Sunday, September 18, 2011

Let There Be Light

Let There Be Light: The Uses of Theater in Education

Picking up on my radical ideas about ways to start educational reform (by just, you know, talking)—I’d like now to use what we in the education biz call A Specific Example, this to illustrate why grouping high school kids around their interests might be preferable to grouping them by age. In my Theater Production class, I had 10th, 11th, and 12th graders all in the same room. In the Drama Club freshmen were in that mix. They all had stuff to say to each other, and we (I’m in this, too, as teaching was in fact my LIFE, and I’d like my life to feel full and meaningful as I live it and not something merely to be endured) all began with the love of theater. Some had more experience than others in certain areas, and this was always a help, and some had none at all, which is also useful, because in the teaching of others we "experts" learn more ourselves.

Let’s start with the Lighting Unit. Light is the only real "special effect" in theater, and after the play and the acting is the single most important thing on stage. I think. SO: To get kids thinking about light, I assigned the following project. The project requires no background in the subject, which is the point. Included with the assignment is the way the project will be assessed (which students ought to know), and following that is a discussion about how one can assess a project that seems “touchy-feely” rather than “hardcore academic.” I will also expound on its artistic and academic uses. First, The Project.

DUE DATE: ___________

PURPOSE: To observe light sources, examine intensity, and assess moods suggested by natural and artificial light for later application to lighting plays for the stage

MATERIALS: Loose leaf paper and pen or word processor; manuscript format guide from the Luxe High School English Department

TERMS (to be reviewed in class): Source, shadow, highlight, hue, illumination, intensity, angle, mood, effect

DIRECTIONS: Follow the directions for each part below. Keep some notepaper with you as you begin to reflect on light, as it were, because you never know where the light will “hit” you. Do not fake this journal: YOU MUST TURN IN ALL NOTES TO RECEIVE FULL CREDIT.

FORMAT: Please label each section by part number, title, and letter. Record the date and time of day of each entry. Write in complete sentences in the descriptive portions, though you may list qualities and other elements as appropriate. Bind all contents in a folder, or staple together with a cover sheet.

PART I, FEELING LIGHT: In a few sentences, evaluate the lighting in the locations listed: Describe the place. Explain the quality of light and how you respond to it.
            A.  A place you really like the light
            B.  A place you definitely don’t like the light
            C.  A place where the light seems to be appropriate to the setting
            D.  A place where the light seems inappropriate to the setting 

PART II, EXTERIOR LIGHT STUDY:  Select one (1) exterior setting and examine the light at three (3) separate times of day--though not necessarily on the same day.
Before beginning, describe the general setting, including natural features, proximity to buildings, etc.  Be as specific as you can, using the terms list where possible.  Also, share why you chose this particular setting.
PART III, INTERIOR LIGHT STUDY:  Select one (1) interior space, examine the light, and describe its effects under the different circumstances below; be specific:
            A.  The space during the day with only natural light as a light source
            B.  The space at night with an artificial light source
            C.  The space at night with a second “styling” of artificial light (your choice)

PART IV, CONCLUSION: Finally, write a summary paragraph detailing what you’ve noticed about light during the course of the project.

(___/# denotes the number of points out of total for that section)

NOTES: Evidence of observations, ideas, process
____/5 PART I
____/5 PART II
____/5 PART III
____/5 PART IV           TOTAL ____/20

PART I: A few sentences with descriptions, date and time
____/5 A. Place you like light
____/5 B. Place you don’t like light
____/5 C. Appropriate light
____/5 D. Inappropriate light                        TOTAL ____/20

PART II: Exterior details, a few sentences with descriptions, date and time
____/5 First time of day
____/5 Second time of day
____/5 Third time of day
____/5 Location features, reason for choice             TOTAL ____/20

PART III: Interior details, a few sentences with descriptions, date and time
____/5 A. Space with natural light
____/5 B. Space with artificial light
____/5 C. Space with “styling” of light          TOTAL ____/15

PART IV: Conclusion
____/5 Paragraph with details
____/5 References to journal tasks
____/5 Evidence of thought, reflection                     TOTAL ____/15

____/5 Folder/stapled, cover, manuscript form, neatness
____/5 Format (labeled sections), grammar, mechanics    TOTAL ____/10




            At every school I worked in, from student-teaching on, I found Fresnels and scoops in the catwalk, and what Lekos there were, were above center stage. This is a travesty. If you want to teach stage lighting or run a drama club and do not know what I am talking about, I would heartily suggest you check out resource books and take a class in lighting at a nearby university. If such classes don’t exist, ask other local drama sponsors if they would like a lighting workshop, and if you ask a college theater department for a few hours on a Saturday, they will probably oblige for a small fee. DISCLAIMER: I never got to use anything computerized in terms of lighting in my life. Instruments have changed, no doubt. I guess I could do research, but this isn’t the point of this writing. This is memoir. And it’s concepts and methods I’m outlining, and any references I make will still be useful as a model of the teaching process.

            Good lighting, after strong actors and a good play--and this from a person who is mad for costumes and lived in a costume shop all through college--makes theater for me. Lighting effects are really all a theater has to create “magic”. Theater is literal smoke and mirrors. That’s the fun of the live. Now there are computer- generated effects, which I saw in the glorious revival of Sunday in the Park with George, here in New York where I now live, used to astonishing effect. (I saw a completely hideous lighting design for another Sondheim revival, A Little Night Music, where the designer took the work Night in the title literally and demanded we squint into darkness to see the action.) But there is still something about the humble cross-fade that transports a theater-goer--so simple, so beautiful. Whoever invented the cross-fade is my god. And I hope you know I’m being figurative.

            Visualizing a show’s potential in rehearsal is something that everyone in theater has to be able to do. Kids are very good at this--even teenagers have not lost that “let’s pretend” way of seeing how a cardboard box is now a boat. Theater gives magic back to audiences who thought they filed their innocence away with their first tax return or ob-gyn appointment card; and giving kids a chance to create that magic can be therapeutic, both for the kids and for you, to say nothing of the audience. But you are taking it to another level entirely when you show them how the lights go on, how the colors are achieved, and make the act of lighting a stage a consciously creative act, if I may paraphrase Leo Tolstoy.

