Monday, March 30, 2020

Instead of helping us cling to the pre-covid reality, can technology help us evolve a new one?

This morning I read a great article by Paul Mason, who states boldly that the end of capitalism has begun, partly because technology has given us the tools to move into a new way of living. Fabulous, and the more I read, the more I could see a vision for the future of humanity that's already developing. Mason talks about a rise in collaborative production, mentioning Wikipedia as a good example, because it's "made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue." As I was reading this article, my daughter came in to get the huge contour map of our island off of the wall behind me. She says she needs it for creating our little corner of the The Earth in Minecraft. Wha--?

Apparently somebody has made the foundation for a Minecraft version of our home planet, which is being completed by Minecraft users - volunteers - over the internet. This is a bit of how my daughter is spending her time in isolation. Other than this, she's going for a run every day with my parents' dog, helping us in the garden and to set up our new chicken flock, writing, gaming and filming for her various online presences, wearing animal onesies all day and using her trapeze, working on her current novel, cooking and baking for herself and the family... basically she's living a rich unschooling life, as she did before.

The school system, however, is struggling to keep up with the changes. Mainstream school parents are worried about all the screen-time, and how to entertain kids at home who are used to being in a classroom and on a playground. Kids I know are worried about how they'll learn when the classes are all online, with little or no student-teacher interaction. I'm more worried about the lack of student-student interaction. My son's college classes are already online or out-of-book-only with tests sent over internet. My daughter's previously 2-day-a-week democratic musical theatre troupe will become a 2-day-a-week screen-based program organized by their teacher. There will be a lunch break, but previously lunch-break meant social time. What will it mean now that the players aren't playing together, laughing, buying food, and scheming together over lunch? The social gathering that is conducive to their democratic co-creation of musical theatre productions might be no more.

I have tried, in the past, to encourage my daughter to make a YouTube channel where she reads children's book for kids to watch, and she said no. No, because she wouldn't even know who she's reading to. No, because reading to kids means kids sit close and you turn the pages when they want you to. No, because kids need the opportunity to flip backwards, mid-story, and No because reading to kids is about connection, and YouTube removes the connection. She's right. How in hell is our school system going to work, online? When my son's chemistry professor gives a lecture, few people engage to ask questions. My son doesn't even wear his headset. The social, community-feeling of the classroom is gone, and at the end of the class he has nothing to report.

We're trying to use technological innovation to cling to our old ways of doing things, but the current method of disseminating information via internet is suddenly failing us. We're all stuck looking for information and help to come from the top of a hierarchical pyramid, while dispensing of an essential component of education: our peers. When we look back to see how our education influenced us, it's rarely the lectures that stand out. More often we remember amazing (or amazingly horrible) experiences with our friends, choices we made personally for better or for worse, the days things went colossally not to plan, and the days we skipped school and got creative or destructive with our friends. With our friends! Like I asked before, how in hell is this going to work online??

There's going to have to be an evolution in education, as in everything else. By necessity, we're already evolving other systems, using social engagement (from a distance) and authentic sharing. People are ordering groceries online, and friends are picking up group orders, to deliver to those in isolation. Parents strapped for time and unable to fully dedicate their days to their children's needs are discovering free-range parenting and unschooling to be a solution. Small groups of people are going hiking in the wilderness - not gathering as we once did, to tromp all over one specific spot with a thousand footsteps until the spot becomes barren, but to disperse in the untraversed areas and see with new eyes, sharing discoveries from a distance of six-feet-plus. We're sharing newly discovered recipes on facebook. We're reaching out to our neighbours because the hierarchical system of caregiving that we previously depended upon is failing us, now.

We are more resilient than we realize, and coronavirus is helping us see that. It's bringing us together, even as it tears our system apart. We can depend on each other - on the goodwill and good ideas of our neighbours. We can start to put faith in our own strength and our own wits, and where will that bring us tomorrow? Maybe to a world where low-wage jobs are obsolete, and we respect each other for our expertise and creativity.

Automation and new technology is carrying us forward like this, as the Internet has enabled Wikipedia and other collaborative enterprises, self-checkouts have enabled a more democratic, people-based system of grocery shopping, as we're empowered to self-organize, and often help our neighbouring shoppers sort out their orders. In my community, the woman who manages our local grocery store has become a hero, as she regularly posts social media updates on how the store is organizing, and how people can make the new systems work. Yes, she works at the cash register, and that part of her job could one day be replaced by machine-labour, but she's respected for her community engagement and social awareness - made possible by social media and our present need for her ingenuity and compassion. I like to imagine a world where we can all contribute our innate skills and nobody will be slaving away at low-wage jobs for mere survival. Low-wage jobs will disappear, for sure, but as our respect for each other and for the necessity of our neighbourliness grows, we'll value each other more, and make space for everyone to be valuable. Instead of being the link between us and our old systems, technology already is the link between us and our totally new future.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Has COVID-19 Already Changed Humanity?

