Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Then There Are Days When The News Stops You In Your Place and Reflection is a Necessity

The video (posted below) was shot during a graduate project in a course called Describing the Imagination, taught (2005) by Michael Armstrong at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. Michael was the gentlest soul I've ever learned from and his approach to teaching is one I have tried to replicate ever since (and its been somewhat of a challenge for this edgy, manic man). Before our class arrived to the beautiful Bread Loaf campus in Middlebury, each of us was assigned to bring a sample of student work. Aligned with course readings, we 'described the imagination' we witnessed from the work of students as part of the course.

At the time, I was collecting data for the State of Kentucky to be used on analytical writing, a new emphasis for the portfolio writing process. As a Humana Scholar, I utilized my course time to think about how teacher-leaders could advanced goals in the Commonwealth while adhering to the national recognized accountability for student writing. I brought a video that was created by a graduating senior named Cody as my student model. He created a DVD yearbook as his culminating project. In Michael's class I couldn't show all the movies that Cody compiled on the DVD, but I remember bringing it to Vermont in total awe of what he accomplished when left to his own device. At the time, too, I was dabbling in the first generation of IMovie, and inspired by my student, I chose to do a project that "described the imagination" of Michael Armstrong's class.

Michael asked us to offer context for our work, and then we were asked to remain silent as the group described what they saw in the student work (the approach resonated immensely with the Coalition of Essential Schools and my training as a Critical Friends Coach). I adored every second of Michael Armstrong's classroom and continue to draw on his inspiration during my most stressful times.

Learning yesterday that Michael Armstrong  is no longer with us created a firestorm in my heart. He truly was a good man. He was a phenomenal educator. The news came while I was at a meeting and I knew when I got home I would immediately ocate the video project I submitted during his course. I had to dig out my old camcorder and mini-dv's, find my old, old Apple MacBook that is the only machine that has the right outlets (inlets) for that particular camcorder, then cross my fingers in prayer that I could find the actual mini-dv that the actual footage was on. I went through several bags and when I was about to give up, I found the one I was looking for. Then, it took a lot of finagling to get the old computer to run again (its battery died long, long ago and it is s l o w).

But I persevered. Why? A testimony to Michael Armstrong. It's not news that 2016 for me has been a compilation of tragic deaths, suicides, illnesses, and grant rejections. Turmoil on campus, too, caused by embarrassing off-campus parties has created rifts with community relations, too. I've been on edge because of much, and I've been needing something to recenter reposition my anger towards something positive.
For every minute spent angry, you lose 60 seconds of happiness.
Thinking about Michael Armstrong has always helped me to recenter. His influence and inspiration were remarkable; the community he built amongst professionals was truly outstanding. I felt tremendous pride when Brendan McGrath and I put our video together, and a greater pride when we presented Michael Armstrong with a hand-carved walking stick to thank him for his influence on our teaching. He had Parkinson's, and movement for him was sometimes difficult.

At the time I was in Michael Armstrong's embrace I was also able to reconnect with my mentor, poet Ruth Stone, who lived near Rochester, Vermont - where I had a house for the summer. Talking with Ruth by night and Michael by day reminded me of the importance of language and workshopping ideas with colleagues. In short, my summer in Vermont helped me to unleash a philosophy to always act in the best interest of student creativity and to fight the institutional forces that push imagination out of school.

Eleven years later and I took an evening off from the chaos of the world to hunt for the video and to find a way to make it available in memoriam. It is funny to think that the Internet was in its infant phase and students did their technical work on a single computer in my room. It was clunky, but it is what we had. We pushed forward, however, using our imagination.

Because of Michael Armstrong, several friendships were fostered and I have loved staying connected with Bread Loaf faculty and alumni to hear updates about how he was doing. The video highlights the creative ways we used art, performance, and reflection to establish knowledge amongst one another. It, as a piece of student work itself, needs no other context than this post.

The rest can be described by those who view it - a testimony to the brilliance of a miraculous man.

1 comment: