Embrace mess and imperfection?

the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, / crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog / and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye– / corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like / a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, / soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays / obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb, / leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures / from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster / fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear, / Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O / my soul, I loved you then! … / A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent / lovely sunflower existence! ~ ‘Sunflower Sutra’, Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Sunflower Sutra’ celebrates beauty in decay. Ginsberg laments the way technology can destroy creativity and crush inner beauty. He reminds us, though, that “we are not our skin of grime”; “we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside.” Ginsberg suggests that if we stay true to ourselves, celebrate our humanity, our uniqueness, our creativity and our connection to the natural world, we can retain our souls and rediscover our glorious selves.

The poem, published in 1956, still resonates today, 60 years on. How many people in our current world feel like they are weighed down by the “grime” of pressure, technology, work, external expectations or life events? How many are influenced by the “soot” of the social media highlight reel, the constant always-on-ness of devices, the weight of online trolls? How many feel they aren’t accepted, let alone celebrated, for their authentic selves? How many make life choices out of freedom rather than fear?

This post has come about because today’s post by Naomi Barnes has me thinking about mess and imperfection, and the ways in which we impose structure on the magnificent chaos of human experience. I agree with Naomi that Twitter is an example of a wonderful, lovable mess. I like her notion of trusting the mess; that messiness is ok, even diffractively productive. It allows meaning to be made and connections to entangle and untangle. Her metaphor of tangled webs of yarn as webs of learning and connection resonates with me. It feels to me like an extension of our blogversation around the web-ness of learning, research and relationships (my webby musings are here, here and here). Naomi has reflected on webs of research as messy. While Pat Thomson talks here about why it can be good to follow intuition and live with mess in research.

I wonder what we dismiss or try to control, which, left alone, might be beautifully imperfect or gloriously creative. Or is it the job of teachers, writers, researchers, artists and scientists to work to make sense of the mess, for themselves and others?

I’ve chosen some of my own images, below, which explore the beauty of the messy or the broken.

Do we look closely enough, at people, situations, places and possibilities, in an effort to appreciate, accept and celebrate them for what they are? Do we see people, not for how we think they can be fixed, improved or developed, but what they offer and how they are their own wonderful selves doing their own authentic things? To what extent do people and organisations feel they need to conform, to organise, to fix or to judge?

Can we trust mess and idiosyncrasy? What happens when we do?

We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread / bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all / beautiful golden sunflowers inside. ~ ‘Sunflower Sutra’, Allen Ginsberg


broken or beautiful? rail at Gullfoss

broken or beautiful? rail at Gullfoss

irregular or extraordinary? Pinnacles at dawn

irregular or extraordinary? Pinnacles at dawn

imperfect or interesting? wire at Shark Bay

imperfect or interesting? wire at Shark Bay

misshapen or unique? NY Halloween pumpkin

misshapen or unique? NY Halloween pumpkin

mess or creativity? painting with nature

mess or creativity? painting with nature

Balance, not division. Compassion, not attack. Conversation, not war.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. ~ Pema Chödrön

by @debsnet

Often I am struck by argumentative battles in traditional media, on social media and around the blogosphere. I appreciate those writers, commentators and educators who share their musings, experiences, readings, and perspectives, without using divisive loaded language or attack. I think the rantiest I have gotten was this post on the APPR reforms in New York and this one around whether teachers can be researchers, but I attempted to frame my criticism through making transparent my perspective and asking clarifying questions. Balance.

I have written a lot about my school’s coaching model, as it is kind of my baby and it’s something which I think is worth sharing; others might gain from hearing our story. Yet this coaching model is not stand alone. It is not as though teachers at my school are only coached by teacher-coaches in a non-evaluative, non-hierarchical model. In their first year at the school, teachers participate in a rigorous evaluative permanency process. Every year they have a conversation with their line manager, who touches base with them on their work, goals and classroom practice. Every third year, teachers have their coaching cycle with their manager. This is more evaluative and performative by its nature, and by the nature of the relationship. Teachers additionally work with instructional consultants. Leaders work with coaches. Professional learning community teams and action research projects work alongside. Growth and evaluation. Balance.

I have written about the creative things I trial in my classroom like a term without grades and genius hour for students and teachers. These are things at the experimental end of the spectrum of what happens in my lessons, so I share them as stories of experience and part of a conversation. I do these things to develop engagement of my often-reluctant high school English students, to build their self-efficacy and to help them learn to rely on themselves as drivers of learning, rather than entirely on me as Teacher with a capital T.

Does that mean I don’t use explicit instruction? Of course not! I explicitly teach concepts, skills and texts, although I temper this with encouraging students to do their own thinking and to trust their own thinking, rather than expecting that I can fill them, as vessels, with the answers. What are the ideas of the text? What interpretations might be drawn? Answers can come from me or from Spark Notes, but if I do my job properly, students will have the skills, understandings, language and cognitive capacity to draw their own interpretations, from their own contexts, and justify these using logic and evidence. The best student responses comprise original thinking, not regurgitated knowledge. The best teachers focus not just on effective learning (our core business, of course!) but developing learners and passion for consuming, curating and creating knowledge.

In my Head of English roles at three schools I have ensured a balance between explicit instruction and those strategies which propel love of reading, power in writing and deep intellectual engagement in ideas and discussion. Interestingly, Charlotte Danielson’s heavily-researched Framework for Teaching has its ‘proficient’ descriptors describing teaching which is expertly directed by the teacher, and its ‘distinguished’ teaching descriptors outlining lessons in which students are taking responsibility for their own learning and behaviour. Creative and explicit. Balance.

I have written about lyrical metaphors for PhD study, and only occasionally about the unsexy logistics of what the graft actually looks like. My conceptual framework draws in part from fictional literature. Does this mean my PhD is devoid of hard, critical, scientific work? No. My PhD is of course the result of the logical, systematic working through of literature, data and research problems. When writing the Limitations section in the conclusion of my thesis I was highly aware that all research has its limitations. Extensive quantitative data can show us patterns and effects, but these may be faceless. Qualitative data can drill down deep into the messy humanness of lived experience which may be unrepresentative of wider groups and therefore not generalizable. Yet each study adds its tiny piece of understanding to the layers of what is known. Research is conversation. Imaginative and systematic. Broad and deep. Balance.

I would love to use the line ‘I’m a lover not a fighter’ but I think I’m both. I believe in sharing and celebrating our stories, but I will advocate fiercely for my students, fight for what I believe is right and argue for my research. Balance.

From a history of my posts, it is probably clear that I am seduced by the lyrical, by storytelling, by creative approaches and by metaphor. Yet I am not one dimensional. Nor is my teaching, my thinking, my researching or my living. Balance.

I came across this excellent recent TED talk from Jon Ronson on the way social media has moved from giving voices to the voiceless, to an angry mob mentality of shaming and abuse, in which people seem to forget compassion and morality.

While I love robust discussions which take us out of the echo chamber of we-all-agree-high-fiving, I also think we need to approach these with compassion, thoughtfulness and a view of each other as human beings. We can disrupt with respect. We can disagree gracefully. We can advocate with civility. (And if you throw in a metaphor, you’ll totally have me!)

by @debsnet

Easy as pie? How a PhD, & other complex work, is like a cake

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. ~ Orson Scott Card

Number 3 racetrack cake by @debsnet

Number 3 racetrack cake, with handmade bunting & teeny cars

As an English and Literature teacher, I love a metaphor, especially an extended one. I have spoken about one of my PhD metaphors before: thesis as a stone sculpture. Metaphors even bubbled up unexpectedly in my PhD data as participants searched for meaningful language to explore their identities.

In some ways this post is a response to, or extension of, Anitra Nottingham’s Thesis Whisperer post ‘My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon.’ In it, she talks about making novelty birthday cakes for her children. She goes on to use the metaphor of cupcake for her Masters thesis and cake for a PhD thesis.

I was reminded of Anitra’s post over the weekend as I prepared for my eldest child’s 5th birthday. A novelty birthday cake is a lot like a thesis, I thought, as I pierced the galaxy outer-space solar-system cake with the planets I had hand-painted (cake decorating makes for great phdcrastinating).

the weekend's outer space solar system cake

the weekend’s outer space solar system cake; I am a child of the 80s so Pluto, beautiful dwarf planet, is there

I love to make my children’s birthday cakes from scratch, not that I find it easy or that I have an aptitude for it! I rarely bake; it’s not something I’m great at, and often my baking is asymmetrical and (goofily? lovingly?) imperfect. But I feel like a cake is more than the sum of its ingredients. I am convinced that my children and their guests can taste the love and trying-to-make-it-wonderful effort that goes into a homemade birthday cake.

