Sunday, December 4, 2016

How Do I Love Thee?: Playing - Environmental Justice as an interpretive Dance: Assignment #7

There are many times in which providing history or a timeline would be very helpful background information for the community, students or organization that I am working with.  Using the reading this week on “Playing” in Root-Bernstein’s’ Sparks of Genius and from the journal of extension blog, “Creative Teaching: Simulations, Games, and Role Playing.” I was really inspired to revisit an idea I had a few years ago but never implemented fully.  I only tried out in bits and pieces.  My idea for an environmental justice lesson using play is to take the text of the timeline or history section you would like to focus the class period on (or to introduce a new section) turn it into a play or interpretive kind of dance.

I have done something like this for the history of my organization – for new youth group participants, members and annual celebrations.  The steps for implementing this exercise are as follows:

  1. Pick out your history/ timeline and shorten to one page or less
  2. Look for descriptive words to highlight.  Also look for words that are describe key moments or concepts and make that phase or word as descriptive as you can.  What would someone have fun dancing, playing or acting out.  I.E. instead of saying such and such movement started, or the organization was formed used phases liked “birthed” or “busted onto the scene”.
  3. Once you have your written statement run through it with someone that can be a “insider” – that will have a little familiarity with the material and help move the group through the scenes.
  4. Find some fun music without words (maybe something that fits the mood)
  5. During the event or class, recruit several volunteers to dance, act or play out the scenes you have chosen.
  6. If you want to do a longer timeline or story – I think it would be best to break it up into several parts that will be played by different groups of 2 – 4 people.
Picture #1: East Michigan Environmental Action Council's Youth groups (and youth coordinator) acting out pieces of the Environmental Justice movement's history - timeline in the background)

My understanding of the cognitive tool of play is that it moves (literally and figuratively) participants into another way of being, feeling and seeing the world.  As I looked over the suggested websites for play based activities, I also came across the below video of the NPR tiny desk concert of the blue man group.  I love how they got the audience involved in the “meditation for WINNERS" (@ min 8 in video) piece – by holding up signs of key words, handing out instruments, and having participants act out different parts.
 Blue Man Group - NPR tiny desk concert

Before starting this activity I would have the group (everyone) go through a few theater icebreakers to get them out of their heads and into their body space and heart space.  To get used to the idea that they are not just empty receptacles of information – but creators in the process.  If I was to try out this play activity during an event (where the history or the environmental justice movement or history of a particular EJ organization was going to be conveyed to a larger group) with an audience 25 to 250 people involved I would have activities that everyone could do – out in the “audience” – may as partners or as a table.  Once everyone was warmed up I would ask for a few volunteers (and take 2 or 3) that would play, act or dance out our history, or timeline.  With a larger group this is where I think it would be crucial to bring in your inside “expert” that may have a few ideas to help move the volunteers through the exercise.  A warm up activity for a time line could be putting up key pieces of information on some butcher paper, and having some students adding their own history via different color post it notes (as seen in picture #1).

 Narrator of social justice history in Cass Corridor Detroit

A few youth playing the history out

I developed the exercise that I did because I know how important history is.  This activity is both playful and meaningful in conveys key information and by playing volunteers and spectators can see themselves as part of the action!  I find that organizers often skip over the founding story of a movement or the key moments in a timeline because the information is “too boring” for students, youth or new members OR students read through timelines are ARE bored…  I also think the idea of play while you are passing on key information also instills the idea that these young people and new members are PART of the movement – their participation matters!  In environmental justice, their community, their school – the history is still being written and they are part of it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Creative “I”: Architecture of Space

Natural Spaces – and Creative Engaging Places

When contemplating on what spaces I use – and what spaces I find engaging I thought of so many buildings.  I live in a historic neighborhood in Detroit, I assisted in saving a historic downtown building that is now cooperatively owned by grassroots organizations –and is also the best example of neo-gothic architecture .  My grandfather built many parts of Detroit – from artistic rod iron on churches – to brute structures on skyscrapers. 

