Reflecting Is Not Loafing. Really.

Eternal reflection: Rodin's "Le Penseur" (The Thinker)  [Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell's gate]

Eternal reflection: Rodin’s “Le Penseur” (The Thinker)

“The painter or draftsman must be solitary, and most of all when he is intent on those speculations and considerations which, continually appearing before the eyes, give material to the memory to be well stored.”

Thus Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, quotes our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, on the subject of contemplation and reflection. It was apparent to the master that in order to process what we have learned and to commit it to memory so that we can use it later on, we need to be still for a bit and think about the things we’ve observed, absorbed, and created.

The problem with this concept, though, is that reflection involves a distinct lack of moving about. It’s quiet and, well, reflective–so in some cases, it might resemble, to an alarming degree, sitting around and doing nothing. In education, where teaching time is brief and precious and the last thing to be valued is letting the kids sit around with nothing constructive to do, the practice of reflection can be easy to pooh-pooh. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable tool and an effective method of evaluation; reflection can help students process what they’ve just learned even as it provides insight for their teachers into what the class understands and what still remains to be mastered.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero has, over the past 37 years, been examining the development of learning processes in children, adults, and organizations. Their Visible Learning initiative features a set of “Thinking Routines”–mini-strategies that teachers can embed into their lessons so that students can reflect on their own work–on what they have learned, and on what they have yet to understand. Thinking Routines are like little games or challenges. They’re fun, they take up very little classroom time, they provide both the teacher and the students with a way to make learning visible, and they illuminate a path for continually adjusting and tweaking what goes on in the classroom.

The subset of Core Routines, in particular, encourages students to reflect on what they think they already know about a subject and what they’d still like to learn. For example, the routine called “What Makes You Say That?” consists of two simple yet powerful questions: “What’s going on?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?”

One of my favorite routines, which I often use at the end of one of the series of arts-integrated writing workshops that I teach, is “I used to think…But now I think…” I like to present this routine in the last few minutes of the last workshop, asking students to write their answers out and then calling on them to share their responses with the rest of the group. This routine can indicate progress in a much truer way than a multiple-choice test can.

Sometimes the insight I gain through this routine is deeper than I expect. Last year, I led a week-long Spring Break workshop for fourth and fifth graders from a poor neighborhood in South Florida; I centered my curriculum on a young-people’s version of Homer’s Odyssey, re-told by Gillian Cross and gorgeously illustrated by Neil Packer.  My young students spent the week hearing and discussing the episodes and then using writing, visual art, and movement to craft their own creative responses to the ancient classic. On the last day, I used the “I used to think…” routine to see what about the weeklong process had impacted them. I gave them a few minutes to think and write in their “Reflection Journals”–little handmade books that they had created during the first workshop. One boy made me grin with his answer:

“I used to think…the older times were really boring and like I was going to pass out. But now I think…they were really fun. I don’t know if the other Greek books are boring, but I know the Odyssey was super fun.”

Good to know that his knee-jerk reaction to ancient literature  had been tempered by his arts-integrated experience!

My favorite response of all time, though, came from Jakayla, a tough little fourth-grade girl and the self-appointed ringleader of my Spring Break group. After a few minutes of reflection, Jakayla concluded:

“I used to think…that this would be all about writing. But now I think…it was all about finding what you love.”

Lest this all seem too kumbaya-warm-and-fuzzy, understand that every day, in the simplest fashion, I would determine what facts and vocabulary the students were absorbing: I would fire questions at them at random moments. “What was the Cyclops’ name?” “Who turned the sailors into pigs?” “Where is Odysseus trying to get home to?” The kids would practically fall over raising and waving their hands in the air with the answers. There was no need to test those simple facts; the children were learning the story and its elements as a natural result of listening, writing, making art, and acting out the episodes.  The simple Thinking Routine, though, along with a few moments to reflect quietly on what they knew and felt, and the opportunity to write about it in full sentences rather than bubbling in a row of circles on a computer-graded test, painted a clear picture, for me and for them, of the joyful learning that took place that week.

In his introduction to John Francis Rigaud’s translation of Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting, John William Brown notes that when the great artist was painting The Last Supper on the wall of the convent of La Madonna delle Grazie,

“[T]he Prior of the Dominicans…became impatient whenever he saw Leonardo in contemplation instead of continuing his picture; he being one of those who imagine that a painter must be neglecting his work whenever his hands are not actually employed on it.”

Leonardo, of course, strongly disagreed with this view. As do I.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell’s gate

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Only Connect! (It Will Make You More Creative.)

An 1828 engraving of children playing tag, by Johann Michael Voltz

An 1828 engraving of children playing tag, by Johann Michael Voltz

E.M. Forster said it in Howard’s End:

“Only connect!…Live in fragments no longer.”

He was referring to connections between human beings–surely, some of the most important and satisfying connections we can make–but his exhortation applies most aptly to creativity and the establishment of a creative practice in our lives. Connecting two or more ideas, whether they resemble each other or are completely dissimilar, often results in a new discovery, a new creation, that is informed by, but rises above, the original concepts.

Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, said of our hero and his tendency to explore everything that interested him:

“This exceptional ability to interconnect observations and ideas from different disciplines lies at the very heart of Leonardo’s approach to learning and research.”

Leonardo started out by studying the elements of painting, then moved on to studying the objects he painted, then branched out more and more to study fossils, weapons, the earth, the stars. He filled his head and his notebooks with questions and information about all these seemingly dissimilar fields, and then he made connections that no one else at the time was making. This vast breadth of knowledge enabled him, for example, to draw upon the sciences of geometry and anatomy when he was making art, and to bring elements of design into his scientific inquiries on flight. The things he created combined his findings in various fields and synthesized them to create something greater. The whole was astonishingly  innovative and much larger than the sum of its parts.

