Education Reform Wears Blinders – Part 2

A look at the American education system and the testing issue: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch, 2011 by Basic Books, New York.

There is an outcry among many people that our educational system needs reform but there is much disagreement about causes and how to fix it. Ravitch’s book takes a good look at this issue and how testing is hurting our students.

I embrace technology but I am afraid that technology has played a large role in the state of the educational system. Actually, it is the ability of technology to generate data that is partially responsible for our problems. Ravitch says that we cannot improve our schools by blind worship of data.

(p. 281) The biggest risk of putting too much faith in tests and their data is in forgetting that test scores are an indicator, not the goal of education. ..It’s good to have data to guide policy, but it is important not to confuse data with evidence.

No Child Left Behind

But this is where we are now. Too many people, those in decision-making positions, are using data to drive education with the idea that schools should run like businesses.  No Child Left Behind has hurt education. The attitude that whatever could not be measured did not count (p. 21) has led to neglect of social studies, science and the arts in our schools. Teachers know very well how different subjects work together to help educate the whole child. They learn math in language arts, social studies, music, art and industrial arts (shop). They practice reading skills in all of these classes too. Students also are exposed to discipline, creativity, focus and the joy of learning—things not assessed on functional standardized tests.

(p. 29) The only vision No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had was improving test scores in reading and math. It produced mountains of data, not educated citizens. Its advocates then treated data as evidence of its success.

For several years before I retired from teaching language arts,  students had to take functional reading and writing tests. It’s not that I object to teaching students how to read and write but that we are only focusing on “functional.” I was already doing that and more until that 4-letter word—test—became a demi-god. From the beginning of the school year, we had to teach the test jargon, give practice tests, assess the practice tests, review, give another practice test, and then repeat it all again. I could see the light go out of my students’ eyes, students who used to like school and had some connection with it. And I could certainly feel my light dim. I became bored teaching for the test.  

(p. 229) The overemphasis on test scores to the exclusion of other important goals of education may actually undermine the love of learning and the desire to acquire knowledge, both necessary ingredients of intrinsic motivation.

Principals felt the threat. If their school did not perform well on the tests, then their school might be closed. Teachers would be let go. You see, with the belief that data, test scores, were so important, was the belief that teachers were the key to everything. If their students did not do well, it was the teachers’ fault. Never mind that some students existed in dysfunctional families. Never mind that their parents did not know how to be parents. Never mind that some parents took their kids out of school, in the middle of test preparation, to go to Disney World. Never mind that students were never taught a work ethic and that they were unmotivated. If they did not improve their test scores, it was the fault of the teachers.

(p. 162) …the authors of the law forgot that parents are primarily responsible for their children’s behavior and attitudes. It is families that do or do not ensure that their children attend school regularly, that they are in good health, that they do their homework, and that they are encouraged to read and learn. But in the eyes of the law, the responsibility of the family disappears. Something is wrong with that. Something is fundamentally wrong with an accountability system that disregards the many factors that influence students’ performance on an annual test—including the students’ own efforts—except for what teachers do in the classroom for forty-five minutes or an hour a day.

The test scene gives birth to gaming the system. Teachers spend all their time teaching for tests. Some cheat. Students learn how to become good test takers. States lower the standards so students will look better on the tests. (p. 106)

The business of education?

Many non-educators think that the solution is to run schools like businesses. We have to produce products for consumers.  That is an appalling concept to me and to most teachers—people who are never consulted about how to educate children. The people who are in power are most often not educators. They are politicians and business people. Bill Gates has had a tremendous influence on the direction our educational system has taken.

(p. 259) Bill Gates is not an educator but his wealth has given him an audience of those who have political power and who control policy making. He gave millions of dollars, make that billions of dollars, to school districts to try educational approaches that he thought would help solve educational problems.  He convinced people that the students who got the highest test scores had the most effective teachers and that teachers with students who received low test scores should be fired.  Test data was of most importance because Gates, the businessman, wanted measurable results from educational systems. His money bought advocates and their support.

To demonstrate how far he is afield, the Gates foundation spent millions of dollars videotaping thousands of teachers. The idea was to analyze the tapes and design a template for effective teaching.  As if a business mass production model would work in a classroom setting of 30 individual little human beings!