            Take a moment to reread the lighting project, if needed. (See above). I’ll wait. I have some laundry to do. Dee, dee, dee....

            All done? Again, I assigned this project at the very beginning of the unit, before I had taught anything about lighting. Light is, after all, our most fundamental life element: Let there be light. Day and Night. Night and Day. Day out, day in. Grey skies are gonna clear up! Direct your feet to the sunny side of the street! You light up my life. On a clear day you can see forever. Okay, men, lights out.

            Light may often be taken for granted; I think the arrival of day, or night, is. When the day is sunny, I generally just get up. When I wake up at 6:30 AM and my room is unusually dark, I immediately turn to the window to assess the grey light and think, “Oh, rain...” and my day has a different meaning.

            Light affects people emotionally and physically in ways of which we may not be conscious. I learned this the summer I studied at Oxford when I was 28. I had long dreamed of going to England. I love rain. I love walking in it, battling storms, being out in the woods or crossing a field in a downpour. So imagine how astonished I was when after two weeks of grey and drizzle and cool damp air, I found myself clinically depressed. On a Friday morning I shall never forget, bright sun and blue skies appeared and I raced to University Park, sprawled on the grass under full sun, and wept. I didn’t leave for hours. “Burn me!” said my pasty skin, my doughy heart. “Hard.”

            Rain and grey are also what one experiences in Belgium, which was, because of the weather, the most depressing place I have been to date (she said in a seeming tangent, hoping the reader stays with this). No blue sky the entire visit, except for an hour in Bruges, where again, tears of gratitude filled my eyes. By the same token, there have been summers in Virginia where a drought was on and if I saw yellow rays streaking across the yard one more day I thought I would rip out that dead grass with my bare claws and throw it at that damned ol’ sun.

            But what of artificial light? My parents’ downstairs living room is simply dead, no matter how many lamps are on, if the TV is turned off. The TV was never off in the whole of my growing up except after we went to bed. In fact, the house itself feels dead without the light of a TV screen flickering onto the furniture. That’s how I experience it. In my own homes over the years, certain lights go on at certain times of day. It is officially “evening” when all four lamps go on in the living room and the under-cabinet lights are on in the kitchen. I don’t know why this is, but it is. It means “home” now.

            The ugliest light I have experienced in my life to date was the greenish purple fluorescent-tube light of the auxiliary gymnasium at my high school. Everything was so sickly, so other-worldly in a bad way, that the light, if you can call it that, sucked all the joy out of the roller-skating unit. That, and Bill Sprague starting a “chain.”

            The most beautiful light I have known occurs during that fleeting cusp of evening into night, every season, any night, when there is at least some sun. That dusky, hovering moment of light fills my soul and breaks my heart all at once.

            Now that I’ve shared all these newsy tidbits about my life in and out of the light, you may be asking, “WTF?”

            One of the reasons I was able to create quite lovely lighting in my little high school shows was because I was conscious of light and how it affects the mood of a scene. Backlight, low light, area light, warm light and cool--those visuals played in my head during rehearsals even as I wanted the acting to illuminate to the words of the play. Your mind may not do this, and it may not even interest you. My colleague (whom I’ll call Jane) couldn’t have cared less about lighting and didn’t notice much difference between a follow-spot from a machine out in the house and an area light from the catwalk. (It is a HUGE difference, in case you are wondering.)

            Random rules of thumb I learned: When in doubt, illuminate in a warm glow of amber or pale pink. Make sure everyone can be seen and fill in “dead” spots wherever possible. (Read the lecture notes to find out what “dead” spots are.) There is a lot of artistry to light, so except for the nuts and bolts of selecting, hanging, and turning on lights, you may want to skip this unit in your teaching, if you teach this. I hope you don’t.

            Here is a confession: I do not and never have understood electricity. I relied on kids who were interested in all that stuff, like Brent and Alan and John and Kim and Roxmary and Veronica, to understand it. They took my lighting books, studied our patch panel, lighting board, instrument inventory, wattage load limits, and the physics of gels. Bless their hearts. I said valuable things like, “I want to see streaks of sunshine here,” “We need it to look like twilight,” and “Do something cool.”

            Together we made magic.

            If you want to get lighting magic, you have to “see” light, and “feel” light, and you want to encourage your potential designers to see and feel light, too. That is the purpose of the Lighting Journal, which was a project I created when I was teaching Thoreau to some juniors and had them keep a nature journal (involving the study of one tree they saw every day as we moved from autumn into winter.) (The scientist E.O. Wilson said any scientist could spend a lifetime studying just one tree and never learn everything. It’s the process of studying that matters so much, but I digress). Around that same time I was teaching lighting to my TP kids, and thought I’d do a similar journal, only with light.

            Lighting is a feeling more than anything, as far as I’m concerned, so the journal starts with asking students to become conscious of how light makes them feel. Then they will study exterior (usually natural) light, and interior (usually artificial) light to become aware of light sources and how these shifts change the environment. Out of this journal, you can then talk about what lighting would best suit a production that features a rousing main street chorus number, or a picnic in the woods, or a midnight vampire attack.


            This project was generally very successful because it’s an equalizer: No one had to be able to draw, or paint, or have an eye for accessories: Everyone lives with light. (If you have sight-impaired or blind students in your class, discuss alternatives if they need them--perhaps how seasonal light feels on the skin, for example, or an exploration of day and night sounds, if they wish.) That said, I can imagine several questions and concerns you might have on this project. As always, modify it to suit your needs. (Note: Limit any project assignment you give to ONE PAGE. Any more requirements or guidelines may indicate that the scope of the project is unrealistic; the evaluation sheet should mirror this.)

            But let’s address those concerns: First of all, of all the projects I assigned in Theater Production, this one was the easiest to “fake.” I had kids to fake it every year, remembering at ten o’clock on Sunday night that the project was due and sitting down to the computer to type till their nails bled. The project, you see, is deceptive. It would seem to be simple, a few notes here and there. But start doing it yourself (which I recommend--and I hope you now see that my little opening essay was in fact a version of this project), and you soon begin feeling the pull of the associations, the visuals you need to explain. So even if a kid “fakes” it, he or she will have to spend a few hours and will learn something. The penalty for no draft notes is 20 points, which at Luxe High School meant they started with a C. I think that’s fair. A kid may also fake notes--it happens. You can’t control it. Tell them all this, if you like. I did. “Please don’t think me a fool if I don’t realize you pulled a fast one. Keep your mouth shut and offer up a prayer of serious thanks.”

