Seeking the Spark at Afterschool University

“Your visit was absolutely miraculous – you left a deep track in each child’s life here… They all are amazed and they all are keeping saying that nothing happen to them like this ever before.

It is true not only for kids – it was an absolutely great moment for the Afterschool University. Thank you very much for all your energy you shared with us, for all your inspiration, and simply – “for what you are…”

Anatoliy V. Glushchenko
Associate Professor, Department of Physics  University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

I was thrilled to be sent to Colorado by the Afterschool University to “seek the spark” in 24 of their students.  My exploration, captured in colored pencil drawings, uncovered the passions and affinities of the children.  Afterschool University is using the knowledge that emerged from the creative process to craft an exciting village for their students.  They will be celebrating the success of the young people on March 5, inviting professionals in the area of the children’s sparks to celebrate learning and skills and following your path with heart.  Here are a number of the drawings I made:

We are 1 Tribe

I’d like to focus on a crucial step in beating the odds – Consulting Nature. In my book, I outline four aspects of Nature that can be used when faced with challenges: having clear goals, fostering diversity in achievement of those goals, operating in systems and thriving on competition that is deeply rooted in cooperation. The sculpture below is the essence of diversity in achieving a goal and giving competition the umbrella of cooperation.

“We Are 1 Tribe” was made by my students at the Arts & Ethics Academy in Santa Rosa, CA. The sculpture was inspired by the Owerri Igobo mbari shrines of Nigeria, where each figure represents a loved one who is gone, a yet-to-be born child or the child of imagination. The young people who made this work of art live in the reality of rival gangs.  I chose the red and blue colors on the background to symbolize two gangs, the newly arrived southern Mexican Sureños (blue) and the more established northern Mexican Norteños (red), unified into one shrine. (In Pittsburgh, PA, the Crips wear blue and the Bloods wear red.) The figure in the exact middle without hair honors 16 year-old Alex, a Sureño member who was killed in a gang-related shooting. The student who made him wrote: “I hope that Alex will live on when people see my sculpture and hear his story.” The tallest figure on the right symbolizes the future son of one of the students, with the colors of the Norteños on his hat. The young Native American man who made him wrote “I hope that my son, Anthony, will live life without having to worry about the next day and the next month’s rent. I hope that he finds work that he loves doing and gets paid well. My son means a lot to me. He is a piece of me to live on when I leave this world.” This collection of loved ones, animals, mermaids and firebirds are a powerful visual reminder that Nature’s diversity forms ecosystems where the needs of all living beings are met, even though there is also competition. (Visit my Facebook page to see more details and hear about what each sculpture represents to the students.)

I would like to ramp up the conversation about how people are cooperating.  Competition is the main drama we hear about and I want to make Nature’s story of cooperative diversity among humans front and center. Do you have stories to share about wildly successful cooperation by diverse elements? Please share them here, knowing they will be passed along to young people. Our life depends on the process of cooperation with every breath we take, where the oxygen molecule that was outside our body becomes a part of our body.  When you share your story, you will be helping to combat the negativism so prevalent among the young people I work with. Your story will also help us adults who are despairing under the weight of the odds we’re up against.

Beating the Odds by Imitating the 6 Billion Year Old Master

Here are a few highlights from the inspiring July Education Summit put on by the Biomimicry Institute:

From Janine Benyus, the Founder:  What happens when you compare yourself to Paris Hilton versus Nelson Mandela?  Who you compare yourself to changes you.  Let’s use Nature as our Measure: It foster cooperative relationships.  It leverages interdependence. It’s resilient.  It practices benign manufacturing.  It has feedback loops.  It adapts and evolves.  It integrates cyclic processes. It creates environments conducive to life. It is locally attuned and responsive.  In any endeavor, ask “What would Nature do?  What wouldn’t Nature do?”  Instead of heat, beat and treat, how about FLOCK and AWE!  How about designing cities that are as generous as ecosystems, which have a surplus of services, such as storing carbon and filtering and storing water.  Lavasa, India is trying to do just that.

Exciting Applications of Biomimicry:

The U.S. Green Building Certifiers is using fungal connectivity as a model for communication.

The Department of Energy just granted $122 million to research artificial photosynthesis, which could produce all the energy the planet needs without pollution and very inexpensively.  This is truly revolutionary.

Slime molds are being studied to figure out the most efficient routes around cities.

Portland-based Brightworks, which develops intelligent strategies for sustainability, is envisioning a new economic system modeled on the way that fungus moves resources around to the areas that need them the most.

Students at Innovation Space (a part of Arizona State University) are solving real problems with teams made up of majors in design, biology, business and marketing.  Is that smart or what?

All this intelligent, elegant thought, rooted in the systems that have taken six billion years to evolve, gives me more hope than I’ve felt in years.  And I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s going on!  Find out more by going to, especially if you up against the odds.

The Singing Tree as a tool to Beat the Odds

This Child Singing Tree is focusing on some of the odds children are up against:
1:6 UNESCO reports that one in six children in the world are not in school, but are working to support their families

1:170 The Department of Justice estimates that 1 in 170 of American youth are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation

1:2 According to international anti-narcotics agencies, Myanmar has most heavily armed drug-trafficking organization in the world. More than half of this 20,000-strong army consists of children, many of them 10- or 12-years-old.

