#39 There are a million ways to do this work

IMG_3570PIZZA. I’ve eaten so much pizza during this trip.

I will say that a freshly cooked pizza always adds a little excitement to meetings.

I met with three brilliant people in New Rochelle, New York one lunchtime to eat, yup, a margherita pizza and chat through the work of Lifetime Arts. Ed Friedman and Maura O’Malley set up the organisation to encourage people to think about ageing as a time for creativity and positive growth.

Lifetime Arts runs arts programmes for older independent adults. Promoting active, in-depth learning for seniors, as opposed to routine, passive entertainment, is their vision.

Ed says there are a million right ways for artists to work with older people. But there are core principles to adhere too: keeping a sense of humour, and always assuming ability.

We talked about Lifetime Arts’ online roster of 150 teaching artists. Each artist has to submit a profile, a resume and a sample curriculum for an instructional series of classes aimed at older adults. Lifetime Arts then works with applicants to ensure they meet the high standards required. The result is a nationwide searchable database of professional artists qualified to work with elders. It’s a great idea.

Hmm, I’m not aware of anything similar in the UK. Does anyone know if such a database exists? Or, should we think about creating one?

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#38 Balancing creativity & teaching

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The hot topic for me continues to be how to balance the time and energy needed for to develop my creative projects and the desire to teach and facilitate.

I want to refer to the Joan Mitchell Foundation again, as they were one of the organisations that felt passionately about this too.

And also Asylum Arts, also based in NYC, which runs artist retreats for Jewish creatives. The extraordinary, energetic brilliant Rebecca Guber runs the organisation, and aims to bring together people and ideas for good conversation, skills development and potential creative collaboration.

JMF really see the importance of giving space for the creative work of an artist. Even if the training programmes they offer can’t provide studio space or resources, they do keep on valuing the artist’s creativity.

The course director, Saul Chernick, will use this idea as a theme for next year’s programme.  How are teaching artists bringing art-making values into the classroom? How to decrease the gap between what happens in the studio or desk, and the classroom or community setting?

One way is for the teaching artists to talk about their own work during sessions they lead, bring their own work in, share their own challenges.

Another mechanism is to ensure they are supported by other artists, who they can discuss their creative work alongside.

For Asylum Arts, the artists on retreats with may be teachers, or not, but they all have an opportunity to shares a challenge they’re having and receive feedback from the group.

Regardless of artform, experience and whether they work in the studio, at their desks or in the community, the sessions must make them feel valued as artists amongst peers. As Rebecca says, “it lifts them up.”

Two fine solutions, I think.

#37 Learning from writers in education – part 2: rigour

A second significant meeting I had in New York was with Travis Laughlin and Saul Chernick at the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

This organisation is the legacy of the painter Joan Mitchell, artist, known for her generosity to younger artists. JMF has artistic skills programs, gives grants and has programmes to support senior artists and those who may be in need of financial aid (for example artists affected by disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina).

Arts organisations and funders should recognise that teaching is essential for most artists, to make money and expand their skills, said Travis. To support a visual artist to teach well impacts on their entire career.

The JMF professional development program for teaching artists trains 40 artists as educators through 2-year apprenticeships. It’s a mix of mentoring, hands-on experiences, reflection and developing curriculum-based lesson plans.

We had a rich conversation about how the model might be applied to writers working and teaching older people. Mentoring for the writers-in-training would be vital to offer support and feedback.

Mentors might need training too, suggested Saul. There are many artists I can think of in the UK who do wonderful work in the field of creative ageing, but would they be keen to mentor others? What kind of training would allow the new writers to find their own individual styles of work, rather than (only) following a set model?

What I most admired about this organisation is how seriously they took artist support and good teaching. This kind of rigour and dedication to always wanting high quality experiences for participants is excellent.

Travis was kind enough to give me a wonderful book on teaching.

Over the next few days, I read To Teach by William Ayres, which is about the art of teaching and how to be a compassionate educator. From how to layout classrooms to let creativity flow, to always ensuring there are opportunities for students to discover and be surprised, I feel this title will be by my side as I develop my literary projects with elders.