            Second, while this is a “journal,” you will see that I expected kids to make notes and then translate these notes into complete thoughts. This, to you, may not be a journal. You may see a journal as less restrictive and view my expectation of complete sentences as sucking the air out of the discovery process that says “journal” to you. Whatever. Here is what I know: Complete sentences mean complete thoughts. I’m sick of IMs, fragments, jots, “yeah, like, I know”s, and word associations. I want kids to think deeply and write accordingly. At the same time, I know that good notes can be taken on a napkin, on a candy wrapper, even, when you grab the first paper you see to record an observation. Kids can give me those napkins. (I request that they be placed in an envelope and labeled--and no kidding, I sometimes got napkins and wrappers.) I asked them to organize the notes by sections, Parts I-IV, but I didn’t care what the notes were on. Some “notes” might be a regular draft on regular paper, and that’s okay, too. But I want to see NOTES. I also like to see that the notes are turned into thinking. It may be first-draft thinking, but at least they are pushing beyond notes to develop a few ideas.

            On Presenting: I like kids to take public ownership of projects and, by looking at the projects of others kids, to learn how others see. I didn’t do whole-class discussions for the journal, necessarily; observe your group. They will indicate to you where to take it. You can organize formal small groups to read projects aloud, have informal exchanges of projects, or have students share sections aloud for the class. But I think it’s helpful for students to see how others approached the project before they receive their projects back with a grade.

            On Evaluating: I gave the students a copy of the evaluation form and as always asked them to include it with their project. (They usually didn’t. *SIGH* Still, do this. At least they know up front how they are being assessed.) The grading form seems really hard, but that, too, is deceptive. Because this project can be the hardest to grade and the most time-consuming to read (many kids will write way more than the requested few sentences), you need a guide. Scim and scan: tick off the blanks with a check, “yes, yes, yes,” and DO NOT OVER-THINK. This is not a master’s thesis. (No record of date and time? Minus one. Move on.)

            Kids like to see signs that you read: Occasionally write encouraging words such as “Yes,” “Interesting,” “I see that,” “Say more about this,” and “Nice” . . . and mean them. Underline two or three good observations or unusual details, place a check mark at good points. Add up the earned points, and give a grade. In the comments area, say one good thing if they have a B or an A, and mean it; say one good thing and add an improvement item if they get a C. If they receive a D or F, clearly it’s incomplete--the form reveals this--and tell kids with low grades that you hope they get something out of the lighting unit in any case; i.e., keep encouraging.

            SPEND NO MORE THAN 5-7 MINUTES PER PROJECT. Do the math, and with a class of 30 this will still take you almost three hours to grade. Spend the 20 minutes that each project deserves and you will be at this for--do the math--10 hours. Multiply that amount of time by five to include your other classes, and you just bought yourself a 100-hour workweek. I don’t think you have it. But this is why teachers get summers off.

            Why Use a Form: The grading form takes the guesswork out of point evaluations. It also protects you from your own worst instincts when you are really tired and get so disgusted you tick off a random -15 for a missing part that should only be worth 3. It also allows the student to see at a glance the difference between receiving a C because of limited ideas and content, and losing 25 points for missing notes and failure to follow format. It all matters. Presentation matters and it deserves to cost points. But not all points.

            A Story: In seventh grade for social studies, I made an election notebook on candidate Jimmy Carter. This is back in the day before Internet and, no kidding, photocopiers, so all articles had to come from actual, physical newspapers and magazines. (My family got The Washington Post and Time (the subscription was a wedding present from my mom’s Auntie Clare, who kept renewing the gift), so I was lucky.) Despite having the requisite number of articles, analytical paragraphs, political cartoons, and a creative cover (including my own caricature of Mr. Carter as Mr. Peanut), my project got a C. Why? In looking at the A projects, here is what I was able to surmise: My notebook wasn’t pretty enough. I didn’t have zig-zag scissors, or even sharp scissors at home, so the edges weren’t smooth on the cut-out articles, let alone styled; I used brads pushed through construction paper (an option) rather than a binder we couldn’t afford; that sort of thing. Also, I came to be impressed with my chosen candidate, and said so in my final essay. (My teacher did not like him, I realize in retrospect.) My teacher said to me when I expressed surprise at my average grade, “I knew you’d say that.” That was all. It was the teacher’s prerogative. Maybe my analysis wasn’t deep enough, but aside from a comment about how I clearly favored Carter over Ford (whom I hadn’t researched because the project asked us to research only one candidate, so I picked the one I’d never heard of; and I was only twelve years old), all I remember seeing was a “C”. But I suspect a lot of the grade had to do with the pretty factor.

            This leads me to an important point about education and its biases: For any project, one kid will follow the format to the letter, do exactly what is required, make a nice cover, and display no great thinking in the whole project. Another kid will be a really deep thinker, an insightful writer, and leave off some labels, miss one section of the notes, and have no great cover. Who deserves the higher grade? (Hint: Most teachers (and humans) are suckers for tidy and complete.) Suppose each student were to get a B+. Would this really be so wrong? It takes all kinds, people (and most of us fall in between somewhere). In the theater, my lighting designer has to be able to make the lights go ON first. But I’d also like some beauty. I hope you see my point.

            Many of us have had the teacher who would give a zero on a paper because of one comma splice. This seems patently absurd, and it is (hence my evaluation form). But let’s be realistic: That sort of randomness is more honest, if we look at the way the world works: President Bill Clinton can do all the good in the world he wants, and we should be grateful, but we’ll always remember him for Monica. Monica was Bill’s comma splice, and a lot of people gave him a zero because of it, didn’t they?

            Now you can stop that nonsense and assign fair point values.
            A final point about points vs. your judgment: Let’s take a sampling of “A Place You Like the Light,” and grade a couple of examples.

One kid describes a room:
11/2, 9:30 P.M. My living room has a couch, a chair, a coffee table, and a bookcase. When the lamp in the corner is on, I feel cozy. Even though the rest of the room is dark, I like this little gold circle of light around the chair. It makes me feel like reading.

