Eyes Wide Open: Looking In, Looking Out

Just finished participating in a virtual seminar by Paula Scher, one of the most influential graphic designers in the world. I won attendance at her virtual seminar through the Academy for Teachers, which is a membership organization for teachers that aims to provide teacher community through intellectually stimulating conversations and events. Through them, I have been lucky enough to do in-person workshops with Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish, Professor Joshua Katz, spoken word artist and poet Taylor Mali*, Professor Jeff Nunokawa*, and (hopefully, if I win the lottery) with author Karen Russell*.

After watching a documentary about Paula Scher on Netflix (season 1, episode 6 of “Abstract: The Art of Design” on Netflix), I got a chance to hear from Scher herself about her creative process and some of the projects she created.

Here’s what I took away from both the documentary and from her talk:

  1. Creativity requires keeping your senses open. There’s a wonderful opening set of sequences in “Abstract” during which you see NYC though Scher’s eyes. She sees herself primarily as a typography expert (because, as she said in the seminar, she is not a very good illustrator), and the camera focuses on all the different kinds of type you see all over New York. Manhattan (and, to a much lesser degree, Brooklyn) is a city of signs and letters that all present different ways of presenting ideas. Serifs on words tend to imply an old-world, classical, upper class approach to things (thus, the multiple revamps of the masthead for The New York Times) and a lack of serif tends to imply something new and creative or (oddly enough) European. In the video sequence, Scher talks about how sometimes fonts out in the world are mismatched and she has an impulse to fix them. I love seeing the world through her eyes. At another point in the “Abstract” episode, Scher mentions that she will often go to the city to get ideas. Looking around fills her mind with new thoughts and new patterns she can incorporate into her design ideas. For instance, in designing the logo for The Highline, Scher used a capital “H” with two lines through the middle to imply railroad tracks (which is apt, because The Highline was originally an abandoned elevated railroad).
The logo for The Highline, inspired by railroad tracks

2. Creativity can require an attention to detail and a willingness to just trust your gut. Sometimes simultaneously. One of my favorite details about the creation of The Highline logo is that Scher created it quickly, in couple of minutes on the back of a business card she had handy. During the seminar, she said, “Time doesn’t make design better.” That is to say, sometimes going with your gut can create the right feeling you need in a piece of art. Though, I would add the caveat that developing strong gut emotions that connect to a very strong visual sensibility was also the results of having done A LOT of work and study in visual arts. At the time of the Highline rebranding and creation, Scher had been a working designer for over 20 years. I’m also reminded of the book Sources of Power by Gary Klein, in which Klein finds that all of the amazing “intuitive” and split-second moves made my emergency room nurses, firefighters, pilots and the like comes from thousands of hours of lived experience. Perhaps that’s the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell popularized or the 728 to 16,120 Hour Rule. Whatever the exact number (and really, I don’t care about that number. The number is this: many), that split-second of amazing choice-ness or gut feeling is actually the end results of an uncountable amount of time putting in what the folks at 6seconds.org call practicing “deliberately in the smartest way you can.”

What all am I getting at? Well, I suppose that I’m thinking in terms of what is means to become a very good teacher. I have been practicing all this teacher-y stuff for 16 years now, and some stuff I’m still working on, like classroom management. My particular approach to classroom management has mostly involved making engaging lessons. But that isn’t enough, sometimes. With the help of blog posts, books, and mini courses from educational thought leaders Dave Stuart, Jr., Angela Duckworth‘s Character Lab, and Angela Watson’s The Cornerstone for Teachers, my classroom management is getting stronger and stronger. But it’s not yet at the gut level. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Trainings around group dynamics through the Center for Group Studies, workshops with EGPS, and classes in my Masters in School Counseling have helped me see that at least some of my struggles in classroom management come from my background. All those thousands of hours of being a young person in my household have had an impact on me. I have a hard time not channeling my mother whenever a kid misbehaves. And my mom was great for ME, but I tend to be a rule follower. My goal is to help my students be rule followers when following rules is to their long-term benefit. I’d also like to help them be better at simply communicating about what isn’t working for them.

Perhaps this is too much to ask, but I don’t think it is. I continue to mull it over. by teaching them to look at themselves and the choices they make, and using that information to help them create academic work. Still doing my WHOKNOWSHOWMANY hours to figure this out.

Other things on my mind:

  1. Priya Parker‘s The Art of Gathering Newsletter introduces me to new ways to think of remote learning and remote connection in every post.
  2. I watched the George Floyd video last night before bed and wept.
  3. I’m considering attending this workshop from the Othering and Belonging Institute on how to use narrative to help us connect to others.
  4. Trying to think about using Kialo to facilitate online debates. Weighing that against giving my students yet another site to learn to navigate.
  5. Trying to decide if I want to spend my precious mind time being amused by a live magazine or an arthouse film on mubi or reading on my kindle or grading or just staring straight ahead into nothingness and sweating because THE HUMIDITY in NYC is UNBEARABLE.

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