Everhard van Lidth de Jeude stands looking over his pond after feeding the trout. 2014

There's a beaver on our property these days, gleefully chewing up my father's prized rhododendrons, his willow, and other plants, and using them to plug up the outlet from the pond. Nearly every day my father pulls the sticks and mud out of the end of the pond, removing branch after branch of the shrubs he's been nurturing for years and hauling them away to dump at the edge of the forest. My kids and their father just went out to wrap some special trees with wire, hoping to spare them the wrath of the beaver. They're improvising with whatever supplies they can scavenge from the yard and recent chicken-coop build. We hope it's only one beaver. We don't actually know. Beavers have the capacity to wipe out and completely transform a landscape, creating wetlands out of parched slopes and grassy meadows out of rainforests -- and this property is like a craft supply shop for beavers. So we persevere with the pond-unplugging and tree-protecting. It's like repeatedly washing hands in an effort to save us from coronavirus. Just a month ago, all of these precautions had never entered our minds. Now they're routine. We've changed.

Reading this interesting piece from Fahd Humayun this morning, I am thinking about how our family's life might change; how our culture might change, and especially how our interconnected social structure might change, following this pandemic. As a parent of two teens hurrying into adulthood, I think constantly about my children's future. Will their education programs thrive or falter in the sudden age of digital engagement during pandemic? Will the fact that I unschooled them help or hinder them in this new world? Will their formal education even matter in the future we can't predict? Will my love have been enough?

It was only a year ago that my son fully embraced the educational norm of our society and decided to motor through the system, earn his highschool diploma, and work towards a university degree in science. He's part-way there, having completed the highschool grad requirements, and now at college upgrading his science and calculus education in order to make himself part of that teeny weeny cream of the crop that makes it into his chosen field. My daughter is slogging through the highschool requirements mostly on her own time and in a 2-day-a-week alternative program while putting the larger part of her spirit and time into a musical theatre program. Social isolation and the threat of this pandemic has put most of these activities on the backburner, while some attempt haltingly to carry on via video chat. So what now?

As unschoolers, we might seem to have been eminently prepared for this, and in some ways we were. The four of us are getting along reasonably well, considering the stress of the teens' social isolation, and we're not worried about the future, academically, because we dispensed of that fear many years ago. But what about the future of humanity? How will kids of the future grow and learn, in a post-pandemic world? There are so many questions we can't answer, and that alone is frightening.

Post-corona, I think humanity may go in one of two general directions: either we tumble further into capitalism, relieved to regain access to quick fixes and cheap thrills, and falling in line as obedient citizens, having learned to follow instructions during the pandemic, and having let go of many of our personal freedoms, or we discover the fallacy of our current system, and build a new one -- one that works less like a monoculture and more like a wilderness. A monoculture is very susceptible to attack from a single predator, weather event, or disease. Without the balance of diversity, a monoculture becomes less resilient as it continuously sucks nutrient from the earth, unable to replenish what has been taken. In this weak state of being, one serious disease can wipe out a whole landscape, leaving the land barren and unable to recover. A diversified wilderness (or true permaculture wilderness farm, if you want to look at it that way) loses some inhabitants to predation and other adverse events, but works well as a whole, because the nature of diversity means that there is always something left to persevere, fill in the gaps, and heal the whole. Capitalism and human dominance of Earth's landscape has led us to live like a monoculture, and it's killing us.

So can we escape this fate? We're used to the way things are, and nobody really wants to take the hard road. My family has just finished consuming our store-bought fresh produce, and now we're carefully whittling away at our remaining frozen and canned goods, while simultaneously harvesting wild greens, setting up a flock of chickens, and getting this year's veggie garden going. We're trying to strengthen ourselves as a family in the absence of our friends and community; in the absence of fresh groceries and trips to town. And it's HARD! We feel scared and heartbroken to be without the arms of those we normally turn to for support. This is a change for us - a deeper isolation than the one caused by our choice to unschool in a community that largely followed the mainstream. But for the first time in a long time, we're not doing it alone! We and all our loved ones have been chucked out onto this hard road in our separate little bubbles and we're fumbling along together, sharing advice and support over social media.