(pp. 228-228) Our schools will not improve if we expect them to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises. School are not businesses; they are a public good. The goal of education is not to produce higher scores, but to educate children to become responsible people with well-developed minds and good character. Schools should not be expected to turn a profit in the form of value-added scores. The unrelenting focus on data that has become commonplace in recent years is distorting the nature and quality of education.

For those non-educators who believe in the reward/punishment tactic for teachers, they do not understand much about teaching or those who go into this field. Most are motivated by idealism, a feeling that what they are doing is important and that they can make a difference.

Education goals can border on the ridiculous, totally out of sync with what is possible.

(p. 103) Impossible goals are set. For example, NCLB indicated that all students (100%) would meet proficiency level or schools and teachers would suffer consequences. This is the same as saying that all pollution will vanish by 2014 or that all American cities will be crime-free by then. If it didn’t happen, though, no public official would be punished. In education, if it doesn’t happen, then schools will be closed and teachers will be fired.

For that matter, why do non-educators have so much influence in decision-making about our educational system?

(p. 225) Our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators. Congress and state legislatures should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations. Nor should the curriculum of the schools be the subject of a political negotiation among people who are neither knowledgeable about teaching nor well educated. Pedagogy—that is, how to teach—is rightly the professional domain of individual teachers. Curriculum—that is, what to teach—should be determined by professional educators and scholars, after due public deliberation, acting with the authority vested in them by schools, districts, or states.

We are setting ourselves up for failure.
(227-228) “Our schools will not improve if we expect them to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises. Schools are not businesses; they are a public good. The goal of education is not to produce higher scores, but to educate children to become responsible people with well-developed minds and good character. Schools should not be expected to turn a profit in the form of value-added scores. The unrelenting focus on data that has become commonplace in recent years is distorting the nature and quality of education.

Global comparisons

When comparing American schools with schools in other developed countries, Marc Tucker, National Center on Education and the Economy, says that we are on the wrong track.

(p. 282)  …the education strategies now most popular in the United States are conspicuous by their absence in the countries with the most successful education systems. Charter schools, vouchers, annual grade-by-grade testing with multiple-choice standardized tests, closing schools with low scores, and evaluating teachers according to their students’ scores: All of that, Tucker writes, is irrelevant. What the top nations in the world have done and we have not is recruited the best prospective teachers—not for a few years like Teach for America, but for a full and satisfying career as teachers and administrators. Teachers in these nations are highly respected professionals with competitive compensation, high-quality professional training in elite institutions, and broad professional autonomy in the workplace. Each of these top nations has a broad national curriculum that includes the arts and music, social sciences, and other subjects. Teachers master the expectations of the national curriculum (it does not tell teachers how to teach, but describes in general terms what will be taught).
No other country tests students every year as we do in grades 3-8 or assesses their teachers by their students’ test scores. We lead all other countries in the number of changes we have mandated in education over the past decade.


Bottom line

We are turning out trained test takers rather than educated human beings and, although students might ultimately obtain higher test scores, they may be receiving a worse education.

Posted in Bill Gates, blame, data, Diane Ravitch, education, No Child Left Behind, problem, Race to the Top, school reform, students, teachers, test scores, testing, The Death and Life of the Great American School System | Leave a comment

Camera Lens Incites Paranoia

The lens incites paranoia.

In the past 40 years or so, I have experienced other people’s paranoia because I shoot lots of photos–innocent and not intrusive or pornographic, mind you.This paranoia seems to be growing with the ubiquity of cameras for everyone, via their mobile phones.

In 2011 when I read about a man who was stopped by Maryland Transit Administration officers for taking photos of the Baltimore light rail, I was upset. This is the United States and it alarms me when I see things like this happen. It reminded me of a friend who traveled to the then USSR and was told that photos of transportation systems were illegal. And then there was another friend who traveled to her native country, Iran, and took a photo of an ornate gold gate, the entrance to a police station. She was hauled inside and questioned for hours because she took a photo of a pretty gate.

Past encounters

Many years ago, I was stopped at Baltimore’s Harbor Place by a zealous guard who told me I could not take photos there. After writing down the name of the guard, I wrote to the Rouse Company and received a reply saying that the guard had over-reacted and that I was free to take photos there.

