Monday, November 23, 2015

Interview with Miriam Klein Stahl (part 2)

The May 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) is the second part of a two-part interview with Miriam Klein Stahl, co-founder and lead teacher of Berkeley High's Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), where she’s taught since 1995. She is also an artist who specializes in printmaking, sculpture, paper-cut and public art and is internationally known among activist and punk circles for her powerful, iconic portraits of political activists, misfits, radicals and radical movements. As an educator, Miriam has dedicated her teaching practice to address equity through the lens of the arts.

Miriam Klein Stahl has illustrated a new (April 2015) children's book with Kate Schatz, Rad American Women A-Z, which uses a traditional format to introduce kids and adults to profiles of 26 inspirational and deeply radical women in public life. Miriam was interviewed over two separate lunch periods in her classroom at Berkeley High, where students were buzzing around the whole time working on art projects and occasionally interjecting with comments of their own – including a student whose comments start this month's column.

Bella (Student): I am Isabella DeVito Brown, I am a senior at AHA [Berkeley High's Arts and Humanities Academy, a “small school” program of a few hundred students among Berkeley High's 3000+ total students], and I've been here all four years. So, the thing about AHA is that we're a huge community and we are definitely taught to look at the world in different ways, and look past barriers - that's really important. Something that makes us different from the other schools is this interdisciplinary project that Ms. Stahl is talking about, and it's really good because a lot of schools separate this stuff around and in between classes, and with the IDP [Interdisciplinary Project] we are blending together all of these important aspects of school and creating this project that might help us look at the world in a different way.

It's really fun, actually. It's one of my favorite things about AHA because most other students have finals, and I'm like, yeah - I'm making this really awesome book and I'm learning all this stuff and it's not just learning about math or science. It's learning about how all these different things mix together to create something different.

MRR: Kind of makes it all make more sense.

Bella: Yeah, I think every school should do that - an IDP project. It really brings together the whole...

Miriam: ...Interconnectedness.

Isabella: Yeah, it really does. It shows you how the world is not just black-and-white, it is really this whole mess of stuff , and that's one of the greatest things about AHA – that's what they show us, that's what they teach us.

MRR: It shows the point of all these different disciplines, too, right, to show how they can actually work together to affect some kind of change.

Bella: You are writing about English, you are writing about history and using all of this English you have learned in school. Creating art to help emotion, and to help exemplify what is happening in the world, and it's a lot more powerful than just writing an essay about it.

MRR: Thank you for that, and it's really nice to hear how effective these programs are. I just did my student teaching last semester here in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program, which is way more exam focused for sure.

Bella: ...of course the people see that, and go “oh, those students are so prepared for the world”, but really it is sort of a micro-vision of things. Like, “I know exactly what happened in history” but you can't connect that to everything else, which is great about this [AHA's IDP project].

MRR: Right, the key here with this project, which is really great.

Bella: I think every school should do an IDP project.

MRR: I think a lot of the other schools may be emulating that model, but maybe not to the extent that this particular program has. So, Miriam, in terms of one really good question here that you got from one of the students in your classes last week – she was asking about when it is ok to be biased when teaching about our culture or social inequalities in our culture, especially when you disapprove of these inequalities? If so, how can you still allow teens to be open-minded/have different perspectives?

Bella: We have a teacher who is sort of biased about stuff.

MRR: Well, everybody's got some bias, right? I mean, we all have our beliefs.

Bella: Well, the interesting thing is that she's biased on history, so her whole thing is that she shows us all the, like, minorities that were disregarded in history class, so you come out knowing so much more about the Harlem Renaissance, and I could talk about, like, African-Americans in this situation, whereas everyone else gets this sort of white-washed history.

MRR: Miriam, how do you feel about this question?

Miriam: Well, I think that question is speaking to the Berkeley Bubble, right?

MRR: Sure. I mean, it could be applied in converse in Texas, right?

Miriam: Yeah. I am clearly part of the Berkeley Bubble [laughs], I am biased.

MRR: [laughs] Yeah, and transparent about it, right? That's the key.

Miriam: Totally. [pauses] So I don't know totally how to answer that question.

MRR: Which is ok. I guess the question, which is from a student, is if you feel it is ok to to be biased...really, is there anybody who really isn't biased, I guess that's the issue with the question, right?