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

A thesis, too, is more than the sum of its parts, more than the words on its pages. As I revise the full draft of my thesis, I am reading with the reader in mind (and trying to avoid boring or annoying them – see Pat Thomson’s post from an examiner perspective). I am hoping that examiners and other readers will ‘taste’ the passion, the challenges overcome, the obsessive dedication, and the satisfaction and enjoyment that comes with taking a PhD project to completion.

Both cake and thesis start with a problem. How am I going to embody the essence of this? Both cake and thesis require a balance of systematisation and creativity, recipe-following and individuality. What tools and ingredients will I need? What methodological processes will I follow to ensure a sturdy finished product which stands up? How might I make this original and my own interpretation?

Like a thesis, sometimes a cake doesn’t work at first and the creator needs to start again, or find creative solutions (usually involving using icing as glue or camouflage).

Octonauts cake

Octonauts cake, complete with sunken figurine (note to self: add heavy bits at the last minute)

It might seem trivial to compare the PhD thesis to making a cake (and of course there are many many differences between a thesis and a cake!), but I find that metaphors, in distilling meaning down to its simplest and yet most poetic form, help me to make sense of complex work. Their simplicity helps to keep me going.

The quote at the beginning of this post resonates: a metaphor can hold the most truth in the least space.

What are your metaphors for your complex work?

When imagination & hard work collide: making something amazing

Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all. ~ Michelangelo Buonarroti

Today is International Women’s Day and as a woman trying to balance parenting, working, PhD and being a person, I have recently felt overwhelmed. I don’t believe in men or women ‘having it all’ but I do want us all to have the freedom and power to make our own choices. Sometimes, though, the choices we make can feel like difficult paths to walk, especially when something surprising tips us off balance and throws our delicate ecosystem of relationships, roles and responsibilities out of its precarious equilibrium.

On top of the usual teaching, parenting and life stuff, my work at school is currently focused on school-wide implementation of a strategic project focused around teacher growth. My PhD is centred around pulling 300 references, reams of data and over 200 pages of words into a coherent thesis, in time to meet my own personal deadline for submission (of course, this deadline is four months ahead of the official deadline required by the university.) Along the way, I am trying to keep the magic, spark and creativity in my thesis. It is a bit weird, a bit whacky, and a lot me. Part of me is thrilled that I have been able to craft a research project and document which so authentically aligns with my own (lovably weird) identity, and part of me is anxious about the work still ahead. I need to ensure it resonates with what I value in research while also being acceptable (even significant?) in the world of academia.

So, much of what I am presently in the midst of working on requires daily commitment, laser-like focus and hard grafting work. Perhaps this, combined with piles of marking and lesson preparation, has contributed to me feeling drawn to the creative and the crazy. I have been seeking out connections with things which capture my imagination and buoy me with their colour and magic.

As a follow-up, then, to my experience of gigantic marionettes walking the streets and this post on my friends’ amazing interactive sculpture-on-the-beach, here are some more shots from this year’s Sculpture by the Sea exhibition.

Perhaps you will also find solace and escape in the wonder-full, the unexpected and the strangely beautiful. How is a PhD like a sculpture? These sculptures, while capturing imagination, are also the outcome of commitment, dogged determination and hard, systematic work.

Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet

Dream Big, Do Big: an example of inspiration, imagination & perspiration

Creativity represents a miraculous coming together of the uninhibited energy of the child with its apparent opposite and enemy, the sense of order imposed on the disciplined adult intelligence. ~Norman Podhoretz

artists Nicole Bailey and Trisha Lee enjoy their interactive sculpture

artists Nicole Bailey and Trisha Lee enjoy their interactive installation

This week I have watched some friends bring a crazy-wonderful dream to life. I am so excited about it because their project was the perfect storm of imagination and perspiration, creativity and scientific thinking, dream and action, madness and wonder. For this year’s Sculpture by the Sea exhibition at Cottesloe beach, they have brought together Aboriginal art, sand, sea and colourful PVC fit balls to create an artwork. As it says on the Water Dreaming webpage, “Water Dreaming is an Aboriginal dot painting installation in which the dots are represented by 250 inflated PVC balls embedded in beach sand. From terraces overhead the viewer will see a Dreamtime dot painting. Up close it’s an interactive play space where art and fun collide and visitors can bounce on and around the dots.”