Also, many years ago, I was on the street outside Mercy Hospital and was taking photos of the pattern formed by a lighted staircase that I could see through the glass windows. A guard came out of the hospital to tell my friend and me that we could not take photos of the hospital from the street. Needless to say, we told him that we had a right to do this on public property.

Sometimes, although I don’t agree, I can understand an objection. A few years ago, I was at an annual Robot Fest in Linthicum, Maryland. As a favor, I was taking photos of the event for one of the organizers, a friend. I took a photo of a child interacting with one of the special exhibits and immediately encountered a father who questioned my motives and demanded that I delete the photo of his daughter. Although I believe he over-reacted, I obliged. If it upset him, then I would certainly help alleviate his concern.

Pictures in the park?

Recently, during a low-key afternoon weekday photography session at my local Downs Park with a fellow camera club photographer and two modeling friends, we were approached by a park ranger and informed of “procedures for professional photographers” requiring pre-approval by the superintendent “for each occurrence.” We were told officials were concerned that professionals are making money by using the park setting.

Although I really do not understand why they would be concerned because everyone has to pay park entrance fees, we told the ranger that we were not paying our model friends nor were they paying us.

Having taken photographs at this park two miles from my home for more than 30 years, and supported it through county property taxes and the purchase of county parks passes–annually at first, and in more recent years holding a lifetime senior pass–I was disturbed at the implication that we were doing something requiring special permission.

Need to get permission to photograph in a park?

Photography is one of the most popular pastimes in America, and these days people can take high-quality images with tiny cameras, mobile phones and iPads–or, as we preferred in taking people pictures, with Nikon equipment and hand-held light reflectors.

This activity on a hot weekday afternoon, with relatively few visitors in the park, took place in a public area and did not restrict access to any area of the park by anyone.

I was handed a slip of paper listing “procedures for professional photographers”–although the ranger had no way of determining whether we were professional or amateur photographers–except, perhaps, making an assumption based on the use of a hand-held light reflector and our expensive cameras.

The concerns that were listed noted that activity cannot restrict public access–and, in fact, we did not limit access for anyone. If further stated that “the Park Superintendent and/or ranking staff in his/her absence has authority to deny or halt any activity they deem inappropriate or a hinder to the general public at anytime with no explanation.”

I would like to know what was inappropriate about two female photographers–or, for that matter, any photographer–taking tasteful photos in a public park. Was the use of a light reflector inappropriate? Or was it, as one of our model friends wondered, the fact that they are African-American in a county park where diversity is rather minimal?

The “procedures” also stated that the photographer and “clients” have to purchase permits or an entry fee to enter the park. Well, I have that. It covers the entry for my car and its passengers.

I often take my video camera and tripod to photograph nature in the park. Would this video camera with an external microphone and the use of a tripod (off the path) create suspicion? Would I need to notify the park every time I do this? I often do this on the spur of the moment, depending on weather and my schedule. Would I not be allowed to do this if the office were closed because it would be impossible to receive “pre-approval?”

While the ranger was polite and stated that the activity under way could continue on this particular visit, I object vociferously to the suggestion that this should ever require advance approval from the park superintendent. 

I could see a concern should a movie crew turn up with a truckload of equipment — but four people with two cameras and a light reflector?  After my experience, I met another woman in this county who had had a similar encounter. She was photographing her grandson with her expensive camera and was told that it was illegal and she had to leave. She left. Where has common sense gone?

Public parks are for our enjoyment, not harrassment.
The county parks system should be encouraging photography and all art, not interfering with it. What about an artist who might set up an easel and later sell those paintings of the park? Will this artist also have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops? If indeed I were ever to make some money from photos taken in the park, that would benefit the county—by increasing my local income tax.

I believe that Downs Park in Pasadena, Maryland is a treasure. In the past I have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of images  of and at Downs Park. Before my retirement as a county teacher, I conducted student photography outings there. One book that I found on mentions Downs Park as influencing successful projects of my students. I have participated in park photo contests. When talking with friends, I have often credited Downs Park for helping me maintain balance while teaching middle school during the day, walking two miles on trails in the park and then going to graduate school at night. Obviously, that day there was no balance for me at Downs Park.

