What high school kids want

September 4, 2013
Students in the Overture Center during High School Friday 2012. Photo by Jessica Becker

Students in the Overture Center during High School Friday 2012. Photo by Jessica Becker

“The first reason why I chose to go on this field trip was to miss school. When I got there, I discovered it was actually super interesting.” So said a 16 year-old high school student in reflecting on her day at High School Friday during the Wisconsin Book Festival.

This year is the third year the Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, is sponsoring a free day of programs for high school students at the Wisconsin Book Festival. One hundred and fifty kids will come to downtown Madison on Friday, October 18 for this incredible opportunity to engage in the civic and cultural life of our city. Authors, journalists, poets, multi-media artists, and spoken word artists are bringing their stories and real-world experiences together for a groovy day of exchange, exposure, and memory-making.

The day provides an eclectic mix of voices, perspectives, and ideas that will be thought-provoking and inspiring. I can promise that some of the things said, heard, and seen, will stick in some of those kids’ heads and push them in new, and positive, directions. Humanities experiences make an impact, though the effect tends to ripple and roll and reach into unplanned nooks and crannies of the mind.

We all know that what sticks in one person’s head is not what is going to stick in another person’s head.  Impact is uneven and unpredictable. Some moments, some books, some teachers, some students, and some experiences end up having more impact than others. And that is perhaps the one TRUTH about education.

“The Romans didn’t let people study the humanities, not the people they had conquered. You know that, right?” my husband asked me the other night, out of the blue.

He is one of the most well-rounded, well-read analytical chemists you’d care to meet.  Amazingly, he still remembers so much of what he learned in high school.

He and I proceeded to talk about how the study of philosophy, ethics, and history would be kept from those they wanted to keep subservient for obvious reasons. An educated citizen is a more powerful one, more inclined toward big ideas, more likely to sway opinions, more prepared for leadership roles.

I married a chemist though I somehow got through high school without taking a chemistry class (He is responsible for pouring things in our house!).  I opted instead for languages, art classes, and uncommon experiences. I don’t really remember (m)any of the facts I surely must have encountered along the way, but I grew up to be a true humanist. The humanities in the real world means being intrigued by difference, looking for ways to connect ideas, being curious to hear other perspectives, and staying wary of any fact out of context.

I value those skills and wish them for teens and everyone.

As we crafted the schedule for the annual High School Friday, we were well aware of the Standards that  high school teachers must use to shape their lesson plans. Specifically, the Social and Emotional Learning Standards for grades 9-12:

Respect Others: Students will identify positive ways to express understanding of differing perspectives and use conversational skills to determine the perspectives of others.

Civic Responsibility: Students will evaluate the impact of their involvement as agents of positive change and analyze their responsibilities as positive agents of change in a democratic society.

Yes, bring on the humanities. And the Wisconsin Book Festival! October 17-20, four full days of conversation, inspiration, and opportunity to participate in civil society!

The schedule for High School Friday includes hip-hop and spoken word performers from the UW-Madison First Wave program, female sportscaster and author Jessie Garcia, the dynamic trio of artists/librarians/authors from “The Library as Incubator” project, blog, and book, and multi-media experts from the Madison Public Library media lab. Every participant will go home with a library card and knowledge about how to make the public library a source of continued inspiration, access, and power.

Please contact me by October 1, 2013 if you know some high school students from the Madison area who would like to attend!

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


Artists invade environments

August 4, 2013

Four of Wisconsin’s fascinating art environments have got a great event for artists coming soon.  Actually the Wandering Wisconsin Plein Air Competition has something for everyone, regardless of whether you are an artist, would like to learn or just enjoy the outdoors and unique hidden places.  Spend an August weekend. 

The painting competition is for artists of all ages.  Two sites will host the event on August 10 and 11 and the other two on August 17/18.  For those who’d like to learn or hone their skills, there will be work

Art by Robert Tarrell

Art by Robert Tarrell

shops on painting in the Plein-Air style on the same-size canvas.  For experienced painters, there’s a competition with cash prizes; no entrance fee.  Work must be on postcard-sized canvases/boards (4” X 6”) and feature facets of the host environment.  Artists can bring their own materials and materials will be provided if you need them.

