Sunday, April 18, 2021

Moving on by writing it down - the potential healing power of telling your story

Normally, I am a painter and writer of fiction. I also write nonfiction blog posts about art and literature. 

Lately, however, I've been stuck in the writing. It's as if the task of writing will open up floodgates, but I don't have the key right now. I'm having a hard time moving forward with that.

For creative and healing reasons, I wonder if it might help to write parts of my story in long form, however informally. 

I've recently come out of a divorce, aka death of a two decade relationship. That was after a long struggle to find employment (substitute teaching filled the gap, until I found a better fit with art teaching), and a sense of impossibility for my life as an artist, leading to an emotional inability even to pick up a paint brush. 

The divorce was immediately preceded by a second bout of cancer, major surgery to remove my womb (read creativity and feeling valued as a woman) during a pandemic year. 

Thank goodness for teaching – without that, I would not have started painting again. I'd be as stuck in the visual arts as I currently am in my writing. 

When that first student wanted oil painting lessons, I felt a bit like a fraud. It had been so long, and my soul felt too ravaged. My creativity felt beaten down, a lifeless animal. I owe my students all my gratitude. 

Writing is a different story... hah. I don't know where the person who wrote to THE END on five first drafts went. I mean, I didn't polish and publish, but still. 

Maybe I'm too stuck in my own story. Would it help to write a memoir, clear the decks? If I wrestled through my own story, could I move forward with characters and perspectives outside my own again? Would it help me move on to write nonfiction books related to my own story, focusing on how to teach painting? 

I'd like to write a book, or several, that offers art teachers a few ways to teach painting. Teach others to teach color, pattern, and design non dominance – this is both political and aesthetic in the visual world – in a way that another artist could pass on to their students. 

Something is holding me back. I wish I could figure out what it is.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Tension between subject and background in painting creates visual democracy - Patterns

Supposedly, the placement occurrence of motifs in Penrose tilings are impossible to predict in 2, 3, or 4 dimensions. One looks a bit like a joker, another motif like a snowflake, etc. We can assume they will reoccur, much like we can assume that there are no end to prime numbers, but both of those assumptions require fancy mathematical proofs.

Whatever. My point is that some people think you can predict Penrose tiles in a higher (5th) dimension – planes upon planes colliding and multiplying, in a sense, but ironing out to something comprehensible.

Here is an earlier post on the subject: 

Caspar David Friedrich, Romanticism, Penrose, and the 5th Dimension

And then Yayoi Kusama puts a dot on it. Multiple dots. And psychedelic mushrooms in neon colors on black light. Fun. Why? Tension? Democracy of subject? That's my favorite explanation - visual democracy.

I wanted to work with students to create this competition between subject and background. We chose a lovely spotted frog as our subject, and a not especially aggressive play on the spots and patterns in the background. 

Frog in Frogland, by Julia Gandrud, copyright 2021, all rights reserved

I'll add a student's work when they are finished with it.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Elementary School Pandemic Hothouse

I don't know how to talk about the month (only one month) that I spent teaching art in an elementary school during the pandemic. I started, and I left, out of necessity. The first, being willing to work physically in the schools, I volunteered to do because I love to teach, and, as a recently divorced single mother, I needed a job. The reason I left is more complicated. 

image copyright Julia Gandrud 2020

How to explain the hothouse of love and fear in that literally brick and mortar building? The red alertness on the faces of staff, the fatigue so deep that many adults ran on electricity only? The grief, joy, love, gratitude, rage, abandonment in the words and actions of the beautiful kids? They were the sun, even at their worst. And there was some astoundingly bad behavior... even then, those children were beautiful. My heart breaks, thinking of them, as individuals and as a group, knowing that I abandoned them, in the end. 

As I said, I'm a single mother and have my own kids most of the school year. After only a few weeks of teaching, I was sent home because of close contact exposure (a student who regularly ran around the room, joking and laughing during lunches, mask down, unable to absorb the weirdness of not being able to be a normal kid). 

Wouldn't you know it? During that week, I got a rash. It was so bad that my eyes swelled nearly shut. It was so bad that I couldn't sit still for the itching. I called in for a telehealth session. That nurse wanted me to go to urgent care. Urgent care wouldn't see me because I was on close contact quarantine. They sent me to the emergency room... which was overflowing. Again, I had two kids at home, alone, during this. I couldn't risk wading past the COVID tents (yes, there were those) to wait in the emergency room, then get treated, for the rest of the day.

