Monday, July 21, 2014

On Joyful Education, Art, and Dreams

In 1968, George B. Leonard published his ground-breaking Education and Ecstasy, qualified as "epochal" in the blurb on the back cover. Leonard analyzed the problems of education and schools and not only proposed solutions, but also looked to the new, developing technologies that would enhance the learning process and come to the aid of teachers. As I come from a family of educators who place a premium on education as the ultimate goal in life, this book filled me with excitement and hope and I have carried it with me since 1968. 

Today while rereading Education and Ecstasy, tears came to my eyes and my throat tightened. Tears for the wonderful possibilities that have failed to materialize, for the grinding state of our educational systems and the burden that our teachers must bear, for our failure to make use of the amazing technologies that have sunk to the lowest common denominator of Facebook with a Big Brother lurking in the background, for the dreams that have escaped our grasp. And yet, tears of relief because I have had the privilege of participating in two exciting university programs in language education that may measure up to Leonard's standards, programs that are creative and that make use of new technologies while taking the student into consideration. 

Leonard delivers a blistering critique that remains relevant today pertaining to the state of our school systems: "To learn is to change...Do not blame teachers or their administrators if they fail to educate, to change their students. For the task of preventing the new generation from changing in any deep or significant way is precisely what most societies require of their educators. Perhaps it is enough that schools should go on with their essentially conservative function: passing on the established values and skills of the past" (7). Does this sound familiar? Doesn't the word "school" carry heavy connotations for the majority of us? And as for technology, hasn't the cell phone become a glorified leash with blinders, preventing us from communicating directly and focusing on the here and now?

Several simple yet profound ideas run through Leonard's work. First, that education is a life long process and should be joyful and even make us ecstatic. Educators should be able to share the inspired moments of learning with their students, moments that happen only rarely in the traditional classroom.

Secondly, Leonard places importance on the mastery of technique, giving the example of the violinist who "arrives at the sublime only through utter mastery of technique." He adds, "The instruments of living that are now coming into our hands--rich, responsive and diverse--require mastery" (18). 

And finally, the environment contributes to the learning experience: "Learning involves interaction between the learner and his environment, and its effectiveness relates to the frequency, variety and intensity of the interaction" (19).

Here is what gives me hope, what has, in fact, made me ecstatic: I have stumbled upon a small miracle, finally, the appearance of a learning experience of which Leonard might have dreamed, the online Sketchbook Skool (SBS).  The brain child of artists Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene, the "skool" provides one "klass" each week for six weeks with six different teachers from all over the world with the intention of showing students (from all over the world) how to deepen their creativity and connect to life within the pages of a sketchbook.
My homework assignment--the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

The use of the "k" brings humor and signals that the "kourse" organization has a familiar structure and yet, is not threatening. There are no grades, no critiques, no tests. And yet, the forum for homework assignments, which are voluntary as is posting, shows that students are working enthusiastically, investing time in practicing and doing extra credit as well. 
My homework assignment about toast.
Ruzuku provides the klassroom platform that contains videos and pdfs from each teacher, plus the galleries for student postings. The "playground" is found on a closed Facebook page where everyone can post work, suggestions, and information of interest to sketchers. Not being a Facebook fan, this is the best use of Facebook that I've seen in a long time. The forums are friendly, students help each other, and teachers and students are supportive.

SBS provides not only lessons in a variety of techniques but also in materials,  sketchbook possibilities, and subject matter. In addition, this "kourse" seeks to ground students in daily life by helping them develop a sketchbook habit of drawing everyday in order to see the world more intimately, to see what is real. Danny insists that SBS is not about Art (as in art galleries), but about the intimate practice of art in a sketchbook. 

The SBS motto of "Art for Everyone" indicates that all levels of ability are welcome, that the doors are wide open. Consequently, students range from beginners to professional artists in an atmosphere of camaraderie and creativity. This lively environment contributes enormously to students' desire for mastery, which requires daily practice. This exceptional environment stimulates students and teachers alike to learn and to grow. The attitude of students plus the huge response in numbers has surprised and almost overwhelmed the founders and teachers. Several teachers have noted that the SBS experience has been delightfully unique for them. And to Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene's credit, they have listened to the students and addressed issues that have come up and made the necessary changes, which an experimental program demands.

I remain the Reluctant Sketcher. Although I may not develop a serious sketchbook habit, as an educator and as a lifelong student, I am ecstatic and delighted and I highly recommend SBS for all creative people. If only Leonard could have seen the SBS phenomenon--it would be a dream come true...

