Years ago while backpacking through Europe with some friends, I visited the Palazzo Spada in Rome. It must have been something we read about in “Let’s Go Europe” because otherwise I’m not sure how we got there.
Anyway, Palazzo Spada is famous for its incredible forced perspective gallery created by Francesco Borromini. In the midst of the density and limited space in the heart of Rome, the gallery gives a momentary sense of depth and grandeur akin to what one might find in a much larger country estate. It has an 8-meter long corridor that appears to be a considerably more grand 37 meters. Its centerpiece and visual destination is a “life-sized” sculpture that is actually only 60 centimeters tall.
It sounded crazy, so we were definitely intrigued!
When we first got to the palazzo, I wandered up to one long, beautiful corridor lined with columns and with a statue at the end. Such a site wasn’t particularly unique or exciting after a couple of months of traveling through Europe. We had seen probably 10 of them just in Rome. But, we were there to see the fake one! This one was the real deal, obviously not Borromini’s work.
Then, something weird happened. As I turned to keep looking for Borromini, I was suddenly disoriented. Wait…what the…hold on…
I momentarily lost a sense of where I was and even how big I was related to the things around me. Distance was a scramble. That long corridor got short then long then short. The sculpture was life-sized then tiny then… My eyes seemed to see one thing then another and then back to the first. I tried to focus. My mind tried to make sense.
But, my eyes and mind were wrestling with a carefully crafted lie (Borromini actually worked with a mathematician to help create it).
The illusion starts with controlling your vantage point. It entices you to the spot where you need to stand to perceive its fabricated truth. Once in position, it manipulates your horizon and narrows your vision toward a single vanishing point. It then constructs the objects around you relative to the truth of that horizon and vanishing point, closing off a broader world of scale and perspective.
As long as I unwittingly obliged its subtle and unseen rules, I saw what Borromini wanted me to see.
But, if I changed my vantage point, things shifted. As I moved, I regained control over my horizon. A step left…right. Squatting. Getting on my toes. My eyes adjusted away from Borromini’s very particular vanishing point. The things I knew and understood about the relation of objects in the world began to reclaim their rightful logic. The perspective was no longer forced. I was back in control because I had seen it for what it was.
Beyond art and Borromini’s clever trick, forced perspective manifests in life in at least two extraordinary and paradoxical ways:
1. In the negative, it is the tool of the abuser, the occupier, the oppressor. It is the carefully constructed, highly controlled, believable version of reality that is motivated by the destruction and control of the other. It shifts the rules, norms, and logic so fundamentally, yet subtly, (mathematically in Borromini’s case) that the oppressed colludes in his own oppression, the victim blames herself. Accepting plausibility as truth. Normalizing external definitions that destroy internal foundations. Disorienting to the point of confusion, uncertainty, and weakness. Forced. Perspective.
2. In the affirmative, on the other hand, it can actually draw us out of disorientation. It can focus and clarify. Provide control. It can be the tool that helps liberate us from the abuse and oppression described above. When life is in fact chaotic, unsure, unfocused, and scary, forcing perspective can be a way to survive, manage, and direct limited energy. When you are struggling, it can adjust your vantage point toward things that matter, things that you can control. In this sense, counter to its negative application, it can reorient you to your fundamental truths and strengths. It asks: Is your horizon set in relation to the things that matter most to you, or a construction built around some other illusion?
Forced perspective is part of our daily lives. The fine line between perspective as something we control versus something that controls us is fundamental to our relationship with our selves and the world. So, we must recognize it, name it, create it, and own it every day.
Otherwise, we may be forced to live a life defined by someone else’s perspective.
by Teri Dary, Anderson Williams, and Terry Pickeral, Special Olympics Project UNIFY Consultants
In our last blog, we focused on what creative tension means in the context of relationships between young people and adults in our schools. We outlined core principles and assumptions that are critical for this work, and discussed how the roles for young people and adults shift in the creative tension model.
This blog presents a series of real-world examples that demonstrate the use of a creative tension in carrying out intergenerational work within the school context. There are a few key ideas to keep an eye on. First, each example shows youth and adults working toward shared goals, with young people being viewed as meaningful contributors and partners in the process. Second, supporting their shared goals, you will see how personal goals and aspirations align with and support their collective work. Finally, each values the other’s experiences, perceptions, skills, beliefs, and ideas and understands that they are critical to achieving personal and shared goals.
Ultimately, these examples are intended to demonstrate the varying ways schools and systems can support and nurture collaboration and shared outcomes between youth and adults.
Curriculum and Instructional Design
A high school chemistry teacher created a more connected learning process by organizing unit information on his white board by the content standards, and then highlighting for the students where each of these standards were addressed in labs, quizzes, class activities, homework, and tests. Rather than simply posting the standards, this is an active, dynamic process to help students understand how each discreet learning element ties to the bigger picture and connects to other learning. These connections then play out in quizzes, homework, and summative labs, which guide students in determining their level of understanding and focuses on demonstrating mastery rather than just obtaining a grade and moving on. Students are making decisions about how and when to study based on this knowledge and are better prepared to guide their own learning. Alternately, the teacher continuously engages students in the process of learning from design to assessment, helping them better understand how everything fits together and their role in both teaching and learning.
