Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Power Of Yes…In A Classroom Oasis

Imogene Drummond is my guest blogger with her observations on the work and play that she is doing with students at San Miguel Academy in Newburgh, NY.   Far from the standardized curriculum and tests that are being levied on public school students across the country, in the classroom oasis that Imogene has created, she gives permission to these special students to express their authentic intuitive selves.   The results?  
Non-quantifiable and…breathtaking.

Read more about how Imogene’s Divine Sparks program ignites these students’ creativity and greater self-awareness.

by Imogene Drummond

For me, there is no right or wrong, good or bad, art.  My goal is to facilitate individual creativity.  In Divine Sparks creativity program, it's important to leave criticism at the door and experience the joy, freedom, and empowerment that comes with expressing oneself creatively. 

I've said this before.  Because a student stated that he didn't like his painting, this is how I began the third Divine Sparks Film + Book session with the fifth-graders at San Miguel Academy in Newburgh, NY.   I think it can be helpful to hear this early and often.    

We then watched the second chapter in Divine Sparks film, and I showed the class one of my paintings from the film.  The boys shared what they saw in it:  a crescent moon, a face, water, a flower--and pointed out those shapes.  They asked intriguing questions, such as how long did it take to paint, and what did I have in mind when I painted it.  I explained that I had no idea what I was going to paint.  Before painting it, I'd been near the sea, and listening to the sound of the surf.  The painting was a visual expression of my experience.  I discovered later that the idea of aural inspiration resonated with some of them deeply. 

We then discussed some ideas in this chapter of the film, "Blue and You."  When asked what they thought this chapter was about, one boy immediately said,  "It's about how blue can express different ideas and images."  Exactly!  I'm continually impressed with how well these youngsters grasp the essence of a situation, and articulate that essence.  After discussing what blue means or symbolizes to them, and what some of their favorite blue things are, we then discussed how the color blue makes them feel.  "Calm," "alone," "alive" were some of the comments.  One student said 'light blue makes him feel happy and dark blue makes him feel sad.'  That opened up a discussion about the effects of various hues and shades of color.   

It was then time to create individual art works about what the color blue means to them.  In order to help them personally connect with this abstract idea, we did a short meditation exercise. The class quieted down as the boys closed their eyes, and I asked them to think about what the color blue means to them.  Then, I invited them to open their eyes and make a painting or image using whatever materials they chose.  One boy asked, "Can I make a sad painting?"  "Yes."  "Can I make a river of tears?"  "Yes."   What does it say about our culture that a ten-year old needs permission to express his authentic self because he fears his sadness may be received negatively?

Inspired by the film and painting, our discussions, and their meditation, the boys created wonderfully individualized images.  They practically dove into the abundant art supplies!  A wide array of blue paint including a silvery turquoise, marine blue with glitter (a big hit!), cobalt, and teal blue, along with colored papers, and recycled magazines provided an enticing selection of materials. 

"George" created a structural piece with an architectural-like composition with various blues in rectangular fields juxtaposed with circles--created by cleverly painting around the diameter of upside-down plastic cups.  "Esteban" constructed a 3-D painting with three ridged rows of ocean waves--made by cutting small pieces of blue paper and taping them together to make longer pieces, which he then sculpted into rows of waves--which he said he made because he likes the sounds that waves make.  "Henry" described his painting as telling a story:  Sailing on a blue sea, with white clouds and the sun shining in a blue sky, splatters of red paint in the sea indicated "new beginnings." 
"Rodrigo" covered his paper "canvas" with blue paint, constructed waves with crumpled turquoise tissue paper, then made a 3-D boat by folding white paper, glued it on the waves, and added a vibrant upright red 3-D fish on the water!

 "Kenny" painted a bold blue sea with a scalloped horizon line and an orange sky at sunrise/set, and starfish in the sea.  "Guy" painted two large fields of green dissected by a blue river with fish in it.  This provided an opportunity to talk about the importance of "negative shapes" in art.  "Emmanuel" divided his piece into two sections divided by a black line--on the right side, he painted several archetypal spiral shapes, and on the left side, he painted a field of dark blue.  Several boys put their names in the work--some overtly, and some subtly.  

Another student painted a poignant (self-portrait?) image of a child with a big orange face streaming large tears into a river below.  I especially admire and respect this child's self-expression because it took insight and courage to paint this, and to share it with the rest of the class.  This is what I'm aiming for!  If this youngster can find a suitable creative outlet to express his pain, he has a greater chance to circumvent expressing his feelings in destructive ways, and the possibility to create a more satisfying, meaningful life.   

I am deeply fascinated and amazed by how a multi-component process of inspiration, discussion, affirmation, and availability of art supplies in a safe and conducive environment results in individually expressive, self-empowering work!  