Another kid might say of the same scene:
November 2, 2010, 9:30 on a rainy night, a branch scraping the window of my living room: The deep pine green back of the antique wing chair casts a grey shadow over myriad bindings in the walnut bookcase when the corner Tiffany lamp comes on. The effect is both eerie and inviting when the golden glow with rainbow hues envelops me, as I snuggle against the plush cushions with my favorite novel.

            Who did the better job? Decide quickly. Now take a look below:

Here is the direction on the kids’ project sheet:
PART I, FEELING LIGHT: In a few sentences, evaluate the lighting in the locations listed: Describe the place. Explain the quality of light and how you respond to it.
            A.  A place you really like the light

Here is the evaluation form:
PART I: A few sentences with descriptions, date and time
____/5 A. Place you like light

I hope you realize that both students should receive the full five points. Before you judge, always look at the requirements: a few sentences with description, a date and time. But what, you demand, of the second student’s details? Doesn’t that prove his project to be more worthy? Okay: The first student did not explain furniture placement or describe the room in meticulous detail. But is “myriad bindings” in the second example really useful in a lighting description? That’s a judgment you can make, but is it worth weighing here? I would say no.

            Now let us suppose the second student with the great description left off the date and the time: Whatever you may think of his descriptions, you would have to deduct at least one point. That’s fair. But you may ask, Is an “equal” evaluation fair? Yes, when the requirement is spelled out, as it is with “date and time”.

(Suppose in all four sections, with all four items in each section, a kid never records the date or the time. This is a loss of 16 points. Do you want to do this? Yes, you do. How can you avoid this? In the days before the project is due, put a checklist on the board: How is your project going? Do you have all your notes? Are you remembering to record the date and time of each observation? Are you writing descriptions? That sort of thing helps kids remember. This is, after all, school. We are not trying to trip them up. Recording this detail, the date and time, is just the sort of life detail--the account number written on a check to the power company, for example, the address of the dentist’s office and date of our next appointment--that all of us need to practice when we are young. Right?)

Here is an example of an unfair deduction: Technically, the second student has only written two sentences, when “a few” would indicate three or four. This is your judgment call; you may be a stickler and deduct a point. Should you deduct this point? I would say absolutely not--that would be splitting hairs, and what would be your point?

            Consider a third example entry: You will have at least one student whose entire entry will read, Living room at night, one lamp, I like it. Based on my requirements, he would get one point, maybe two if he’s learning disabled or an English Language Learner--and that’s a place for a legitimate judgment call.

            When we are in the grading moment, depending on our distractions, levels of sleep deprivation, mood, and other factors, we can lose sight of what evaluation is all about. Teachers must develop a habit of mind when it comes to grading, even in an elective class like this. Let’s focus on the PURPOSE of this particular project. First of all, Theater Production is not Writing Workshop I. Second, grading is not compare and contrast (which is a useful learning tool but an unfair project evaluation tactic—I hope you see the distinction; this is a class project, not a government contract they are bidding on). You have to take students where they are.

            I hope you also see why it makes no difference how old a student is in a class like this.

            You cannot get hung up on false comparisons and assorted bailiwicks. That is how grading one set of projects can take you ten hours and cause arguments later, and what will keep you from assigning valuable projects, and also how valuable courses like Theater Production are not allowed to develop in the first place.

            I wrote in an earlier post about the need for a full course in creating Assessments as part of teacher training: Create clear requirements, and as you grade, look at your own requirements. (This applies to assessing ANYTHING.) I purposely avoid being too detailed by limiting the project sheet to one page whenever possible. In the Lighting Journal, you are asking students to pay attention to light and its effects. That’s IT. You read journals; some move you, some don’t. In the above examples, you may think you know which student is getting the most out of this experience, but you don’t know that at all. Some kids with a propensity for wordplay can pull poetry out of their asses and never feel a thing. Some write eight words and truly see the light. Real life example alert: For the record, a student who would become one of my best lighting techs turned in a journal that read very much like the first example. Suppose I’d had no evaluation form, had read her project, shrugged, and given her journal a C. Would she have stayed interested in lighting? Fortunately, she got an A, so I never had to find out.

            In the end, you need a good guideline AND your judgment. Use both.

            AND: As for your stupid teacher guilt over not devoting 10 hours to grading this project “because the kids put so much into it”: Your evaluation matters, but their doing it matters more. You are not giving them short shrift, but rather you are being a realist, which allows you to keep teaching: They each did one project; you are evaluating 30 (or 60, or 75). (Some projects will be so good you will just get sucked in, and that’s marvelous and useful. I saved the good ones to use as models, and I learned from my students which components made for interesting discoveries and which did not. The project you see here is a honed version of my first foray into the lighting journal idea.)

            I seem to be hammering home a point here, and I am. Please apply the following wisdom to your overall evaluating life: Think about the objectives you have, the information you want to teach, why you want kids to know it, how you want them to use it, what projects will help them practice and apply it, and how to evaluate and assess it. Eventually you will internalize all this stuff and it won’t seem that hard. Don’t hurt yourself.

            BUT THERE IS A LOT OF WORK AHEAD, my friends. One project does not a class make, a year make, a career make. You have a life. Live it. And get those damned things graded.


This section is about how one can apply actual learning in a classroom to a real-life situation. The kids in my Theater Production class helped design and build the very shows that patrons came to see, and we wanted to do our very best so that money was not wasted—theirs or ours. Of what better use is education? Beauty and truth.

            Unable to get a budget for a textbook--and really, no textbook existed that did what little I needed for a basic high school class--I created a lighting packet for my students for in-class use, culled from several books on stage lighting. For obvious copyright infringement reasons, I am not including that packet here, but I would suggest you review resources, teach yourself, and make packets that will be useful to you and your students. Here is what I created:

1. Stage Lighting Test based on photocopied materials about lighting fundamentals and notes
2. Hand-created diagram of how lights turn on
3. Game for kinesthetic and non-electrical practice of using lighting systems, involving ropes, color-coding and a “plot” so that the student became the patch panel, lighting board, and cables
4. A lesson plan for demonstrating what gels can do
5. A few lecture notes and practicum on the stage (i.d. of instruments, locations, etc.)