I went home. I did not get treated. Luckily for me, I have a friend eleven hours away who is a dermatologist. She could do trial and error treatment with me via text and photos, calling in prescriptions. A few weeks later, I still have itches – it was likely poison ivy, not impetigo or the other horrible disease the nurse first thought.

I have had cancer twice – well, three times if you count the minor skin cancer – and can't play around. I chose to quit. 

I cried as I wrote the letter to the principal. I felt depressed for days after. My heart breaks, hoping those kids are happy with whoever replaced me. I hope that person is brilliant and strong. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

One day, I will outgrow my fourth grade ostracism

 When I was a little girl, I had two friends who sometimes fought, and often gossiped. In a fourth grade school yard tussle, Angel Heineschewitz accused Donna of grabbing her, pinching her, in the middle of a fighting huddle. I was a bystander, so Donna asked me, “Did you see my hand in there?”

“I don't know,” I answered honestly. Donna never forgave me.

The thing is, she had reason. Donna was the only black girl at school. I should have been able to say if her hand had been there or not. But I didn't see.

Donna started spreading rumors about me – that I'd been mean to her cousin, on the bus. I'd never met her cousin. She orchestrated a mass excommunication from the fourth grade girls friends circles. It wasn't until months, maybe a year, later, that I confronted her. “You know that I never said anything to your cousin, don't you?” I asked. 

“I know,” she answered. Matter of fact. 

            Julia Gandrud 2020. Use with permission only

Now, as a newly divorced woman with a hostile ex, I am afraid of the same thing. He is charismatic, and I am not. He is friendly, and I am crabby. Whenever one of our mutual friends doesn't respond to me, I fear the worst. 

I'm trying to remind me of the following rule: 

How do you know that your friends are your friends? 

Because they are there. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

"Comply With Directives": Race and Special Education

As I read Rachel Aviv's 2018 article (Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Education System: A statewide network of schools for disabled students has trapped black children in neglect and isolation) about special education being wielded as a racist, Jim Crow like cudgel against black boys, I'm reminded of a story of an acquaintance of mine. 

My friend is white, and was teaching in a school of privileged white children, maybe six years old. Still, she had been begging for help with one child who was biting and hitting others. She got no help. One day, after an already tough morning, complete with difficult interactions with a parent, she snapped, and tied the boy's hands together. She got fired. 

But, like the teacher in Aviv's article who ended up in prison, she had never received the support and guidance she'd been pleading for up until the incident.

Weird punishments, and physical violence, are not excusable. But neither is institutional negligence, leaving teachers to be alone in the responsibility for young people who need more. If the children need more help, so do the adults – maybe we can call that a general rule of education. 

This problem of not caring enough for (and paying enough) our teachers is compounded, exponentially, when put in face of America's institutional racism. From the article:

I just felt like these students, especially the black boys, were put there, basically, because they intimidated their teachers.” Melissa Williams-Brown

It became a way to filter out black boys, who at younger and younger ages are perceived to have behavioral disabilities,” Leslie Lipson, a lawyer at the Georgia Advocacy Office said.

According to Beth Ferri, a disability scholar at Syracuse University, IDEA provided a kind of loophole to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Now racial segregation continued “under the guise of ‘disability,’ ” she said. 

Likewise, the origin of the public school system, as a tool to create good workers who will follow directions, and not read or think independently, is multiplied in this situation. From the article:

Latoya said that, when she walked into her son’s class, “I did not see one white child. All I saw was black boys.” Seth’s “target behavior,” according to the center’s intervention plan, was to “comply with adult directives.”

* * * *

When is being labeled as in need of special education a harm to the student? My brother was mislabled autistic (not even remotely close...) and it meant that none of the teachers bothered to teach him. For my son, on the other hand, I've had to fight for the dyslexic label, just so he gets any of the extra assistance he needs. Otherwise, the teachers were more than happy to let a child California lables “gifted” skim by in the lower third of the class.

I am white, and sound traditionally educated. How much harder is that question when you are black or brown, or don't talk the same way the teachers and administrators do? 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Book Review: The Serpent of Essex by Sarah Perry

The Serpent of Essex 

A beautiful book, it rolls like the tides, but sluggishly, as though the Victorian vocabulary and style create resistent brackish. With sensitivity to all kinds of clashing and melding personalities, The Serpent of Essex follows a nineteenth century widow and her milieu through London and Essex. The characters were tender and terrible, from Luke Garrett and his love and loathing of Cora, mixed with an untempered glee in radical surgery, to Martha with her qualms about using an admirer to further the causes of the poor Londoners who she truly loves. 

It's the main character, Cora Seaborne, who shines brightest. A survivor of systematic abuse over more than a decade at the hands of her husband (complex post traumatic stress), she is freed by his death. The joy in that freedom she finds wrong, but celebrates it, and ignites everyone with her love of life.