On August 10th and 11th you can visit Nick Engelbert’s Grandview near Hollandale in Iowa County or James Tellen’s Woodland Garden near Sheboygan.  Grandview is a beautiful rural site, almost equidistant between New Glarus and Mineral Point on Highway 39 in southern Wisconsin.  The Tellen site is nestled in the woods in the town of Wilson just south of Sheboygan. 

The next weekend’s events will be at the Painted Forest in tiny Valton in Sauk County and Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips.  Just the drive to Valton is worth the time – it is a secluded, gorgeous place well off the beaten path (check your Gazeteer!).  The Wisconsin Concrete Park is known to many as the granddaddy of Wisconsin’s art environments, and includes over 200 outstanding sculptures created by lumberjack Fred Smith, who once said, “It’s gotta be in ya’ to do it.”  Isn’t that the truth?

The competition starts at 8:00 am Saturdays and ends on Sunday at 4 pm.  Judging will occur Sunday at 4:00 pm.  Each environment has a slightly different twist in schedules so contact them in advance if you need to be sure of something.

August 10-11

Nick Engelbert’s Grandview, 7351 State Highway 39, Hollandale, WI (Iowa County, 9 miles east of Mineral Point).  Email: grandview@nicksgrandview.com

James Tellen’s Woodland Sculpture Garden, 5634 Evergreen Drive, Sheboygan, WI, Email wandeingwisconsin@jmkac.org

August 17-18

Ernest Hupeden’s Painted Forest, Painted Forest Drive, Valton, WI  (just east of Cazenovia), Email: wanderingwisconsin@jmkac.org

Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, N8236 Highway 13, Phillips, WI, Email: fofs@pctcnet.net

Monkey Tree at Grandview

Monkey Tree at Grandview

Each site will award three prizes each for three age groups: Children up to 13 (first prize is $50), young adults 13-18 (first prize – $150) and adults (first prize – $300).  Better yet, photographs will be taken of each event’s winning entries and automatically entered in a statewide competition with the same prize categories and amounts.

Workshop schedules vary a bit so contact the sites.  Grandview will have a workshop in the morning each day – a great experience for the kids.  Two sites offer camping but all have lodging nearby if you want to make a weekend of it.  Grandview will feature the Moo Grass String Band from 4-6 pm on Sunday August 11th – bring a lawn chair and your favorite beverage.  Snacks will be available.

For more information and competition guidelines contact the individual sites or email wanderingwisconsin@jmkac.org.

James Tellen's Woodland Sculpture Garden

James Tellen’s Woodland Sculpture Garden

Wandering Wisconsin is a program of the Wisconsin Art Environment Consortium, a group representing nine art environments, including the Carl Peterson Garden, Dickeyville Grotto, Rudolf Grotto Gardens and Wonder Cave, Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto, and the Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden and Museum.

And it’s all free, how about that?  Thanks to sponsor the Kohler Foundation you can bring a carload to this family event and have the neighbors join you.    

The Wandering Wisconsin Plein Air Competition has something for everyone – fun for the whole family!  And it’s a great way to become acquainted with some of Wisconsin’s unique treasures, which you’ll want to visit again and again.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI (pop. 288)


The meaning of life

July 22, 2013
Prairie Flowers

The Heart of the Matter” report riffs off recent attention given to STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math) by saying the humanities are the bloom on the stem. Photo by Jessica Becker (via Instagram and facebook)

The humanities world is talking about a new report, released by The Academy of Arts & Sciences, calling attention to the importance of the humanities in 2013. I already believe the humanities are important, but it’s still nice to read editorials and listen to radio talk shows that bring together people who have done the research and given a lot of thought to these things. Like, how many people are working toward humanities degrees (only 7% according to David Brook’s NYTimes piece), what employers are looking for (curiosity, creativity, humility…), and how a humanistic approach is understood to be critical for countries working their way into first-world nation status (like China and Russia). If you don’t have time to read the report itself, there is a 7 minute video here, and after reading Mary Rizzo’s commentary suggesting the new report sounds a lot like the 1964 version, I guess I’d recommend the short-form.