I am excited to report Unity Through Creativity hired its first teen employee, joined by a teen volunteer, to work on the current Singing Tree this summer. We have begun UTC’s dream of employing young to do something real about combating poverty. Lili and Detroit of Santa Rosa helped to prepare the image of the world by painting it, gridding it and cutting it.  Yesterday I sent 50 pieces to Cheryl Perara in Toronto. She is founder of One Child and will be taking the pieces for young girls and boys who are survivors of the sex trade in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand on July 1st.

With this 12′ x 8′ mural, which will be made by over 800 people, we hope to bring awareness to the possibility of a world without Poverty, the Child Sex Trade or Child Soldiers, – a world where children are nourished to grow their talents and give their gifts. If you’d like to participate, and/or have a group of people who’d like to contribute artwork for this purpose, contact me. The Child Singing Tree will be displayed in US Congress in 2011 and will be exhibited in high-traffic public places as well as online to help decrease the exploitation of children.

Consulting Nature When the Odds Are Beating Us

Rush Creek 3:10

Last week I heard that 500 teachers were being let go in Cleveland.  The heartache of the superintendent had me in tears. My beloved Waldorf-inspired Novato Charter School is dangerously in the red because of budget cuts for the first time in its 14 year history.  My position as middle school art teacher was cut, at the same time that Arts & Ethics Academy was denied the continuation of its charter because of ugly backroom politics.  I won’t be teaching art to those beautiful, young, at-risk high school students  next year, either.  Some of them will be attending high schools with 3000 students where the first thing waiting for them will be severe beatings if they don’t join a gang. My job loss is a small blip compared to the prospects of violence facing my students, and virtually nothing compared to the shrimpers and fisherman in Louisiana who may see their livelihoods changed forever.  The European airline industry is in terrible risk because of the impact of the Icelandic volcano combined with the recession. Israel and Gaza are deadlocked into a deadly lose-lose relationship where the odds seem to be beating everyone into the ground, every day.

Surrounded by so much bad news, I always turn to Nature.  An Irish poet on PBS last week said just the words I needed to hear.  Looking upon the harsh coastal landscape of Ireland in the cold months, he said “What the barrenness of winter shows us is that bleakness is never as bleak as it looks.  Deep down in the freezing stillness, there is new life waiting to be born.  And we see it every spring.”  My spring is growing a non-profit, which has laid dormant for nine years, Unity Through Creativity.  It’s mission is to help make the world safer through the power of creativity and community, no matter what the odds.  I and others have been doing the work of it, including the Singing Trees, and now people are coming forward and the organization is taking on a life of its own.  Water self-organizes into clouds, rain, rivers, oceans and reforms again, when needed, into clouds.  When the odds are beating us, we know it’s time to re-organize into new clouds, new forms, new life.

Sharing Spark Stories

I went to executive coach Ipek Serifsoy’s house a few days ago to discuss Ken Robinson’s book The Element with a small group of people.  The book looks at what happens when people’s aptitudes and passions coincide.  I am excited at the depth that Robinson brings to the concept of the “Spark.” Greg Kerlin, an astute observer in the conversation, commented that most all of the examples in the book were of super stars like Olympic gold medal winners, rock stars and mathematical geniuses.  What about everyday people who are in their element in the world, marry their talent and motivation?  I immediately thought of my 34 year-old nephew Forrest, who could take anything apart and put it back together better than it was before,  since he was six.  He was excited by art and film from a young age, also. Now he is using his mechanical aptitude working for Firestone as a master mechanic, coming up with ever more efficient and ingenious methods of solving the problems presented to him.  He’s in his element, having developed one of his many sparks, happily living in Central Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter.

I look forward to hearing about your sparks, or the sparks of people in your life.


Earth Day and the Singing Trees

I believe in the power of creativity to beat the odds we are up against.  Earth Day is a reminder  that we each can help to protect and steward the beautiful planet we are privileged to live on.  I’m excited that the unveiling of the Aspen Hero Singing Tree mural  in Denver (see events) on Sunday, April 25, c0-incides with the week of Earth Day.    I’ll be attending this celebration, thanks to Maria Feekes, who organized over 800 people from homeless shelters, villages in Peru and Denver high school students to create this symbol of unity.  The Singing Tree Project was inspired by then 8 year old Meredith Miller in 1999, who said “What if the whole world made a painting together?” The Aspen Tree is the 12th in a series murals of a tree on the earth in space. Over 9000 people  from at least 16 countries have participated so far.  The Singing Tree project incorporates three of Nature’s principles – it can be reproduced; it has a clear goal with local conditions dictating the form, like water getting to the ocean; and it honors the importance of interdependence, focusing on the role that trees play in human life.  Through coming together to create something new and beautiful, where the whole world is invited, we combat the negative forces of division and destruction that plague our world.  This unity through creativity will beat the difficult odds we are up against at this time.  See Facebook’s “Singing Tree Project” and

Odds of today

Today I talked with a grandmother who is raising her six-foot eighth grade grandson who got kicked out of mainstream public school. I gave her good news about the focus, positive action and risk-taking that the boy was achieving in our mural for the Juvenile Probation Department, after he started out foul-mouthed and resistant. She was the second grandmother I talked with this week who is raising a grandson on her own this week That can’t be easy. “God loves you for being there,” I said to the grandma.