Imogene Drummond is an award-wining filmmaker, painter, futurist, author of articles on cultural transformation, world traveler, and former psychotherapist. Her experience, talent, and vision converge in Divine Sparks. She has an M.F.A. from MICA (the Maryland Institute College of Art)—one of the country’s premier art schools, and an M.S.W. from The Catholic University of America. Due to her many painting expeditions around the world, she was invited to join The Society of Woman Geographers.

Follow Imogene on Facebook:
Visit her Divine Sparks Website:
View her Divine Sparks Trailer:



Monday, April 7, 2014

Yes, And...Embracing the Awkward: Some thoughts on what rigor in school actually means

Improvisation is an edgy, spontaneous art form – and completely unscripted.  This means that you don’t know what will happen next, or what your co-players will do or come up with.  Unscripted is the key word.  When you engage with this, you’re offering yourself up to be thrown off and disoriented, uncertain, and inescapably awkward.

A while ago, I started an Improv Club with some energetic high school students at their exurban high school. The school was surrounded by what were once cow pastures in the furthest reaches of bucolic Westchester County, where kids have to make their own fun.

The club’s numbers grew as kids found they could let off steam in this after-school venue.  Kids who had sat numbly in class all day got to bring their most daring and “outlier” selves into room L207. But, with the exception of the two self-appointed “presidents”, none of the kids had any experience with improv, and had no clue as to how to play without a script.

I enlisted the help of my son, Zack, who is a professional improviser.  This sounds like an oxymoron, but he does earn a living improvising and making people laugh. He introduced the club to the most important principle:  Yes, and… This is the phrase you keep in your head while your co-players verbally lob something at you. 

The basic Yes, and…game might go like this:  Two students stand up:

Student 1 might say: I just got back from Mars.

And Student 2 says Yes andis that how come you have green skin? …

Student 1 says Yes and…their spaceship is right over there…

Student 2: Yes, and…Can I go too?

At this point two more students may join in.

Student 3: Yes, and…This is my Mom and I would like to send her to Mars. 

Student 4: Yes, and I’m his Mom. I packed a lunch and weapons in case they’re not friendly…

There’s an emphasis on speed: Too much “think” time, and the game falls flat.  And, the second you think or say “No”, the improv dies on the spot. 

Frequently kids would get tongue-tied and go blank, flail around, and occasionally fall on the floor and groan – When it doesn’t fly, you blow your cover and everybody sees that.  But isn’t that the true nature of learning something new?  It’s messy and unpredictable.  The members soon changed the club's name from “The Waxed Beans” to “Embrace the Awkward.” 

Awkwardness? In our school?

In spite of its omniscience, we don’t like to associate Awkward with School.  We’re surrounded by the shrill rhetoric: Succeed! Achieve! Score High!... Stumbling and falling? Not in Our School. 

In reality, school is infused with awkwardness at every turn. Growing bodies are awkward, teachers are awkward, technology does weird things; the day is packed with socially confusing situations. Everybody did the math wrong today and it’s only first period.

As students reach to learn something new, they hear Wrong. Not it. You didn’t get it. Nope:  The daylong incantations of bad news.  “No” stops the learning in its tracks and shuts the door, like a failed improv.  

Yet, we are improvising as we learn.  Zack describes how an improviser approaches the unknown:  He or she is somebody who is willing to commit to a choice – If, say, I were to go onstage and do something funny with my body. The audience might just stare for a bit. But I make a commitment to keep doing that funny body thing.  They start to get it. They laugh. I then make it even more specific and do it harder.  Then I get past the fear of not knowing what will happen next.

All tangled up essays, sciatica, and finding the snakes 

This changed the way I taught writing because I wanted to help my students get over their fear of writing something wrong, and to open up what had been shut down over the years. But here of course, students aren’t doing something funny with their bodies.  They’re doing something “funny” with their writing.  

Aside from a few exceptions, on the whole, my students’ essays are filled with fragments, strange spelling, inconsistent paragraph spacing, disconnected ideas, missing citations. They get all tangled up in words used incorrectly and in the wrong context: It is a festival of awkward writing.  Yet, the effort that students put into a labored-over essay is evident – and the sheer energy of their effort activates my sciatica and fires up foot cramps.    There is something committed about their awkwardness.  

According to Zack’s earlier description, this kind of commitment is needed in order to push further into the unknown.  I began to see writing in a new light, and realized that my students were actually going way out on a limb to show me the insides of their minds, and their thinking processes.  

