaged today. In this way, the group was able to compare two divergent experiences of philosophical inquiry – an exploration that was almost entirely cerebral and one that invited a full-bodied and playful approach – to consider the possibilities and limitations for each approach. Students were encouraged to note resonances between our philosophical work in the class and branches of philosophical thought that we were reading about – for example, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and post-modernism. We used this discussion to note the circuitous connections between different modes of thought and philosophical positions.
We slowly wound our way back to our first class together when we talked about the importance of being present with our students, and students began to make explicit connections to Maxine Greene’s work and her ideas about cultivating presence or wide-awakeness through the arts. We revisited our learning about existentialism and explored how Maxine Greene is associated with an existentialist tradition because she sees that to be present and engaged will require work – active concerted effort – on each of our parts. Students reflected on the structural barriers (e.g., time, curricular expectations, testing) and societal inhibiters (e.g., cell phones, social media, commuting), which must be acknowledged and navigated if we are to adopt a stance of presence, engagement, and reflexivity in our classrooms.
We ended with an invitation to identify and reflect on our growing edges – the parts of ourselves and things we want to do with our lives that we are only partially aware of or willing to admit to. These are the parts of ourselves that are in motion or changing, and the uncertainty associated with them can be frightening or unsettling. Brian asked people to think about their own growing edges, and how they will cultivate these in their lives. We ended the week with these quiet reflective thoughts.
Part II: Brila Youth Projects
In the second week of the Philosophy of Education course, Lori, Brian and I, as well as a McGill doctoral student (Mitchell Mclarnon) and two Philosophy of Education MATL students (Sarah Contreras-Wolfe and Anna Illiakis) attended Brila Youth Projects as special guests and implemented an adapted version of the affirmative art-making project with 37 five-seven year olds and 26 eight-twelve year olds. In addition to sharing the process with Brila youth and staff, the idea was to bring back stories, observations and photographic artifacts from these parallel projects to share with the rest of the Philosophy of Education students at McGill.
We began by working with the 37 five-seven year-old campers for two and a half hours. In a darkened chapel on Concordia’s Layola campus, we sat with a group of children in a large circle and orally recreated the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. As the story progressed, Brian shared that in early versions of the story, the Giant had killed Jack’s father and taken his father’s castle and magical goose and harp for his own. Thus, Jack’s killing of the giant is an act of revenge, and his heroism is connected to his effort to right the wrong his family had experienced. The children were invited to reflect on what they know about the concept of revenge and stories about heroes.
From here, they returned to their colour groups to create hero stories together. Each of us, facilitated the small group work, using a basic 5-step hero story as a guide, to create story-boards with the children:
- The story begins in the ordinary world. The hero is just an ordinary person.
- There is a call to adventure.
- The hero meets a wise person.
- The hero undertakes a test/challenge.
- The hero returns home.
The children worked in French and English and the adults acted as scribes for their ideas. The children took the task very seriously and deliberated at length about who their hero(es) should be and what tasks they should have to undertake. Many groups had more than one hero character and in most cases the stories involved families – where the children had to save their parents from evil monsters and villains. The story of Jack and the Beanstalk clearly influenced their thinking, and groups created variations of this well-known tale.
With their story-boards done, the children were invited to create the costumes and prompts they would need to enact their stories. Some of the props were created by the graduate students at McGill, and the children adapted these to their own purposes. In other instances, the children worked together and with their group leaders to create costumes for each character. They created weapons and used large sticks as staffs, and swathes of fabric as capes. One group spent the entire time creating a set of wings. In some cases, the adults were asked to take on roles in the play – animals, narrators, villains, and parents. The children were always the heroes and wise people. The adult and adolescent mentors were assigned secondary and supporting roles like the horse or the parents, who the children set off to rescue. With their props and costumes established, the groups began to play their stories. They played them multiple times, and the stories evolved as the children took over more and more of the chapel space.