            Let’s think about light again, in a theater: If there is “a bright golden haze on the meadow,” and a man is singing this to me, I had better see a bright, golden light on that stage, as well as a hint of meadow. If it is “a dark and stormy night,” and the electricity is out, and only one candle lights the room, I had better see lighting that matches this scenario. I also have to be able to see what is going on on the stage, so the “single candle” will have to be cheated a bit, but as long as I get the picture, as it were, no one will complain.

            And there it is: Stage lighting in a minute. Good luck.
            Okay, there is more to it, and I’ll do my best to explain what that is.

            A Note on Resources: As I mentioned, I left teaching before my school got a computerized lighting board. Computers or no, that’s a technical point only and not the subject of this chapter. This is the subject: You have to understand what light can and should DO, or all the gizmos in the world will just go for naught. I think it best to begin with terms, a test, some exercises, and then a real-life example in the negatory. I’ll skip the terms, test, and exercises, and cut to the example.

            Real life experience alert: A very nice man in our school system, a certified “expert” on state-of-the-art lighting, came to my school to “help” us, at Jane’s behest (she was nervous about us being legally responsible for new regulations about the technicians and their safety, and I realized she had a point). His “designs” (I’m wondering how much more condescending I can “sound”) were low-wattage, all shadows and dead spots, sharp lines, and sickly gel choices, so I (read: my kids) refocused, re-aimed, and rebuilt his every design. Jane didn’t understand why I did that (she said she couldn’t see much difference), and our expert helper (paid out of our school’s drama coach stipend, which is to say my pocket) understandably got really exasperated with me. Oddly, he knew what he was about, in that he had actually planned for the lights to look that way. So it turns out he was (to my mind) just really terrible. I mean this in a loving way: nice man, hard worker, an artist not so much. I cannot stomach bad, no matter how well-intended, so I meddle.

            How did I know my adjustments made the lighting “better”? Good question. Let’s talk fundamentals. For example, for no discernable reason—in that there was no stage direction indicating “sunlight through tree branches” or a “porch light” effect, for example—a stage area he’d designed would often be dimly and unevenly lit. He might leave a wide swath of stage right in the dark, for example, so that an actor walking across the stage would pass from light into (inexplicable) shadow and back into light. Whole scenes might have a kind of horizontal line cutting off light at the tops of the heads of actors standing on a platform, and I’d realize the cats were aimed too high and were hitting the teaser on the act curtain. I’d make the techs re-aim these instruments or re-aim Fresnels on the first electric to illuminate the actors’ faces. I knew this man got aggravated--so before interfering I first would ask him to look at the scene and show him the problem, whereupon he would roll his eyes and explain that it looked right to him--and whatever I’d changed, he would make the kids re-aim the instruments as he designed; when he finally would leave, not to return until opening night, my techs would quickly fix the lights as I’d requested.
            This lighting man also left “edges” on his lights. Yes, lights have edges. And you can demonstrate this with two or three high-powered flashlights.

            OK: One Exercise: Have kids stand holding strong flashlights straight-on toward a volunteer’s face in the dark, walking up and back, and changing angles (sideways and up-down) slowly. Have the remaining students watch for the “lines” or “edges” to “soften.” (On an actual Leko, you can adjust the instrument for softness or hardness of edges, or focus it, while the instrument hangs in one place.) The idea in many cases is to blend the light coming from the two or three instruments to make a shadow-free “wash.” If the lights don’t do this, you will notice visual effects you may not have intended (and intention is the key here): an actor’s face may seem to have a kind of dark scar, but only until he moves away; or two actors standing together in the same “room” will be lit differently and not for symbolic reasons; or a costume will appear to have an odd “seam” or multiple colors in what should be solid-colored fabric. You may also notice the shadows of the actors appearing against the scenery, on the floor, on the sofa, and such shadows are surprisingly distracting on stage, while in life (on a sunny playground, or example) we just kind of accept them.

            Finally, we differed aesthetically, this expert and I. This man would put 500-watt lamps in instruments that needed, in our experience, 1000 watts. As a result, I don’t think the light from the catwalk ever reached our large and distant stage much past the apron. “What happened to our thousand-watt lamps?” I’d asked. I know he didn’t use them, because his own shows were practically in the dark. That was a lot of money, and I suspect he tossed them out. I had to buy all new lamps, which I had my techs “hide” until the final dress, when we put them in so he couldn’t say anything.  He preferred dim lighting (his own shows made me feel I was going blind), and I like to see. This is, I admit, my aesthetic choice. And, aesthetically, I didn’t like the yellow-tinted gels he preferred (I like pink) when he gelled at all. He achieved a kind of dim glare, if you can do that, and it really was not to my taste.

            And bless the hearts of my techs, they understood, artistically and just plain fundamentally, that first and foremost: YOU HAVE TO SEE THE ACTORS, and see them without distraction.

            In my view, for what it’s worth, I will reiterate what I said in the beginning: When in doubt, make shadow-free, dead-spot-free, warm pinkish light so that everything is illuminated, to coin Jonathan Safron-Foer, and so it all looks kind of generally nice. It’s enough. Only do artsy when you and your technicians really know what you are doing, when you have a budget of some kind to play with, and when you do a show where lighting effects really will enhance the action. It was a few years before I was willing to try real design, and my student Brent was the one who emboldened me. That’s another story.

I hope you see how involved even a Theater Production unit can be: art, science, and execution to the point of performance give regular course work measurable value. And for those readers wondering why teaching is hard, I hope this post adds dimension to your understanding. Reforming education—and I do think real reform is in order—has to be done in a full context. In the end, giant reforms are almost always enacted by a dozen or so men (Founding Fathers, Communist Revolutionaries, Dick Cheney) or dictators (Mao, Hitler, Dick Cheney), who use the cult of personality to advance an ideology by coercion and force. What is harder is doing something generous and good, and in a truly democratic way, across a broad landscape (Gandhi), in the face of so many divergent viewpoints, fears, and dreams.