Increasingly, I have seen growing government and business intrusion in ordinary and reasonable activity, and find that disturbing. The Downs Park incident made me wonder whether county officials know who they work for. Answer: The public.
By the way, I wrote to the Anne Arundel County Executive and the director of parks who wrote back that the ranger had been overly zealous. But the park system appears not to have changed its policy on photography, judging by what happened to the woman with her grandchild. If you hear of any other cases like this in Maryland, please send let me know.
A terrorist?
Today, a photographer friend sent me a link to a disturbing story about James Prigoff, an 86-year-old photographer who was tracked down by an FBI counterterrorism agent because Prigoff had taken some photos of public art near Boston while he was standing on public property. This story is outrageous and the ACLU has filed a lawsuit which challenges the government’s Suspicious Acitivity Reporting program :

A photographer’s rights
Here is a helpful PDF link on an attorney’s Web site about a photographer’s rights, what you should know when you are stopped or confronted for taking photos.
We photographers–in fact, everyone– need to be informed and to insist on our rights.

Posted in Baltimore, legal, light rail, Maryland, parks, photographer's rights, photographers, photography, rights | 2 Comments

Mosquito Pool Update

Mosquito nursery site in Pasadena

This is the third summer that my next door neighbor has been breeding mosquitoes. The first and second years, other concerned neighbors on my block added bleach to the pool to try to kill mosquito larvae. This year, I finally notified the health department. Not long after that, the side poles were dismantled but now this is four weeks later. The defunct pool is still breeding just as many mosquitoes.

Anne Arundel County has a huge mosquito problem and our neighborhood has been sprayed recently. I suspect that this pool has negated the spraying on our block because I am itching more than ever.

Here is the original post on the second year of this mosquito nursery:

Posted in abandoned pools, backyard, breeding, health, Maryland, mosquito, Pasadena, pool, problem, unhealthy | Leave a comment

The Weight of Recycling in Anne Arundel County

[Good news! My recycling was collected today, May 23, and the truck had a semi-automatic lift to assist. I am so glad to see this. This changes much of what I have said below.]

Our Anne Arundel County (Maryland) government recently delivered new, huge recyling containers to each home. I was delighted. Instead of having to drag my two smaller old yellow recycling cans to the curb, my new container has wheels and a lid. I put my foot on the tilt section at the bottom and the container tilts back on its wheels while I hold the handle and roll it to the curb. Now, instead of two containers, I only have to deal with one. This is definitely an improvement…

… Or so I thought until I stood curbside and watched two recycling employees try unsuccessfully to lift my new cart to empty into the truck. The older of the two finally decided to do it himself and got the job done. I lamented to him that it was too heavy and that they should not be expected to lift these. He smiled and claimed, “Oh, it ain’t so heavy.”  I asked when they would start using the automatic trucks. I assumed, because of the design with the lower lift bar, that they were designed for automatic trucks. He responded, “I don’t know nothing about that.” Then he added, “You have a good day!”
These new containers are 65 gallon-size, 41” in height, 27” wide and 28” deep. My guess was that they weighed about 25 pounds empty, but when I checked with the county Recycling Division, I found out they really weigh 36 pounds—empty. I thought that could not be right, so I called the manufacturer, Rehrig Pacific Company, and it confirmed the weight was 36 pounds, empty.
True, they appear to be quite sturdy and built to last. The product seems to be a good one.  The problem comes when I read our county’s rules. Its Web site has not been updated, but the rule for the largest of the older-style containers was that everything should be limited to 40 pounds total. I assumed that was for concern of the recycling workers.
Now, if the limit is 40 pounds, do the math — we can add just 4 pounds to max out.
“Please note that you do not need a yellow recycling container to recycle in Anne Arundel County; you can use any container that works best for you, just be sure to mark it with “X” and please make sure the loaded container does not weigh more than 40 pounds.”
If the weight limit is raised, then the problem is that recycling workers will be asked to lift more weight than is reasonable.
Stack up a week of newspapers and junk mail, four or five wine bottles, empty metal, glass and cardboard food containers, some old magazines, lots of plastic, we can come close to filling that cart, and it will surely be way over the weight limit.
The county’s recycling slogan is, “Recycle. More. Often.” It even publishes a map comparing quantities collected from various areas of the county, along with grades. My area earns a grade of B-. 
I am concerned about the men who pick up these heavy containers. I expected that semi-automatic trucks would be used, which means the men would roll the cart to a ground-level platform and then push a button which would raise and tilt to dump the contents of the carts. Last Friday, in my neighborhood, the old trucks came as usual and these men were lifting more than the usual weight. I wonder if they will be making more money and if they will be given more time off for back injuries.
On Facebook, I found a page for AAC recycling. Another woman had posted her concern for the weight that workers had to deal with. The county’s response:
“…many of the trucks are equipped with them already. It is the contractor’s choice to dump by hand. They find the carts are light (as most recycling is empty bottles, cans, etc.) and it’s faster for them to do it that way.”
Really? Did anyone tell the county that the containers it is using are designed for automatic or semi-automatic truck loading? Do they think that a quantity of empty bottles is light? The company that makes these recycling carts specifies that they are designed for semi-automatic or automatic collection.
When I tried to find through OSHA what weight limits would be recommended for sanitation workers, I found a very complex math formula (see link notes below) that required specific measurements for actions of a particular job.
It is reasonable to predict that workers will be lifting 50 pounds or more, one after another, throughout the neighborhood. They roll the cart to the truck (the easy part), pick it up high enough to reach the mouth of the truck and twist their bodies to empty the container’s contents. Our community has more than 400 houses.  This constant, repetitive action most likely will lead to more serious back injuries.
OSHA recognizes the dangers:
“Workers involved in waste collection may be at risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) from workplace activities which force them to work beyond their physical capacities (i.e., lifting an item that is too heavy, or lifting too often, or working in awkward body postures). MSDs are a serious problem as they can increase the number of employee lost workdays, increase insurance costs, increase training and staffing costs, and reduce operation efficiency and quality.  Improvements in the workstation designs, work pace, work postures, weight of materials and other changes allow workers to work within their physical limits and will likely reduce the number [of] errors, sick days, and injuries and enable workers to be more productive and produce a higher quality product. Ergonomic improvements are often simple and obvious, such as sorting on elevated tables, the use of simple lifting mechanisms, and rotating workers through different job tasks.”

