Having just returned from Project Zero Classroom, my head is exploding with thoughts; some clear, some less so. Project Zero Classroom is a one week professional development conference offered to educators by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. PZ has become so popular that it sold out within 3 hours of opening for registration. There were teachers from across the world. It was a great experience.
So, before I hit a speed bump and have all of PZ’s wonderful knowledge fly out of my brain, I thought I would write some down.
From one perspective, Project Zero was an affirming experience. Many of the theories discussed and offered at PZ were consistent and aligned with approaches that can be found in my classroom and many others at The Galloway School. Interestingly, this “affirmation phenomenon” was shared by many of the experienced teachers at the conference. However, what PZ offered is the polished model for teaching for understanding. Before PZ, I had this fuzzy picture of what a great learning experience looks like, and some days maybe clearer than others, but never a truly focused version. Going to PZ was a little like going to the optometrist and finally getting a pair of glasses that brings into focus those experiences and ideas of good teaching.
As you can imagine, there’s no simple silver bullet in helping others or yourself to reach understanding. It is a set of processes, forces, and a culture that fosters, fertilizes and encourages thinking. Although there were several thought-lines, I just want to write about one idea explored at PZ. Artful Thinking. It is a lesson in time, perspective and collaboration. It is here where my experience in Boston went from an affirmation to a transformation.
The ideas here are simple enough: slow down, take your time, and take in many perspectives.
A group of about 15 of us walked to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. There, we were taken into a relatively small gallery of a special exhibit: Thoreau’s Maine Woods: A Journey in photographs by Scot Miller. After giving us a few minutes to meander and look at the 20 or so photographs, Heidi, our instructor, asked us to focus on one. She simply asked one simple question: “What do you see?” She did not suggest we find anything, but simple told us to let our eyes wander over the picture, slowly, up and down, side to side, slowly. We did this for about 5 minutes, maybe longer. She then gave us some paper and pencil and asked us to write some of the things we saw. Heidi was specific in not asking us for any interpretation. This process was repeated one more time we moved to look at the photograph from a different perspective. After a bit, we shared our “sightings” to a person next to us, then to the group. Almost everyone contributed and we discovered so many things that individually we missed. Our collective see list was enormous and rich.
Next, Heidi asked us to analyze the photograph, and she simply asked one question: “Why do you think Scot Miller took this photograph? What are your ideas?” Again, we were given time to think about her question, feeling free to think whatever we wanted to. There were no wrong or right answers, although she would always ask us, “What makes you say that?” So, if you said, it looks like “change or the fall season.” Heidi would want to know why you said that. We first shared our thoughts with another person, then with the group. Wow! Another voluminous set of amazing thoughts and ideas about the photograph.
But, apparently Heidi wanted more. She then asked us, “Pretend you are in the photograph. You can smell, touch, see, and taste. You can be a bug, or a bear, or a deer, or a moose. Now what do you see, smell, touch, or taste?” Changing perspective again created another tsunami of interesting and surprising observations and thoughts.
Finally, Heidi then gave each of and our partner a passage from Thoreau’s Maine Woods. Her instructions were clear: “Find a photograph that you think connects with the passage I gave you, then write a sentence or two adding on to the passage. And be prepared to tell the class why you and your partner picked that photograph to go with the passage. Evan, from Texas, and I found one we both liked, and we started writing the connections, and finished our passage. Each of us shared our experience with the rest of the class. It was phenomenal! But why?
Well, simple. I learned. I understood. I grew. I felt great. I felt more connected to other people and to the Maine Woods, and I was already pretty connected to those woods. But why? Because Heidi taught me that it is not important to have “An Eye for Art.” What is important is to have an eye for artful thinking. She taught me a process that I can use for the rest of my life that will help me appreciate beauty that much better. So, Heidi, thanks. No small gift.
As I look back at the experience, three things jump out at me: 1) TIME; 2) PERSPECTIVE; and 3) HUMAN INTERACTION. We were looking at and talking about one photograph for an hour. One hour. I was told that on the average people spend 7 seconds in front of each piece of art in a museum. That’s not going to cut it. You need time, reflect, then more time to share. Changing perspective opened another set of windows, allowing more data to fill our brains for later synthesis and mulling. And, collaborating with others, not to draw some specific right or wrong conclusion, but to add to the stew and to stir the stew. The human interaction triggers wonderful emotions of commonality and draws respect to diverse and unexpected visions. A wonderful culture of thinking existed in that little exhibit space.
There’s more to understanding, and more that I learned at Project Zero. But for now, that was a good start.