Parents and Paintings

As many of you know, I’ve been incorporating a lot of visual aspects into my work.  This has been a collaboration that is becoming more interdisciplinary all the time and seems to be picking up steam, although not yet grant funding.  We’ll take steam for now.  Anyway, together with El Futuro colleagues in Siler City, we tried out a version of our arts work with parents.  These parents were involved in a parenting retreat over spring break.  The idea was to help prepare parents for their children’s transition from elementary to middle school, get them interested in a longer-term evidenced parenting program called The Incredible Years, and to continue building more parent involvement in schools where parents have not traditionally been as involved.

We used our works of art, selected by our colleagues at the Ackland Art Museum, as “elicitation” devices.  (I’m trying to learn the science behind all of this so I’m practicing using the jargon – forgive me.)  An elicitation device is supposed to help people talk – sometimes about a particular subject, sometimes about one’s self.  A novel can be an elicitation device; a poem can be an elicitation device;  or an essay, etc.  In this case we used a collection of paintings and photographs from different sources and different time periods with the goal of helping parents talk and reflect about parenting.

This group of parents is comprised of Latino immigrants.  We don’t ask anything about their documentation status – so please don’t ask me.  They did not know one another prior to today.  Most have low levels of education and I would bet that many have never set foot in an art museum.  So the whole team was a little nervous about whether this idea would go over.  The group facilitator who knew many of the families was saying, “Maybe we should throw in a few more pictures.  I don’t think they’re going to be very talkative.”  “ On the drive down, I was making up questions and vignettes in case the whole thing fell flat and we were left with 2 ½ hours to fill.  When I met the father with multiple tattoos up and down his arms, my anxiety climbed a bit higher.  What would he think of  professors asking him to talk about pictures from an art museum?  Then we put up the first picture – a photograph of young men diving and swimming in a river.  And the parents jumped in with both feet –remembering significant moments, describing parenting struggles, noticing interesting details, asking questions, sharing views of themselves, and views of their children.  They listened to one another; they were affirming; and over the course of 8 pictures and 2 ½ hours they became a cohesive group.  The dad with the tattoos was a real leader in the process!

Tomorrow they will get into some knotty questions about disciplinary practices, what their communication is like with their children, the support they are providing for their child’s education.  Hard stuff often with no easy answers, particularly when you work three jobs, a spouse has been deported or detained, and your own educational background is limited.   But seeing this group’s willingness to explore and engage using somewhat unusual means,  gives me a lot of faith that exciting things will come from this small beginning.


A Third Thing

It’s been two weeks since we did our latest version of our Puentes teacher training.   Together with a doctoral student, an art historian, school personnel and community partners, I’ve been attempting to adapt a training to help teachers think about mental health for new immigrant youth.  The original training, authored by a colleague and her team in New York, was for teachers working with teensy (3 to 6 year old) refugees.  Our target group is teachers working with middle schoolers who often come from mixed citizenship status families in a small town in North Carolina.  These students, grappling with all the daily slings and arrows of middle school, also find themselves political hot buttons for reasons that must seem unfathomable to them.  And they are not alone.  Their teachers walk a difficult path littered with the larger society’s ambivalent attitudes while attempting to sustain their individual commitment to their work.  You can see we had our work cut out for us.

We tried a simple adaptation last fall and it fell flat.  Not for lack of organization or effort or good will.  Not for lack of terrific content.  But something was missing.  To make a difference this training could not be about information alone – it had to speak to teachers in a different way.  Somewhere not cognitive but not just emotional either.  I needed what Parker Palmer calls, “A Third Thing.”   Coincidentally, or maybe not, I’d begun unknowingly working with “third things” in my classes by working with art.  You may be thinking “Social Work? Art? Don’t get it.”  But think about what happens when you look at a painting or photograph.  Without the caption or the audio guide, it’s just you and the object.  That means that what or who you see is on some level what or who you are.  As you talk about what you see with other people, your lens changes as they lend their vision to you and you to them.  And through this process, you may learn something about how you tend to see the world, or at least this painting, what you tend to miss, and what you need to know or ask to see it in its fullness.  When you get the caption or the audio guide, or the commentary of someone who actually knows something about art your vision is really enlarged.  You learn about the context in which the image was created, the artist’s interest in the particular subject, etc.  Now, as you look at that object, you have a lot to work with.    You’ve learned a lot about the object and you’ve learned a lot about yourself as well.

So what happened with the training?  We took a big risk.  We brought 40 middle school teachers to the Ackland Art Museum on campus.  Our wonderful colleagues there hung eight photographs from an amazing photojournalist named Janet Jarman. [Check out her work at]  The teachers looked and talked and reflected.  Through these photographs we were able to talk about migration journeys and the baggage the young people carry with them about which teachers are rarely aware.  We were able to think together about how these experiences impact learning and how school can either contribute to or alleviate suffering. The list goes on.  Did it work? We’ll have more definitive data in a few months.  But, yes, when people open up in a group of 40 about dark moments in their past, their struggles as both teachers and parents, where there is laughter and camaraderie, I think I feel confident saying this type of approach has legs.  There is always more work to do and I’m excited about our next steps.  But even more, I’m intrigued with “third things,” poems, stories, pictures, that take us into a space where our heads and our hearts work together to learn and to understand.