Art and Empathy

Look at this fantastic work, The Sower, by Van Gogh, painted in 1888. Give your eyes time to move and rest on details. As you do this, pay attention to your reactions to what you see. Note the thoughts, emotions and feelings that arise inside you.

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Are you startled by the richness of the sun or do your fingers itch to trace its grooves? Does your mind imagine hearing the sower’s feet pressing into the earth? Who is the sower and what is his story?

When we tune in to an experience with art like this one, we learn a new way to talk with children about empathy. I think that one of the best reasons to use art is to build understanding and strong connections to humankind.  Learning to see and experience through new eyes—or the eyes of another—challenges our minds to grow.

Education philosopher Maxine Greene urges us to realize that understanding  art through experience is an essential part of every child’s education.  I agree.  Whenever I think about the history of human civilization, art and empathy appear together as the deepest elements of our story, as deep as the grooves on Van Gogh’s radiant sun.

 

 

Family Rituals and Bobby Shafto

Does your family love to dance?  Play soccer together?  Deep-fry turkeys on special occasions?  All are rituals that enrich family lives.

Mine was a family that loved to sing. When we were children, my grandmother accompanied us on the piano as she taught us folk songs and nursery rhymes.

My sisters and I sang Bobby Shafto in harmony while washing dishes. In the car, our mother taught us to sing the round White Coral Bells. When I learned to play the piano, my father appeared whenever he heard me play the introduction to The Bowery and he sang next to me.

Later, when our aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered for Christmas, we sang through Handel’s Messiah in four-part harmony. We weren’t professionals. Not everyone sang in tune. It was a family ritual and something we enjoyed.

Looking back, what do I think we children learned from all of the singing?

Certainly social and emotional skills—everyone participated and no one dared grouch along. Our ears learned to distinguish sounds (a reading skill) and rhythmic patterns (art, music and math skills). We learned to read lyrics that used words from different countries and eras (more reading). Our vocabularies grew with words like andante and diminuendo.

With rituals like this reinforced from all sides in a family, learning occurs and memories are made.

It doesn’t matter what your family sings—oldies, show tunes, or hymns—it’s the doing it together that helps children grow.

 

Shown:  The Daughters of Catulle-Mendès at the Piano

Pierre August Renoir, 1888

HONK! It to The World

IMG_3162What issues in our world fill you with passion?

Perhaps you’re working to gain freedom for the children in Tibet. Maybe fracking issues make you crazy or you are a member of Veterans for Peace. Or your focus might be more local, like saving a silver maple forest in a cherished reservation.

IMG_3146Do you care enough to grab your tuba or push yourself down the street with a couple of plungers?
Because that’s what people did at the 2014 HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands in Somerville and Cambridge, MA. The parade mixed zeal with fun and educated the spectators, providing welcome relief from the litany of terrible world problems in the news. Not that the HONK! groups didn’t make their points. They did. And they used larger-than-life sized puppets and funky costumes to do it.

Making the usual, unusual gives messages a fresh emphasis.  Everyone in this parade found a personal and artistic perspective in community with others.  That’s a valuable set of life lessons  for all of us, accompanied by a dash of AfroBrazilian percussion.IMG_3176

I love to see parents and grandparents teaching children how to help change a larger world than their own. When learning starts in the family, it settles into childrens’ souls. And when it’s lodged there, you’ve given children tools that no one else but you can give. Add in some glitter and an orange feather boa–who knew that changing the world could be so much fun?IMG_3109

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swings and Learning

One of childhood’s pleasures is endangered. Swings are beginning to disappear from school and public playgrounds, mostly because adults worry about student injuries and lawsuits. As someone who has spent thousands of hours supervising recess, I prefer teaching children how to follow a few simple rules so they can enjoy the benefits of swinging while supervised. It’s worth this effort when you think about what children learn while gliding through fresh air.ID-10031697

First, they have to take turns because there are never enough swings to go around. The unspoken etiquette on playgrounds is universal: first come, first served, but don’t hog it. A child has to be fair about the amount of time spent swinging, and there are no better timekeepers than other children waiting for their turn. Already these lessons encompass enjoyment and sharing, patience and restraint, manners and learning to negotiate!

Sets of swings create the perfect laboratory to study the social and emotional development of children while they are happy and autonomous. Children talk, chant, sing, laugh, and get out of breath as they stretch, lean, and pump. I’ve noticed that children’s moods lift when they swing, too. There’s nothing like twirling yourself into dizziness and silliness to feel good and have fun.