When Cora turns away the advances of Luke Garrett in a decisive way, it felt like a tragedy of cptsd that what she takes from this, his narcissistic loathing of her for expressing what was true, is that she is wrong to affect people this way. That Martha espouses, harshly, the sentiment that Cora ties people to her – though she never made anyone obliged to her or dependent on her – seems cruel, but it is even crueler to let the story run out as though this were true. Why does Cora have to end up alone, with her things and her paintings, with even her son away at boarding school? It's because that is the fear of all survivors of complex ptsd: my desires hurt others (even though they don't, maybe only contradicting them) and I don't deserve love and companionship (which is why so many homeless people are survivors of childhood neglect or abuse.)

Please, let Cora have that light she shines. If she draws people to her, that's no crime. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Week 6 Study skills, aids and accommodations

Weeks 6 Summary
University of London, UCL Institute of Education & Dyslexia International

The focus of week 6 is to supply more suggestions for study skills, aids, and accommodations. Most of the accommodations were reiterated from earlier weeks' lessons:
  • extra time
  • bigger font size, sans serif
  • computer usage when possible
  • give definitions and teach spelling of discipline specific vocabulary
  • print on one side of the paper only (not two sided)
  • don't take marks off for spelling 
  • spelling tests can be limited to words the child thinks she has memorized
  • questions can be read aloud, if the reading itself isn't what you are evaluating
  • evaluate only one aspect of the writing assignments, where possible (punctuation, content, syntax, grammar)
  • be tolerant of digit reversal in mathematics
  • give dyslexic child a summary with a few key words omitted while other children are writing down the summary
  • celebrate the child's progress
  • celebrate child's strengths in other domains (3D spatial thinking, for example) 
  • remember the above average fatigue, and the visual stress, the child feels 

Apps and website recommendations:
Reading Rockets,
Mind manager by mind jet
A text to speech toolbar called the ATbar
Evernote, which allows for synchronizing meetings, notes, post-its, etc
Trello, which is a project management tool for collaboration and delegation
About improving reading comprehension, Dr Jenny Thomson had the following recommendations: 
  • Talk around the subject first (pre-reading)
  • Rehearse challenging words (previewing)
  • Physically adapt the text to improve readability 
  • Separate into readable chunks
  • Allow for some reading from another person, device, or audiobook for portions of the work 
Improving writing tasks can be more challenging, according to Dr Thomson, in part because less research has been focused on this area.

In the pre-writing stage, there is a program called Kidspiration, a kind of picture mind map.

Google Chrome's speech to text function in Google docs for the actual writing stage, when vocalizing is an option. 

Alternatively, Dragon Naturally Speaking is a popular program, and has been improving over the decades.

For writing out, Dr Thomson suggests text expanders, such as Phrase Express, LetMeType, and Texter.

Here's a device I would dearly have loved as a college student: a livescribe digital pen. It records audio as you write, and also digitizes your handwriting. I missed so much in lectures simply from falling behind that this would have been a real help. Unfortunately, it seems not to be totally ready for market – with features no longer supported, and other glitches. It's still being sold, of course :)

As for spelling, Dr Thomson recommends Ginger. This tool can check your spelling based on context – converting “there” to “they're” where appropriate, for example. It also has a grammar feature.

Help in remembering what tone to take for which audience can be found from Grammarly, which also performs many of the same functions as Ginger.

Dr Thomson addresses memory as a complicating issue for students with dyslexia or other dys constellation issues. She emphasizes the need for “over learning”, or simply reinforcing many more times whatever the concept or spelling task is. 

One way to do that is through cross course collaboration, so vocabulary words and various concepts get reinforced Monday through Friday across disciplines. Using a combination of auditory and visual backup is ideal.

Students need to be encouraged at every stage to use metacognition. For example, they can ask themselves, “How long is the chunk of reading I am most likely to retain? Under what circumstances does this faculty become stronger or weaker?”

If a student is having difficulty comprehending, perhaps you have given those students a square of felt they can put out on their desks as a visual cue that they may need your help, rather than requiring them always to have their hand in the air. Different colors could have different meanings.

Orienting herself in time and space can be common difficulties in any of the dys constellation. Creating timetables with the student, using multiple colors and even images, can help this. This activity should be done at school with teachers, and at home with parents. These tables and maps should be visible, in locker doors and on walls. 

A check-in time with a particular teacher, perhaps at the end of the school day, can keep everything in line, and not going haywire. 

Week 5 More on Practical teaching approaches