Georgia O’Keeffe, slow learner

Happy 125th Birthday, Georgia O’Keeffe. Here’s my humble homage to you.

Not convinced that Georgia O’Keeffe was a slow learner?

Consider how she honored the deliberate and intentional slowness in her work. In her own words:

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Consider her reflections on her own  learning.

“I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me – so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught. ”

and her advice to other slow learners.

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.”

Troubadour Hope Chest

Troubadour Hope Chest

It provokes. It challenges. It lures. It’s beautiful. It contains and protects hopes and dreams. It takes up space. It’s practical. Every home needs a Troubadour Hope Chest

A couple of weeks ago I met with friend and fellow slow learner, Tricia Postle.

Together Tricia and I formed a group we call COTH or Creativity-On-The-Hook. Once a month, we meet for tea, state our intentions, and report to each other on our progress. See earlier entry.

During our first meeting, Tricia shared the details of her intentions: her to do lists, her  goals, her best intentions. I didn’t want to say anything at the time, but most of the items on her list felt dull and ordinary, full of duty and obligation and all those good things necessary to support and nurture Tricia’s brilliant creative projects.

But then Tricia started talking about how  she wanted to someday travel as a troubadour musician. She spoke about rhythms, the songs, the traveling, the Persian rugs, the tour mobile, the demands of composing in the form, the possibility of a postmodern gypsy caravan. When she spoke about her future life as a troubadour, her physical presence transformed. She sat straight up. Her eyes brightened, and her voice lightened. Her visions of self as troubadour literally pulled her forward. There was a passionate woman in love with her future, speaking of longing and desire, sitting at the edge of her seat.

That’s when the idea came: why not invite some of this passion and desire into the everyday?  Why not bring something physical and real into our homes as a reminder of what is possible?  Why not use this container as a repository for carefully selected objects that bring us closer to a future we want to live into?

After some searching, Tricia now has her Troubadour Hope Chest.

In an email, Tricia says:

I like that it’s empty, I like that it’s there. I rearranged the studio so that it’s visible from all points. It seems to glow and make the rest of the furniture recede. In short, every household should have one.

Questions for reflection:  What’s calling me forward? What kind of future might I create from my own longings? What kind of hope chest might I find?

learning as water

Does learning flow?

Does learning follow a cycle? What contributes to our learning? How does our thinking get dammed up?  What is the source? How might we distill our learning? What bubbles up? What sinks in? How is learning like the the water cycle? How does learning transform us? How do we transform the way we learn? How is learning deep? How is learning shallow? (Is one good and the other bad?) What happens when we get our feet wet?  What’s the risk of diving in? Do you want to swim in the deep end? Are there floods and droughts of learning?  (Is one better for us that the other?)

Does learning come in tides, in waves? What kinds of monsters lurk in the depths of learning? How are communities of learning like tributaries of a river system? Do we sink or swim?

“Is he a dot or is he a speck?  When he’s underwater does he get wet?  Or does the water get him instead?”
from They Might Be Giants’ “Particle Man” Flood

a slow learner’s bill of rights (draft 1.0)

You have the right*

To learn

  1. To learn about how you learn
  2. To learn as slow and as fast as you choose
  3. To rearrange your room (house, garage, life) to make room for your learning
  4. To claim space, time, and money for your own learning
  5. To learn from people who fascinate you
  6. To learn beyond school
  7. To be challenged
  8. To learn from people who fascinate you
  9. To ask for and to receive help
  10. To learn in quiet and without interruption with serious intent
  11. To learn in noise and mess with playful possibility
  12. To make a mess and not have to clean up right away
  13. To learn what is valuable and to value your learning
  14. To choose your own team of teachers, coaches, mentors, advisors
  15. To work with people who find you and your visions fascinating
  16. To work with people who are fascinated by your brilliant visions and will hold you accountable to do what you said you would do
  17. To be witnessed
  18. To focus
  19. To make a difference
  20. To make media
  21. To invent media
  22. To study with your heroes
  23. To experiment
  24. To experience
  25. To test your limits
  26. To contribute
  27. To change the world
  28. To create your own curriculum and to stick with it
  29. To change your mind when it doesn’t work and start again
  30. To study in community both near and distant, familiar and exotic
  31. To savor the erotic nature of learning
  32. To learn from mistakes
  33. To join the community of practice of your choice
  34. To join the professional network of your choice as a contributor
  35. To make learning a priority in your life
  36. To pay your dues
  37. To incubate and hibernate
  38. To be in action and produce measurable concrete results
  39. To learn how to discern between the time for #38 and #39
  40. To work with people who have some distance and perspective and can help you with #40
  41. To dabble
  42. To dive in deep
  43. To cross disciplines
  44. To learn what no one can teach
  45. To learn so that you might teach others to learn
  46. To learn new ways of learning that work for you
  47. To practice

* I know this list is incomplete and much is redundant. Comment, and help make it more better.

Free information for slow learners: a few favorite sources

Open Culture Directory to everything on the web you want to learn. Just about everything. Links to tons of free media.

InFed Encyclopedia of learning in and (mostly) outside of classrooms.

Khanacadamy Didn’t quite understand 2nd Order Linear Homogeneous Differential Equations in math class? Still have a hard time understanding the relationship between bond prices and interest rates?  Let this hottie break it down for you. Simple lectures on thousands of complex topics.

Ubuweb A personal favorite. Seemingly infinite archive of online avant-garde media. I could spend the rest of my life looking at the weirdo artsy fartsy stuff posted here. Not only a huge resource of digital media, but here’s a place where you can upload your own works of genius.