Last November, I traveled to Mérida, Mexico, in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula, with my friend and Blue Planet Writers’ Room co-founder Susan Hyatt; we went to observe and work with teachers and students at Habla: The Center for Language and Culture. This school, run by our brilliant and talented friends Kurt Wootton and Maria del Mar Patron-Vazquez, teaches languages (Spanish and English) through arts integration. Through connections, in other words, between seemingly dissimilar subjects. Students learn English, for example, by designing a new game with directions in their new language, or by playing drama games to illustrate scenes from (and deepen their understanding of) stories in English. (Susan and I use arts integration at Blue Planet to teach creative writing; it’s an approach that works in many subjects.)

While we were there, I got to work with groups of students who were involved in an international collaboration with our students in Florida. The students in both countries made folded- and cut-paper stars as gifts for each other. They also wrote letters expressing their wishes for each other, and inscribed some of those wishes on their stars. (They wished each other everything from “a family who loves you” to “a scholarship to college” to “lots of chocolate.” All of which are, in my opinion, splendid wishes.) Susan, who was observing the workshops as part of her doctoral dissertation research, also interviewed the students. With the help of Tommasso Iskra De Silvestri, the bilingual teacher, she questioned the children about their ideas of what creativity is.

The answer given by one eight year-old boy stood out. Without even thinking about it, he said:

“Creativity is when you take the best parts of two things and put them together to make a new, better thing.”

He used the example of a game he liked to play, a game called Tofu: it combines two different kinds of Tag, he said, and it’s more fun and more interesting than either of them. It’s a better game, he noted, because it takes the best parts of the other games and puts them together.

That answer raised the eyebrows of the three adults in the room, because that idea of creativity being a combinatorial process is a sophisticated concept. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe we know innately that learning about a lot of things and putting them together in new ways is key to growth and innovation–and even fun.

We Are Large. We Contain Multitudes. (And the Mona Lisa.)

This is a hint.

This is a hint.

Learn things. Create things. Indulge yourself. That way lies joy.

There are lots of recipes and formulas (formulae?) out there for finding joy; those four sentences sum up mine. And I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of you who feel the same way. We’re in good company, after all: finding joy through curiosity and the creative process reflects the shining spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, a particular hero of Glorious Curious. Painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, scientist, theatrical designer, writer–Leonardo studied and excelled in a plethora of seemingly unrelated areas. 

“He was a universal genius whose outline can only be surmised–never defined.”

So wrote the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. Or, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, our man was large; he contained multitudes. 

And his curiosity about all things great and small is legendary. Sigmund Freud, in Leonardo da Vinci, his psychosexual analysis of the original Renaissance Man, called curiosity “the one single impulse [that was] very forcibly developed” in the master. Freud cites Edmondo Solmi as noting that Leonardo indulged his curiosity at first by investigating things related to painting, things like light and color and pigment. This led him naturally to study the objects of painting–animals, plants, the human body. And then, just as we find ourselves doing when we spiral down the rabbit hole of the internet, leaping from one story to the next, one website to the next, until we’re so far away from our original destination that we don’t quite know how we got where we are, the study of objects led Leonardo further afield to the study of mechanics, of astronomy, of weaponry, and even of paleontology.

The interesting thing about this rather desultory approach to studying the universe, Freud contended, is that all of Leonardo’s seemingly unrelated investigations led him to adopt a new perspective on his art. His paintings became connected to the universe itself. He viewed them through the filters of all he had learned. He couldn’t possibly isolate them any longer, but neither could he possibly investigate all their nearly infinite connections. Freud claimed that this dilemma is probably what caused the master to leave so many works unfinished–though we have thousands of his sketches, drawings, and designs, we have only about 17 finished paintings by Leonardo. But oh, what paintings they are. Two of them (come on, you know which ones) are widely considered the most famous paintings in the world.

This is another hint.

This is another hint.

Michael J. Gelb, in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day , tells us that

“Leonardo’s childlike sense of wonder and insatiable curiosity, his breadth and depth of interest, and his willingness to question accepted knowledge never abated. Curiosità fueled the wellspring of his genius throughout his adult life.”

Gelb quotes the scholar Kenneth Clark, who said that the master was

“…undoubtedly the most curious man who ever lived….He wouldn’t take Yes for an answer.”

Leonardo’s approach to art and life rests firmly at the other end of the spectrum from that of an artist such as Edward Hopper, who famously said, “Maybe I am not very human–what I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Hopper narrowed his focus (to beautiful effect, we might add). Leonardo broadened his. Two different approaches to mastery, to making sense of things, to creating joy. (Understand, please, that I’m not trying to compare the talent or output of these two men–just their approaches, to their art and to the world.) Though I appreciate the intense focus on one subject that many artists engage in, I celebrate the way Leonardo cast his net wide and drew in all the things that fascinated him.

That’s why Leonardo stands as a Hero of Great Stature here at Glorious Curious. Walt Whitman is another hero around here, contradicting himself and being large and containing multitudes and all that. There are other heroes, too–I’ll write about them from time to time. I’ll also write about food, music, theatre, beauty, mindfulness, and a pile of other subjects that intrigue me. Take a look at the site’s Raison d’Etre page to read more.

I began publishing this blog today, March 20, for a reason: today is the UN’s International Day of Happiness. It seemed like an auspicious day to begin a blog dedicated to joyful things. I hope your own curiosity and your own quest for creative, brainy joy will keep you coming back to see what’s going on.