So, while I am completely in love with Detroit architecture I ultimately came back to my last “Creative I” module were I expressed how my creativity often stems from natural spaces.  I start my blog with a comedic clip that came to mind as I was photographing the space.  I love the use of comedy in creativity – and really appreciate the way it has been used in this class.  Though the comedy clip suggests that natural spaces just happen and there is little to no ‘architecture’ in nature.  But as I spent more time in the space I reminded myself that, in an age of human dominance over nature, every natural space is practically (if not completely) planned.

My space is Voight park.  It is right across from my home and while it has no ‘human’ features other then regular city mowers and a wood marker (that gets plowed over about every two years by a maintenance crew or careless driver), this space has been a fishing hole, hide-and-seek haven, balance beams, dog chases, pirate ships, castaway island, treaser seekers, leaf dug-outs, tree climbers, and a bunch of other activities I don’t remember (or couldn’t quite figure out what was going on) for my son and all the neighborhood kids.  The main function of this space for me, while I and other adults draw a tremendous amount of solice from it as well as creativity, is an antidote for children’s NDD.  Nature deficit disorder refers to the phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems.

 Lessons Learned from “A Room of their own”:

“Given the chance to introduce new technologies in classroom or other learning contexts, designers of learning environments often ignore what their users are telling them. More importantly they may ignore what users actually do–how they think, work, learn or behave. This tension between top-down expert design and more organic user-driven design processes (that sometimes even subvert the intentions of the designer) is not unique to educational technology. It is a theme that has played out over and over again in other design professions (Mishra 2013)”

In community organizing I find the theme of hierarchical planning frustrating as well.  Too often the community is the last to be informed of plans that will affect them.  And rarely, if ever, are they included into the designing of plans.

The story of Brasilia as described in “A Room of one’s own”, described as hauntingly beautiful, sounds haunting familiar as well.  The plan for Detroit Future City (The urban plan for the city of Detroit 2015 plus 50 years) has the same Brasiliaesque people void.  And most explicitly – void of the people that are currently living there.

Inspired by the DFC plan, corporations have sponsored a variety of ‘community visioning’ projects.  Recently Detroit Edison Energy (DTE) put up a number of large chalk boards around my neighborhood.  With the words, “what would you like to see here?”.  Some were in front of abonded homes or vacant lots.  Some oddly close to neighbors.  I was driving at the time but thought they would be a cool visual to capture in picture.  As I was driving I saw neighbors looking suspiciously at the signs and one seemingly upset mom and pop shop owner grab his own chalk and wrote in large letters across the board near his sweet tooth business, “SWEET TOOTH EXPANSION”.  When I went back to take a picture of the boards two hours later, a DTE employees was already taking them down.  A group of suburban college kids had already driven in and scrawled all kinds of pictures and ideas on the boards.  I asked if I could get a picure of the boards before he loaded them all into a pick up truck.  He yelled NO at me.  I tried to explain that I live here – that this is my neighborhood and I just thought they were kind of cool.  He shrugged and did his best to block while loading.  There is a bizzaire trend in urban planning – where there IS community input – but not by the people currently living in the ‘planned’ locations.  It’s an imagined community, an imported community or a settler community.

One of the most inspiring creative planned spaces I have been part of was a collaboration with the Detroit Public Schools and some very creative landscape architects (and I realize I’m getting well over 200 words here – sorry!).  We worked with 4 schools in Detroit and the architects came in to work just with the kids to design whatever kind of space they wanted to see outdoors – and the architects found the funds to implement the plans!  We ended up with a meditation garden (shaped like a labyrinth), an aquaponics hoop house, a pizza garden, a garden for jams that the kids wanted to create a business out of…