David Tuller in Health Day writes

Like other professions that require physical labor, garbage collecting can put tremendous strain on your body as well. In some cities, trash pickup crews still run an average of 20 miles a day behind moving garbage trucks. “Vehicular traffic and repeated lifting while on the run causes thousands of crippling injuries each year,” says labor historian Earl Dotter. According to a report from the US Bureau of Labor statistics, in 2006 there were over 3,000 instances of lost workdays nationally because of injuries to garbage collectors working for private haulers. This figure does not even include injuries or lost days for garbage collectors working for county and city collection services. Some injuries stem from constantly repeating awkward movements, such as jumping in and out of garbage trucks and lifting cans that can sometimes weigh 100 pounds or more. The weight and the often-awkward positions can cause back strain and ankle sprains.”
I like that our county is encouraging recycling and it was good to receive ergonomically designed carts that we can easily roll to the curb. But what about ergonomics for the workers? Their job is made more difficult and is likely more prone to back injuries. The county has a recycling motto and has provided nice looking and efficient containers, but has shown a disregard for the backbone of recycling—those men who come around once a week to collect our many pounds of household recycling.
For more information, see the following links:
Controversy over chips that keep track of recyling amounts for each home. (I do not care if the county wants to measure my recycling but some people are paranoid about it.) The chips are not being used now and if in the future they are, no one has to use containers with these chips.
For Semi-Automatic or Automatic Collection
Container made by:  Roll-out Carts & Recycle Bins
“Your customers want roll-out carts that are right for their purpose, easy to handle, stand up to a beating and stay good-looking over the long term.  Proven to withstand the rigors of both fully and semi-automated collection systems like yours, Rehrig Pacific’s HuskyLite® Roll-out Carts are setting new industry standards for durability and efficiency.  Available in a wide range of sizes, for nearly any curbside application – including refuse, organic waste and recyclables – these carts roll easily even with heavy loads.  The continuous one-piece handle provides a strong gripping area and the wide wheelbase makes maneuvering easy.
HuskyLite® carts are flexible, yet hold their shape even after years of service.  A reinforced top lip adds strength and rigidity as do the double drag rail and reinforced bottom.  The specially designed wide ground-hugging base helps keep these carts upright and stable.
You can customize the roll-out carts to your specific needs.  Options include internal and external locking lids, which can be made with slots for collecting confidential documents; and cutouts for recyclable beverage containers.  Wheel options include blow-molded wheels or quiet treaded snap-on wheels that install in seconds.”
Recycling collection – ergonomics
Green Job Hazards: Waste Management and Recycling: Collection – Ergonomics
Workers involved in waste collection may be at risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) from workplace activities which force them to work beyond their physical capacities (i.e., lifting an item that is too heavy, or lifting too often, or working in awkward body postures). MSDs are a serious problem as they can increase the number of employee lost work days, increase insurance costs, increase training and staffing costs, and reduce operation efficiency and quality.  Improvements in the workstation designs, work pace, work postures, weight of materials and other changes allow workers to work within their physical limits and will likely reduce the number errors, sick days, and injuries and enable workers to be more productive and produce a higher quality product. Ergonomic improvements are often simple and obvious, such as sorting on elevated tables, the use of simple lifting mechanisms, and rotating workers through different job tasks.
Weight Lifting – lots of math!