What a gift to reframe my role in this way:  It was my job to identify the mistakes, in the same way it’s a herpetologist’s job to go up to the mountain and find snakes.  Couldn’t we play with this?  Instead of no, wrong, you have a run-on sentence here, I learned to work with Yes, and - you have three thoughts going on here.  Yes, and- let’s separate those with commas.  Yes, and- this idea is ready for more development…Yes, and- this essay is ready to be organized now…

This became an energizing way to teach.  Students were writing more.  Teaching and writing became more interactive, and more filled with possibilities – like a game.  The principle of improv had opened up the playing field.  Kids were allowed to commit to the “wrong kind” of writing, yes, and – I could guide them toward more clarity.  It opened up our book discussions too – Beginning with the obvious and uninspired student statement: Jay Gatsby was a rich guy… Yes, and – why was it important to him to be a rich guy?  Odysseus took a long time to get back home. Yes, and – what was Penelope doing that whole while? 

If we’re willing to commit to putting it out there, even if it’s wrong and awkward, we’re in a far better position to learn something new.  The opposite would mean to stay cautious, shut down, and “safe.”  Being willing to commit to the unknown and play it harder is the rigor part.  Rigor can’t be thought of as an outcome.  It is a process. Even though it’s a noun, we should think of it as a highly active verb.  Instead of setting rigid and narrow specific outcomes, a rigorous curriculum should invite audacity, uncertainty and mistake making.  The latter is a far more sustainable kind of learning in terms of student and teacher energy.

Without the awkwardness that accompanies new learning there’s no forward movement.

We’re probably engaged with rigor if part of our brain wishes that we were doing something else that will provide some escape from the present task.

What if teachers applied Yes, and…to solving math equations, the narrative of history, and science labs? In what ways would teaching shift?

To become a better coach, I had to become a more patient teacher, even though patience is not included in the criteria on the evaluation forms that administrators fill out during Formal Observations.  Also, in conferences, I rarely hear parents or teachers say – Yes, and – if we’re more patient, we’re going to see Kevin understand this or that concept…Let’s give him more room and time to play with this. 

“Real life” messing up

Not too long ago, I chatted with a friend who has been an insurance attorney for years, but has decided to broaden her career in learning about courtroom law. Similar to my Embrace the Awkward club students, she is deliberately throwing herself into an unscripted situation – or rather – it has a script, but she doesn’t know what it is yet.  And, similar to the improv students, she has to field verbal lobs from other players, including the Judge, on the courtroom floor.   “I don’t know what I’m doing!” She told me. “I think the concepts are similar to insurance law – but the language and terms are so different!  I’m shadowing another attorney, but he had to leave the courtroom and when I approached the bench, I was scrambling for the right terms.  I’m standing there just sort of stammering… looking for my notes."

I commented that learning new things, no matter how old we are, is so uncomfortable. 

I so get my fourth grader now –“ She nodded. “I get what my son goes through when he’s struggling in school, trying to get something like the math.  Based on what I went through this week, I understand now how hard school may be for him.”   

If we adults are willing enough to stay in-tune with our own awkward learning, like my attorney friend, we become sensitized to the peak and valley experiences that our kids are having throughout their school day.

Recently, I chatted with my lawyer friend again. "How’s it going?" She broke into a smile. "Much better!  I’m finding my way around…its making sense now."

When we watch toddlers who are powered by the commitment to take those first awkward steps, we cheer the falling down as well.  The falling down is part of the rigor in learning how to walk. We praise, we snap pictures, and instantly zip them off to everybody we know.  We shove the furniture out of the way to give him more room to step forward and to fall down.

Can parents and teachers cheer on, with the same kind of enthusiasm, our older kids as they sweat over essays and wrestle with math equations and science labs? Are we courageous and open minded enough to push aside our own “preferred learning outcomes” and instead, embrace the awkward in learning? 

Let’s clear the space so they can play with whatever is in front of them, and follow Zack’s suggestions-- 

Make the commitment, forget about what scares you and throw yourself into it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Transforming the School Experience for Students

So much energy is invested in Standards and Tests -- There's a better way to introduce our children to the art of higher level thinking.   Parents and Educators need to remember that school can actually be a place of joy and creativity.  What?...Yes - School can be joyful.  Creativity opens the door to higher level and abstract thinking in a way that no standardized curriculum can.

I wish that instead of taking State exams today, that our children were engaged with Imogene Drummond's Divine Sparks program, as these San Miguel students are in the photo above.   She's my guest blogger today - and here she shares her experience working with at-risk students at San Miguel Academy in Newburgh, New York.

She demonstrates how Literacy and Creativity cultivate thinking and creative students.

Sparking Empowerment through Creativity
by Imogene Drummond

My Divine Sparks journey just got a little more exciting.  Recently, I offered the first of ten Divine Sparks sessions to seventeen fifth graders at San Miguel Academy of Newburgh, NY.  Why is this exciting?  Two reasons:  because San Miguel is a visionary school, and because we share the same goal--to empower young people. 