For more information see the SBS site (here), an article at "The Art People" (here), and Danny Gregory's blog (here).

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"I Need a Flower!"

She did it again. Like last summer, my daughter required repairs on a summer top, this time in linen. [See here for last summer's flea market marvel.]

Instead of a hole, there was a spot. 

"Ma," she wailed, "I need a flower. P-l-e-a-s-e." Ok, ok. But, I don't do flowers! This was a speed job because of the narrow time frame. I managed to sit down and stitch yesterday. She leaves for a professional conference in Venice (Italy, not Florida) today--lucky lady.

Unfortunately, the design had to be in beige, however, in the end I rather liked beige and white together. This turned out quite subtle. Surprising for me...

And I want to see lots of pictures of that top in Venice!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Summer Elves and Fairies

The Little People have arrived and Grandma's Boot Camp is in full session.

GD2 (second granddaughter) came accompanied by several elves who come from the North Pole. There was some debate about whether they would be allowed to come to Tunisia as it is warm for them. However, GD2's mother sent a special request to Santa to get the necessary authorization. Santa knows that GD2 pays close attention to the well-being of her elf friends. When they need to cool off a bit, she puts them in the freezer. Here we see Ellie and Elfie in deep conversation. 

Charlotte resides in GD2's bedroom and generally moves around at night, changing where she sits. Unless, of course, GD2 misbehaves, then Charlotte can't move. Also, nobody can touch Charlotte or she loses her magic powers. GD2 leaves notes for the elves under her pillow.

Two other elves visit GD2 frequently and leave messages: Behavior Elf and Piano Elf. Although she can't see him, Piano Elf sits on GD2's shoulder when she practices and especially in a recital, which has allowed her to play confidently ever since he appeared on the scene.  She says she can feel him right there helping her along. Behavior Elf helped GD2 get an A in Behavior by the end of the school year. Things were a bit rough in First Grade until Behavior Elf stepped in to help. 

Behavior Elf and Piano Elf took an earlier flight to Tunis and left GD2 a note on her pillow to welcome her. It turns out that they have already made friends with the garden fairies who have been anxiously awaiting the return of GD1 and GD2 so they can fix the fairy house.

And so, my sketching buddy was inspired to create a Fairy Cake for GD2's birthday, as delicious as it was beautiful.

Such lovely detail work: Note the placement of flowers and butterflies, and the wings (non-edible). The fairy even has pointed ears.

I think my friend sprinkled some fairy dust over the cake, for it was a magical evening.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Caged Wild Animals

The homework for Sketchbook Skool last week was to draw animals, in action if possible. Inevitably, I found some caged wild animals right in front of me--university students taking their final exams.

I chose a prepared notebook page with a red watercolor wash and first sketched with a green colored pencil. At home, I added permanent pen and blue colored pencil. Red seems to represent their suffering well...

Of course, there is a story. While I sat at the back of the room discreetly sketching and watching the students with my hawk eyes, the other professor sat at the front. The first student to finish (obviously not the best) made some kind of rude comment, so my colleague nailed him with: "You're not good in French, in English or in Arabic. I don't see what you're doing at the university." The mouthy student whipped out: "My father is very rich." !!!! Oh, P-u-l-e-a-s-e! He shrugged and left....

The other incident was when a student with wandering eyes asked to go to the restroom, was accompanied, and tried to ask questions of other students anyway. He came back mad because he got yelled at and didn't have the time to get any answers!

My sketchbook contains traces of a couple of social problems that are not restricted to Tunisia, but that are worrisome all the same. One is the entitlement of students coming from well-to-do families. They dress with brand names only and flash their expensive i-Phones around. Look to the shoes and purses--they are status symbols. You are what you have. The university professors--who are paid peanuts--have difficulty maintaining respect, adding to the frustration of their job.
In addition, a cheating culture has developed among students over the past decade to the point where cheating is more or less viewed as "normal." This jeopardizes those students who do want to learn and makes proctoring exams difficult. 
The last exam was uneventful (thankfully). I used white, turquoise and navy colored pencils on gray Canson paper that I had cut to fit into my planner (3 1/2"x6"). All in all, it was a good day, but, I can't say as much for caged wild animals...

Thursday, May 1, 2014


"Strands of thought" run through my work/play: the Garden, the political situation, war and chaos and the abstract, among others. Lately, a gate series has developed that falls into several categories. The first gate I commemorated in my textile sketchbook was to celebrate my saving it from destruction by rust.
Wrought iron gates are common in the region, with interesting decorative details.

The front gate, which I can see from my kitchen door, has been a subject recently for my sketch book.