The question of what education will look like when or if this pandemic is all over is huge for me. My brother is sorting out how he and his colleagues will support a previously active and outdoor-engaged middle school over the internet; I had to simply cancel all the courses I teach, and will likely offer some online; my son is persevering through a newly lab-less chemistry class led by a teacher who struggles with the technology, and my daughter is about to meet her theatre cohort on Zoom to create some semblance of the togetherness that used to happen with physical movement and contact. Nothing is what it used to be; we can't know how these experiments will work out, and I feel certain that entirely new forms of human connection and development are now nascent. But these things are evolving in a largely democratic, wilderness-like way: Millions of people trying things out and breaking them here and there and repairing them here and there with scavenged and improvised solutions, some casualties and some surprise successes -- just like the process of evolution. Education, like the rest of our societal norms, is evolving in front of our eyes.

And despite the isolation, we are not in this alone!

Charles Eisenstein puts into words what I and likely so many others are feeling:
Covid-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice. When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future. We might ask, after so many have lost their jobs, whether all of them are the jobs the world most needs, and whether our labor and creativity would be better applied elsewhere. We might ask, having done without it for a while, whether we really need so much air travel, Disneyworld vacations, or trade shows. What parts of the economy will we want to restore, and what parts might we choose to let go of? And on a darker note, what among the things that are being taken away right now – civil liberties, freedom of assembly, sovereignty over our bodies, in-person gatherings, hugs, handshakes, and public life – might we need to exert intentional political and personal will to restore?
Last night my father came home from a surgery to remove some melanoma. It has been three weeks since I came close to him, because the risks of this pandemic are high for a man in his seventies who is embarking on a cancer journey, and also for me, who has an auto-immune condition that tends to inflame my lungs. We protected each other by keeping apart. But the last time one of my parents went for surgery, he died unexpectedly. I lost my other father in a wilderness of confusion, just as we thought he was almost ready to come home. My fear of losing my second father was so great that I was sick all day with worry, and when my mother finally brought him home on the last ferry, I waited at their gate to let them in. My father showed a rare vulnerability as he let me walk him and his hospital-provided vacuum-pack machine to their house, and when he got inside, he hugged me. My pandemic-induced fear of closeness vanished, and my hope returned.

In the piece I linked to at the beginning, Fahd Humayun states that "the pandemic will likely demonstrate that a world without safety nets, cooperation and deep cross-border engagement is no longer tenable." If we want to thrive as a species, we're going to have to become a wilderness instead of a monoculture. We're going to have to take all the best changes this pandemic has brought us and keep them alive in human culture: finding ways to utilize the neglected foods in the back of our freezers; finding ways to help the loved ones we can't come close to, noticing and supporting those who are at risk and may have been invisible to us, before; supporting those who risk their own lives to save ours, and seeing the value in every single one of our diverse community members. We have all learned so much already in the past month. Let's keep expanding our minds and hearts and learn to run nimbly on our toes in the landscape of our wilderness, sharing skills and ingenuity and love. Certainly it is our love that will make this wilderness possible.

Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19: How to Unschool During Isolation

Here we all are (hopefully) busy flattening the curve by staying home for a few months... and keeping our kids home from school, which causes some legitimate concerns for parents who either can't stay home or worry about finances, their children's welfare, or academic success. For some people this is an opportunity to unschool, as evidenced by the handful of people who have already asked me about how to jump onto this path, during isolation. We're all trying to figure out how we can support each other while keeping isolated, so I'm very happy to provide coaching for free during this time (as much as I can manage, time-wise). I'm also happy to provide a supportive ear, if you just need to talk. But here, to get you started, are some basic guidelines that answer the questions people most commonly ask me. This is going to be an interesting time, and if we work through it thoughtfully we may emerge a much more successful civilization than we were when we entered it.

With thanks to my auntie Lidia Patriasz for this poignant piece of art.
What is Unschooling?
"Unschooling is a generic term for a form of homeschooling in which, loosely speaking, education happens without the use of a schedule, curriculum, testing and grades. It's an approach which is used in varying degrees by different families. Unschooling is child-led education, so if the child chooses to go to school, they are still unschooled, as they were not coerced or persuaded to go there, but chose to do so of their own free will. Unschooling is the rejection of an imposed education. Other synonyms are natural or non-coercive learning, auto-didactic, self-learning, free range organic education."