After about 20 minutes of play, the children were asked to create a large circle and give their stories and props away to the adult and adolescent leaders who created a “mash-up” style performance, which combined key elements and props from each of the group’s plays. With great enthusiasm from some of the counsellors, this new play was then performed for the children. This part of the workshop – intentionally designed by us to ensure the focus was on play and the importance of being present in play (rather than preparing for a performance) – proved very difficult for many of the children, who expressed their disappointment (and disbelief!) vocally and in their refusal to give back the things they had made.
I had underestimated how hard it would be to give away the magic wands, capes, weapons, and staffs to be used – first by their own counsellors and later by the older youth in the program. I had also underestimated their commitment to performance at such a young age. When we returned at the end of the day, the children were still talking about how unfair it was that they were not able to perform their plays. I suspect this made for an interesting conversation during their Community of Philosophic Inquiry discussions, later that day.
After the first session, we had moved all of the artistic tools and supplies upstairs and figured out how we wanted to work with a very different room. We created an artful presentation of the art supplies and observed how important space was to our ability to invite imagination and play. Thinking back to our earlier work at McGill with the Philosophy of Education students and the experiments we did with the use of space (our embodiment of the idea that space is the first teacher), we reflected on the ways the spaces we had occupied over the three stages of the project, influenced our ability to speak, listen and play together.
We also remarked on the children’s disappointment in being unable to perform their plays, and discussed whether this was an effective act of resistance (to the focus on performativity) on our parts or whether we should have let each group perform it’s play to another group, and how we might have used outdoor spaces to do this well.
After eating, reflecting and talking together, Mitchell and the children experimented with taking aerial footage using a drone camera. Although we did not successfully record any footage, the children enjoyed watching the drone hover over their heads, and clambered around Mitchell’s legs to have an opportunity to operate it, themselves.
After lunch, we hung back under a tree in the courtyard with the group of older children and youth and began the process again. At lunch, we had talked about spending more time talking about what they had discussed in the morning session, so that we could anchor the afternoon’s activities to their earlier thinking about the concept of revenge. We began by inviting the group to share some of the highlights of their discussion with us. From here, Brian invited the group to participate in a collective re-telling of Jack and the Beanstock. The telling happened in French and English and translations across the languages, with Brian adding gruesome and violent details from the 17th century version of the story. From here, Brian let the children know that we’d be going inside to create and then enact our own hero stories. Together he and the children identified the components of a hero’s journey, adding additional details to the template that we had skimmed over with the smaller children. Like in the first session, the story template included an injustice that the hero was called to right. The groups headed upstairs to their work space, and began the work of coming up with a hero’s story.
While some groups quickly sketched out a general outline, the group I was facilitating spent at least an hour passionately deliberating on their collective narrative, the roles each person would play, the injustice experienced, and the methods to resolve it. People performed passionate and detailed descriptions of their ideas, only to have them rejected by others in the group. And despite the evident ability to critique the ideas and not the person – people were compelled by the ideas they brought forward and saddened when their ideas were not valued by their peers. This became very clear after the plays were performed and we sat in a circle and shared our experiences of the work with one another. In the end, the plays were written to incorporate aspects from the distinctive visions of the youth who collaborated in each group. In these older groups, people were happy to share in the roles of heroes and villains, wise people, and those requiring help. While the villains were shunned by the smaller children, these seemed to be considered choice parts for the older youth to play, and people carved out distinctive and multi-dimensional personalities for these unsavory characters. While the parents had been the victims requiring rescue during the morning session, in the afternoon, parents became the villains (ignoring their children as they communed with their laptops), while the children went off to have adventures.
Like in the morning session, once the children and youth had produced the outlines for their plays and determined who would play which character, they began making the props and costumes their characters would need. They repurposed the same materials and props that had been used by the two previous groups, and using glue guns, staplers and tape, made elaborate props to bring their stories to life. Each group had a chance to practice their plays, and then we took over the large room, which we’d been asked to keep clean, as a performance space. The plays were performed with intensity and seriousness, even when they were mean to be very funny. The audience gave themselves over to the story lines and characters developed by their peers.
In the end, we gathered again in a circle to debrief the plays, and people eloquently and passionately talked about how hard it was to write the plays and how they too wanted to be able to take their costumes home with them. In the end, all of the art supplies were left at Brila for them to use for the rest of the summer.