AAC recyling map by area
Solid waste industry
MUSCULOSKELETAL DISORDERS- Workers across many services sub sectors are engaged in tasks that have been associated with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs are injuries or inflammation of the nerves, tendons, muscles and support structures of the upper and lower limbs, neck, and lower back. The disorders are caused, precipitated or exacerbated by sudden exertion or prolonged exposure to physical factors such as repetition, force, vibration, or awkward posture. Many services sector workers are required to complete repetitive tasks and often exert considerable force in sometimes awkward positions.





Posted in Anne Arundel County, ergonomics, Maryland, recycling, Recycling Division, Rehrig Pacific Company, weight, wheeled carts, workers | Leave a comment

Too Many Choices?

© Photo by Bonnie Schupp

Which one should I choose? Elastic, fabric, flexible or new skin liquid bandage? Waterproof, heavy-duty waterproof, water block plus or breathable comfort wrap? Tough strips or gentle hypoallergenic strips? Color, clear or sheer? Small, regular, large, extra-large or assorted? Anti-bacterial, advanced healing hydrocolloid or advanced healing blister care? Disney princess, Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse, Disney Pixar, Sponge Bob, Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or plain?

This is a sticky problem. Maybe I should buy the stretch net that eliminates the need for adhesive bandages?
Four long CVS shelves accommodate an array of way too many boxes of bandages or Band-Aids. When I was a young girl, if my mother sent me to the store to buy some Band-Aids, I would be in and out of the store in an instant. Today, it takes me 15 minutes at least to study all the choices, another 5 minutes to make up my mind, and another 5 minutes to question the wisdom of my choice. 
We pride ourselves in our freedom of choice, but have we come to the place where our freedom is actually enslaving us? Having so many options is overwhelming and at the very least, time consuming. Is consumer choice causing anxiety?  Is constant decision-making affecting our sanity and taking time away from things that really matter?
Rather than an entire aisle, part of one shelf of bandages is plenty for me.

Is less better? Perhaps. 

Check out the links below and you decide. (Please note: Because I am a kind-hearted human being, I have intentionally limited your choices for reading.)
(If you do not have time to look at all the following links, this one is the best.)
“The tyranny of choice: You choose.” The Economist,         
“Are too many choices a bad thing?” Mother Nature Network,
“Why does having too many options make it harder to choose?” How Stuff Works,    

In case you doubt what I said about bandages, check out the 5 (yes, five!) pages for bandages on the CVS Web site.

Posted in choice, consumers, too many choices | 4 Comments

What to do When the Creative Mind Becomes Blocked?

The Gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York City’s Central Park 2005

©Photo by Bonnie Schupp

What can we do when our creative bucket has a hole in it and inspiration has dribbled out?
Instead of stressing and fermenting negative thoughts that only exacerbate the problem, we need to seek the unfamiliar and try on the uncomfortable. When we push ourselves to hang out in settings we do not particularly like, and when we attempt to find something of value in things we do not like, our mind-block can crack and crumble. Several years ago, I traveled to New York City and saw the Gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Central Park and I listened to comments of people walking around. Some people did not see it at all as art while others did, but whatever anyone thought, the Gates succeeded in opening up discussion and stretching how people view art.
Curiosity about everything– not just what appears to be directly related to our own art– should drive all artists. For example, once I went out of my way to go to a performance of throat singing at the Theatre Project in Baltimore, part of the High Zero Festival. This was something I had never heard of and was unrelated to my art of photography. Was it art? Did I like it? That doesn’t matter. It gave me a new way of thinking about what music is, what singing is. When we begin to redefine things, then our new definitions may spill into our own art.