Nina Paley If you ever feel a bit guilty about using and copying free media, check out Nina Paley’s brilliant work. And then buy one of her cool tshirts for my birthday. (I stole copied her her comic above.)

Slow learning about slow learning

A few years ago I set out to start this project I call Slow Learning. I hoped to create my own structure for do-it-yourself learning that might revolutionize adult education as we know it. I knew I couldn’t change the whole world at once, so I decided to start with myself.

I created a learning plan that included specific goals in the areas of writing, dance, visual art, publishing, and adult education. I intended to learn more by learning on my own than by enrolling in a more traditional program (like an MFA in creative writing, or doctorate in education).

In the meantime, I’ve learned a few lessons.

People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.

As a Slow Learner, I’m powerfully lucky! Without networks and mentors and other learners I get stuck in a vortex of procrastination and other forms of self defeat.  Google and Wikipedia and Youtube aren’t people. The Internet is a great tool, one that has connected me to the most incredible teachers, AND I need other people to work with and to share ideas with face-to-face in real time.

Sometimes a witness, even one who says nothing, can be my most powerful ally. I write better when I think someone is reading. I run faster when someone’s running behind me. I paint more interesting work when I have a show coming up.

Tough love is good love. I need cheerleaders, friends who tell me my work is brilliant, even when what I do sucks. But more than cheerleaders, I need people to call me on my shit. I need people who give me hell for not doing what I said I would do. I need people who will tell me when I’m being small-minded and short-sighted. I need people who tell me I’m being too hard on myself and to ease up sometimes.

Learning goals can (and should) shift and change over time. Five years ago I said I wanted to “learn about new media.” I don’t even know what new media is! Now I have a goal to learn Gimp so that I can make my illustrations ready for self-publishing.

Spending money on learning is money well-spent.

Bartering for instruction seems to be effective for specific tasks. For example, I often offer artwork in exchange for editing. But for mentoring and teaching, I found that interest in bartered arrangements fizzles out quickly.

When I pay my mentors, teachers, (both friends, and strangers) with cold hard cash, magic happens. I consistently follow through on what I say I’m going to do. My mentors and teachers take me more seriously, too. When I invest money in my own goals, I find I keep those goals.

Because I paid my teachers and mentors directly, I spent much less than if I had paid for direct instruction through nearly any institution. I intend that my mentors and teachers earn more, per hour, working with me directly than if they were hired as adjunct by another institution.

Slow Learning is an idea whose time has come.

I may not have yet single-handedly revolutionized adult education as we know it, but the times, they are a changing. I’m happy to see efforts like DIY U, DIY MFA, Peer 2 Peer University, and get a little well-deserved media attention.

Often missing from do-it-yourself learning efforts is the personalized touch that comes from a small group of committed teachers and fellow learners. I’m looking forward to learning how we might develop caring, communities of learning complete with teachers and mentors and apprenticeships.

How I Came to be Slow

I love learning, but I grew up hating school. So, naturally,  I became a school teacher.  I believed I could change the world by changing education, one class, one lesson, one child at a time.  For over twenty years I taught  in urban public schools. I taught nearly every academic subject, from science to social studies, literature to math.  I taught  every level, preschool through grade 12.  Like any teacher, I made significant impact in the lives of the students under my guidance. My career in schools has been rich and varied.  The only dull moments were rare minutes of rest afforded by regular and relentless administration of state mandated standardized tests.

During my twenty-odd years of classroom experience, I continued to love learning, but  I also endured bureaucratic hurdles of nightmarish proportions.

As educators, we were mandated to teach our children to be quick, clean, and ever more like everyone else. This was all fine and good, but it seemed that much of the real learning that took place in my classroom was subversive.  Passionate inquiry, natural to young human beings, is unpredictable and messy.  Learning meanders. Learning isn’t often easily measured. Learning takes place outside of classroom curriculum. Learning is often slow.

I loved teaching, but I love learning more. I wanted to contribute in the areas of arts and writing. Now what?

I left my modest, but comfortably compensated, tenured position to develop my own personal learning plan.  I examined curricula from what I believed to be the best schools in my chosen field (multidisciplinary fine arts) and I found that the most progressive programs tended to be

·       interdisciplinary

·       based on personalized learning plans initiated by the learner

·       situated in “real world” settings

·       guided by mentors who are practitioners in their fields

All this individualized interdisciplinary, learner-based programming sounded great. I was all ready to sign up, until I realized that

·       these programs are expensive.

·       many programs require the students to locate and recruit the engagement of experts who serve as their mentors and instructors.

·       these mentor/experts earn only a small portion of what I would be paying the institution.

·       in the age of the Internet, information is plentiful, accessible, and cheap. Universities no longer are the sole gate-keepers of knowledge.

·       the academic degree, in and of itself, might have little impact on future career options.

The rebel in me wondered: If the student is doing all the initiation and coordination of their own learning, why go back to school? Do I really need those letters behind my name? Couldn’t I hire my own adjunct faculty and advisors? Isn’t it possible to create my own community of practice dedicated to learning?

My experience in teaching in public schools taught me that no one learns completely on their own, least of all extroverted creative types like myself.  Not only would I have to create my own curriculum, I would have to create my own community of learners who would offer me support, critique, and guidance. I would work with my own self-selected mentor/practitioners. I might even have to create my own alternative to those coveted letters behind my name.

I would develop a model for learning that I could put to work for myself, and then offer what I’ve learned about learning to others.

This learning might be slow. It might even take a lifetime.

NEXT: A brief review of my adventures in Slow Learning over the last five years.