It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things. ~ Leonardo da Vinci

filling balls with sea water and air; work in progress

filling balls with sea water and air; work in progress

The artists Trisha Lee and Nicole Bailey collaborated with Indigenous artist Shorty Jangala Robertson, of the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, to design the concept of bringing a Dreamtime story to life on the beach. The beach is an apt location for a depiction of an artwork from a tribe whose artists traditionally make art on sand and appreciate its transience and changeability. As an interactive artwork, it may well change during the exhibition, which runs from the 6th to the 23rd of March.

balls at sunrise, ready for installation

balls at sunrise, ready for installation

Not only do art and fun collide in this installation, but so do art and community. The installation is crowd funded, crowd created and will be crowd enjoyed. People will be told the artist’s Indigenous Dreamtime story and be able to play between, around and on the bouncy balls (which are filled with sea water and air).

To create this interactive sculpture, one lone water pump pumped 17,500 litres of water from the sea, across a sandy beach, up a hill to water tanks and all the way back down, to fill 246 big colourful fit balls. A digger dug a trench perimeter and helped to shift 30 cubic metres of sand, covering 290 square metres. Over two days, an army of one hundred volunteers filled and laid 250 sandbags and filled, rolled, hauled and placed balls. You can see it being installed in these time lapse videos of Day 1 and Day 2 of installation.

Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. ~Lewis Carroll

installation involved a digger and 100 volunteers

installation involved a digger and 100 volunteers

This was an example of risk taking in full flight and dreams come to life. What sort of inspiration and perspiration does it take to create a painting on a huge scale amid moving sand and with balls able to be bounced on and interacted with? What sort of people, what kind of force, can make that happen through the power of people, nature, art and technology? This project required not only blue-sky imagination, but also systematic experimentation, trial and planning in order to make it work.

The finished work - a dot painting on the beach, against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean

the finished work – a dot painting on the beach, against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean

This artwork stands as an inspiration to me as an individual, parent and educator. Shouldn’t we all aspire to making improbable dreams possible, to bringing vision to life, to dare to do something others might think crazy? Here’s to being creative, wildly imaginative, joyful and experimental, but also systematic, pragmatic, scientific and dogged enough to make moonshot ideas tangible reality.

Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try! ~Dr. Seuss

weeks of interactive bouncy fun!

weeks of interactive bouncy fun!

Presence not presents: connect, unravel & be this Christmas

Joy is not in things; it is in us ~ Richard Wagner

Western Australian Christmas

Western Australian Christmas

With only three sleeps until Christmas many of us are wondering how to wind down, how to enjoy time with our family and friends, and how to continue or create meaningful traditions for this time of year. Perhaps we are trying to avoid a hurricane of over-receiving and over-indulging, trying instead to connect with Christmastime as about giving, faith and connectedness to others and ourselves.

One of my big challenges this year is winding down. In many ways I would like to switch off my work and research selves so that I can be present with family, friends, nature and the present moment. But the hybridity of my roles (teacher, school leader, researcher, connected learner, parent) makes it hard to power down. My leadership work in my school is closely related to my PhD research on teacher growth and school change, so I am constantly immersed in reading, acting and thinking about these things. Being a participant in education Twitter chats this year (like #satchat #sunchat #aussieED, #BFC530 and #whatisschool) has also kept my brain buzzing with ideas sparked by stimulating conversation with inspiring individuals, most of whom I have never met (thank you, my learning network). It appears you can’t turn off a turned on brain!

So to ground myself and connect to this time of year I have been taking time to be present in holiday tasks: playing with my children, swimming at the beach, reading Christmas stories, enjoying music and wrapping presents. Surely I’m not the only one for whom the careful, mindful process of wrapping gifts is meditative and grounding? Anything can be meditative and grounding if we approach it mindfully and with presence.

gingerbread house with dinosaur

gingerbread house with dinosaur

I also find creativity and making to be grounding and connecting acts. Things we make ourselves seem to have a magical energy, an investment of the person or people whose hands forged the object or made the marks. I have been hand-making ornaments, recycling found materials into eco-decorations and picking foliage from the garden for vases. Our Christmas tree is one made by my eldest son and I (he was two years old when we banged it out in our garage) out of upcycled scraps of wood. The physicality of painting, cutting, pasting and glitter-shaking can anchor us to the holiday spirit.

making our Christmas tree

making our Christmas tree

decorating our DIY Christmas tree

decorating our DIY Christmas tree

I was reminded recently that being a flâneuse is about being a ‘human being’ not a ‘human doing‘. Christmas is the perfect time to focus on what is important, in whatever way is meaningful for our family. Coming together should be about celebrating our connections with those we care about – in all their perfect imperfection – and taking the time to really be with them and with ourselves. Happy being.

