My Name is Jeff Morrow and I Am a Kindergarten Art Critic

Jeff MorrowMy name is Jeff Morrow and I am a kindergarten art critic.  Wow.  I’ve got to admit that it feels good to get that off my chest.  Quick disclaimer: It’s possible that the next few paragraphs could make it seem like I’m not a fan of kids’ artwork.  I know that I am already on thin ice, having admitted in an earlier blog post that I don’t like Disneyland.  I also know that this space isn’t exclusively a vehicle to unpack all of my own baggage.  This isn’t Festivus and there will be no airing of grievances.  However, as the father of a kindergarten student, I have occasion to evaluate 5-6 pieces of “art” every week; and, since I’m not the curator of a freaking museum, nor do I have unlimited space, hard choices must often be made and recycling must be executed.  Let me start by saying that all cut and paste projects are not created equal.  Don’t bring me di-cut sloppily pasted on white paper. I don’t even get out of bed for 2D black and white projects.  Pencil passed as coloring? Please.  I look for use of color, patterns, texture, and 3D.  I want to see creative uses of seeds, corn, pipe cleaners, and macaroni.  It needs to be thematic. And, for God’ sake, please have an idea of where a specific project fits in your overall artistic arc.  Is it consistent with your creative narrative?  I feel like these are questions that my five year old should be able to answer.  Am I overreaching?  Maybe.  But some days I want to give our elementary art teacher a pep talk.  Something along the lines of, “Come on baby.  You’re better than that! You’ve got budding artistic geniuses on your hands.  Don’t use JV projects when you’ve got a varsity team. Opportunity is knocking.  Don’t phone it in.  Seize it!”

Ok, you’ve indulged me enough and you deserve some kind of explanation as to how this is applicable to counseling or college admission.  My high school students and my kindergartner have much in common, including, but not limited to, an intense attachment to things that they have created.  They have trouble letting go of anything they have created, written, or even thought.  They attach themselves to schools of thought or ideologies and cling to them like grim death.  I mentioned that, in my house, hard choices have to be made and recycling of art work sometimes has to be done.  But it’s rarely simple.  We try and talk through which projects are worth keeping and which are simply examples of her experimenting with whatever.   The project cannot be recycled in the house, because it will be reclaimed by her and squirrelled away in her bedroom.  No, the chosen project must be taken to the outside recycling can and then buried several layers deep.  I’m not proud of the fact that I have been caught by the little scamp, up to my shoulders in the trash can, burying a Thanksgiving turkey project.  I sometimes lack the conviction or guts to face her.   We can’t make the same mistake with our students.

I have the same conversations with my own students.  One of our jobs is help shape the narrative of their applications.  In the process of their education, some projects will be home runs.  Others won’t.  We can provide the gift of discernment to our students.  It’s okay to think critically about ideas, words, and art. Critical thinking ensures that our students will always be learning, changing, growing.  It’s the subtle art of encouraging risk taking, while being honest about the results.   I want my students (as well as my daughter) to know that there is always value in trying, in giving your best effort.  But success is a process, and effort does not entitle success.  At the same time, you rarely have success without extraordinary effort.  I like the process of deciding which activities have been most impactful while filling out the Common App, because it encourages young people to reflect on the ways that they have grown.   I like the process of editing and refining essays.   I love to see a consistency of message through a student’s narrative.

I hope that your process of counseling is much less pragmatic than my kindergarten art dilemma.  Counsel with honesty, empathy, and compassion.  Strive to be a trusted voice of reason.  In counseling and parenting, I often miss the mark, but I understand how that voice of encouragement and, sometimes, constructive criticism is so important.  It’s an honor to participate.

So….if you need someone to tell your five year old that her art project is bird cage liner, I’m your Huckleberry.

By Jeff Morrow

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Comments

  1. Jeff,

    I find it interesting that WACAC used the sentence “One of our jobs is help shape the narrative of their applications” as the basis of promotion for your post as it is, I think, one of those things that sounds good but doesn’t necessarily mean something substantive (http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/03/11/universities_and_colleges_have_trademarked_phrases_such_as_student_life.html) when investigated. To be fair, I am guessing that most admission professionals who read that will have an understanding of what you are gesturing toward but I think it benefits us to take some time to think about what we mean when we employ the use of “narrative” in the college admission context.