Many of us would prefer the quick version. I mean, who has time for the full report? That reality has me thinking about how things have changed since 1964. I’m thinking of blogs, instagram, pinterest, twitter, tumblr, flikr and, yes, facebook.  I believe people are by nature humanists and we modern humans are on over-drive to keep up with the speed at which our world is spinning. Isn’t it all a huge humanities endeavor? Looking through my facebook newsreel today, I find people:

-reflecting on issues (“These photos are so fascinating and sad at the same time.” responding to the modern ruins in Detroit)

-reminding themselves and others to celebrate the richness of life (“First cherry tomatoes of the season will be in tomorrow’s lunchboxes.”)

-encouraging conversation around ideas (“in case you missed it, an article on what the brain can tell us about art.”).

-building community (A link to  “The City Paper” on Borracho’s new record! “We’re celebrating tonight at RnR Hotel. Come rock with us!”)

-and searching for meaning in the mundane (“This morning, as I’m trying to work at home, all I’ve heard is, “When I get my blog, I’m totally going to write about how you never change your underwear.” “When I get MY blog I’m going to post a picture of you crying like a baby.”)

I could go on, but it’s hard to look at my newsreel without getting sucked in. There is so much to comment on, share, and follow.

“The humanities” are, quite simply, the different ways we as humans have come up with for looking at the world and making meaning of it. The humanities are studied in academic disciplines (like philosophy, literature, linguistics, art history, folklore, anthropology, and history), and the report encourages folks to remember that the distinctions we have more recently (in historical time) made between the sciences, arts, and humanities are detrimental to both a real education and getting a job.

Less public money is being directed toward “the humanities” and that has a lot of us worried since how we spend our money indicates what we value.  However, I have no fear that our search for the meaning of life will wither and die. I see it everywhere in all that we do.

I’m worried that we’ll all drown in our ongoing, non-stop chatter into the e-niverse about how meaningful every little thing is and we’ll forget how to sit still, grow bored, and wonder if life is, actually, meaningless.

The wondering, I know, is worthy.

by Jessica Becker (why not follow me on Instagram?)
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Instagram


Doing it for the kids

June 19, 2013
Wayne Valliere, packing canoe bark out of the birch forest, in the summer of 2012. Photo by Tim Frandy

Wayne Valliere, packing canoe bark out of the birch forest. Photo by Tim Frandy 2012

I am really concerned that kids are not getting useful and appropriate educations based on what we know to be useful and appropriate ways to educate kids. Research shows all sorts of things, and yet schools systems do other things. There are so many examples I dare not go into it (and so many reasons why, the road-blocks to change sometimes feel insurmountable). Happily, I know there are independent and creative thinkers who are working their butts off to add opportunities for meaningful and transformative experiences to the lives of youth.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, has seven grant rounds every year. I am so proud of the projects we fund and also proud that a good number of them are designed to enrich humanities education for the youth of Wisconsin.

For example, a project called “These Canoes Carry Culture” awarded to the Goodman Community Center. This collaborative effort makes it possible for an Ojibwe artist, culture bearer and language teacher named Wayne Valliere to work side-by-side with a small group of young people from Madison and Lac du Flambeau to build a birch bark canoe. They will build it from scratch, making trips to gather materials from the particular forests and fields where the particular materials grow at a particular time of year. The kids will have time to talk to each other about what it is like to live in the city, or live on a reservation, while they are learning a disciplined craft and dying art from a master. They will read and discuss history and language and tradition, but not in a formal classroom with tests and grades. Instead, they’ll be exchanging ideas as they create, ultimately, a boat that will be on display in the new Dejope student dorm on campus.  The project brings together educators from community centers and academics from many departments at UW. It will be documented in a film and hopefully serve as a model for future community-university-folk artist partnerships. All wonderful and admirable. What most excites me is remembering what it was like to be a teenager and projecting what I imagine will be a life-altering experience for the kids involved. I believe this project will influence how these kids see the world and themselves in it, for the better.

Another inspired effort comes from Arts @ Large, a non-profit that works from within the Milwaukee School District to create “arts-infused learning.” They are responding to serious issues and producing serious outcomes that are student-led and student-centric. They have recently partnered with a group called Serve2Unite and together are creating student chapters of the organization dedicated to spreading peace through understanding, tolerance and, education.  Serve2Unite was formed after the tragedy in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5, 2012 where a gunman walked into a Sikh Temple opened fire, killing six members of the 400-person congregation.  They work to fight hate in the form of bullying and other violent crimes. Arts @ Large Serve2Unite chapters will research and develop service projects so that students learn, through doing, how to be agents of change, and social wellness, in their own families an communities. I heard some of the kids who have been involved in past Arts @ Large efforts speak recently and was impressed. Here, too, I see an example of how teenagers are treated as human beings with value, life experiences, and skills to bring to the table.

