Sunday, April 19, 2009

the haphazard and unpredictable fine art of teaching

The side effect of teaching is that we often learn things ourselves we didn't even know we needed to learn. When I ran the first Mobile Studio I learned how to live with other people on a constant basis. It made me more tolerant, more flexible, and more empathetic. When I collaborated on the Artpark at the Urban Ministry center I learned about patience, trust, and value. All of these are traits I've tried to internalize, but still regularly consider and often need to re-negotiate.

Sometimes teaching reminds us how little we know, terrorizes us into a state of panic and insecurity, but just as quickly can show us how far we've come and that we know how to know things whether we actually do know them or not. That is a useful and priceless skill.

Sometimes teaching reminds us how much we know about our areas of expertise, and how little others know, and we must learn to uncover the elusive tracks of knowledge past, point them out, and show the way. The trickiest balance, particularly in the arts and design professions, is knowing also when not to show the way, when finding the way is the knowledge itself and one more bread crumb is too many, one fewer is not quite enough. It's been said in one way or another at many a curriculum meeting that in addition to complexity and depth the difference between teaching second year architecture studio and fourth year architecture studio is the degree to which you let go.

Returning to school in the middle of a teaching career is even more destabilizing and, hence, twice as educational. For every bit of content I learn in a course, I learn as much about how to teach and how not to teach, storing up the unconscious lessons of the unintended consequences of one act versus another, one word versus another, one strategy, one method, one task. Having been there, I know more readily where to look. I recommend switching sides of the desk for all teachers, at least for a little while.

We can never see the world through the mind of another person, but teaching - the constant and required interaction with the metamorphosizing minds of others - requires an intellectual vulnerability; a mental giving; regular re-negotiation of self and other; and a weekly psychoanalysis of mood, mind, and emotion that remains invisible and avoidable for much of the non-teaching world. I have never met a good teacher who was a bad person, nor a bad person who was a good teacher. It's too much internal work, too much emotional risk, and way, way too much effort to not do it for bigger reasons.

I am still in the middle of learning for this semester. The one day a week, Integrated Learning course that I am teaching with Dorit Cypis at Otis College of Art and Design, The Right to the Street, is currently a full time array of relationships and expectations, learning and unlearning, lumbering rapidly towards an amazing collaborative conclusion that will be shown publicly in Santa Monica two weeks from yesterday. It is exciting to be engaging with the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) and their theater workshop with OPCC. It has been enlightening and inspiring to work with the old and new members of their troupe - Kevin Michael, Riccarlo, Sheeba, Luis, RW, Rochelle, and others. The day Riccarlo turned a meeting-gone-gripe-session into a mock press conference for a pre-inaugural Obama, my mind began spinning around the opportunities that theater possesses, for those without homes, yes, and for those with them as well. It is amazing that Otis has this program and is willing to explore what it means to put 7 disciplines, a teacher, a mentor, and a partner from different worlds at the same busy, sometime treacherously shaky, table.

Within our Otis class, we are finalizing the three projects being developed in conjunction with the performance in May. My giant bag of current learning certainly revisits flexibility, empathy, tolerance, and patience, but it also includes new visions of multi-disciplinarity, the real skill that is collaboration, and the simple reality that teaching is a moving target, particularly if you are willing to stretch beyond what you think you already know. In the end, though it should seem obvious, good teachers must also be good learners, and by stretching what, when, or where we teach, we stretch what we know and what we are able to do with what we know. In addition to bits and pieces of content and skill, what we pass on to our students is that ever so slightly weighted bag of learning and a hopeful passion for them to continue collecting and filling the bag to over brimming.

This semester, in addition to all we have learned about homelessness, public space, and guerrilla tactics, we've also broken stereotypes, reached out, looked in, juggled, compromised, tried, stretched, improved, opened up, and negotiated.

Join us in two weeks and see how we're doing. (details below)


On May 1 & 2 at 8:30 p.m. at Highways (1651 18th Street, Santa Monica, 90404), the Los Angeles Poverty Department will present a new production, "CPR: a Public Training in Life Saving Skills" to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of Highways Performance Space and 18th Street Arts Center.
This performance is developed and performed by members of Santa Monica's OPCC, Ocean Park Community Center and the LAPD All-Stars, directed by John Malpede and Henriƫtte Brouwers. Performances are free.

At a time when home foreclosures, job loss, and staggering medical bills are forcing more and more people onto the streets, undercover LAPD (Lost And Presumed Dead) heroes share the extraordinary wisdom that accounts for their return-from-the-edge, against-all-odds survival. "CPR: a Public Training in Life Saving Skills" is the first collaboration between LAPD and Ocean Park Community Center. OPCC is the largest and most comprehensive provider of housing and services on the Westside to low-income and homeless youth, adults and families, battered women and their children, and people living with mental illness, particularly homeless mentally ill women.

LAPD has been making theater with homeless and formerly homeless people for 24 years. Twenty years ago LAPD was invited to perform at Highways Performance Space during its inaugural season. Highways invited LAPD back to celebrate the 20-year anniversary on May 1 and on May 2 the performance will be part of 18th Street Arts Center's Arts Night at the same location.

This project includes visual collaboration with students at Otis College of Art and Design's Integrated Learning program, 'The Right to the Street' class taught by Linda Samuels and mentor Dorit Cypis.

Based in LA's Skid Row, LAPD creates work that connects lived experience of those who live in poverty to the political and social forces that shape their communities and lives.
This project with OPCC is funded in part by a grant from The National Endowment for the Arts' Theater program.

For more information visit:


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