    One thing to consider is the way in which narrative possibly presents an ingrained filter through which we understand applications and applicants; admission professionals talk about students having a story or an application presenting a picture and what we really mean by all of this is that we have adopted narrative as a process of sense making. But what does it mean that the concept of narrative is so central to our understanding of the process and of the world? Walt Fisher, drawing on the work of Kenneth Burke, suggested in Human Communication as Narration that life is understood by contemporary man as the way in which one’s story intersects and interacts with the stories of those who have lived, live, and will live. Although the theory of the narrative paradigm goes beyond the scope of what you mention, I think that one important piece to pull from Fisher’s work is the interplay between reality and narrative that is itself the result of rational thinking. Ultimately, what this means for us is that we need to carefully question how our own understanding of narrative constrains the world in particular ways. Our job as admission professionals is not merely to curate or cultivate but to continually question how the stories that we tell ourselves also impact our abilities to assess and evaluate. (For additional reading on homo narans, consider Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal or Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories.)

    Of course we should encourage students to think critically and to begin the process of learning how to make determinations regarding priorities (see also http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/03/why-its-imperative-to-teach-students-how-to-question-as-the-ultimate-survival-skill/ and http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/why-study-philosophy-to-challenge-your-own-point-of-view/283954/ for articles on the value of questioning established views) but I also think that we should then be subject to our own advice and endeavor to understand why we hold the particular values that we do, both as individuals and as a profession. What is it that we are doing, exactly, when we help to shape a student’s narrative? To what extent are we asking applicants to internalize an external set of criteria in order to present the best case? What do we do for students whose narratives don’t fit traditional models or modes? Is narrative the only approach that we can use to understand what occurs in the admission process? Is shaping a narrative akin to sculpture, where one must chip away in order to reveal the truth that lies beneath, or to metaphor as a process of drawing connections between seemingly disparate ideas? What does it mean to have consistency through a student’s narrative? Is there in fact a particular range of narratives that are acceptable or act as templates?

    I think that you can use your anecdote to think through the emotions and efforts of college applicants in a more interesting way. To what extent, for example, is there a drive to just get something—anything—up on the refrigerator door in order to experience validation and to occupy a place of honor? I don’t know that you can adequately address the issue of culling narrative in the application process without also acknowledging the pressures that lead students and families to throw everything against the wall in an attempt to see what sticks.

    Empathy is, of course, the goal throughout all of this but I believe that it begins with a more concerted effort to understand why students do what they do…and why we do as well.

    -Chris Tokuhama

  2. Jeff,

    And although this is a different target student population, I think there’s a way to loop in the conversation that’s going on here with the idea that you present. I think it’s good to struggle over how we do this and what the implications of it are as we strive to provide the best service for students.

    http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/confessions-community-college-dean/talk-them-out-of%E2%80%A6

    • As I think about this, it seems as though there are some additional ways in which we can approach the process that you describe here. First, coming out of the Game Developers Conference is a slide about social currency (https://twitter.com/alistdaily/status/446702630434123777/photo/1) that gestures toward some of the underlying values that drive the pruning process you write about. Although I would like to avoid discussion of gamification in education, I think we can use the slide to think about how how our own particular value systems shape how we shape students’ narratives.

      Coinciding with this is a recent article on W. Kamau Bell and the concept of being an ally (http://www.salon.com/2014/03/19/how_to_be_an_ally_what_piers_morgan_can_learn_from_w_kamau_bell/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socialflow). Although I think that most counselors would frame their work in terms of advocacy (and we can talk about the meaningful difference between those two terms), the thing that the article reminds us of is that we must constantly be aware of our own position relative to the group that we wish to help.

      From the article:
      “He really brought them together,” she said, “and instead of creating the conversation or initiating the conversation, he made the comparison so that maybe people in his community could understand where we’re coming from and breach that gap.”

      Across the board, none of the media high-profile offenders — not even Morgan — would consider themselves unsupportive of the transgender community. In fact, Morgan claims to support “the issue 100 percent.” He considers himself an ally.

      But, as Bell points out, Morgan’s mistake (aside from his tantrum) was that he took the stance “that ‘I understand everything.’”

      Goldstein echoed Bell’s sentiments, explaining that the biggest problem with a lot of people who are saying, “‘Don’t attack me, I’m an ally,’ is that they’re not allowing the trans* community to give their own dialogue, to tell their own stories, to say what they’ve found to be discriminatory.”

      “It seems like a lot of these ‘allies,’ rather than listen to the trans* communities … they’ve tried to steer the conversation and that’s not what an ally does,” Goldstein said. “An ally amplifies that conversation.”

      So while I definitely agree that counselors should bring their perspective to bear in the curatorial process, I also think that we must stridently endeavor to remember what it is like to be in the space of high school student. To that end, I am reminded of a song by The Naked and Famous that I loved as it seemed to really gesture toward the essence of what it was like to experience life at that age (and not merely my nostalgic recollection of what my own experiences were).

      Among other things, the song reminds of the way how certainty (manifested in things like the ideology that students can cling to) is so valuable in a world that is still forming, shifting, and changing. For me, understanding the import of the feeling of what is known and what is true (and its overlap with identity) causes me to slightly rethink why students do some of the things that they do and therefore how I interact with them in this process.

      -CT

  3. Jeff,

    I find it interesting that WACAC used the sentence “One of our jobs is help shape the narrative of their applications” as the basis of promotion for your post as it is, I think, one of those things that sounds good but doesn’t necessarily mean something substantive (http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/03/11/universities_and_colleges_have_trademarked_phrases_such_as_student_life.html) when investigated. To be fair, I am guessing that most admission professionals who read that will have an understanding of what you are gesturing toward but I think it benefits us to take some time to think about what we mean when we employ the use of “narrative” in the college admission context.

    One thing to consider is the way in which narrative possibly presents an ingrained filter through which we understand applications and applicants; admission professionals talk about students having a story or an application presenting a picture and what we really mean by all of this is that we have adopted narrative as a process of sense making. But what does it mean that the concept of narrative is so central to our understanding of the process and of the world? Walt Fisher, drawing on the work of Kenneth Burke, suggested in Human Communication as Narration that life is understood by contemporary man as the way in which one’s story intersects and interacts with the stories of those who have lived, live, and will live. Although the theory of the narrative paradigm goes beyond the scope of what you mention, I think that one important piece to pull from Fisher’s work is the interplay between reality and narrative that is itself the result of rational thinking. Ultimately, what this means for us is that we need to carefully question how our own understanding of narrative constrains the world in particular ways. Our job as admission professionals is not merely to curate or cultivate but to continually question how the stories that we tell ourselves also impact our abilities to assess and evaluate. (For additional reading on homo narans, consider Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal or Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories.)

    Of course we should encourage students to think critically and to begin the process of learning how to make determinations regarding priorities (see also http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/03/why-its-imperative-to-teach-students-how-to-question-as-the-ultimate-survival-skill/ and http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/why-study-philosophy-to-challenge-your-own-point-of-view/283954/ for articles on the value of questioning established views) but I also think that we should then be subject to our own advice and endeavor to understand why we hold the particular values that we do, both as individuals and as a profession. What is it that we are doing, exactly, when we help to shape a student’s narrative? To what extent are we asking applicants to internalize an external set of criteria in order to present the best case? What do we do for students whose narratives don’t fit traditional models or modes? Is narrative the only approach that we can use to understand what occurs in the admission process? Is shaping a narrative akin to sculpture, where one must chip away in order to reveal the truth that lies beneath, or to metaphor as a process of drawing connections between seemingly disparate ideas? What does it mean to have consistency through a student’s narrative? Is there in fact a particular range of narratives that are acceptable or act as templates?

    I think that you can use your anecdote to think through the emotions and efforts of college applicants in a more interesting way. To what extent, for example, is there a drive to just get something—anything—up on the refrigerator door in order to experience validation and to occupy a place of honor? I don’t know that you can adequately address the issue of culling narrative in the application process without also acknowledging the pressures that lead students and families to throw everything against the wall in an attempt to see what sticks.

    Empathy is, of course, the goal throughout all of this but I believe that it begins with a more concerted effort to understand why students do what they do…and why we do as well.

    -Chris Tokuhama

  4. Hey Chris,
    Thanks for the feedback.
    Jeff

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