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Seeds in Winter (Part Two) February 20, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Lifelong Learning.


 Part Two of a Commentary for Education Week (continued from February 19, 2006) 

The best example of this marvelous integration of insight and inspiration with creativity and curriculum occurred at an Open House one winter. Teachers invited students to take 16-millimeter movie film that they had chemically stripped of images so it was just clear acetate. We students then took markers and dabbed dots of color in the blank frames between the film’s sprockets. After some minutes of filling the frames with dabs of color, random dots, and heavy lines, the teacher ran the film through a projector and played, as accompaniment to the riot of colors, an Invention by J. S. Bach played on the Moog synthesizer, an invention that was also quite new and radical at the time. It was wonderful and it was eye opening. Years later, I am able to describe the moment as a transformational experience.

My head spun for weeks at the idea that performers could modernize classical music and we could synchronize it with our random splashes of colors. Since then, I have heard Bach played in huge symphony halls on priceless instruments and I have heard him played in small rooms on instruments as humble as a harmonica and a saw. Musicians have interpreted his work for jazz quartets, acappella singers, and even highlighted it with traffic sounds. Every one of these joyful experiences and experimentations began with notations on a page of music and my enjoyment of it all began that snowy night.I was also impressed with the technique of physically drawing on film.

This technique, I learned later, was homage to Canada’s own Norman MacLaren, a superb experimental filmmaker who took film and manually added colors and scratches to great effect. MacLaren’s deconstruction of film and filmmaking led to my own experiments with the adaptation of story to film and later to powerful ways of teaching poetry to adolescents. My teachers showed me that the finished product is, in reality, the starting point. We climb on the shoulders of those who went before us. We use their vision as our tools for exploration and we press onward. What I learned from that one brief experience at an Open House on a snowy winter night in 1973 was that curriculum is simply the leading edge of a powerful process. On that evening, teachers planted seeds for a lifelong interest in my own exploration of the limits of technology in the classroom. From that humble seminal experience, I learned enough about experimental films and music through that single demonstration to propel me forward and begin my own educational journey. That was enough to start me on a path to learning about the physics of animation and color, of music and dance, of writing and beauty.

Most importantly, I learned that curriculum was then and is now a starting point to an adventure. I examine new curriculum and new technological tools in the light of the tension between what is instrumental and what is aesthetic. In the development of curriculum, there should always be the question of whether the objectives inform and inspire or dictate and depress.

Thus it was that one recent February evening, I sat, a little uncomfortably, behind a desk in a middle school classroom my daughter would attend next year and listened closely to the words of her future teachers for signs that they, too, understood that curriculum was just the beginning of her great adventure.



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