In thinking of about the adults who don’t abandon children, no matter where they are – I say again, thank you, thank you, for the sake of the innocent children, for the sake of the Village, for the sake of all of us.

That struggle dimmed, however, when I got a call from my beloved friend, Ayesha, the hospice nurse who took care of my mother the last months of her life. Ayesha suffered from a stroke three months ago, her left arm and leg becoming paralyzed, and then she had two heart attacks a month later. Her call came to let me know that the doctor had found lymphoma. What to do or say in the face of such odds? All I could do was to get a clear picture of Ayesha in her apartment and then I sent golden light, tinged with pink that surrounded her and absorbed the pain and fear. We remembered old times painting murals together in McKees Rocks and sitting on the patio in Mt. Lebanon, sipping tea. Focusing on love and fellowship aleviated the odds for just a moment. Perhaps that’s all we can do.

What Odds Are You Up Against?

Greetings, dear reader, and welcome to a site focused on how we can provide the best life possible to all the children of the world. I invite you to share stories of your challenges and your resources. The magnificent and overwhelming problems we’re facing can be solved by our collective wisdom. I’ll share my ideas about and experiences with beating various odds and I’d like to hear yours.

There are no maps for navigating in this time.  For those of us who are focused on the well being of the younger generations, the odds can seem insurmountable.  The adults of the world have not committed  to use our resources to ensure that all children are well-fed, have medical care and are supported to use their gifts to be functional life long learners in a global society. At the same time, we are inundated with information about how fragile life is on the planet – a species going extinct every twenty minutes, spreading dead zones in the ocean, eco-systems that took millions of years to create being destroyed with one slash and burn season.  Some say we have four years until we reach a tipping point where human behavior will result in the earth no longer sustaining human life for the next 1000 years.  Others say we have a decade, while the governments of the world aim for 2050.
Of course, if we’d lived during the Black Plague or the flu epidemic of 1917, we would have been up against terrible odds, too. Humanity has always gone through trying times and the future always has unforeseen variables.  One thing we know for sure, however, is that the children we are teaching are walking into a world of unparalleled complexity. Never before have there been so many people on the planet.  Never before have we had so much information about the people who are here.  Never before have we understood the vast consequences of our actions to the planet that sustains us. Yes, we have a lot of odds to beat.

I’m going to start with one idea that makes a lot of sense to tackle the odds – harnessing the energy of children –  project-based learning. I’ve outlined why I think this approach is so useful. These ideas are elaborated upon in Step 5 of “Beating the Odds Now”:

I’m a teacher who would like to lighten the current negativity around education. With budget cuts, overwhelming demands and talk of the United States loosing its intellectual edge, there is a simple step we can take to beat the odds we are facing. That step is to meet academic standards by using project-based learning, where students make real products that come out of real interests that address real problems for a real audience.
For most of human history, children did meaningful work along side of their parents. They had a clear picture of the need for their daily activities. No hunting meant no meat. No planting meant no crops. The industrial revolution changed that. Young people lost the opportunity to do purposeful work with adults. Now our inquisitive younger generation often can’t see the logic of what is asked of them during the school day. We can address that questioning impulse by finding real life examples, applications and uses for the Standards of Learning that allow students to DO something that makes a difference.
There is a never-ending supply of problems to be solved: troubles with the soil, the plants, the animals, the air, the water, the elders, the teens, the immigrants, the economy, the use of illegal drugs– an on and on. All these challenges are here to teach problem-solving, meet standards and make the world a better place.
The youth of today have important work to do in bringing fresh hope and vision to beleaguered and weary adults. When I told my fourth grade class at Novato Charter School that many windmills, which generate needed electricity, are being placed in the migration paths of birds, they came up with 11 fascinating ideas in five minutes. One thought was to make barricades using discarded tires, solving two problems at once. This kind of imagination leads to new knowledge, as the children think through the results of each step
The marriage of adult intentional activity coupled with the learning process is a win-win proposition. Here are some examples – Tom Furrer of Casa Grande High School in Petaluma and his students have helped to restore salmon and steel-head trout to the Adobe River. Christian Gelleri’s Waldorf High School class in Prien, Germany, invented a currency to help with a lack luster local economy. Within six months, $50,000 worth of bills was in circulation. Kelydra Welcker, from Parkersburg, West Virginia, was honored by Intel in its high school Science Talent contest for her work isolating a contaminant in the Ohio River – a byproduct of a local Teflon plant.
Young people want to help. In every class I’ve ever taught – rural, urban, suburban, elementary, middle and high school – virtually every hand shoots up when I ask for volunteers. Let’s harness that positive energy, link it to standards, and unleash this bright intelligence to help solve our messy challenges. With a change of paradigm and clear will, the U.S. can once again become an educational leader.