#36 Learning from writers in education – part 1: slowness

IMG_3703In New York, I met with Community-Word Project which inspires children in underserved communities to read, interpret and respond to their world through artist in residence programmes. Two teaching artists*–and always one writer-work alongside a classroom teacher for 15-30 weeks.

I met with Patti Chilsen (above!) and Megan Morrison on a stormy New York day. We sat with hot tea in a cosy cafe near Wall Street and talked about the best ways to support artists to work with others.

Community-Word Project’s 8-month Teaching Artist Training & Internship Program (TATIP) prepares artists to genuinely collaborate with teachers, to develop projects linked to the curriculum and pepper the experience with loads of creative ideas.

For this program, artists shadow more experienced peers, build skills slowly and develop expertise.

As part of the training, each artist is invited to undertake much personal reflection on their creativity. There’s lesson planning, trial sessions, classroom management, mentoring and also an element on learning types of pedagogy and learning styles.

A few times Patti used the word ‘slow’ to describe her approach. Rather than speed through sessions and then throw the artist into the classroom, TATIP allows plenty of time to develop skills and learn well.

It’s slow, like the Carl Honoré, concept. Slow, like doing things at just the right speed. Slow, not always a million miles an hour.

* ‘Teaching artist’ is definitely a phrase used a great deal in the US. I don’t hear it as much in the UK but it simply describes artist educators, or community artists who teach their art form in schools, and community settings.

#34 Poetry & dance, rhyme & rhythm

I’ve been dancing all week. On Friday in NYC I pirouetted at a Dance for Parkinson’s* class for those living with the disease, and in DC on Thursday I tapped my toes at a dance and music session for seniors run by Arts for the Aging.**

There’s so much to learn from the way dance is taught to older people.

In the DfP sessions, the dance teacher narrated a story through movement. We were fighting through storms, hiding behind our hands from the elements, then being swept away with our umbrellas. Using images and narrative made it easier for participants to visualise and understand the movement instructions.

During the AFTA class, the two facilitators shared their love of dance and music. Miles played blues on his guitar, Nancy taught some movements. During a song, the elders waved a scarf expressively. At the end, they threw them into the middle of the circle. As the scarf lifted and landed, each person was asked, What does the scarf colour remind you of? The answers were gorgeous. Raindrops, God, love, the earth, baby bonnets.

I was prompted to join these sessions following conversations with Gary Glazner of Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. Gary uses music and gestures in his live poetry sessions, and the addition of these elements adds beauty, energy and emphasis.

In my open creative writing sessions, I include body stretching and pummelling. In activities for older people, maybe I’ll borrow this idea. And add a twist, or a click, some knee-tapping rhythms, too…

 

* Dance for Parkinson’s is a wonderful organisation which began in Brooklyn, and has as its heart that dancers are movement experts. Their body awareness and knowledge of balance, sequencing and rhythm is useful to those living with Parkinson’s disease.

** Another brilliant org. AFTA, offers innovative, immersive arts experiences to older people. Based in DC, they place artists in day care, nursing homes, assisted living and community spaces to deliver totally stimulating, lively sessions for vulnerable elders.

#33 Yoga and other people’s happiness

In New York’s East Village, I joined the daily yoga sessions at the quite marvellous Yoga to the People. Each class closed with a quote. Today’s was by George Eliot. “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”

It chimed with me and helped me remember the real aims of my research.

There are huge rewards for writers developing work with communities. Excitement that may not be found on the page, stage or online. Working creatively with elders, for me, feels like a pretty good way to contribute to other people’s wellbeing, to help make things happier, or just easier, for others in some small way.

Photograph taken at an Alzheimer’s Poetry Project Memory Arts Cafe event, Brooklyn.

#32 A whole lotta artist training progams

 

It’s -14 degrees outside in New York. Eek.

Well, no further excuse needed to remain cosy in our apartment, look at the Empire State Building glowing from the window, and catch up on my blog.