Like most photographers, I am used to carefully composing the photos I take. Recently, I began to think about what would happen if I did not carefully compose my images. What would happen if I did not even look through the viewfinder? For a month, I did just this. I held my camera upside down, aimed from my shoulder over my back; I held my camera at my hip without knowing exactly what might be captured in the viewfinder or not. I did not even think about whether this experiment would succeed or fail. It didn’t matter. What was important was that I was curious about the results and this drove me to try something new.

Allowing ourselves to have new experiences, in fact searching for new experiences, will do wonders to lift the fog that often clouds our vision. It does not matter if the new experiences are good or bad because both the good and bad fertilize the creative ground.
Just as a seed slowly pushes up from the soil, so does a creative idea often evolve. Of course, inspiration can sometimes burst through the fog like the sun but more often creativity gradually evolves— if we allow it.
Remain Open
For I was born to shiver
in the draft from an open mind.
–Phyllis McGinley
Cultivating an open mind is so important. We can be our own worst judge and shoot down our ideas before they ever have a chance to germinate. In fact, judgment can be bad whether we are judging the art of others or our own. One of the purposes of art is to stretch the way we think.  A quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. succinctly states, “A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimension.”
When we allow our ideas to come to a dead-end because we are not sure if they will work, then they won’t. It is important to embrace ambiguity. “Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties,” Erich Fromm reminds us. Creativity demands that we take risks and open ourselves to criticism and our own feelings of foolishness.
Sometimes the dead-end is actually one we have created ourselves because we are living with blinders—doing the same things we’ve always done, hanging with people who think just like us.  There is a certain amount of comfort in this but what happens when we try to get our car out of a snowdrift? We spin wheels, dig a deeper rut and wind up stuck worse than ever. To get out of this snowdrift, we might need the help of someone we have never talked to before or we might need to use something as a new tool or we might have to get out the shovel to sweat a while without thinking about where we are going.
When ideas become sluggish, it also could be a message to take a hiatus. Just relax without worrying about being creative at all. Everyone needs a break and time to rejuvenate. Instead of painting a pumpkin patch, maybe it’s time to carve a pumpkin. Instead of taking photos of dancers, maybe it’s time to learn a new dance. Instead of trying to write a new song, maybe it’s time to create a collage of musical notes. There are times when I intentionally do not take a camera with me. Too much immersion into our own art can be like wearing blinders.

Sometimes, just walking alone in the woods is the answer. Julia Cameron writes in Walking in This World, The Practical Art of Creativity: “It is on these walks that my best ideas come to me. It is while walking that difficult clarity emerges. It is while walking that I experience a sense of well-being and connection, and it is in walking that I live more prayerfully.” She talks about a “creative unfolding.”

Research at Stanford University confirms the importance of walking in the creative process: “Through a series of studies, we have demonstrated that walking can enhance one part of the creative process, specifically coming up with new ideas; walking outside is even more beneficial. This effect held up for a more stringent test of creativity, which involved generating analogies. Walking also seems to help increase everyone’s number of creative ideas, regardless of their IQ. The effect of walking does not benefit activities that require more focused, convergent types of thinking, such as when you must choose one correct answer.”
Creativity Acrostic
Often I need to remind myself about the creative process. Here are some paths that I’ve taken to wake up my creativity. Maybe this list will work with others:
Create solely for the joy of it.
Regard the world as if you were an ant, egret or alien.
Experience something new each day.
Abandon your need to fit in.
Trust and nourish the child in you; let this child come out to play.
 Investigate  what if.
Vegetate without fear of wasting time.
 Ignite your curiosity and let it drive you.
Throw away the judge in you that sets rules and boundaries.
Yield and give yourself permission to be eccentric, even outrageous.
For further reading:
Washington Magazine, Washington University in St. Louis:
Some of my blogs:

Posted in acrostic, Christo, comfort zone, creative block, creative solutions, creativity, curiosity, open mind, the Gates | 2 Comments