Why Unschool?
Each of us has our own unique set of reasons for unschooling. We went into unschooling for different reasons than we continued it over the years. I can say that for me and my own circumstances (and personal ways of thinking), unschooling was less stressful than homeschooling or schooling. It was like improvising a meal with the ingredients at hand rather than shopping for the ingredients to a specific recipe. It gave me the emotional freedom to do what I and my children thought was right, and to problem-solve along the way, instead of sticking to somebody else's plan that may not always have been right for us. It also gave me and my children the flexibility to identify and solve issues for ourselves, thus becoming more adept at doing so. It makes us stronger, more self-reliant and confident people.

The first thing that happens when we stop going to school is de-schooling. In fact, any children who don't continue with tutoring and summer courses do this every summer, so it's not as alien a concept as it might seem. De-schooling is simply the transition period between schooling and not schooling. It's the time where our minds slowly release themselves from the constraints of one system and begin to sort out the constraints of another. It can be an incredibly difficult time, as we're accustomed to the way things were, and usually uncertain about the way things are becoming. Many unschoolers report a euphoric time of peace and contentment with life after an arduous, tumultuous period of de-schooling.

The difference between school and un-school is all about determination (control) and responsibility. At school, children are set on a path that is largely out of their control. There's a defined set of goals for them to achieve, and a defined set of methods for achieving it. This lack of self-determination drives some kids crazy, but for others it's comforting. For all kids, it can be terrifying to be suddenly handed the reins to their own destiny - every moment and for the long haul. But that's unschooling.

De-schooling will probably take longer than you expect. For some families it takes years. I think the shortest de-schooling periods we've had were those in which I didn't push. I remained patient and expected nothing, and usually just ignored my kids and got busy with my own things. The times when I nagged them to get active or start projects have always been the longest-lasting, most fraught times.

I've gone through periods of de-schooling a few times with my kids, as they tried out school programs and then de-schooled over the breaks, or when they returned to full-time home-based unschooling. It was never easy. But some support and encouragement goes a long way to helping us get through. The best advice I can give other parents on this front is to find an unschooling community (online, during the pandemic) and get involved. Share your experiences and ask all your questions. Listen to others. Unschoolers are here for each other and there are thousands of other parents out there who will understand your trials and offer support.

What to do While De-schooling?
Like everything else about unschooling, that's up to you and your kids! Some people just sit back and do nothing. Let the kids play video games until they're blue in the face. Let them read the same book over and over and over until you think you've lost them. Let them really just do nothing. There's nothing wrong with that; their brains are doing something. They are processing. De-schooling is a process, leading both kids and parents to discover their own boredom. Boredom is like a swear word to so many of us; we're accustomed to filling every spare second of our time with activity. But space of time and mind is needed to embark on a new adventure, and boredom is that space. Silence is a good space too. Let it be.

De-schooling isn't about what you're doing as much as it's about what you're not doing. Make a lot of big bored silent space, just asking to be filled. This will cultivate the desire to do something, later. And unschooling is all about finding and following our hearts' desires.

Wait -- Who Makes the Rules?! What About Safety?
I don't see unschooling as mayhem with the kids ruling the roost. I see it has a contract between all the household members to work for the happiness of everyone. We're all responsible. This means lots of conversation; lots of vulnerability. Total honesty. If I made the food too spicy just because I like it that way, but one of the kids is suffering, then maybe I need to serve the spices separately. If you don't like the way I do your laundry, you can learn to do it yourself. This isn't a punishment; it's a fabulous learning opportunity and a pathway to self-reliance. If you don't want me to show you how to do the laundry, figure it out yourself. If I, as a parent, am hiding in my room because my kid is watching horribly violent movies and it's too much for me, then maybe it's too much for the whole family. My needs matter too. If my kid is hanging off a cliff and it terrifies me, perhaps I need to explain the reasons for my fear. Kids can handle the truth better than they usually navigate a blurry field of unexplained rules.

Safety in our family means lots of talking, and sometimes taking risks that I don't approve of. However frightening it is, I know that my children learn how to be safe from risk-taking, and I have to stand back, cover my eyes, and let it happen. I try to model calculated risk-taking, myself. My hope is that if they follow my lead, the accidents will be fewer and smaller, and so far this has proven to be true. Children learn far more from what we do than from what we tell them.