We know that kids, and more immediately teenagers, are the future leaders of the world. I’m excited about projects and places where they get to shine, speak up, hone skills, teach and learn from each other, and find meaning in their lives. I want that for my kids and all the kids, everywhere.

Read more about projects funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council here.

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council


A chicken crosses the road

May 31, 2013
Chickens in Nyanga

Chickens in Nyanga, South Africa. Photo by Jessica Becker

“In spite of my grandmother’s careful tutelage, I have long forgotten how to tat, and to that skill loss, I say good riddance. There is a reason that the French word for tatting is derived from frivolite. But how far down this road of incapableness am I willing to travel?”

-Sandra Steingraber, ORION Magazine Jan/Feb 2009

There was an exhibition called “Vital Skills” at the Watrous Gallery in Madison that probed this question. I found myself returning to walk through the collection several times and then thinking about what skills I personally value, and possess. What seems most crucial for my children to learn, either from me or others? It’s not hard to imagine a world they might live in as adults, but it’s bound to be different than I could ever predict.

Often on travels outside the U.S. I am struck by the fact that people seem, by nature or necessity, more resourceful than I am. It’s not that I don’t have some talents, but as a 21st century American, I honestly count knowing how to tie shoes as a skill I intend to pass on to my daughters. I’ll have to be deliberate about it! Velcro and crocs are sending the old bow-knot the way of lace-making and chicken-butchering.

Years back, after a trip to Cuba, where chickens run free and many were killed expressly for me to eat, I felt particularly inept. The urban-chicken movement was taking off and I jumped on the bandwagon. I bought four teenage layers from a farm outside of the city and tried to acclimate them to an urban setting. My neighbors, a sales and repair shop for lawn mowers, were loud and made the birds skittish. The birds themselves made me skittish—I never got good at catching them with my hands—and more than once I wished I’d had more of a 4-h education.

My dad, who grew up on a farm, came to visit and helped me chase chickens that had escaped and were trying to cross the road. He took me to private language lessons and coached my baseball team but didn’t teach me much about poultry.

Man with chickens in India

Man with his chickens in India. Photo by Jessica Becker

Eventually I decided to have the chickens butchered as I wasn’t getting many eggs. The entire experiment was celebrated with a closing feast of chicken tortilla soup.

That was not even ten years ago. Backyard chickens were the gateway drug and now neighbors and friends are trying out bees, goats, and more. These are folks with no personal background with farm life, just the idea that they want to know how to do stuff. I think it’s because we want to feel resourceful.

Ultimately, I don’t think the details matter as much as the attitude. Thinking again of the exhibition of beautiful hand-made brooms and skillfully designed blown glass, I suspect that teaching my kids to tie their shoes might be more about slowing down to learn a skill rather than because tied shoes are going to serve them better than slip-ons in the future.

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council

Vital Skills was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin.


Spring rambling

April 8, 2013

When I look down, I miss all the good stuff. When I look up, I just trip over things.

It is the kind of wisdom I forget often and find refreshing when I hear it again. Ani DiFranco’s lyrics are good like that.

My daughter stubs her toe AT LEAST 100 times a day, so I’m trying to teach her to look down and notice the good stuff that is literally beneath her feet. Spring is perfect for that. And books are such a fun way to start conversations with kids.

Backyard bare feet by Jessica Becker

Backyard bare feet by Jessica Becker

We have a great book by Erin Stead called “And then it is Spring.”

First you have brown. All around you have brown. 

Green equals spring. We are on a quest to find green. For her third birthday this weekend, my daughter got a magnifying glass. We took it outside and searched.

There isn’t a lot of green to be seen, or tripped over, but instead she picked up a rock. A really nice one with shiny quartz flecked throughout and angular cuts. We brought it home as treasure from our first spring hike, if you can call what one does with a three-year-old a hike. We placed it on the special pedestal for found things. It’s actually a martini glass, inspired by the pedestals made by Richard Jones at Studio Paran. It’s such a great concept.