Some days time evaporates, so I used a prepared paper with a green wash providing a background for a quick sketch.

Then over at Sketchbook School, we started looking at skies. One day I could actually see clouds above the gate. Isn't that pretty? All very bucolic...but something was boiling below the surface.

I decided to do a page for my textile sketchbook to finish off this series.

I first glued fabric onto a page of drawing paper, then I sketched the gate and trees.    

As I zoomed away on my sewing machine, I thought about the meaning of gates: a delineation of property, marking of borders, stopping people from entering (especially thieves) and allowing only friends through. Suddenly I understood what this was all about. The problem:
Thirty years ago, the land was wide open and looked like this:
Mornag was a peaceful place. Nobody needed gates or walls. Today, this agricultural zone is being over run (the small trees mark my property line): 
Look at that beautiful blue sky and fresh green...and that eyesore. The owners said they were going to build a house and have a garden/orchard, but instead they erected two buildings for industrial refrigeration (about 18 to 20 feet tall) within a stone's throw of my house. EXCUSE ME, THIS IS AGRICULTURAL LAND!

This is what the "Revolution" brought us: unauthorized construction allowed by local authorities that will destroy the region. We have alerted the authorities who have put out an order for demolition. However, when I went to talk with the governor of Ben Arous (recorded in my sketchbook)
he pointed out that "Now, there is no executive." We're in free fall. So the neighbors keep working to finish off the construction, which means the giant motors required for the refrigeration will soon be running night and day. Worse yet, a problem with rotten fruit, foul odors, and increased quantities of insects that attack citrus fruit will destroy our peace and put our orchards at high risk. We are now embroiled in a legal battle to keep this region from sinking into an industrial zone and to protect the farms.

I realize that this is an international problem, that humans are destroying the Garden, our Planet. 
And yet, we will continue to fight for what is right. 
We must stand at the gates and stop them. 
We have become gatekeepers. 
We will do our best to protect the region until we can no longer. 
I will do my best to keep this filth out.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Spring Garden 2014, 2

Summer is close so I better finish up my spring posts. Here's a general view of my East patio. The exterior wall (to keep dogs out) features planters.

Everything seems to be blooming

I placed some plants in the bird cage that sits on a Roman rock.

The Roman Rock plant table is looking a bit like a jungle as well.

I did have some fun one day by making another low plant table. The recipe: two cement-filled cinder blocks and one piece of broken wrought iron fence...

Then add a broken Roman Rock (notice that nice right angle and smooth top). Plus a wall tile to place on top of the fence.

Such a beauty holding up my pots and plants. I just love those roman rocks!

The general view of my new plant arrangement right under my bedroom window.

Sometimes, no, often, things happen serendipitously. A cement tube was installed around a water faucet to protect it some 30 years ago. I planted it with a small succulent that now gives quite a show in the spring, like a royal cape.

My spring time gate viewed from the kitchen door has been subject for sketching recently, just because it's right there.

Classes are over, the spring has been pleasant, the citrus trees are flowering, the bees are making honey, and the birds have been chirping and singing enthusiastically...and I'm back to working on the Pomegranate Tree Quilt...the blessings are many.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Spring Garden 2014

As spring warms up to summer, a flurry of activity in the garden will keep me busy for the next couple weeks. This week the "nursery" plants clamored to go out into the adult plant world, so I extended a number of areas in the kitchen patio.
I still haven't got lions at my gate, however, I added small plastic pots of succulents to fill things out.
The view that greets me every morning from my kitchen door:
On the left side, I added more rocks and an old filled cement block. This side requires plants that can resist high temperatures. The afternoon sun in the summer is deadly.
I am pleased to say that the plant table looks like a jungle
 and the bidet has all but disappeared.
The Rock Family has a new stack-of-stones-kid (on the right).
Ma Rock holds Baby Rock and the 3 stack-of-stones-kids are lined up. Bibi comes along and knocks off their heads occasionally. 

On the exterior patio wall, more heat-resistant plants. The hot pink geraniums like to show off their brilliant blooms to irritate the succulents, I suspect.
New additions along the staircase include a filled cement block with a pebbly effect, rock stacks and new plants in soda bottles...waiting for transplants to mosaic pots (someday).
Another view.
Going up the steps, I've added small pots in between the big pots which are not yet very visible. I do love that lineup of mosaic pots.
And out in front, my babies, my pomegranate trees, are decked out in spring green and getting ready to blossom. Most of them are now six to seven feet (teenagers). 
So, although my mosaic production has been limited, my garden keeps growing, keeps me busy, and provides me with exercise...and pleasure.