But Screens!!!
It turns out most kids will eventually grow bored of sitting in front of their screens and find something else to do. And it seems that almost always takes more time than we parents have patience for. It's really hard to watch our kids drowning in activities we see as useless or detrimental. Many of my family's struggles have been related to screen-time, and I almost always lose an argument when trying to convince them to cut back their screen-time. I've laid down the law quite a few times, and this kind of coercion has been detrimental to their own feelings of taking responsibility. The times I've been more successful, I've had more patience. Reminding ourselves that more time is needed, and seeking encouragement from other parents is helpful in this regard.

What to Do; What to Learn
One of the wonderful things about unschooling is the opportunity for kids and parents to learn life skills that otherwise may have gone by the wayside, in lieu of time spent doing homework or extra-curricular activities. Unschooling is about living life to the fullest, and this includes taking care of ourselves, along the way. In doing so we're bound to learn how life works, how our bodies work, how our home and family works, how to live well in community. These are the essentials of life. All the facts and figures learned in school make their way into what we learn from life, but in real and tangible ways. It astounded me that when my son finally went to school in grade seven, he not only understood math at grade level, but understood why it worked. His twelve years of exploring the workings of the world without formal math instruction had fully prepared him to understand the functions and relationships of numbers.

Unschooling is about exploration and experimentation, so what to do is anything that you find engaging!

Maybe you need some inspiration. Here are some things we love to do:
  • Go on family adventures (mostly brief, local, and low-cost, as these usually seem to be the least stressful and most rewarding). 
  • Make some new recipes - experiment in the kitchen! In times of isolation we may have to get creative with fewer ingredients, anyway. Try old recipes with new ingredients or try making things you may have purchased ready-made before.
  • Start reading those books that have been beckoning from the shelf for years. 
  • Sign up and follow one of the many free online courses available from universities around the world. 
  • Learn a new language with Duolingo
  • Wilderness camping or hikes are probably a fairly safe activity for virus-isolated families, as long as you stick to the less-travelled wilderness areas. If nobody else has been there for at least a week, you're probably safe. And bonus: it's a welcome distraction from screens, as well as being one of the best possible activities for health, happiness, and education. 
  • Those fortunate enough to own a vehicle can go on road-trips (as long as you stay in your car through towns and villages; don't go into shops or other populated areas). 
  • If you have access to land, or even a balcony, plant a garden! I once had a three-foot-wide balcony in the city, where I grew beans for shade and privacy, a pumpkin that failed to make fruit, a bunch of lettuce and basil, spinach, and a tiny two-by-two-foot lawn!
Do you hear the excitement in my typing? That's because I'm listing the things I love doing, myself. Even if our kids don't want to be involved, modelling fun, healthy activities is the best possible education we can give them. My kids get up to all kinds of other things like fort-building (both with lumber and with sticks in the forest), geocaching, making videos to share online, performing with their self-taught instruments, and just simply hanging out with friends (online during coronavirus). I'm sure your kids will have their own ideas. Mine frequently surprise me, as they did with this cardboard vending machine which they built and spent two days entertaining our community with! But don't follow my ideas. Your own and your children's will be far more interesting. Obviously, during isolation season, geocaching, busking, cardboard vending machine operation, and any other activity that involves touching things that are also touched by other people, are out of the question. This definitely poses some problems, but sometimes the internet solves these problems. Get creative!

What About Academics?
Our kids will be fine. They learned to crawl and to walk and eventually to speak without formal instruction, and when they're similarly inspired they'll learn to read, write, and calculate. They may not do these things at the times school-going children do, but they'll do it at the time that is right for them. I've known a few unschoolers who didn't take an interest in reading until they were ten or more years old, and within a year or two of developing an interest, they were reading at or beyond what many would call "grade-level".

Of course there's always a chance that kids will struggle with academics at some point, but in my experience it's no more likely for unschoolers than for kids who've spent a lifetime in the school system. In fact, unschooling often gives struggling kids a chance to succeed on their own terms, while not being compared to classmates. Just don't worry. Children sense their parents' fears and then they battle those fears too. The best thing you can do to support your children is support yourself, so that your fears don't become theirs.

Some kids just love structure. All of us can benefit from it in some ways. I have no problem with structure, but I've usually tried to let my kids define it for themselves. My daughter seemed to be born passionate about planning, and has often had schedules and other plans for herself, even when I wasn't so organized. She had lists in books before she could write (only she knew what they said, but they were very important to her). My son didn't find planning very important at all until he decided to quickly earn his graduation diploma, and suddenly found himself scheduling all his time down to the minute, as he raced to finish an impossible-seeming number of courses he wasn't quite prepared for. He made it by some miracle, and now has an appreciation and aptitude for planning.