As spring pops all around, and the brown melts into vibrant green, I feel excited for 2013. For one thing, the new Central Library is scheduled to open later this year in downtown Madison. I can’t wait to take my kids to discover new authors, new books, new ideas. Libraries offer both the thrill of discovery, as you wander through tripping over new ideas, and the joy of admiring what others have found and laid out for us, like on a pedestal. So it makes perfect sense that Madison Public Library will be host to the 2013 Wisconsin Book Festival this fall. We all at the Wisconsin Humanities Council are so thrilled to watch the Festival sprout, grow, and flourish in fresh soil tended by such dedicated book lovers.

Looking up from reading another favorite kids book this morning, “The Meandering Neanderthal,” (A small-batch book from Madison’s Matt Robertson and Nisse Lovendahl), I saw a big bird land in our back yard. We all stood at the window marveling. One lone mallard duck.

Lucky duck, I thought. It’s spring!

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council


Ye Olde Catchcough

March 18, 2013

“The general consensus is that between 50 and 90% of languages spoken today will probably have become extinct by the year 2100.”

This from Wikipedia, the know-it-all of my generation. Also this:  language refers to “the cognitive ability to learn and use systems of complex communication, or to describe the set of rules that makes up these systems, or the set of utterances that can be produced from those rules.”

I was specifically looking for the word “creative” in the encyclopedia entry because I have been thinking about how language, writing, and communication are creative endeavors. I’m not just thinking of stories and poems and works of literature, but the way we put words together to communicate basic, or complex, ideas. My nearly three-year-old daughter impresses me daily with her choice of words and turns of phrases.

I was recently sitting among middle school students watching Ron Frye of Milwaukee’s Optimist Theater  act like William Shakespeare. He was in full garb, explaining he had just traveled 400 years to talk with us. His hook, with the kids and with me, was good: He told us he had just heard some of our modern rap music and that he quite liked it, but didn’t fully understand the words. Instead he enjoyed the rhythm and cadence and got the gist of the thing. That, he suggested, is the best way to enjoy his (Shakespeare’s) plays.

Shakespeare has become synonymous with literature and the first line of the Wikipedia entry states that he is “widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.” He was a playwright. Why not a playwrite? That would make more sense, but the rules have never made sense. (Tell that to the folks who were up late celebrating National Grammar Day  earlier this month).

This photo of a sign in both  Malayalam and English was taken by Samia Shalabi, who leads tours in South India. Visit http://www.karazidesign.blogspot.com/ to see more.

This photo of a sign in both Malayalam and English was taken by Samia Shalabi, who leads tours in South India. Visit http://www.karazidesign.blogspot.com/ to see more.

In his day, Mr. Shakespeare, AKA Ron Frye, explained that spelling was considered a creative act. Writers tried out different spellings of the same word within one piece of work, just to demonstrate how clever they were!

Blogging is a relatively new genre of writing and naturally some are more clever, others more rule-abiding. As a general rule, it’s more important to keep it pithy than to get the sentence structure right. Penelope Trunk, a blogger whom I read because she is interesting, says that the best way to judge writing today is if people want to read it. She suggests we forget the rules and aim instead to find an audience. That is, if we are hoping to communicate something. The post is titled “How to teach writing: Ignore Grammar.”

The Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, has just awarded Optimist Theater’s outreach program with a grant to continue the hard work of making Shakespeare fun, relevant, and inspiring. Their mission is based on the belief that “the theatrical arts broaden and enrich those parts of our minds and spirits that are most essentially human.” Ron Frye takes the challenge personally, making him a great blend of history-nut and modern man. He wears a sword in a scabbard, so he gets respect.

March fourth, you say? Language evolves. OMG, it does. Many of you have stopped reading by now because I’m getting long winded. If I still have your attention, will bring this back around to ponder the influence the internet is having on language. While there are 6,000-7,000 languages in the world, over half of the internet is in English. It was mostly typed with a keyboard based on the English language. The foreign language internet  is rapidly expanding, with English being used by (surprisingly? only?) 27% of users worldwide (Again, thanks Wikipedia). I translate that to mean that more and more people will be using English as their second language and I think that only can add to the creativity of language use. In my experience, people who are communicating in a language that is not their mother-tongue are the most inventive! Aside from toddlers.

I’ll end with a new word for handkerchief, coined by my daughter: The catchcough. Let’s see if it goes viral.

By Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council