Yep. It’s hard. It’s why I’d rather write a play, find some actors, and put on a show. Lights up full. Enter laughing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Compare and Contrast

Compare and Contrast

One of the most common skills we teach kids in school is the old “compare and contrast.” Why do we teach it? The expression, “It’s apples and oranges”—meaning “it’s like comparing the delicious fruits, the apple and the orange, to say which is better” is one way of thinking about it: It can be a matter of preference (crisp and tart v. juicy, soft, and sweet, depending on the state of the apple or orange); or perhaps it is a matter of nutritional need (high fiber v. vitamin C). No matter. But when someone says, “It’s like apples and oranges,” he or she ought to mean, “To compare these [two more or less equal items, the leisure activities reading books vs. watching television, say] on supposed merit is not really helpful.”

The main reason we compare and contrast is to help us remember information. By comparing one thing to another, we look at the pros and cons, the positives and negatives, the tangy yin and the succulent yang. Sometimes it’s just fun to see how much things have in common (the rules in various sports; the themes in varieties of literature from a similar period; sizes of male genitalia on animals… er…), but mostly we know that by seeing things in opposition, our own understanding—and our own preferences—are made clearer.

Apples and Oranges

This blog post is about my ideal school. In order to talk about that, I will have to play a game of compare and contrast with American education as I experienced it (and as it, mostly, still exists). But let me start with politics. Years ago, one of Miss O’s former students said, “Miss O’, I can tell you are a liberal.”

“Are my ideals showing?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m a conservative, and yet I like you. Why are you a liberal?”

This is just what one dreams of a student becoming: a rational question-asker, a genuinely curious person. I had never been asked, nor had I answered, such a question before. I love a challenge. What I am about to write is almost exactly what I said, and in 20 years my answer would remain more or less the same. But in order to answer her, I had to compare liberalism with conservatism, as I understood it through the prism of politics since Reagan. I came up with three tenants that are at the heart of liberal and conservative discord, speaking obviously as Citizen O’ and not Miss O’.

“1) A liberal believes in government legislation, or public policy, for the things we all share— air, water, infrastructure, legal protections, and the like—and leaving private morality—sexual activity, reproduction, religion—up to individual choice. A conservative believes the opposite: legislate private morality, and leave public policy up to individuals and corporate entities. 2) A liberal, understanding that people are never born onto a level playing field, is willing to lower her standard of living a little bit, via taxes, if it will help bring up the standard of living of the poorest among us. A conservative, by contrast, knows that all people are born onto a level playing field, and believes that each person must ‘pull himself up by his own bootstraps,’ regardless of whether he has boots, straps, or feet, without aid beyond individual charity. 3) While a conservative places religion, or ‘belief,’ at the center of his life and choices, a liberal places worldly education, or ‘knowledge supported by verifiable facts,’ at the center of his life and choices. Neither religious belief nor worldly education is mutually exclusive; it’s a matter of positioning. These three differences alone make me a liberal.”

Political views are apples and oranges. The difficulty—and it is an intense one—is that both views are so antithetical to one another as to make us sweat and wretch. And yet without the whetstone that is the repellent viewpoint, our own views cannot sharpen and gain clarity.

I posted on my Facebook wall yesterday an op-ed by Paul Krugman of the New York Times. Astonishingly, I had written the above paragraphs two days before his op-ed came out, and I found his piece such a relief. I think his editorial gets at the heart of why liberals feel alone right now. My friend Scott is always there to help me sharpen my own belief system, so using his “worst case scenario” approach, I’ll try to outline again why teaching, and living as a liberal, is so hard.

Liberal View: Americans should have access to affordable insurance, and if they can’t afford it, the government should supplement, either in the form of Medicaid, or disaster relief.
Conservative View: No one should have insurance unless he pays in full, on his own, for coverage. If there is a catastrophe, health or otherwise, it’s God’s Will, and if you are deserving, someone kind might help you if they choose to.

Scott uses the example of someone who builds in a flood plain and is flooded year after year and wants insurance to rebuild.

Let me tell you a little story.

In 1990, Republican President George H.W. Bush made a speech, including the line, “Every mud puddle is not a wetland.”  He railed against environmental activists who were preventing property development along the Gulf Coast. The scientists who were experts on that ecosystem pointed out that wetlands were not only vital habitats for plants and animals, the wetlands also served as natural buffers in the event of hurricanes. President Bush pointed out that he had a lot of property development friends who wanted to make a lot of money. The protections for those areas were denied, laws changed, the wetlands filled in, the houses built, and levees constructed (half-heartedly and cheaply), and the developers took the money and ran. The people who bought the homes did not have access to the reports about the true nature of the land on which their houses sat, (this could be wetlands or a chemical dump, it makes no difference), and fifteen years later, Katrina paid a call.

The conservative response amounted to, “Well, you are stupid to live there.”

Miss O’ asks, “Really?” It is her (liberal) view that President G.H.W. Bush should be tried for crimes against humanity.

We all know how the reality played out.

Scenarios like these make it so easy for a liberal to quit: quit caring, quit the fight. “It was ever thus: Politicians are immoral and corrupt and make money and if you aren’t smart enough to get a piece of the pie, or if you are a ‘victim’ because you were stupid enough to trust that you were moving to a safe place, tough shit.” Or in the words of the Wicked Witch of the West, when the little girl who bounced into Oz and killed her sister and stole the magic shoes and caused her, too, to die, and is celebrated for it: “What a world, what a world.” We side with Dorothy, but if you take a minute, you can see why the witch was so pissed off. Dorothy merely blundered, while the Wicked Witch calculated. What makes us root for Dorothy? She acted out of love. The Witch acted out of hatred.

Liberal or Conservative, I ask you both: Do you come from a position of love or a position of hate? Do you come from a position of curiosity or a position of fear?

Apples and Oranges. Negative energy (hate) is far more powerful in the short term (“I got mine”) than Positive energy (love) over the long haul, and I’m in it for the LONG game (“How will my children’s children get theirs?”). It’s the position you come from that matters most to me, speaking as a human and an educator.

And so I come to education: Compare and Contrast Educational Systems.

