When I was in the classroom I liked to challenge students to create images to represent an idea. Equally challenging, to look at images and infer the ideas they represented. Class discussions (remember to use protocols!) often yielded a deeper, nuanced understanding by thinking in pictures and picturing thoughts.
Adults too! I participated in a workshop with a group of teachers where we explored the ten design principles of EL Education. Our small group focused on one called Solitude and Reflection. We were equipped with construction paper, scissors, crayons, glue and tape, and instructed to create a piece of art that represented Solitude and Reflection. Overcoming the initial skepticism and predictable superficiality, we accepted the challenge.
We began sharing individual thoughts, listening for a common organizing principle. We visualized Solitude and Reflection from many points of view, pushing and challenging each other’s perspectives as we strove to create an image together. What was the form of solitude? Of reflection? What shape was it? What color? What led to it? What followed from it? How could we represent it with the materials we had?
Sometimes our thoughts were aligned. Other times they were opposed. Our ideas were not judged right or wrong, but rather scrutinized according to the common understanding that was emerging out of our collective experience. (In a Christian setting, the Word of God would provide an additional plumbline). When the rationale for a form or color was consistent with our experience, everyone shouted, “Yeah, that’s it!” If it was not, we explored what was different or incomplete, and further refined our collective construction. We learned as much from the images we discarded as the ones we chose. And throughout, collaborated to create something bigger and deeper than any of our individual imaginations.
For example, one of the teachers said, “I think it should be blue.”
“Why blue?” we asked.
“Because blue is cool and reflective, unlike red which is hot and active.”
“Right!” we all echoed and began to work with the blue construction paper.
“What shape should it be?” I asked.
“It could be a square,” said one teacher.
“I don’t know, it just feels square to me, like being in a room.”
“No,” another said, “I think it should be round.”
“Because it has no beginning or end. It just goes round and round, back to the same place.”
“Does it really come back to the same place? Are you at the same place after reflection as you were before you started?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“How about a spiral?” someone else suggested.
“Yeah, a spiral has the qualities of the circle, but ends up in a different place than where it began.”
“Yeah, that’s it!” we all agreed, and began to shape the spiral out of the blue paper.
“Wait a minute,” someone wondered, “Is the spiral the reflection itself, or is it the thoughts that come out of reflection? What if we make reflection a blue circle and then have thoughts coming out of it in a spiral form?”
“What would the thoughts look like?”
“At first they would be crude, unformed, and then as they progress along the spiral they take more and more shape.”
“Cool!” said the teacher from California.
We began to work on shaping the thoughts. “What shape should the final thought be?”
“I don’t know, but it should represent all complete thoughts, not just one particular idea.”
“How about a light bulb?”
“That’s it,” cried some.
“Too trite,” protested others. “It should be a shape that represents a finished thought.”
“How about a star?”
“Yeah, a star!” Long threads of different colored paper, some twisted, some curled, emerged from the deep blue. They gradually began to take form, and finally became a star at the end of the spiral.
“The blue needs to be covered,” someone says. “It is too exposed. A person needs protection from outside distractions to really enter into solitude and reflection.” Someone fashions a tent over the blue reflective space. Another plants a rough human form inside.
“Shall she have a body or just a head?”
“Body, but no hands. Hands represent activity. The hands must be kept outside the tent, or they will tempt Solitude and Reflection to get busy and do all the stuff that has to be done.” Two roughly shaped hands, that looked as much like prayer wings, were glued to the top of the tent.
The artistic process had stimulated unusually thoughtful reflection. Our individual ideas were sharpened and refined by a collective meaning that seemed to flow through our discussion. Struggling to represent an idea with form and color helped us to discern the heart of the concept and all its subtle veins and arteries. What pushed our understanding was the continual stream of good questions. Why…? What if…? If that were true, what about…? How does that fit with what we said before? The questions were the catalyst that steered us to deeper meaning and guided the design of the image we constructed.
This workshop occurred in a public school, but as I reflect (in solitude), manifestation of biblical principles were there in two dimensions (even as God is always present whether we recognize it or not). First, the task of representing an idea with color and form seems to reflect the preeminent foundation of our faith – the Word became flesh (John 1:14). Is it too much to suggest that representing an idea, a concept (logos) with substance, color and form (flesh) is analogous? In the same way we come to know God through Jesus, we come to know an idea through representing it in earthly substance. This is one reason the arts are such an essential component of education. Second, we could not have developed the understanding we did alone. (Where two or three are gathered…Matthew 18:20). In the same way one brings a song, another a word, another a prophecy to a church service (1 Cor. 14:26), each person in our group brought a unique offering to our mission.
The challenge to create an artistic representation of a concept unlocked an understanding and appreciation of Solitude and Reflection that we could never have gained through thinking alone. Art is as much for making meaning as for creating beauty. As Christians, we try to create it in a way that reflects the Glory of God. We appreciate it to the degree it resonates with the one for whom, and to whom and from whom are all things, to whom be glory forever (Romans 11:36).
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.