So…

there is a HUGE range of organisations supporting community artists in the US. Massive. More than I imagined.

The National Guild for Community Arts Education, for example, hosts webinars and brilliant training programs for community-based creatives. Its leadership course has trained over 150 people, all now blossoming and influencing others.

The NGCAE believe that tremendous projects come from preparing and nurturing artists for roles as teachers, facilitators and community organisers. The organisation also manages 8 research projects, each looking at how to grow the field. Mapping funding and its effectiveness. Building a video library of professional development tools. Sharing examples of failing. So great.

Talking to Executive Director Jonathan Herman, I heard about other artist training packages. These include:

My plan is to undertake a few myself. I’ll prioritise those available online, accessible wherever you are in the world. I’ll let you all know my thoughts, reviewing usefulness from the perspective of a writer working with elders!

Some of these training packages are relevant only to specific contexts. Some may only be suitable for certain kinds of projects. But I’ll have a go at appraising them, with the intention of enticing other writers to pursue this kind of work too!

 

#31 Quiet

 

I like the quiet. I’m not a performer, I speak softly. But when I meet with elders, I often have to raise my voice.

 

In care homes, there’s always background noise and distractions. Nelly, an older woman I spend time with as a befriender back in London, has hearing loss. We read poetry and talk about writing together. Her stories of life in a beauty salon, a cruise ship, an antique shop are brilliant. I do shout, but I find it hard to talk at a high volume for a long time!

 

I find the mindful, calm, gentle projects with elders appeal to me most. Poetry and reading activities seem to allow pauses to reflect.

 

Spare Tyre (UK) runs an interactive performance called The Garden, for people living with dementia. It uses non-verbal methods. Partly as a bilingual person’s ability to communicate in their second language can erode with dementia. The show aims to be quiet and meditative.

 

I say all this, and then I attend an Alzheimer’s Poetry Project session and my attraction to only quiet things flies out of the window!

 

The award-winning APP sessions facilitate the creativity of older people living with dementia. Poet and Founder Gary Glazner’s booms short sections from a classic poem for participants to echo. With me sitting alongside, he leads a medley of songs and verse. Shakespeare (Shall I Compare Thee…), Wordsworth (Daffodils) and ee cummings (i keep your heart in my heart). We do hand actions, feet stamping and clapping.

 

I’m caught up in the bright energy of the session, and even find myself performing lines from Romeo and Juliet in a broad cockney accent. I pretend to meet the Queen. I dance and sing.

 

We move to a communal creation of a group poem, with participants asked specific questions and told to ‘use your imagination’. One person pretends she is Shirley Temple, another is an eager-to-please waitress. Gary then reads the poem. He improvises, adds detail, inserts a song, concludes with a flourish. It’s perfectly done. Many of those who didn’t join in at the beginning, do by the end. There’s smiles and the joy is infectious.

 

To conclude? Gary’s work is inspiring, like nothing else I’ve seen. The participants at APP adored the session. Plus, it’s not always the quiet things that count after all.

Image from: http://www.creativeaging.org/programs-people/speaker/gary-glazner

#30 Getting going again

My heart is fit to burst in New York. I love this city so much.

The weather is cold (-2 degrees currently, and a hint of snow in the air) but the sky is a bright shade of blue and the sun is shining.

I have two and a half weeks here, filled with meetings, as well as online training sessions, desk research and afternoon strolls.

Because this is the final phase of the project, I’ve allowed myself to travel at a slower pace than I did in Australia. There, my schedule burst at the seams and I met two, three, sometimes four different groups, artists and organisations each day. Here, I’m more reflective, bringing ideas collected over the last nine months to each meeting.

I’m also feeling practical.

I know I want to make some new literary projects. The creative befriending scheme, matching a senior with a writer. And a big burst of an intergenerational project, in which a group of us are writing live. Each meeting I have, I’m thinking about how I can make these things happen, and how to gather other writers of all ages to join me.

Thanks for reading!