Birth of an Idea – Some Thoughts on Creativity

Fertilize the Mind
How is an idea born? Paradoxically, the answer remains an enigma even to those who spend their lives creating ideas.
Designers who talk about their creativity in the book, A Smile in the Mind by Beryl McAlhone, all work with basic elements of the creative process: fluency,  the process of developing a multitude of ideas;  flexibility, the ability to see different approaches; originality the result of new combinations; and elaboration,building on these ideas. However, none of these designers can concretely explain how original connections happen. There is no road map, no template to follow. Instead, people use various techniques to fertilize the mental ground where these ideas grow.
Getting Started
Like many designers, Milton Glaser starts with words and, as in any communication process, he begins with what the audience knows. He uses familiar clichés as the medium to establish the context. However, this is only the beginning of the process. “You must use clichés to set the stage and then twist it in such a way to disrupt it.” Once the audience recognizes the cliché, the context, then the cliché needs to be “detoxified.” Glaser discusses the importance of shaking up expectation. He says the successful execution of wit is the “penetration of the immunity of an audience.” When the cliché they understand does not follow through in the expected way, it breaks through the immunity. This wit is what people remember.
There are a number of creative “models” (CPS Model, James Higgins Model, de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, etc.) which attempt to be templates for the creative thought process. Glaser, however, talks about how creativity is not a rational process. You cannot generate ideas if you are traveling a linear path. Often ideas are born not only off the path but also on different levels. Picture an idea as a living thing meandering on a flat piece of paper on a desk. In this scenario, there is a limit to where the idea may travel.
Now picture an idea meandering in and out on the crinkles of a balled up paper, taking flight on a ribbon of steam from a coffee cup, grabbing the sound wave of a ringing phone and then hopping back on the ball of paper. Infinite possibilities abound on this second journey. The important thing is to keep an open mind about how and where ideas may travel.
Be Ready
Some people use certain mechanisms for triggering ideas, such as talking with others, starting something new, sleeping, smelling apples or walking. I find that most of my ideas come while walking or driving. Usually when I walk, I carry pen and paper to jot down ideas before they are lost. On several occasions, while driving I’ve become so wrapped up in the flow of ideas from so many directions that I have wound up lost in a stranger’s driveway. Glaser suggests that ideas happen when you allow yourself, in a relaxed state, to go off on tangents. Most of the designers in this book say their ideas come when they are not thinking about the project. They allow the subconscious to work and make connections. Bill Moyers reminds us that you must “pay attention to your preconscious self that slips messages to you, much as a note is slid under the door.”
Glaser says it helps to place yourself in a state of readiness. In order to discover concealed relationships, you must be ready to accept them. This cannot be willed. “Ideas happen when you release your mind from its willful demand for something to happen.” You cannot insist on getting an idea, for instance, by four o’clock this afternoon. I’ve always understood this. As an undergraduate student at Frostburg, I became upset when my creative writing teacher announced that we would take a creative writing exam at a scheduled time. Creativity does not happen by arriving at a two o’clock exam and following a prompt to create on demand. I took a big risk and protested this philosophy. I showed up at the scheduled test time, ignored the creative writing exam, and wrote about why I was refusing to take the exam and how I perceived the flow of the creative process. What I wrote must have made sense to the professor because I received an A for the course.
Filling in the Spaces
Finally, Glaser looks at design as narration and suggests that the most important element is what is left out. It is important for the viewer to complete the communication by connecting with what is not said, with what is not shown. This pulls the audience in as collaborators in the creative process. Many teachers complain about the lack of student imagination and creativity. David Thornburg calls creativity the “new scarcity” in educational institutions and Jonas Salk says our future depends on creativity. Perhaps today’s students may not be challenged enough to fill in spaces. Audience participation might also be the reason why reading a book is almost always better than seeing a movie. The reader must fill in more spaces when reading, while movies tend to complete things for the viewer. When the audience participates, there is an intrinsic sense of satisfaction in making the connection. And often this connection does not stop with the “aha” moment. The audience not only remembers the message, but also uses imagination for further elaboration of their own.
It is the process of filling in spaces, putting yourselve in a state opf readiness and giving yourself permission to meander that fertilizes the mind for creative growth. You may be unable to describe the birth of an idea but you can certainly put out the welcome mat.


See more of my blogs on creativity:

Posted in A, Beryl McAlhone, creativity, elaboration, flexibility, fluency, ideas, metaphor, Milton Glaser, originality, Phaidon Press, Smile in the Mind | 3 Comments