The power for creating a better future is contained in the present moment: You create a good future by creating a good present. ~ Eckhart Tol

bauble-licious with freshly picked garden foliage

bauble-licious with freshly picked garden foliage

The flâneuse’s packing list: a toolkit for observation & exploration

A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is the desire to hold onto it, to possess it and give it weight in our lives. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.’ ~ Alain de Botton

some of my favourite flânerial things

some of my favourite flânerial things

Flânerie has been described as “gastronomy of the eye” (Honoré de Balzac) and a moving and passionate photograph (Victor Fournel). It is an active and deliberate way of understanding the world. Baudelaire described the flâneur as the passionate observer, responsive spectator, reflective mirror and lover of life. Flânerie is all about acute, intentional and subtle observation. Baudelaire’s flâneur exists “incognito”, surreptitiously rejoicing in the magic all around him, at home among the unfamiliar, finding joy in urban exploration.

As I plan for my week in New York and my packing list, I’m asking myself: What does the keen observer need to assist them with attentiveness to their environment and experiences? How does an édu flâneuse attempt to capture the kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of experience and learning?

Here are some of the things on my flânerial packing list.

art journaling supplies

art journaling supplies

A journal. Journaling is thinking and therapy. Cavallini & Co’s Roma Lussa is my canvas of choice, a beautiful soft-Florentine-leather-bound journal with marble page-edges. For taking flânerie old school. With pen. Paper. Even the trusty Conté à Paris crayons I still have from art school. As my Typo watercolour pencils declare: the world is better in watercolour … and charcoal, and crayon, and paint!

camera gear

camera gear

Cameras & accoutrements. The flâneuse needs a variety of lenses through which to frame and record experiences. I am taking my Canon DSLR and lenses, as well as my iPhone and olloclip lenses to allow for snapping on the go.

A laptop. For writing, blogging and editing photos. Of course this can be done on an iPad (which is much more portable) but I prefer typing to tapping and the extra control and diversity my laptop provides.

flânerial fashion

flânerial fashion

Flânerial fashion. Exploring shoes. Eco sunglasses. Leather satchel big enough to carry laptop and/or camera and/or journal. The 19th century flâneur was always bedecked in attire appropriate for urban exploration. With style.

(Pictured above are my handmade Portugese Felmini ankle boots, Scaramanga leather satchel and Shwood wooden sunglasses.)

So there you have it: my flâneuse’s toolkit, ready for taking artiness on the road to observe, explore, jot, snap, scribble and sketch.

art journal page: New York is always a good idea

Applying the travelling mindset: embracing creativity

What, then, is a travelling mindset? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. We approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is interesting. We irritate locals because we stand on traffic islands and in narrow streets and admire what they take to be strange small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or a hairdresser’s unusually fascinating. ~ Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton described the traveling mindset as one of receptivity and openness. In 1794, Xavier de Maistre applied this mindset to his own everyday space. In my own experience, of traversing thirty three countries so far, travel is learning. Being submerged in the unfamiliar brings to the surface captivation, imagination and vulnerability.

I think being abroad is sometimes where we feel we can be most ourselves, untethered by daily routines, obligations, expectations and the mundanity and productivity of daily life.

So how is an educator to bring this outlook to professional meetings and visits abroad? My approach is one of embracing creativity.

@debsnet New York Journal

Research connects creativity with productivity, adaptability, novelty, divergent thinking, idea generation, flexibility and problem solving (see Dr Mark Runco’s 2004 article on ‘Creativity’ in the Annual Review of Psychology). For me, writing, drawing, painting, doing and making are physical mind-body processes which facilitate right brain thinking, foster creativity and enable authenticity – of thought, of action, of being.

Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk on how schools kill creativity has been viewed almost 30 million times. In it, he champions the cultivation of creativity and questions the rigidity of education systems which encourage conformity and compliance.

The #makered hashtag on Twitter and http://makered.org/ have plenty of ponderings, resources and perspectives on the meaningfulness of making and doing for our students.

Of course social media and this blog are 21st century extensions of traditional creative media but I am intending largely to ‘go retro’ on my October professional journey: reading print novels, keeping a visual journal, collecting tactile ephemera and enacting mindful pen-to-paper thinking. Using the camera and a journal to explore thoughts and experiences is a method of creative, reflexive, deliberate inquiry, as well as a way of recording both professional visits and New York herself.

New York #artjournal page by @debsnet

I hope this flânerial approach – that of the wanderer who is finely attuned, keenly observant and totally immersed – will help me to be at my most receptive, flexible and open to new learning.