Sir Ken Robinson: A Recent Revelation

In all my years of teaching and all my years of study, I had not heard of the educator Sir Ken Robinson until about two weeks ago, thank to my colleague Michele. I watched a video animation of a talk he gave (condensed into his main points), the link to which I posted in my previous blog entry.  His rhetoric made my blood rush and heart swoon with gratitude, not least because he places the ARTS at the center of learning. He’s a lot smarter than I am and uses words more beautifully, to say nothing of that cool knighthood (albeit tied to a "Ken"), and that makes me all the more grateful. I don’t feel so alone. He points out that the knowledge base and courses grew out of the 18th century Enlightenment, and the institutions were modeled on the factories born of the Industrial Revolution, and that if you hadn’t noticed it’s 2011 and maybe it’s time for a rethink.

I’ve been rethinking since I began teaching in 1987. When I left teaching for the first time, in 1990, I was burned out. (See previous posts.) Another colleague, J.C., also left that year, she from the science department. We had become great friends, and spent the next year (she on her farm with her family, I down the road in the 150-year-old former school house with the wood stove and no money or prospects) planning out our dream school. I wrote a bad poem about it once, and have, mercifully, lost it. The idea was that groups of all ages (like the old schoolhouses) would gather under a tree and we’d teach thematically. For example, we’d do a poem about a tree, an ecological lesson on the trees, measure the tree for math, that sort of thing. And then we’d give multiple-choice tests for the other four days.

Ha, ha.

What I mean is, we would put science and art at the center of everything we taught. To group kids by interests rather than by age, for example, is a far better way to reach them. I know this from teaching drama and Theater Production and Humanities. As always when I imagine school, I separate kids by elementary and secondary. What I know best is high school, and that by the time kids are 12 or 13, they know what they really want to learn about, or at least where they don’t want to be or what they don’t feel like doing. They know this when they are little, too, but are more like sponges then, and can absorb as long as they are carried by a dynamic adult’s enthusiasm. But after age 11, it’s not so simple. Sitting in rows, taking tests, blah, blah, blah: Some kids flourish (I did), and most do not (the rest of my five siblings). What made the difference for me was drama club. My brother Mike found Classical Languages, finally, in his junior year of high school. It made all the difference to our approach to all learning and life. We’re all doing okay, but I think Mike and I get a little something extra out of experience because of the arts (where I include languages). So I figure my family is probably the national average, the perfect Bell Curve.

Arts and Crafts

Behind all the arts, behind all the crafts (building trades, textiles, and the like), there is science. So no matter what your interest, there is some kind of art and science around which to build. Even if your passion is politics, you need the art of rhetoric to be effective, and the knowledge of science to be taken seriously by smart people.

I’d like to play a little game called What Would Happen If. To play the game, no one needs to die, life as we know it will not end, and yet life to come might really improve. My nemesis Scott was a bit put out with Sir Ken Robinson, because while his speech began a conversation, it did not lay out precisely how education as the system we have might become another system altogether. I thought I might have a crack at it. Here is what I would do.

How I Would Begin to Revolutionize American Education

1.     I would suspend all national and state standardized testing for five years.
a.     Pluses
                                               i.     All teachers would be unyoked for the first time since these things were implemented in the 1980s, thereby allowing them to think about 1) why do I teach? and 2) what would I like to teach if I could teach anything I wanted?
                                              ii.     School districts would save a shitload of money by not having to pay for the test booklets, pencils, shipping, or paying of evaluators. That money could be reinvested into the schools in other ways.
b.     Minuses
                                               i.     The companies that produce and sell testing materials would be out of work, out of business, or would have to restructure.
                                              ii.     The evaluators of tests would also be out of work.
                                            iii.     Nervous parents may freak out because their kids aren’t being evaluated in a standard way.
2.     I would suspend all classes in all the high schools (I’d start there) for a period of, say, two days (a Thursday and Friday), to engage in group conversations, all over the nation, about interests and inclinations and what they would all really like to teach and learn.
a.     Pluses
                                               i.     This would afford a real opportunity, provided it was organized and treated seriously (meaning it would require leadership, but really no prep, because there are no tests), to have students and teachers and guidance counselors write, research, and discuss what they would really like to learn and how that learning situation might be achieved.
                                              ii.     Kids and teachers both could feel engaged in the process of their own life and growth. Kids could still go class to class, and have a chance to talk with their teachers and each other about what really interests them. They would also have a chance to talk about how those interests might really be developed in the course of taking math, science, history, art, English, Latin, P.E., building trades, etc.
b.     Minuses
                                               i.     This kind of free discussion FREAKS OUT, like, 98% of the teachers I know. Okay, maybe 60%. But still.
                                              ii.     Principals will be panicked because some kind of “outcome” which is to say “substantive change” would have to come out of these discussions, and then what?
                                            iii.     School districts and boards care about budgets, and only budgets, and “God” and “others,” and numbers at the end of the year, so will not know how to cope with such radical notions.
3.     Some kind of real survey would have to be developed, to be given on the Monday morning after these days of talks, so everyone has a weekend to reflect and process the conversations. On the survey, both students and teachers would say (using their own names) what they would like to learn about and teach, given their druthers. Then, of course, people at the school would have to read the surveys, group the interests by art or science or sports, for example, and then say, “Now what?” Schools would then have to have staff meetings to talk about ways to restructure within the building and across departments to make changes possible. ALSO: Teachers would have to show how they would build, assess, and demonstrate real learning is going on in their classes. This way, we can still use the buildings and keep the “institutions,” at least for now.

What would happen IF:  ...we as a nation realized we don’t have to educate the way we have done it for the past 150 years? understood that there is no secret book that says this is natural law, this way of doing education?

Here is the real roadblock: What people in this country really care about, at least the conservatives, is TAXES. Because of this constant return to “How much does this cost? I won’t pay,” so many creative endeavors like a national education conversation don’t happen--things that OVER THE LONG HAUL could have really positive outcomes and even save money. A lot of conservatives I know do not believe in compulsory education for our citizens at all, and therefore would not want to entertain any talk of actual reform. They would like the elimination of schools nationally. They believe it's cheaper to lock people in prison ("stupid choices") than to educate them and show them opportunities, even though the numbers do not bear this out. This piece of me wants to say, “Then go.” Now what about their tax bill? Their tax money can go to fund infrastructure projects and roads. Do we return to them the portion of the tax money that would go to funding public schools? The conservatives I know say YES. Okay.

