Thursday, April 12, 2012

Trusting Teachers, Public Schools and Democracy

Over 100 years ago, Margaret Haley, the Chicago elementary school teacher who was also the founder of the first American teachers’ union, argued for a vision of public schools as the center of our democracy. However, she proposed, schools can democratize society only if schools themselves are democratic. Haley and another maverick, Ella Flagg Young, a prodigy who passed her teaching examinations at age 15 and went on to become the first women to serve as superintendent of a major American city, both argued that teachers must play central roles in school administration and policy-making, and as professionals who are critical to the nation, must have opportunities and support to continue to grow intellectually throughout their working lives. Without this, they claimed, schools would become little more than factories, with rote assignments administered by teachers relegated to the role of automatons.
The issues and debates about education then were much the same as they are today. What’s different is that we now have decades of evidence showing that Haley and Flagg were right. For example, the nation with the most successful education system by many measures, including highest students scores and smallest spread of scores between schools is Finland, a country in which all curriculum is local and developed by teachers who are charged with designing and pursuing high standards and shared targets within their professional communities. Yet these high levels of success and responsibility don’t translate into top-down mandates. The schools are democratically organized and decisions are made laterally. Teachers evaluate their students, and collaboratively design ways to assess and improve school-wide successes. Students spend less time in school that those in most other industrialized nations and Finnish teachers spend less time teaching than do teachers in many other countries, and are not required to be present at their schools when they don’t have classes or other duties.
The Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg describes a system in which teaching is consistently rated as one of the most desirable and admired professions, ahead of doctors, architects and lawyers. Finnish teachers are considered knowledge workers, education leaders, and critical members of their communities and the nation. So what are we doing wrong?
            While we should certainly learn from the successful educational systems designed by our global neighbors, we should also look back at the insights of our home-grown visionaries in education, like Margaret Haley and Ella Flagg Young. They pointed to the need for what Finland has put into practice and proven as successful for students—a public education system that supports and trusts its teachers. 

Remarks I gave at the Chicagoland Researchers for Transformative Education (CReATE) Press Conference, March 12, 2012

Rousmaniere, K. (2005). Citizen teacher: The life and leadership of Margaret Haley. Albany, NY: State University of New York.
Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tomboy: Review of the Exhibit

The power and ambiguity of queer visibility
Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College Chicago, Nov. 8 – Jan. 7, 2011

Reviewed by Therese Quinn and Erica R. Meiners

A tomboy is brash and fresh and in-between: Not quite adolescent; not yet adult. Both girl and boy, or neither one. “That way” or growing out of it. There is something queerishly unfixed about tomboys, something green and tempting.

Curator Betsy Odom’s succinct exhibit showcases six “queer women artists” exploring “the idea of the tomboy.” Odom’s crucial curatorial statement acknowledges the political power of visibility, but clarifies that these artists “employ identity in intentionally ambiguous, mercurial, and peripheral ways.” They may be lesbians, but this exhibit won’t tell the viewer what that means.

What shines in Tomboy is pleasure and play. In Mary George’s fine The Cult of the Endorphin, the setting is a workshop in which cult leader and members appear to be happily reinventing the wheel, and more, in wood. The shop-slash-natural gym is littered with projects in medias res—clock, speakers, disco ball, and barbells made from tree trunks, along with safety gear, pop bottles and other detritus of delirious labor. A looping video offers infomercials of dancing, jogging and cart-wheeling women exhorting family, friends, and viewers to join; they aim to recruit with the promise that action leads to natural highs.

George’s themes resonate in Daphne Fitzpatrick’s sculptural installation: a growing mound of the artist’s worn out athletic shoes. This witty work, titled Tomboy, conjures sexual and gendered fairy tales (some shoes will never fit) and a butch’s boasts (nobody can fit these shoes). But Fitzpatrick may also be signaling the isolation of identity; only her shoes can make that pile grow. And, like a reversal of Felix Gonzales-Torres’ installations that shrink as viewers take away candy and prints, this sculpture suggests loss: physicality and a youth—her tomboy—that is sliding past.

Nearby, Alison Halter’s What’s so funny? softly grainy video reinforces and challenges the theme of bliss—it captures women laughing; one after another throws her head back, slides into tears, rolls on the floor, covers her mouth and clutches her belly or her face —offering sequential snapshots that name the soft edges between pleasure and pain, and the awkwardness of affect, or how emotions are worn, and “read” by others. Does one woman have a black eye? Is her laughter a lie or is she just toughing it out?

Kelli Connell’s luminescent staged photographs also confound simple readings. Each features a female couple, but every body belongs to the same woman. Is Connell playing with feminist fantasies of easy loving between ladies or encouraging the queer question: Who is tomboy—the woman on top or the one wearing lipstick?

One answer offered to the question—Who is tomboy?—may be unintended: The near-total absence, paired with some uncomfortable presences, of women of color in the exhibit indicate that Tomboy is probably white..

For example, Leeza Meksin’s tactile interactive piece, replete with gendered neoprene bags and mysterious toys is a play party on a wall. A “black mammy” statue in the midst of these sexy utensils, linked by a pulley to an ironing board and a spatula, is a freighted presence. The exhibit insists that identity is performed; the inclusion of the caricature may be an attempted nod in this direction, but it misses the mark.

Irony, play and race also surface in another video by Halter. In Please, Please, Please, a young apparently white woman paints teardrops on her face until it is nearly covered with the marks. Is Halter, as the curator’s statement asserts, “poking fun at the sadness of the [Smith’s] song” someone is singing in the background? Or, is she commenting on our national fascination with black masculine forms—in this case, “gangsta” (teardrop tattoos, see Lil Wayne) and the soul singer (via James Brown‘s 1956 hit, Please, Please, Please)? Perhaps she’s doing both, along with some tomboyish appropriation of her own.

Dana DeGiulio adroitly claims another kind of gendered power: her thick black wall splashes one-up Jackson Pollack. He’s canonical, but she exceeds the canvas and other parameters with painted ejaculations that shout anger, pleasure, and the power of performing artist. This is serious play, and messy.

Vexing and thrilling, Tomboy is worth the bite.

Participating Artists: 
Kelli Connell, Dana DeGiulio, Daphne Fitzpatrick, Mary George, Allison Halter and Leeza Meksin.

Therese Quinn worked as an exhibit researcher, developer, and evaluator for a decade, and is currently Chair and Associate Professor of Art Education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Erica R. Meiners Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, teaches, organizes and writes about LGBTQ lives, justice movements, and prison abolition.