Louv, R. 2008. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Paperbacks. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Mishra, Punya, William Cain, Sandra Sawaya, Danah Henriksen, and the Deep-Play Research Group. 2013. “Rethinking Technology & Creativity in the 21st Century: A Room of Their Own.” TechTrends 57 (4). Springer US: 5–9.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Module 6: Assignment 1 – How Do I Love Thee: Modeling & Dimensional Thinking

As I was reading the dimensional thinking Chapter of Root-Bernstein’s Spark’s of Genius my thought’s wondered to my son and his current experience in kindergarten.  He is bombarded in his class with worksheet after worksheet was one or two letters.  I can see from the creases, scissor nicks and coloring on both sides that he is struggling to ‘make’ something from the otherwise numbing flat white piece of paper.

My son learns in a similar fashion as me. I love to build and do - rather then read and repeat.  My husband is still struggling with son’s learning style.  He could read at age 2, whizzed through flashcards and aced any and every test.  He still pulls out flashcards with numbers and letters to practice with our son – and our son will take all those cards and create an elaborate 3D puzzle with them.  I was inspired to read about Geller, in Sparks of Genius, and how, “she learned her 3-D skills from her father, a crystallographer at Bell Labs, who bought any kind of toy that had anything to do with geometry.  Geller’s experience suggests that playing with any type of 3-D puzzle can be useful.”

I love models as well.  This module assignment is exciting to me.  I do think it is very challenging to depict environmental justice in a model.  One of the first models around Environmental Justice that comes to mind (that I loved pulling together and pulling apart again) is a model I helped to create with my organization and the network we work within called the Just Transition.  The concept of the Just Transition is to end the era of extreme energy: by creating transition pathways to end the era of extreme energy like fossil fuels, nuclear power, waste and biomass incineration, landfill gas, mega-hydro, and agrofuels, and implement a Just Transition to Local Living Economies in which good, green, and family-supporting jobs are created for unemployed, and underemployed people, and workers formerly employed by extreme energy industries.  You can view the model below:

For environmental justice I first drew out and example of a local environmental justice concern that I thought may appeal to everyone in this course – air pollution near schools.

After I drew the model by hand I created this model with one of the online modeling programs I found:

It was difficult to figure out the best type of model to depict Environmental Justice.  I originally wanted to do something 3-D (inspired by Sparks of Genius and my son) but once set that my mind was currently confined to 2-D I got to sketching.  Next I set out to list out the components or variables: The obvious: teachers, students, volunteers; then the not so obvious: time of exposure (on playground, walking to school, in school bus), baseline on current health, facilities (garbage trucks, incinerator, international bridge, HIGHWAYS) type of pollution (suffer dioxide, nitrogen oxides, dioxin and furans, PCBs, PM (particulate matter - which includes: heavy metals lead, mercury, methyl mercury, cadmium, chromium and arsenic - that I know of).  The Particulate Matter seemed (to me at least - I'm not expert) - both large and small.  So I looked at the main facilities, people that are most impacted (by PM), and levels of exposure.  The amounts were massively estimated (full disclosure).  The components were all connected in that they impact children's environmental health and caretakers.  The incinerator (which in the case of the school I was using as the “case study” – GoLightly in the Cass Corridor Detroit) is a large connecting factor for impact, and the school is the main “target” as the impacted. The trash trucks are delivering trash to the incinerator, they are coming across the international bridge with international

The most fun I had with this was creating little icons to represent the multitude of variable within the Environmental Justice/ air pollution found near school – such as the stick figure teacher and students:

Along with iconic icons like the Detroit Incinerator and the Ambassador bridge!:

Which, of course, I could use none of because I could never figure out how to upload my cute pictures into the online software (or figure out if it was even possible).  But such is the creative process!

For those of you worried about my son and the worksheet factory he is currently enrolled in – don’t worry!  We are in the process of transferring him to a play based school experience.  Do, however, worry for the condition of charter schools in Detroit? (Due to the learning environment and industrial environment outside???)