A core component of the structure for this chemistry class is having students work in groups that stay the same throughout each unit. Groups are encouraged to apply critical thinking in labs and class assignments by altering variables and designing their own labs to produce desired results. In ensuring all students are contributing team members, everyone in the group is responsible for teaching as well as learning from others in the process.
The result? Creative tension between the students and teacher in working toward shared goals has substantially increased learning, engagement, and ownership of the teaching and learning process by both the teacher and students.
Basic Lesson Planning
We were reading “A More Beautiful Question” by Warren Berger recently and he shared an example of a teacher who recognized the challenge of engaging students when teachers ask all the questions (and hold all the answers). He wanted students to ask the questions in class, so they would own the process of finding the answer. So, for one lesson, instead of asking “how long will it take to fill that bucket with water” and having the students complete a worksheet with prompts and places for calculations and so forth, the teacher took a video, a long video, of water dripping into a bucket and showed it to his students. It was mundane and redundant and monotonous and felt weird, like nothing was happening. Finally, almost exasperated, the students asked for themselves: “how long is it going to take to fill that bucket!?” Now that the students had asked, they also actually were intrigued and interested in finding out. As a result, the students built their solution not only from their own question, but from the shared experience of watching that water drip into the bucket. They wanted an answer, so they worked to find it.
One high school we worked with, like many around the country, was experiencing significant demographic shifts with a huge influx of students and families from Latin America. They knew many of their parents did not speak English, but also knew that they were sending home important information about the school, about their students, and so forth that the parents could not read. For starters, they knew they needed to translate their materials into Spanish.
They contacted a nearby university and through their Multicultural Center found college students eager to assist. However, the university students requested that high school students in Spanish classes also be engaged in translating the various communications to parents. As a result, the school, Spanish teachers, high school students, and college students all worked together, sharing and enhancing each others’ skills and awareness of the issue. To do so required some changes in process for each and required creative tension among all to make it successful.
Ultimately, the university students working with a countywide nonprofit established English classes for Latino families.
A high school leadership class was designed to provide students an opportunity to learn and practice valuable leadership skills by addressing issues in their school and community. One group of students in the class decided they were concerned about students’ ability to transition from the overly structured high school environment to the unstructured college environment. They had never experienced or practiced the decision-making that comes with such freedom.
To address this issue, they decided seniors should be able to have open campus lunch, to practice some additional independence. The group worked with their teacher to review board policy and school rules, surveyed local businesses, and developed an open campus proposal. (This process in and of itself was also an exercise in independence.) The principal gave permission to work on the project and provided a set of criteria that would need to be met. Additional provisions were made to address concerns raised by teachers, community members, and local businesses. Based on this work, the students developed a district policy and succeeded in getting the policy passed by the school board, allowing seniors to leave campus during lunch.
Working across systems is inherent to working intergenerationally and requires the ability to generate creative tension rather than destructive. Complaints or protests or otherwise by the students could have just as easily shut down the opportunity and the solution they sought. Working together allowed it to come to fruition. Additionally, this process and the additional trust and responsibility provided to seniors generated improvements in school climate more broadly.
A group of high school students working with a community based organization began to research and ask questions about why only a handful of students at their school went to college each year, when they knew the numbers were vastly greater at other public schools across town. When they first raised the subject with their principal, she was immediately defensive and tried to shut down any avenues for continued research and organizing. In response, the youth requested a series of meetings with her to discuss the issue, their research, and their concerns; just with her, no pressure and no real need to be defensive in front of teachers, colleagues, etc. Ultimately, the principal became the schools’ biggest advocate for college access and, working with her students and her counseling staff, doubled the number of students who made it to college in one year. Their work together was highlighted in a documentary called “College on the Brain.” With their initial questions, the students had accidentally created a destructive tension scenario, because the principal did not feel safe to have the discussion without going on the defensive. Reaching out and clarifying their desire to work together and articulating how improving college access could be a shared goal for students, counselors and the principal, the students moved toward creative tension and enabled a powerful example of intergenerational work.
Students, parents and schools around the country have created and implemented R-Word campaigns to eradicate the derogatory use of the word “retard” in their schools. With the goal of making schools safer and more equitable for all students, an R-Word campaign sends a powerful message, but one that is only made powerful by the commitment of students, teachers, school leaders, and parents. In other words, it is a community effort. Typically, these campaigns begin as a conversation between students and teachers who then get commitment from school administrators. In developing a plan and a kickoff on Spread the Word to End the Word Day, the school community works together to create banners and posters, to get food, to get commitment signatures and so forth. As a result, schools that have gone through this process of working together and worked toward a more inclusive school environment have seen dramatic improvements in school climate and reduction in bullying.
There are clearly many ways each school can begin to incorporate creative tension to enhance intergenerational work. And, they all begin with a shared goal among young people and adults around a creating an engaging teaching and learning environment where all students and adults have opportunities to contribute meaningfully. The key is to begin. Start from where you are, start small, and seek continuous improvement.