Monday, April 4, 2011

Taking Stock

So, maybe I'm a little strung out... I've had a LOT going on, book edits, students needs, health issues, dealing with doctors, bills... no insurance... *sigh* whatever! That's not really the point, except I feel all weepy writing my letter to an award committee at the community college where I teach.

I'd like to share it with you. Because whether or not I get this award (LOTS of other talented folks have been nominated) I know deep inside that.... hm... well that this stuff is good stuff... the teaching, the connecting, the sharing and imparting knowledge, the laughter and comraderie in the studio. It's all been worth any hassles or politics or not enough pay.

Marilyn Goodman Anderson
Endowed Award for Excellence in Teaching
April 8th 2011

Dear Award Committee,

I want some specific transformations to occur in all my students. Some of those will occur, some of them might occur, and then some of them I hope for, but will never see because they will occur many years from now.

I intend for my students to get the fundamentals of the subject matter, of course that’s a given. I want them to walk away with a basic understanding of say, how to solder, or what controlled deformation of metal can occur through folding and annealing, or the concept of intaglio etching on copper. I want to be able to measure improvement from the time they enter my classroom, to the time they leave it. That’s the bottom line. But that’s just nuts and bolts - teach subject, impart knowledge, test, grade, end of subject. That’s nice, and well, a tad boring. Teaching dry like that doesn’t cause a whole lot of transformation. But metalsmithing has at its roots ancient magic, alchemy! So as a metalsmith I have to wonder what is a college experience without a little alchemy? Why am I doing this if not for the love of my subject, and the giddy pleasure of sharing it? There are other jobs for pete’s sake. Why should I do this then, this teaching?

I deal with flames and crucibles. I forge and mold. I refine with the fire and shape with files and grinding wheels, removing material, smoothing hard substances and shining them up to a glow. I do this to my students. Sometimes they are aware of it, most of the time they are not. They do the assignments, but often don’t see the subtle texture that my class might leave on them. I feel the metaphors we borrow from metals are no accident. Therefore, I illustrate this with every demonstration of a tool or a technique. Artists wrestle through process. Life is process. We all must continually process information, decisions, directions, paths and outcomes. I strive every day to make my classroom the crucible where I illustrate conceptual thought about physical process. I want my classroom to be a place in which my students not only come to understand physical processes and their outcomes but how those processes, those lessons, those assignments are a microcosm of their lives. I try to open their minds to thought as they work. I vigilantly illustrate metal to hand to mind to world. I instill that what we do we become. What we think we become. Metalsmithing is an exacting craft that requires so many qualities that are missing in our young today, or are not emphasized in our fast paced world: discipline, diligence, patience, presence, mindfulness of the current moment. In these things I hope to make an impact on my students.

Science has shown that working with the hands can unlock primordial learning centers in the brain. It can fire synapses that need a jolt, synapses that have been numbed by our gadget using video game playing young. Many of the students I have enrolled in my classes have never used a tool of any kind! The real magic comes when they master the tools and techniques and they are proud of what they make. I am so fulfilled when they tell me how much they love using their hands to produce things of value. Humans have a deep need to produce, to create. I know my class empowers my students to see the impact they make on the metal. And it changes their perspective of themselves when they are proud of their work and then see the ripple affect of their work on the people around them. And when others admire their work it infuses them with even greater inner value! What a joy to make a difference in a student’s life, to help them see themselves as valuable, and to help them glimpse what they are capable of!

Again, I deal with flame and I want to ignite my students. I want to see them burn with passion about whatever subject they choose. Metaphorically, I pile wood up everyday just anticipating the moment when I get to light the match. That match might be handing them just the right book, or showing them a new tool. Sure, I could just show techniques. But please know the rapture I feel when I can get across the interconnectedness of that one technique, to the history of mankind, man’s relationship to his hands, to tools, and to the metal, and what it means to us now, in this place, on this day, in this time. I see the world as a fabulous place to learn with amazing revelations around every corner, with so many disciplines intertwined in our human history. I want them to see that too. I take utter and delicious glee when the moment comes that I might perform just the right demonstration and pair it with just the right verbal lesson about history, chemistry or best of all philosophy, or traits like patience, or diligence and their payoffs. I love the “Ah ha’s!” spreading about the room. I feel then like the magician who tears away the cloak and reveals that the sawn lady is in fact all safely in one piece. Life is too short for learning to be boring. Learning should have drama! Learning should be full of thrills, chills, laughter and emotion. I like them terrified of melting their hard won work, and then ecstatic when they succeed without melting it. I tell them my classes can be like roller coasters. If they aren’t feeling these things then they don’t care. If they don’t care, how will they ever care to remember anything I tell them? People need to invest themselves in the process. I require it. I require intention. I tell them this everyday.

I know I have succeeded and my students are consumed, burning with questions, thought, contemplation. I know I have won them when they tell me that they couldn’t sleep for solving some logistical metals problem, or when they come into the lab three hours early just to execute an idea they had while driving home last night, or when they email me bursting with excitement about figuring out a project’s conclusion. These are the times I know they are thinking critically about the subject, and that they are making the connections. The synapses are awakened! These are the transformations I get to see. The ones that I may never see are the ones that I hope will occur possibly long after I am gone, when they teach someone else what they learned from me, or when they reflect on a concept we discussed many years ago.

Like an ancient alchemist, I am on a burning quest to take my raw material and through transmutation in the furnace of my subject matter, create gold. My students are the lead that I hope to change. But long ago in the pursuit of ancient alchemy and its allegory and metaphor, it was believed the alchemist himself was improved. And thus I am myself changed. I learn and am forever making adjustments in my own processes. I become addicted to this give and take, the process occurring within the process of teaching them. The more passionate they become, the later after class I linger to see how their project turned out. Passion is infectious.

I confidently know, without a doubt that I have changed some of my student’s lives in a positive way. I had a student tell me the other day, “Ms. Manley you may not know this, but I really don’t have very good self esteem. And I am so utterly proud of this (holding up a piece she made in my class). I have never been so proud of myself. I just keep looking at and thinking about the whole process of making it and it’s kind of amazing. Thank you.”

Yep, if I could I’d teach for free.

7 comments:

Melissa Meman said...

great letter! Wishing you loads of luck with the award!

Mary Ellen Golden said...

What a concept! I did not read the letter until Mary told me about it...you continue to amaze me. I cannot imagine a teacher more excellent!

khairul said...

nice post.. success for you

Melissa Manley said...

Thank you thank you! I hope to win if only to solidify the metals at CFCC. There are issues finding a room for us in the plan for the new building that they will break ground on this winter. There are rumors I (metals classes) will be left in the basement of the oldest building on campus...ugh. That's where I am now dirty, no ventilation, forgotten, left behind. If I win they can't ignore me!

Melissa Manley said...

You are too kind Mary Ellen...and it really is all because of you! You talked me into demo'ing for you watercolor class so long ago!!! THANK YOU!

sarawestermark said...

You deserve it! You continue to inspire and amaze me!

heartartz said...

Melissa,
I hope you get the award.
I took 2 classes from you at Artfest last year.
You are the BEST and most inspiring metals and jewelry teacher I have ever had. You have respect for yourself, your students and our health ... you emphasized safety! That kind of info is something I notice lacking in most workshop/retreat instructors. Thank you!
I wish I lived closer, and not completely across the US on the West coast, so that I could take your college classes.
Best wishes and I hope to take another workshop class from you soon.
Love, Gail