From the online Free Dictionary: sym·po·si·um n. pl. sym·po·si·ums or sym·po·si·a
1. A meeting or conference for discussion of a topic, especially one in which the participants form an audience and make presentations.
2. A collection of writings on a particular topic, as in a magazine.
3. A convivial meeting for drinking, music, and intellectual discussion among the ancient Greeks.
I was greatly influenced, as a high school student, by the text of “Plato’s Symposium.” This was the first time I had encountered such a rich portrait of a playful exchange of thought, opinion, and philosophy. It made me want to become an intellectual. Since then, I have participated in many academic symposia, and all too often the intellectual playfulness I keep looking for simply can’t be found.
But this conviviality is there in symposia convened by Kurt Wootton at Habla: the Center for Language and Culture in Merida, Mexico. Kurt sets aside time for members of Habla’s leadership team to exchange, in a relaxed manner, ideas and experiences they are currently exploring and excited about with visiting presenters like Anne Thulson and myself.
Here are brief descriptions by Elizabeth Gritzmacher (the newest member of the Habla staff family) of presentations from Wooton’s latest symposium:
Anne Thulson shared an exercise called “Mining, Bridging, and Making” created by arts education writer and researcher Julia Marshall. We were asked to pick an object we had with us and to place it on the table in front of the group. We then exchanged, one random object per person: a watch, a necklace with a silver feather, a package of baby wipes, a Mexican driver’s license, and an inkpad for fingerprinting. After swapping, we considered our objects’ embedded meanings and jotted down four things that came to mind. I had the baby wipes, so my list looked like this:
Then we paired up and considered what our neighbor had, and together thought of the shared or combined meanings of the two disparate objects and also what we might create out of the two. Baby wipes and a watch. You can imagine the strange ruminations in our minds. Anne’s sharing showed us that in putting together things we’d never combined before, it is possible to stretch our imaginations to new heights. In this process, as Kurt pointed out, one “cannot escape being creative.”
Arnold Aprill discussed the work he is doing with colleagues from the University of Tasmania exploring the new Australian cross-curricular national standards for Sustainability Education. His colleagues there (Dr. Mary Ann Hunter, Dr. Allen Hill, and Sherridan Emory) worked with teachers from a variety of Tasmanian schools to expand notions of sustainability beyond keeping compost heaps in their schools’ backyards. These national standards are quite broad and deep and include:
- Envisioning a better future
- Critical and creative thinking and reflection
- Systems thinking
- Partnerships for change
This work in Australia was transformative for teachers, and raised intriguing questions about developing cross-curricular concepts as a counterbalance to solely focusing on discipline-specific content. One of the Tasmanian teachers shared Roger Hart’s Ladder of Participation, a model for evaluating authentic student engagement. Anne Thulson was especially intrigued by Rung # 8: “Youth initiated shared decisions with adults” being a more advanced form of participation than Rung # 7: “Youth initiated and directed”. Our goal is not to communicate to young people that “anything goes,” but rather to encourage the contesting of ideas and the collaboration on projects across differences in age and experience.
Karla Hernando shared her ongoing work with children as part of her artist residency at the Guapamacátaro Center for Art and Ecology in Michoacán. She projected a slideshow of photographs that show how the local children deepened her understanding of her own work. She took the risk of presenting the project without speaking, communicating her progress through a series of still images and very simple inter-titles. We were impressed at how well the unadorned images communicated the story without extensive text or spoken explanations. The silent presentation was experienced by many of us as leaving room for reflection and space for the development of our own associations and insights. You can see a very small portion of her work-in-progress below.
Kurt Wootton shared with us an approach he is experimenting with for encouraging reflective practice through “thinking on your feet” collaboration. During a daylong literacy and the arts workshop he had recently conducted for teachers from across the United States, he noticed a lull in the group’s energy during the afternoon reflection sessions. Although participants were working in groups, were committed professionals, and were interested in the content, they were nevertheless struggling to stay awake. Kurt came up with a solution: reflection exercises requiring the same level of movement and interaction that had been effective in the morning’s content based activities. Participants stood throughout the entire afternoon, starting the session with games for pairing off that included body-crossing knee touching—“put your right hand on the right knee of the person to your left!” – and hopping around with their new partners while linked at the ankle. We then got out of our seats and tried out Kurt’s active-reflection exercises ourselves. Once enlivened and paired off, we walked around the room discussing the ways in which we’d been inspired by the various presentations.
The word “symposium” literally means “to drink together”. Participants are technically known as “symposiats” (the drinkers). There was a lot of drinking at ancient Greek symposia. Here’s advice on drink from the god Dionysis in the 375 B.C. play Semele:
“For sensible men I prepare only three jars of wine: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth jar is not mine any more – it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.”
Now, the most intoxicating liquid we drank at Wootton’s Symposium was water, but the entire experience was refreshing.
- Arnold Aprill, CAPE Founder and Lead Consultant
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