The OTHER roadblock is fear of factual knowledge: evolution, climate change, homosexuality--all those truths and scientific realities that many conservatives prefer to deny (conservatives prefer "personal belief" generally speaking). Fine. What if we did agree as a nation that not everyone must attend school? What if we liberals said, “To hell with you?” Curiously, from what I have read, not only would child labor probably return (this idea has been floated in the past year in conservative camps in Maine and Utah, for starters:, but the educated/uneducated divide would line up (mostly) across North and South, just as it did in the Civil War, which is why liberals push so hard for an education for everybody. It’s the only way, they feel, to keep the Union, and especially important to keep it because our economies are so tightly enmeshed. Same as 150 years ago. Ron Paul thinks states should be self-sufficient, as in 1900. He’s an idiot. It’s 2011. And even in 1900, as Teddy Roosevelt and other progressives recognized, that however isolated a region, state borders are and were utterly artificial. What is real? RIVERS and MOUNTAINS and natural resources and economic interdependency—those are real. And that all magazines come from Boone, Iowa.

We are all in this TOGETHER. Want to be alone? Move to Mars. Godspeed. To survive on Earth, Willful Ignorance is not an option. Ask any parent who truly loves his children. Do you let them do whatever the heck they want, or do you teach them stuff? Good parents encourage their children's interests, show them love, give them discipline, allow for independence and risk and failure, but do not leave their children to starve and die when they make poor choices or didn't know any better. Our social systems--government, educational, business--work best when they work the same way that good parenting does. And just as the needs of children change as they grow, so too do the needs of nations change. Compare and Contrast: Couldn't our schools reflect reality more profoundly in this 21st century of technological revolution, interconnectedness, and global interdependency, just at the 20th century met the challenges of a growing nation by creating a national educational system in the first place? We should be talking about what is best to teach now, and how best to do it, and not whether to do it at all.

That’s as far as I’m taking this blog post today. I would welcome your comments, and would be appreciative if you’d leave them on The Miss O’ Show Blogspot for future discussions. LOVE to all.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reform by Genius

Dear Fellow Education Maniacs:
Miss O' begs you to spend the 12 need minutes to watch a brilliant discourse on the reformation of education by Britain's Sir Ken Robinson.

He made me cry with gratitude. The animator is brilliant.
All love.
Miss O'

Monday, September 5, 2011

Welcome, Teachers!

The Close of Summer: Miss O’ Remembers

            We never got our rosters until about two days before the weekend before the first day of school, so that we could spend the three day weekend entering all the names on seating charts, into grade books, and into our memory banks, period by period, to learn all the pronunciations. The previous five teacher work days were spent cleaning and decorating the room, photocopying packets and syllabi and greeting letters and lesson sheets for the first two weeks of classes, in between attending meeting after relentless meeting, school level, county level—meetings on procedures, record-keeping, the new grade book, the school calendar, notes  to remind one of being sensitive to religion/gender/disabilities and the consequences of not. Copies of all the first/second/third /fourth day attendance forms, to be filled out by homeroom period (yellow) and then every period (blue on day one, pink on day 2, green on day 3), so Guidance could follow up and track down the no-shows—these were the most important things we would turn in the first week. Then we were given the list of locker assignments and combinations to be distributed in homeroom, which lockers you only gave out once the kids turned in the two emergency cards, signed and with complete information, which we would have to check on day 2 of class. In between these meetings and organizings, we’d trot to the room where all the text books were stored, and lift, cart, and carry the requisite number (30-35/period) to our rooms (and in my case, five different rooms, for many years), labeling each stack with a blank piece of paper (with my name, O’Hara), so any other teacher using the room would know who had carted them in.
            And of course there was collegial stuff, how was your summer, have you met the new English 9 teacher, and the leaping in to help out. At the final faculty meeting on Friday you’d get the stack of school folders, school calendars, insurance forms, newsletters, and blank emergency cards, which we’d take back to our home rooms, about a quarter of us setting them up ahead of day 1, which went like this: Put the school folder open flat on each of the 30+ desks (the inside of which contained sports schedules, holiday schedules, emergency numbers, office contact lists, and pockets to place others papers, syllabi, etc., a kid might amass on the first day (being not of a mind to bring materials to school, as many were). Then desk by desk, I’d walk the rows and place one of each form, form by form into the folders in the same order, for ease of reviewing aloud. I closed the exercise by paper-clipping a schedule onto the top of the closed folder, the name of which student would correspond with the names on my seating chart—homeroom completed before I left on Friday. I’d look so fucking organized there and then, that kids would at least have the illusion of my proficiency. It made them feel safe. Me—it made me feel safe.
            Somewhere in there, I’d hang posters and create a cleverly themed bulletin board, half for drama, half for poetry and art, usually assembled by the two bright and bouncing former students who, like angels, showed up before school started just to say hi. “What can I do?” they’d ask, and I’d weep with gratitude and toss them the tape and stapler and point to the boxes of poster and border offerings. “Be creative.”
            I began teaching in 1987, and had I stayed in the profession, Miss O’ would be starting her 24th year in schoolbusiness. As it is, I’ve been out of it for 8 years, and it’s clear as can be in my mind even now. I could walk into an English Department Office blind, so deeply does this stuff get into the bones. It’s a nightmare.
            The nightmare begins after the stress of setting the stage, of wanting to create a place where magic can happen, after you scan your roster for names and face the impossible tax on your memory: Cesar Aguilar, Jorge Alocer, Fia Faivai, Sharlyn Fireoved, and Farhad Golizadeh, followed by Ashley, Ashely, Ashlee, Ashleigh, and ten Nicoles, and the realization that you have the third McIntosh sister and her first name also starts with an M, so Melinda can join Melissa and Melanie, and you can fret because you know you will say the wrong name and cause her to lose all sense of identity. IT WILL ALL BE MY FAULT.
            Amazingly, Miss O’ only took up drinking when she came to New York.
            Here’s to all the teachers out there, losing sleep tonight over the first day of school; to the ones who started back two weeks ago in 100-degree heat; to the ones who’ve retired or left and still remember the Tuesday after Labor Day because you can’t help it and oh my god why won’t it stop?
            A new day, a new year, and a new blog begin!