So let them create the structure they need, and create your own. In our family, it's me who generally has a master plan, and my challenge is to learn to adapt when it doesn't suit the needs of others.

Loneliness and Support
Skype charades
Lastly, and most importantly, build a support network. Social interaction really can be difficult for families staying at home without a wider community. We struggled quite a bit with this during times when there were few other homeschoolers, and all our children's friends were busy with school and extra-curriculars. We had some lonely times, which were always the reasons my kids tried out school programs. During this pandemic, isolation will be an even greater challenge, despite our great efforts to achieve it. We'll have to find ways to connect, and the Internet is likely to be our best friend. Skype, Zoom, and other visual platforms can be great for kids. When they were much younger, mine had a few Skype visits with their friends who were living aboard a sailboat. It was amazing to me to watch them have costume parties, make crafts, play music jams, and sword-fight each other over Skype.

I personally prefer my old-fashioned phone, and am happy to make myself a cup of tea, snuggle in with my rotary, and have a long-distance tea-date with a friend. I get my parent-support by participating in online unschooling forums. Facebook has quite a few, often linked with other homeschooling groups, and also often local.
I wish you well in your unschooling and life explorations. It's an adventurous path to take, and I've never regretted our personal journey. I hope yours is fabulous! I'll leave you with a quote from one of my favourite radio shows: Stay calm, be brave; wait for the signs!

Sunday, March 15, 2020

COVID-19: Holding Our Children's Hearts as Their World Changes

What a rough few days in my house. Meltdowns everywhere, and some of them have been my own. We took a mini vacation to a neighbouring island with my partner's mother, and it did provide a much needed reprieve from the stress, but we came back home to more stress; more cancellations; more sadness. It's hard.

Kids everywhere are suffering as the seriousness of the corona virus pandemic becomes apparent, and their worlds begin to crumble around them. Maybe their parents are fighting over pandemic measures. Maybe there's no toilet paper because the neighbours literally had every last roll delivered to their door but the shop shelves are empty. Maybe they're out of ramen. Maybe their vacation got cancelled. Maybe they just feel the existential threat of Disneyland closing. Or maybe, as in my daughter's case, the musical she's been obsessing about performing in all year is in grave danger of not going ahead, and even if it does, it's unlikely she can perform, because both she and her mother have autoimmune issues and just can't risk her participation. Maybe she feels the existential despair of knowing that her friends are getting together without her. Maybe our older kids, like my son, feel a deep fear of failure, as college courses may not be completed and academic next-steps may falter. Maybe it feels like their parents are being way over-dramatic about all this, and destroying their lives for nothing, or maybe they see our fear and ill-advised panic-shopping as a true existential threat. Maybe they just see our helpless feelings and now struggle to contain their own. And we all melt down.

A few days ago I thought this pandemic presented a really great opportunity to bond with my children, to grow a better garden and get to some long-ignored projects. Now I just see stress everywhere I look, and I worry that we won't make it through.

I ask myself what matters most to me and, as always, the answer is my children's welfare - both physical and psychological. And I see that both are now threatened. At the moment, ensuring their physical welfare means isolation, and isolation is deeply psychologically harmful, especially to a couple of teens who are just learning to make their way in the world, without me. And let's not forget: It's a world full of people who are currently stressed over a pandemic, running the gamut from panic shopping to selling off their stocks, to running for the hills, to mocking anybody who uses hand sanitizer. That's a hard landscape to navigate even for me, never mind for a kid whose existence seems to revolve around people and activities that are suddenly all threatened.

We can't change this terrible feeling, but we can hold our children's hearts close to our own. We can continue to remind ourselves that our meltdowns come from fear, and that love can't cure corona virus or bring back all the things that have suddenly been cancelled, but love is a poultice. We can take comfort in our children's heads resting on our shoulders, in knowing that our love is helpful, if not always accepted, and we can enjoy the brief moments of happiness we find in distraction. We can hold our own hearts gently. We can inch forward with discovery and invention as we find new ways of living in our quickly changing world, knowing that our children will grow from being a part of the change. We didn't ask for this pandemic, but we can ride it. Maybe right now it feels like hanging on for dear life, but let's hold our loved ones' hearts close, as we do.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Why Art is Essential for Learning

Have you ever seen Saturn's rings? I mean in person? I have. Once when my science-obsessed son was passionate about astronomy (and the technology for studying it!), we went out to share the moment of Saturn's proximity to the earth with some other enthusiasts and an enormous telescope. It took what felt like far too long to set that telescope up - over an hour, as I recall - as I stood with my young kids in the freezing winter field, assuring them over and over again that that one particular bright point of light we could see was, in fact, Saturn. I knew it was. My research on the Internet and some of the other people gathered that night had confirmed it. And I had faith in science to be right. I knew this was an exciting event because everybody told me so. But it was also cold, frustrating, and as the time dragged on, and the thing they said was Saturn kept marching across the sky, ever out of the continually readjusted telescope, I was losing my faith. 

