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Re: Literacy and book arts

           See The Exhibition Online, And Order Your Catalog.

Dear Friends

I am writing in response to Katie Harperís post about literacy in the book arts.
First of all, I echo the endorsement of Paul Johnsonís books and Book Central is
a great place to buy them. I believe in supporting small businesses who are
doing what they do because they care about their product.

 Second, the article that Roberta directed us to-
- is important to read for anyone interested in arts education. The authors
distinguish between core justifications for teaching art- the intrinsic value of
art and art education and bonus justification which means that they can be
justified because they help boost test scores or help in reading and math.
Basically they say there is no proof for bonus justifications, we should stop
worrying about them, and concentrate on convincing people of the core
justification for art.

 Having said that, I confess that I have been teaching bookmaking in schools for
the past 11 years- averaging between 35- 50 days a year at schools- mostly
elementary-  all over eastern MA-, and rarely mention the word art. I have
presented bookmaking as a tool for teaching and have been very successful doing
so. I also do teacher training. I like working with teachers because I feel I
ultimately reach more kids, but the work with kids is invaluable as well as fun.
The teachers know I speak from direct experience and trust me. I thought Iíd
share some of my experience and insights.

 You can approach getting involved in education from the top down or the bottom
up. Without a particular plan that way, I have found myself working from the
bottom up- concentrating on the students and teachers. I do believe that the key
players are not the grant makers or the administrators but the teachers. In
order for your work to be successful at the time and have the possibility of
growing after you leave, the teachers must be involved and interested. They are
the ones that must be sold on its value and significance.

 The reality of a teacherís life today is that s/he is overworked and
overwhelmed. The amount of material teachers are expected to cover today is huge
and the pressure for performance in standardized tests is enormous. If you come
to teachers with an interesting and exciting project that has nothing to do with
the curriculum, they will be hard pressed to be enthusiastic even if they think
itís a wonderful idea. With the volume of material they need to cover, they just
canít afford the time. Linking a book project to what they are already studying
can make all the difference.

 Iíve found that I enjoy the exercise of relating book forms to content- an
origami star book for constellations, a triangle shaped accordion to help learn
the definitions of the different triangles, a mummy shaped accordion and a 3-D
pyramid for ancient Egypt, etc. I donít do extended residencies but rather come
into a school for one or two days and work with kids on blank books. Teachers
request the topic they would like to use the book for and I try to come up with
a book form that will work for the topic and the grade level. I show examples of
how to use the book and they then do the content with their teachers.

 This is a complete reversal of my original approach. When I started I thought
the kids should make books the way I did with the last step being the binding. I
now find it works best to make blank books with them. From the logistical point
of view, it makes life much easier. Kids work at different paces and itís hard
to everyone ready to bind at the same time. If you ask teachers to prepare text
or pages ahead you often don't get what you expect. Example- you ask for 4 pages
with two sentences each. Some kid writes a minor epic and then you try to figure
out how to fit it in or edit it drastically in the half hour youíve allotted for
that part of the project. But I have also found it works better for kids as an
educational tool. When they finish their books, they are excited and proud and
those blank white pages are just crying out to be written and drawn on. If you
then take this enthusiasm and say, you are going to use this to research and
write about the Revolutionary War, they approach the task with a much different
attitude than if you had just said go find 10 facts about the Revolution and
write a report. And this enthusiasm is not just confined to the younger grades.
Kids don't get enough opportunity to use their hands and exercise other parts of
their brain. Teachers constantly tell me what a difference making books makes-
the kids do better research and better writing. They care what the final piece
looks like and try harder to write well and be neat. On the less tangible side,
they learn that learning can be fun and it boosts their self- esteem.

 I think flexibility is one of the keys to working in the schools whether itís
adjusting to a room thatís too small or too noisy or the various educational
trends. And if you think itís frustrating to us on the outside, think how hard
it is for teachers. When I first started trying to make contacts to teach
bookmaking in schools, I often encountered the response, ďWe already make
books.Ē I explained that I wasnít talking about plastic spiral bindings and had
something different to offer but got nowhere. Because I was interested in Asian
books, I was doing a lot of research and decided that I could make the different
forms from different cultures my focus. This was at the time when
multiculturalism was a hot topic in education. Now schools wanted to hire me, I
gave presentations at conferences, and even got a book contract from Scholastic.
I continued to add new workshop topics and about 5 or 6 years ago a particularly
popular one was Portfolios and Journals. There was a big push for portfolios as
a way to assess studentís learning and a lot of time spent encouraging students
to write in journals. The workshops were a lot of fun and well- received
until...the MCAS, our state standardized assessment tests given in 4th, 8th, and
10th grades with 10th graders having to pass to graduate. Portfolios went out
the window and I havenít taught that workshop since. The frameworks brought
Ancient Civilizations to the 4th grade test and schools were teaching it in 3rd
and 4th grade with limited materials and my latest most popular teacher workshop
has been Books for Ancient Civilizations.

 And for some specific advice: Get to know teachers. I would suggest trying to
find a particular school to partner with, meet with them, and find out how what
you want to teach from the book arts point of view can mesh with what they need
to teach. Find out what grade does local history and create a project that
incorporates research, interviews in elderly housing, drawing or photographing
landmarks, etc. Focus on the natural environment and create books about natural
features in your town. If your state has frameworks or standards- specified
curriculum and expectations for each grade, I highly recommend making yourself
familiar with them. Teachers will be grateful if you try to understand their
needs as educators and professionals and work with them to reach children. Kids
are hungry for the possibilities that bookmaking presents and it is a privilege
to be able to bring them an art experience and make learning fun at the same
time. Best of luck to all.

in good spirit

Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord
Newburyport, MA


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