Honestly. I cannot think of a place I would have
rather been last weekend. Not Paris, not the beach,
certainly not Disneyland, now the real Hogwarts or
Narnia.. those might have been contenders.
John Settlage and Adam Johnston contacted me last
year, and asked if I would like to be a speaker at
the Science Education at the Crossroads annual
conference. To which I said, "YES!" and "What would
you like me to do?" And they replied, "Anything you
like." (That sound you hear is a child let loose with the
adult only scissors.) "Could I do a small art project with
the attendees?" I typed in an email which was deleted
twice before being sent. "Yes!" This was followed,
months later, by "Could I do a very large art project?"
I was approached for this conference because of
my involvement with A Private Universe, way back
in the dark ages of the 1980's, when hair was big
and I was in high school. This isn't the first time
I've been asked to talk about the documentary, but
it is the first time I was encouraged to move beyond
the platform of my 14 year old doppelganger, and to
expand the conversation. In fact, the one direction
that I was given for my talk was that it shouldn't rest
solely upon APU. And so, my current obsessions,
math tutoring and art, became my inspiration.
The theme for my presentation was a study of the power
of being wrong. More precisely, it was a juxtaposition
of the fear of being wrong and the power which comes
from overcoming that fear and leaving yourself open
for the wonder of learning. John and Adam gave a joint
keynote, which lead marvelously into my introduction.
I tried to keep my talking brief, so that art would take
All but two of the attendees were familiar with APU,
this made my welcome very warm, it also gave us a
common starting point. Their initial relationship with
the documentary is as a dynamic learning opportunity,
while mine is of a more personal nature. I was 17,
the first time I watched APU. I had been oblivious to
my role as a focal point in a documentary which had been
making its way around the world. My immediate reaction
to the film was a deep, mortified horror which centered
around my being wrong. It took years for me to move
from that feeling of shame and fear, to see the vast
array of power that came from my mistake. So much
more is learned through being wrong, and then moving
toward understanding, than from starting from a point
of correctness. Learning can be an experience of pure
wonder, if we are able to let go of the fear of being
wrong. This is the first thing that I talk to my math
students about. I try to instill in them the idea that
being wrong isn't something to fear; it's an opportunity
for learning. And that I have been wrong in math many,
many more times than they have.
And now, the art component. This was a more refined
version of my test project from the month before.
My instructions for the art were fairly simple.
I only had three rules for them:
1. Be kind to yourself.
3. Give yourself permission to make mistakes.
Each participant was given two sheets of watercolor
paper to use as a base, a brush for glue, and a pot of
The end objective was to make two mixed media
collages. This was the first of several steps in the
process. A collection of found papers in a fairly neutral
palate (maps, punch cards, the interiors of security
envelopes and pages from dictionaries, a typing manual,
a vintage French math text.) was on the table for them
to rip and tear into. This layer was a base layer. The
goal of the morning was to break through the fear of
making the first mark on the paper, and to ease into
the feeling of paper as a medium. There were no
scissors available to them. They were encouraged
to overhang the backing paper, and to play and to take
At the end of our morning time, participants were told
to just leave their art where it was. After lunch, we
would add the next layer to our collages. All of the
current supplies would be available, but more supplies
would be added. While they attended their small
group incubator sessions, I cleaned brushes, tidied tables
and got out the supplies for the next layer.
For the second layer, colored papers, punched paper
shapes, ephemera like monopoly money and postage
stamps, and scissors were added to the tables. This
layer was to stress color, texture, details, and themes.
Participants came in fresh from luncheon to tables
set with new supplies, and fell into art making.
My instructions were kept to a minimum, and I gave no
samples. Table trends began to emerge, just as I've
seen in my classroom time.
Some tables featured a repetition of certain papers,
or themes. Chocolate wrappers were used more at one
table than the others, and another table featured an
exciting variety of three dimensional elements.
The energy of the room had changed from the first
layer of the morning. Gone was the hesitation. Gone
was the feeling of "What are we doing?!" The room
now had a happy hum of making and creating without
worry. When I called time, and told them to leave their
creations where they stood, and to proceed to their
next round of incubator sessions, there was a groan of
reluctance. I assured them that there would be another
layer to add in the evening, after dessert.
The third layer on the collages added more surface
design. Stencils and ink (in the form of stamp pads
with daubers for application), mark-it pens, and
washi tape were added to the supplies. As this round
of creation wound down, I gathered their attention
for the fourth stage in the project.
I prefaced it by saying that a friend who had helped
during my testing of the process had sent me an email
that morning which read, "They love you now, but
wait until this evening. Then we'll see.."
The fourth stage is to choose one of their collages,
to turn it over, and to cut into ten pieces, following
the lines drawn on the reverse of the base paper.
This instruction was greeted by gasps and stunned
silence. Then, I continued, you will create a stack
of the pieces. You will take one, and then pass your
stack to left. Each person at your table will end this
process with a stack of ten cards, one from each of
the participants. These mini collages will be
reassembled into a new creation on a new piece of
The goal of this activity is to leave the conference
with two pieces of original art. One piece is purely
yours. The second piece is a collaborate artwork.
These two artworks represent the purpose of the
Crossroads conference, you leave with both the
progress you've made on your own work, along side
the impressions made by participating with your
While the intent of the willful destruction was
appreciated by most of the participants. It was still
a difficult step to take. Some people needed a hug to
begin, some chose not to do it (I did make the provision
that if this was too difficult, they didn't have to do it),
and one participant found an interesting alternative.
That particular participant refused to cut up her
newly made art. Since she had trimmed her foundation
piece of paper into a square, she cut the left over
strip of watercolor paper into 10 tiny rectangles and
handed those blank bits around her table. Then,
she took the pieces given to her from her table-mates
and glued them face down to make her collaborative
collage. I think she viewed this as a form of civil
disobedience, but I enjoyed her artistic willfulness.
I also enjoyed the way that the blank backs of the
tiles made the Nepalese signature of one of the
participants stand out as a centerpiece. She said,
"Why do I feel so possessive of this? You gave us all
of the supplies. All of this is yours, but it really
pissed me off when you said to cut it." I pointed out
that she had chosen and arranged the pieces. That
artistic intent makes them hers, not mine.
Around the room, most of the attendees played with
their new collages. I encouraged them to continue to
add to them, if they liked.
Some people added washi tape frames to their
collaborative pieces. Others added stencil designs or
new paper elements on top, to tie the tiles together.
Others avoided making a grid, and then decorated the
void space between the tiles. Seeing the pairs of
collages created by each person was powerful and
When everyone had finished putting the
final touches on their art, we cleared the tables of the
excess supplies and had a chance to admire each others
I finished the evening by answering questions about
APU and about the art project. I explained that
my intent with the project was both to explore the
overcoming of fear of being wrong (making that first
mark on the paper and trying something uncertain),
and moving into the wonder of learning (the joy of
unrestrained creation), as well as encompassing the
drive (as I see it) of this particular science education
The project was a success, I think. The majority
of people who attended enjoyed the process and
understood what I was trying to create with them.
Even the woman who found the collaborative
part so difficult found the activity challenged her
thinking and was a positive experience, overall.
It was a grand day of play, and the type of event
that gives a person deep thoughts long after the
remaining glue pots have been donated to the
middle school and 25 pairs of scissors have been
put away. It is a rare and wondrous thing to have
so many facets of a person's life come together in
one event. My volunteering in classrooms, teaching
art, creating art lessons, math tutoring, and
my love of the process of art, all finding a single
outlet. This was a pretty singular way to spend a
For an overview of the Science Education at the
Crossroads model, and how it works, go here.