Finally the telescope was properly set up, and we awaited our turns to look. By the time my turn arrived, Saturn had drifted out of view again and the telescope had to be adjusted. Again. Then I looked. It was like someone was showing me a cartoon. There was Saturn with it's rings (I could even see the dark gap between them), and three of its moons clearly visible. I struggled to link the tiny white image I was seeing, which looked so rudimentary, with the immaculate photos and renderings I'd seen in colour in movies and books, and with reality. I looked from the eyepiece of the telescope back up to the point of light in the sky. I looked along the length of the telescope and confirmed that it was, in fact, pointed at that same point of light, and that by all reason I was truly seeing the same point, magnified by a series of lenses. I gazed into the eyepiece, and after a few moments realized that I could see the three-dimensionality of it. I could see a slight shadow from the planet on its own rings. the little logo-like image drifted to the edge of my view again, and I realized that, not only was I looking at a real planet dancing unfathomably far away from our own, but also that our own was slowly turning away in its own different but intrinsically connected part of the dance of our solar system.

I would have said Mind. Blown. But that wasn't a thing yet back then, or my kids weren't old enough to have taught it to me. My previously-limited mind opened in that freezing cold moment, and the solar system became interesting to me. Gravity became interesting to me. Telescopes and people who use them became interesting to me. So much that I had never even wondered about who we are as humans in this beyond-huge infinity of the universe began to preoccupy my thoughts, until I found I looked at earth, and humanity, and my children, and me, differently than I had, before.

Then we all began to freeze in earnest, and we went home to our fires.

Art is like that telescope, that night. It's what brings us to the world and helps us understand it. Art is about learning to see. So often this basic truth goes unnoticed as we imagine that art is for artists; that art is a frivolous pass-time, or that art should take a backseat to more essential activities like learning to read, solving equations, and developing the ability to recite stories from human history. Many of us have heard, by now, that music enhances math education, and that children who learn through music and dance retain information better than those who only learn through verbal instruction. But how often do schools offer visual art as an essential learning tool for all students? We all suffer the consequences of blindness as a result of not learning to see. 

As someone who sees breakthroughs of discovery and understanding on a regular basis when I teach art, I want to take some space to explain, a little. The examples I'm going to talk about aren't the end of the equation; there are so many ways we can learn to see. These are just a few of an infinite variety of ways that our species opens our minds through visual art. I believe very strongly that gaining visual and creative literacy is an essential part of learning and retaining all that information that our culture values so deeply.

Line Drawing
Fundamentally, line-drawing requires a mental translation from an understood three-dimensional concept to a two-dimensional surface. We know what we know more than we are conscious of what we see. Line drawing requires and promotes development of conscious observation. Have you ever seen a child draw a picture of a house with all four sides visible, as if the four walls were unfolded onto the plane? We can't see the back of the house, but the child knows it's there, so draws it. Similarly, they often draw the sky as a blue line, because they understand the concept of there being a sky above, but they don't conceptualize the idea that it's unending, and therefore, in a line-drawing, invisible. All of these things require observation to discover, and training and practice of observation and line-drawing promotes this discovery.

There are so many ways to translate observation into line, from the rather mathematical calculation of perspective to the deep inquiry needed to document tiny things we might otherwise not examine (like the texture of a leaf), to the intuitive, emotional research needed for blind contour drawing of people we know. All of these things allow us to look and see in new ways, and then we take these new ways of seeing into other activities. Learning to draw a street with linear perspective, for example, not only helps us understand observation, relative size, and laws of physics, but also helps us understand the vastness of our world, and opens our eyes to see more consciously when we're out in the world. So in the end it gives us a deeper understanding of everything.

Technical and Psychological Colour Theory
My daughter still talks about the time she learned from her very clever friend at preschool that mixing red and white would make pink. So she tried it, but used red and yellow... and it turned out orange! She was painting a sculpture of broccoli, and decided that while pink would have been an acceptable colour for her broccoli, orange was definitely not. She was three at the time, and at fifteen this memory still comes back to her at regular intervals, because it had a huge impact on her. Not only did she make some discoveries about colour-mixing (technical colour theory), but she also discovered something about which colours jive with the concept of broccoli in her mind (psychological colour theory).