Finally, swings teach children what freedom feels like. The wind slaps their cheeks and tousles their hair. They sail up to get a good view of their world and they learn that the harder they pump, they higher they can sail. Teachers know that observations of children at play reveal much about their growth, especially when children play without adult interruptions.

At home, if your swings are gone because you think your children are too old, put one back up and wait. You’ll be surprised to see who rediscovers them.

The Great Johnny Appleseed

IMG_3025Drive west from Boston on Route 2 and as you enter the town of Leominster, Massachusetts, a huge sign welcomes you to the hometown of Johnny Appleseed, born here in 1774. Turn to the kids and ask what they know about this remarkable man. Share what you know about Johnny (Chapman) Appleseed. If you’re like me, you learned a sentimental version in elementary school. After reading a story about him, then you drew a picture of a nice man scattering apple seeds here and there around the countryside.

Not that this is bad! But there is so much more to know and enjoy about Johnny Appleseed. Find out if your child has read Steven Kellogg’s Johnny Appleseed: A Tall Tale Retold and Illustrated. If she says yes, read it again together. Picture books like this one, with outstanding art and text, always have something new for readers to discover. Take time to talk about the map in the back of the book. I confess I didn’t know he spent much of his life in Ohio.

One thing I love about reading with children is the conversations I have with them. It’s wonderful to not have all the answers and let them teach you. However, if your interested is piqued, read Howard Means’ book Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story. It’s readable and it untangles countless legends that surround John Chapman’s life.

Now it’s time to make and eat warm apple crisp with your child. Great conversations take place over food, don’t they? All in all, a happy experience shared.

Kathy Nollet

Poem in Your Pocket Day

What’s in your pocket today? Keys, coins, lip balm? Tomorrow, remember to slip in a poem.

This year’s Poem in Your Pocket Day is April 24, a day for everyone to celebrate. It’s free and fun. You select a poem or favorite lines from one. Copy it, fold it up, put it in your pocket to share with others. Get your peers and friends to do it, too. Throughout the day enjoy all of the poems–funny, sublime, solemn, or clever.

Sometimes I feel shy about sharing poems. Perhaps it’s because many poems evoke personal connections that reside deep inside. It’s far less risky to share other forms of art, like books or music, because they seem more mainstream. However, my perspective expanded during a trip to California a few years ago.

On a warm, sunny day I’d planned a visit to a national historic forest. When Tom pulled his pickup van up to the hotel, I climbed aboard for a great adventure. We chatted during the half hour ride and he mentioned that he was a published poet.

Tom knew the forest well, and recommended certain vistas of natural beauty to experience on my hike. The conversation turned to his favorite bench in the forest, where he’d written a poem about the birth and strength of its trees. He recited it upon request and gave me his business card as I left.

The front of the card held his tour company information. On the back of the card was his poem.

I carried around his card in my pocket for months. And I learned a valuable lesson, too. Sharing poetry is a generous act that expands our connections to each other.

 

Click on the tab Kathy Shares for some of my favorite poems and lines

Kathy Nollet

Ravens and Science: Now or Nevermore?

What makes a science field trip a Do Now for your students? When two ravens are hatching eggs in a few days at Wellesley College.

Go to the Ravencam and leave your computer screen on all day to follow the nesting habits of Pauline and Henry. You’ve just created a field trip in your classroom. The pleasure of doing this will remind everyone you teach that science is part of every day. The raven sounds alone fill me with awe.

Use the following ideas, for all ages, singly or in combination:

  • Individualized Learning 

Observe these birds and notice how calm and focused you become. Then show students how to immerse themselves in watching and listening. This is active, not passive, learning and embodies all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Give your students the gift of time so they can experience what learning feels like when their bodies and minds relax.

  • Student Inquiry

After a period of observation, ask students to write down observations in their science journals. Ask students to turn their statements into questions and choose one or more questions to guide data collecting and research. It’s a perfect short-term inquiry project to travel back and forth from home to school.

  • Mathematics

Create focused discussion opportunities for student brainstorming. What kind of math skills will help them understand these ravens, and why? What kind of data collection–either qualitative or quantitative–leads to the answers they need?

  • English Language Arts

Many of us remember Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” (1845). Follow this link to the Poetry Foundation to get a copy. After reading the poem aloud and learning more about Poe, have students perform readings of “The Raven” that reveal their own understanding of the poem. Encourage alternative versions. For example, does a joyful version of “The Raven” change its meaning?

While writing this, it hasn’t been just the ravens’ croaks and calls that fill me with awe. Pauline does, too, as she shifts position on her huge twiggy nest to reposition her eggs.

This is what a celebration of learning feels like, doesn’t it?

Kathleen Nollet