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Reflections on the Art21 Educators Institute

Benjamin Morales working at Cheim and Read's "The Female Gaze"

I’m sure everyone has had moments of blissful exhaustion- those times when you pushed yourself over a certain period, gotten to the end and said, “That was outstanding…. and I’m completely fried.”

That pretty much sums up our pilot institute for Art21 Educators.

After five days of working, thinking, walking, seeing, talking, planning, debating, sharing, listening, investigating and creating, we said farewell, for now, to the 15 teachers who joined us from across the country. Jessica Hamlin, Marc Mayer and myself, along with our superhero-intern, Joy Lai, looked at each other and let out a nervous and very satisfied laugh after everyone had left the sixth floor classroom at NYU yesterday afternoon. What a week!

The institute started with Oliver Herring greeting participants in one of the small auditoriums at NYU and immediately getting everyone to perform one of his famous TASK projects. There were no formal introductions, no go-around-the-circle-and-introduce-your-partner silliness. Participants got to know each other, in more ways than one, by participating with Oliver to create a massive art work that filled the stage and the first few rows of the auditorium. Then we introduced ourselves.

After a working lunch and previewing some of the season 5 video, participants then introduced themselves using a Pecha Kucha format- 10 slides, 10 seconds each. The intros were simple, to the point, visually exciting, and never included the line, “I was a lonely child…..” Everyone participated, including Jessica, Marc and myself.

The final part of day one included an introduction to some of the unit planning participants would be doing, and a look into how big questions and themes can drive units of instruction. Afterward, we were delighted to have Susan Sollins, Executive Director at Art21, host a reception at her loft in Manhattan. The day ended much like the week ended- we were all tired and had smiles touching the backs of our heads.

Day two started with a workshop on using the Art21 Educator Guides and working with big ideas. We shared strategies for using film in the classroom and making the viewing of film active vs. passive. At lunch, we were treated to a live webinar with Olivia Gude who arranged a two-hour presentation and discussion from her home in Chicago. This wasn’t just food for thought, it was a five course meal. Later that day, we had a chance to look at student work samples in small groups and connect some of what Olivia discussed with what participants were sharing in our second day.

Friday began with a Media Literacy workshop that introduced participants to different ways they can bring video and online resources into the classroom. As the morning ended we packed up our stuff and headed to Oliver Herring’s studio in Brooklyn for a studio visit before seeing a few gallery exhibits in Chelsea in the late afternoon. The day ended at Half King, a favorite spot in Chelsea for relaxing after gallery-hopping.

Participants had the chance to enjoy New York City over the weekend, since our institute was scheduled from Wednesday through Tuesday, and visited a variety of museums and galleries as they prepared units of study for presentation on Tuesday. Many came back with wonderful stories about artists and art works they discovered. Many also had a chance to discover New York City in ways they wouldn’t have if the institute was scheduled in a Monday through Friday format.

The entire day was spent at the Museum of Modern Art on Monday. Everyone spent some extra time preparing their units as well as being introduced to strategies for working with students in museum and gallery settings. Lisa Mazzola, one of the many excellent educators on staff at the museum, helped make our visit both enjoyable and productive, and later that evening everyone got together with other Art21 staff members for supper in the East Village as we headed into our final day.

Tuesday began with a tutorial on filming in the classroom with our Art21 Production Coordinator, Larissa Nikola-Lisa, since part of our work with the teachers over the next year will include participants shooting video and documenting their teaching. We also had the chance to introduce other online resources and ways we will communicate about our work before being joined by Art21 artist Jessica Stockholder at lunch, who shared images of her sculpture  and thoughts on being both an artist and an educator at Yale University.

The final part of our last day included all participants sharing their units of study in small groups and getting critical feedback. It was thrilling to see the teachers share how their thinking and planning had taken shape over the week. It was even more thrilling to see them give each other constructive criticism that truly made the units even better.

Now, before I go, let me just say one thing…. This group was not normal. They worked well together, laughed a lot and helped one another consistently. We are very lucky to be working with them. There wasn’t a single person in the group who spent the week explaining why they can’t do certain things in their school or district. There wasn’t a single person in the group who spent the week monopolizing the conversation and preventing others from sharing their expertise, and again, we all know this isn’t normal. There are always personalities who fit these descriptions when you get a group of teachers together, and we are so fortunate to have a team of educators in our pilot year that are flexible, creative, respectful of one another, and excited to work on this project.

We’re excited, too. And the smile is still touching the back of my head.

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