Tie-dyeing is a great experimental colour theory activity.
We are influenced by colour every second of our lives, from the clothing we choose, to the hues emitted by our light bulbs, to the design and advertising of commercial entities. We can grow up blind to this, or we can learn to recognize how we respond to colour and, using this knowledge, make wiser choices. For example, turning on the night screen mode of your devices can have a noticeable impact on your mental and physical health, since the blue light emitted by our screens changes our brain chemistry, affecting our sleep and various body systems. I also just recently discovered that blue light actually triggers our retinas to kill off photoreceptor cells, eventually leading to macular degeneration. Literally, blindness. Light really does have a physical effect on our bodies, and colour is light. Having an understanding of not only how we are affected by colour, but how we can manage it, mix it, and use it in our worlds gives us agency in our own lives and health.

An understanding of colour can open our eyes to the rest of the world, as well. If we start noticing colour in all its capacities in our lives, we notice things we didn't before. As with all of these visual discoveries, we learn to see, consciously.

Three-Dimensional Form
How often do you look at the wall of your house and wonder how it was put together? All the layers, all the varied materials and their unique functions -- do you wonder what kind of insulation is in there, and why? Do you look at a couch or an upholstered chair and wonder what's under the fabric? Do you flip through a hardcover book and then peek down inside the spine to see how it's constructed? I teach bookmaking because it opens our minds to three-dimensional form and material use. Building a hand-bound hardcover book requires a slightly complex series of construction steps, including folding and tearing or cutting pages, sewing them together, creating a sturdy, flexible spine for them with starched cheesecloth and glue, then building a hard cover out of board and paper or fabric, then embellishments, then attaching the book to its cover with perfectly-fitted endpapers. And then suddenly there you are holding a real, honest-to-goodness book, and understanding not only what all the parts are, but why they're there.

Our world is full of constructed objects, and understanding how and why things are built the way they are allows us to see everything more deeply, and also gives us the insight needed to repair and build things, ourselves. Learning how to knit a sweater, construct a pie or a complex cake, fix a bike or cobble a fix on a broken backpack are all essential in the same way: Instead of replacing broken goods, we can repair them; instead of relying on others to provide for us, we can be self-reliant. Understanding how things are made gives us confidence and courage to take charge of our own lives.

I can't write about learning without mentioning how important it is that experimentation is a part of the process. Remember that orange broccoli? My daughter's experimentation in grabbing yellow instead of white, and the consequential discovery that different parts make a different whole, is probably the reason she remembers the incident at all. When somebody tells us something, we may take it or leave it, but there's not much emotional pay-off in just following instructions. There's a huge emotional pay-off in discovering something ourselves!

The other day I took my son's snowboard in to a local ski and board shop, hoping to replace a lost toe ramp. Apparently the bindings are an older model, and the toe ramp is not something we can just order and replace. And no way on earth can I afford new bindings. So this amazing person at North Shore Ski and Board examined the remaining toe ramp on the other binding, disappeared for a few minutes, and came back with some handfuls of padding, boot inserts, and double-sided tape paper. He gleefully experimented for a few minutes with different materials and placements, until he came up with a solution that most closely matched the other toe ramp. Then he started measuring, cutting and gluing, and in less than an hour, total, he had repaired my son's snowboard. He charged me for the parts and time, which was far less than any binding replacement part would have cost, if I had been able to buy one. And then he posted about his awesome customer service on social media, and showed off his handiwork to his boss. His pride was glorious for me to witness.

Like Icarus' experiment, this one didn't go as expected, either. He learned many things, that day!
Art leads to experimentation, and humans need to experiment. It's how we learn and evolve. Trying new things, failing, and trying again is how we learn to keep trying; how we develop resilience and courage and grit. All of the important skills that art gives us are made more accessible through experimentation. It's not enough to teach someone how to draw a street scene with accurate perspective; we need to allow children to make perspective drawing part of their personal experimentation, without criticism, direction, or correction, so that they make discoveries and carry that learning on into the next things they play. We need to give them time and space to make a big mess; to scratch up clay from the creek and see if they can build something of it; to take apart their toys because what's inside is more interesting than what's outside. We need to give them resources and time and encouragement, and then stand back and just allow them to experiment. That is how they will grow up to see the world around them as a great big fascinating opportunity for growth. That is how our children will grow.