To understand my recent experience, it’s important to understand San Miguel’s location.  As the fourth most impoverished urban center in the U.S., and the ninth most violent, Newburgh was dubbed the “murder capital of NY State” by New York Magazine.  San Miguel Academy, an independent, faith-based, fifth to eighth grade middle school for boys from under-served families in the City of Newburgh, uses education--and a thoughtful, nurturing, safe environment--to break the pervasive cycle of poverty and violence in which these boys are raised.  Basically, San Miguel Academy is trying to keep these children from being used as drug mules, and to give them the skills and opportunities for a totally different kind of life. This is big picture stuff. 

To me, San Miguel is special because its vision remains intact throughout its multi-layered implementation.  Its president, board, and faculty clearly are doing a lot of things right.  Their sharply-etched thoughtfulness shows.  For example, surrounding the front door is printed in large, yellow and blue, capital letters “The Street Stops Here.”  To an artist who believes in the ability of art, symbols, and design to create change, this signage is powerful.  That these words are written on the “open” transparent medium of glass versus the opaque material of a barrier, adds to the transformative experience of walking through the entrance.

Prior to my presentation (during the lunch hour), I chatted in the hall with Fr. Mark Connell and Mrs. Kerry DiMeo, San Miguel’s president and fifth grade teacher, respectively.  An unusual thing happened.  On three separate occasions, a boy walked up to me, reached out his right hand, looked me in the eye, and confidently said, “Hello.  My name is [Angel, R. N.].  Welcome to San Miguel.” and briefly joined us three adults in conversation. Well!  I was surprised and impressed  by these students’ politeness, confidence, and assertiveness.  Being from the plug-and-play generation, I was taught as a child not to speak to adults unless spoken to. That San Miguel teaches its boys to speak up, be polite, positive, and proactively welcoming, struck me--like the sign surrounding the door--as significant.  

So, now you have an idea of where Divine Sparks will be the next ten weeks!  Let me briefly introduce this innovative multimedia that I wrote, directed, and produced.  Divine Sparks Film + Book sparks empowerment through creativity.  Three components combine in this holistic project to ignite and nurture the child’s creative spark.  The award-winning 30-minute film offers inspiring visual prompts.  The colorful, interactive book delivers an exciting toolkit with stimulating ideas, fun art activities, and delightful exercises that help students access their inner artist.  The project employs an innovative approach often using one’s own story/history/personal mythology as source material.  Each session involves three activities:  View, Do, and Discuss.  

In introducing Divine Sparks to the students, I shared my goal to help them develop their individual creativity, versus teach them art.  First, we discussed what they think “creativity” is.  Their ideas ranged from “being about line and shape,” to “thinking outside the box,” to “being about imagination.”  I was impressed by their ability to think abstractly.  This led to a discussion about how creativity can help us be happier, more satisfied with our lives, learn better, and sometimes even heal physically.  In discussing how creativity can help us become empowered and what “empowered” means, one boy said it means “helping us develop as whole people.”  Now, I was even more impressed with their abstract thinking!  

We then watched the 30-minute film, a whimsical story of transformation and wonder, followed by a Q & A.  I asked my usual questions: What were their favorite parts of the film?  What did they think the film was about?  What did they think the sparks meant?  A dozen or more hands shot up after each question.  Though the term is never used in the film, when one boy said he thought the film was about “the creative spark in us,” I just about levitated!  

Inspired by the film, the boys then did an art activity, “Visualize Words.”  Each student chose two favorite words (from a page in the book--see photo), and painted one word as the background and one as the subject.  A vigorous explosion of activity ensued with lots of paint being drawn, brushed, swooshed, smeared, and sponged.  One child said woefully “I messed up.”  That was my clue to share my mantra: “There is no bad art, you can’t mess up.”  “But,” I quickly added, “you can start over.”  To which he immediately said, “Can I start over?”  

Several boys painted outer space, making their backgrounds black--always a strong color!  Others depicted snakes flying over waves, a dark moon hanging above the ocean, and lyrical stars that look like lilies in front of the sun.  When discussing each boy’s art work, one boy said he chose his two images because they were the only two things he knew how to draw.  Hopefully, ten weeks from now, he won’t think that!  I hope he, and his fellow students, will come to feel increasingly equipped to embark on new paths that are their life, as they leave the street in their rear view mirror. 


Imogene Drummond is an award-winning filmmaker, painter, futurist, author of articles on cultural transformation, world traveler, and former psychotherapist. Her experience, talent, and vision converge in Divine Sparks. She has an M.F.A. from MICA (the Maryland Institute College of Art )—one of the country’s premier art schools, and an M.S.W. from The Catholic University of America. Due to her many painting expeditions around the world, she was invited to join The Society of Woman Geographers.

Find her on Facebook:
And her Divine Sparks Website: