Archive for March 2012

Creativity & Education

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original …  By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity.  They have become frightened of being wrong …  We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst things you can make.  And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.  Picasso once said this, he said ‘All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.’  I believe this passionately that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.  Or, we get educated out of it.”

- Sir Ken Robinson, TED 2006.

In this 2006 TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson discusses the role of creativity in our education systems, arguing that a strict focus on traditional academics limits the full capacity of many individuals.  Through federal initiatives, standardized testing, and current approaches to education, we encourage people to fear being “wrong.”  Sir Robinson’s statement resonate so strongly.  There’s almost nothing worse than being incorrect.  It means that you’re stupid, slow, behind.  So students focus on being “right,” until they succeed to some degree or just give-up.   The average 4-year HS graduation rate in the US is 71%; in Philly, it’s 66%.  So about 35% give-up, and granted, this could be for many reasons.  However, how many of those drop-outs never found a place to explore their creativity, their genius in painting, art, dance, industrial design, construction, comic-book writing, or video-game development?

By contrast, I don’t think that the answer is to let children always be “right” either.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone is wrong.  Everyone loses  - gets dumped, fired, rejected.  This is life.  Perhaps education can make it safe to be “wrong,” an opportunity for learning and growth vs. a knock on a self-worth.

Can we make education more engaging, more inclusive of a diversity of intelligence?  Would this make life easier for our teachers?

Some of my dearest friends and family members serve our city’s children, working as reading specialists, elementary school teachers, high school teachers, and school counselors in Philly’s public, charter, and private schools.  These are not easy jobs. 30 kids in a class. Reading levels that start to lag in kindergarten. Students experiencing loss, trauma, and family crises.  Sometimes, it’s hard to stay hopeful.  Yet, even in the midst of this, they do, stay hopeful that is … and committed to progress.  So, this is certainly no criticism of dedicated teachers.  Positions in Philly’s toughest schools require incredible dedication and sacrifice; patience and perseverance.  Many, many educators work through seemingly impossible challenges to encourage creativity and learning.

I emailed a few educators Sir Robinson’s quote and asked for their reactions.   Here’s what they say:

In a classroom that encourages risk-taking — encourages creativity — you should expect to find students who can confidently defend their work and a learning environment where constructive criticism is welcomed. By contrast, in a classroom that discourages creativity, students simply look to the teacher for the “right” answer. It is a teacher’s responsibility to present students with the opportunity (opportunities, and many of them) to take risks. I think it is this lack of opportunity — not risk-aversion or unoriginality on behalf of the student — that plagues most classrooms … Martin Haberman said, “when students are asked to apply an idea to the problems of life, there is a good chance teaching is going on.” More importantly, though, learning is going on. All educators should ask the question, “does education imitate life, or does life imitate education,” and honestly answer the question for themselves.

Although I agree with his basic sentiment of If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original, I have not seen a fear of being wrong with my kids. Many of them try and fail and try again.

However, I have seen my kids get frustrated, overwhelmed and give up when they don’t know something on a test, saying things like “this is too hard”. I’ve also seem them participate more and behave better when the material is very easy because they are confident. Perhaps the thing to build in a classroom, in addition to creativity, is confidence.

Other than the once a year standardized testing, I  disagree when he says “We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst things you can make.” I have seen many teachers encourage students when they make mistakes. What’s frustrating, as a teacher, is when a student doesn’t even try at all. I imagine a fear of not doing it right is part of it but I’m not sure it’s the main factor.

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Spreading the Compost: A Volunteer Work Day at Farm 51

On a warmish Saturday at the end of February, we joined the friendly people at Farm 51 for volunteer work day.  Self-described as a “homey blend of animals, people, and plants,” Farm 51 operates with a mission to provide affordable produce to people in the neighborhood.   Planted and managed by local residents Andrew Olson and Neal Santos, Farm 51 not only cultivates vegetables, but positive relationships & community, as well.  During the summer months, they provide produce on Thursday afternoons at their weekly farm stand.   If you’re in SW Philly, stop by, say hi, and grab some fresh vegetables!

And the work day?  This city girl put on her work boots and got to work distributing a giant mound of compost to the raised beds around the farm.  In the process, I met new friends and neighbors, got a tour of the new Farm 51 residence, and relaxed around the fire with some pizza.   All in all, not a bad way to spend a few hours on a Saturday afternoon!

Check Farm 51 for more information.


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Philly Farms

Urban agriculture is not necessarily a new idea, but the concept has gained momentum over the past 5-10 years.   With rising food costs, prolific urban food deserts, and other food-related problems, enterprising individuals have invested creative effort to produce food in close-in urban areas.  From rooftop gardens to small scale urban farms to “guerrilla gardening,”  Philly has it’s fair share of urban gardens and food producers.  In this blog post, I try to cover a few of the great organizations working to bring healthy foods to our city.

Greensgrow Farms:  “Growers of Food Flowers and Neighborhoods”
One of Philadelphia’s best-known urban farms and winner of “Best of Philly:  City Nursery 2011″, Greensgrow offers CSAs, a nursery, a farmers market, and any number of interesting urban agriculture and food projects.  Started in 1998, Greensgrow has become a national leader and go-to expert for urban farming, and we’re lucky to have them here in Philly!  They’re now accepting applications for Summer 2012 CSAs.    Follow them on Twitter: @greensgrow.

Urban Tree Connection
Located in the Haddington Area of West Philadelphia, Urban Tree Connection operates with a mission to engage children and adults from some of Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods in neighborhood greening and gardening activities.    Neighborhood residents help cultivate and harvest UTC’s small-scale farm, which provides healthy produce for neighbors in the area.

Mill Creek Farm
Also located in West Philadelphia, Mill Creek farm launched operations in 2005, jump-started with funds donated by The Philadelphia Water Department and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.  Like the other urban farms, Mill Creek operates with a mission to provide healthy, local produce to urban areas with limited access to fresh foods.   They offer educational field trips for schools and community groups and volunteer opportunities for anyone wanting to help out.

Farm 51
Started by a few West Philly residents at 51st and Chester, this small-scale urban farm operates on a once-trash-laden, vacant lot.  Now, it’s home to herbs, produce plants, over a dozen chickens, and some really great people.  (Well, they live in the house next door).  During the summer, they sell produce from a Thursday afternoon farm stand.

There are so many great farming projects happening all over the city.  I’m interested to hear from you.  Do you have any favorite Philly farms?  An interesting urban agriculture project that you want to share?  Feel free to post below.

Also, if you’re interested in staying connected to urban farming in Philadelphia, you can join the Google Group: Philadelphia Urban Farm Network.



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Urban Agriculture? Yes!

Yesterday afternoon, my first issue of Passages, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s bimonthly newsletter, arrived through the mail slot of my West Philly rowhome.  With a back “yard,” read concrete slab, that measures 15′ x 5′, limited sunlight, and absolutely no natural greening skills whatsoever, it seems a bit out of place on my coffee table, sitting next to issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.  While I’ve always had local food leanings, e.g. buying from farmer’s markets when possible, I became a complete local food convert after attending PASA’s annual Farming for the Future conference in early February and learning more about the varied benefits of local food.  Here are just a few of the many reasons to support local ag.

  • Community Food Security
    Some studies indicate that low-income neighborhoods have 30% fewer grocery stores than other more affluent areas.  More than that, the stores that do operate in less affluent neighborhoods do not often provide quality fresh produce.  Small-scale urban farms and gardens provide access to fresh produce to neighborhood residents.  They also offer security to people experiencing difficult economic circumstances and help ensure that all people, regardless of address or economic circumstance, have access to healthy foods.
  • Access to Nutritious Foods
    With more nutritious food readily available, people consume more vegetables and fruits, improving nutrition in areas that have limited access to healthy foods.  A study conducted by the Community Food Security Coalition indicates that a 10′x10′ urban plot can yield an entire household’s vegetable needs in a typical 130 day growing season.
  • Improved Physical Environment
    As residents clear out debris and trash to plant gardens and grow vegetables, the neighborhood aesthetic improves, improving the quality of life for everyone in the area and instilling an increased sense of neighborhood pride.
  • Improved Mental & Physical Health
    The Community Food Security Coalition study also indicates that gardening provides physical exercise and serves as a mechanism for stress reduction.
  • Keeps Food Costs Down
    In 2008, half of the world’s population lived in urban centers and that number continues to climb.  This represents a major population shift.  A century ago, most of the world’s people lived in rural areas; however, people continue to migrate to cities.  This will likely present food security concerns, infrastructure strain, and rising food costs, as we attempt to transport increasing amounts of food from rural areas to population centers.  Urban agriculture has the potential to ease this strain and ensure that the poorest people have access to healthy food.

Those are just a few reasons to love urban agriculture, and we’re lucky because there’s so much happening in the urban agriculture space around Philly.  Many innovative entrepreneurs and community activists are reclaiming discarded sites and transforming them into food-producing gardens that galvanize our communities.  Let’s support their efforts and buy local produce!


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Bemused Banana

Title:  The Bemused Banana

Date:  March 2, 2012

Inspiration:  Unstuck:  52 ways to Get (and Keep) Your Creativity Flowing at Home, at Work, and in Your Studio by Noah Scalin

Materials:  Leftover breakfast (apple core, banana peel, cottage cheese, and some napkin bits)

Background:  Scalin’s super-fun book gives 52 project ideas, all purposed to get creativity flowing.   I got this book a few weeks ago, and love it.   This morning, I asked my husband to choose an emotion at random, and after a few moments, he said “bemused.”  I went to work using my left-over breakfast to fashion a face that embodied bemusement.  A collaborative effort, we came-up with the hipster-’stached Bemused Banana that you see here.

Random Thoughts:  This project successfully sparked a little creativity, especially after a uniquely tiring week.  Rather than go through the usual routine in the morning, we took 5 minutes to work on a silly project and have some fun.  We left for work smiling.  What if we could rally this type of artistic collaboration on a larger, citywide scale?  Could we find a place to gather random strangers for the purpose of completing one of these projects, as a group?  What type of partnerships and ideas might form?   I’m sure we could make our city smile.

Definitely check out Noah Scalin’s book Unstuck and his blog.

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March 2012
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