This summer I had the tremendous good fortune to take part in a seminar called The Arts and Passion-Driven Learning, part of the Programs in Professional Education series at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First off, a title like that is like catnip to me – irresistible. The fact it was presented in collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project? Even better.


So I headed up to Cambridge and had the kind of “vacation” I love – one of those immerse experiences where you have plenty of food for thought, make connections with other educators eager to explore common themes, and took part in those kind of workshops where we explored both our creative sides (interpretive movement!) and our analytical halves (so what did that process just accomplish?). You know what I mean – dive in and explore and think and fall asleep every night in a haze of happy exhaustion.

In that light, I was thankful to Tina Blythe for her comments at the first plenary session. She started by saying that kindness is not a “nice extra” for learning in community, but was rather the bedrock of everything. And then she advised us to think of ourselves as being on a beachcombing expedition: you can’t take everything home, so you select the most haunting pieces of seaglass or pick up the most evocative piece of driftwood.  And then you leave the rest behind, safely trusting that the beach will still be there for another day’s walk.

Thus freed, we went on to our first workshops. I adored Found in Translation: Exploring Text through Movement and Music (facilitated by Nicholas Cords, Helen Hyun-Kyung Park, and Andy Russ), where we interpreted haiku through performances that utilized both our bodies and all kinds of sounds. We worked in small groups to create our interpretations, performed them in front of the group, received feedback, went back to revise, performed our revised interpretations, and then processed our experiences as a group.

I loved this for multiple reasons: it was simultaneously process- and product-oriented. It incorporated collaboration with the risk and reward of performance. We gave voice to our creative selves, our communal selves, and our analytical selves – all at different points in the unfolding experience. Plus, it was applicable to so many kinds of learning, including building reading comprehension with students who don’t necessarily identify as readers. Haiku is the perfect form for this: each word counts, and so students learn just how deeply one can read three sparse-yet-rich lines. Then creating performances gives students nonverbal ways to show their understanding.

I also adored a workshop called Embodied Learning: Using Movement to Generate Deeper Understanding (facilitated by Mark Borchelt). He started with the premise that the rational mind alone is not the sole target of true education. Rather, we should consider the whole, embodied beings of our students and ourselves. This means, in part, realizing that isolating “thinking” to just the brain is a reduction of the multilayered experience of learning. It also means a dedication to education not as the accumulation of knowledge, but as developing those capacities for reflection and action that allow individuals to pursue meaningful lives.

This is pretty densely packed information, and I don’t know if a blog can really get to the depth of what he was giving us – especially since it is inherently limited to what we can express in words. Let me just say that he shifted seamlessly between movement exercises, lecture, and discussion. Our experiences as learners in his workshop were based on a combination of thinking-through-movement and thinking-through-words. There was a real depth there and one that I want to infuse into my teaching.

Overall, spending so much time focused on “passion-driven learning” gave me the opportunity to realize a few things about passion itself. Some of these “aha” moments included:

  • I agree with fellow participant Malke Rosenfeld that emotional language like “passion” is not a basis for developing an educational experience (even though I identify as someone who is passionate about learning!). The emotion isn’t the starting point. Rather, it’s the result of deep, meaningful engagement.
  • I am concerned by the way some seemed to think that being a successful teacher means making sure all your students are passionate about your subject. I think my students are naturally going to pick up on the joy I feel in music, and I rejoice when they find their flourishing in the same place. But respecting the personhood of all of my students means accepting that their passions may not be the same as mine. With some of the conversations I had at the seminar, I had to wonder: are we talking about passing on joy, or are we talking about control? It wasn’t always clear.
  • Emotional thinking can be fuzzy thinking when we allow ourselves to say things like “there are no wrong answers in the arts; it’s all about self-expression.” When everything is “good enough,” we implicitly tell our students that they are not eligible for developing the kind of abilities that will give them the confidence to go anywhere with their art. If someone is passionate about painting, say, a good teacher will push the limits of that student’s technique so that their self-expression can be as crystalline and accomplished as possible. Who wants their passion to limit their potential?

Just a few pieces of seaglass I brought back with me from my beachcombing experience at Harvard…