Miriam: I don't think so. I think effective teachers aren't scared to bring in their life experience and who they are, and aren't afraid to be vulnerable in that way, bringing what you know and who you are, and being honest about how the world sees you. The students see us. They see a white woman who dresses like a boy, and I'm not going to pretend to be something that I'm not. I'm not going to hide that I'm living in the world in this very queer way, AND that I have white skin privilege...And I think that you need to be honest about those things to be honest to students, to be real with students and present whatever it is you are presenting. Obviously, it's not relevant for everything you are doing, but I think it's bullshit when these teachers get up in front of a class and think that students don't see anything other than what they are delivering as the content.

MRR: The context is so important.

Miriam: Right, so we all have a bias, or a perspective we are coming from and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Because hopefully in a student's day they are getting a diversity of perspectives anyway, because we all have our view on the world.

MRR: Right, and of course if you are just teaching the “standard view”, that's a bias as well.

Miriam: Sure.

MRR: ...but I guess these are the questions that students think about, and when we step outside of our bubble other questions arise. A mutual acquaintance of ours has had struggles in [a nearby district] with regard to [their] identity as openly queer, and that created a lot of problems for [them]. So, I guess the context counts, too...where we are.

Miriam: Right, and in a lot of ways I am in a privileged place where I have not experienced homophobia in the classroom.

MRR: Not openly, anyway...

Miriam: Yeah.

MRR: So, another student question here - When you teach kids to express themselves through art, is there ever a line not to cross in terms of offending people?

Miriam: There's always a line to cross. I think that line does get crossed in my classes, and it's always a good conversation to have. I think the thing they butt up against more is creating something and having an idea of how they want it to be seen, and having people see it in a way that was not intended, and so there's that thing that every artist struggles with. So, you use a swastika in a art piece, and you mean your piece to be anti-racist, is it going to come off as being racist or anti-racist? So, I think students straddle that line when they choose to make work that can have an emotional resonance with the audience. So, that's always a good conversation to have!

The other thing we have conversations about...What was that conversation we were having about the news, intent vs...

Passing Student: Impact.

Miriam: ...Intent vs. Impact. So, you know, even if you choose to put a naked woman in an art piece – which many people do, it's part of the art canon – what is the intent vs. the impact? Is that piece gonna come off as totally sexist or...not?

MRR: I guess this is an environment where kids can learn about how that goes. Which also leads into another excellent student question – I am leaning towards the student questions because they are better than mine – this is blending into how people develop their own styles, and their own ways of expression that makes the most sense to them. So the question was asked: How do you motivate a teen to create art with their own style/How do you help a teen discover their style? And I would add to that, how do you make it so they can express themselves in a way they can be happy or comfortable with?

Miriam: My answer to that would be...because we started AHA with an eye towards equity, the only reason we started this small school was to address the equity gap, and so for me it is really important that students have really strong skills. So, freshman/sophomore/junior year, I focus 90% on building technique and skill – because I know that my students need to be better than most people, because they are judged a little harsher because of who they are in the world. So, I want them to have really strong skills and technique.

Then, in senior year, I focus more on conceptual work and developing ideas and style, and I don't think you can jump into that before you have skill and technique or it is just frustrating. So, the senior class, which is the AP class you were subbing in, is 100% student-focused where they are developing their skill and technique with their concept and their own personal style. It's a balance of keeping everyone on the same page, hammering in skills and technique, and then knowing when – as a teacher – to back off and let them develop their style and their concepts.

MRR: ...and if they always wanted to express it more raw-ly, they could always stop in at 924 Gilman for the weekend.

Miriam: [laughs] Sure. [To group of students] So, what do you all think makes AHA different from other schools?

Student 1: Teachers care.

Student 2: The teachers are much more...people who like each other. It's not just school, it is about how you build relationships, and here's how you think about the world, not just “do some problems”, academics, it is about social skills. I think teenagers need a platform to figure it out. I think AHA has teachers that are not just teachers, they are friends and they care about you.

MRR: You have co-authored (illustrated) an awesome-looking new book with Kate Schatz coming out this year, titled “Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future!”. How did you come about collaborating with Kate Schatz, and what was the process by which the book was completed? How long did it take to create?

Miriam: So, Kate is an author and a teacher at the Oakland School of the Arts; she teaches creative writing. I had submitted some images for a previous book project she had done called Encyclopedia, that was a collaboration between her and two other authors. They went out and talked to a bunch of other artists and writers to make a project called encyclopedia, so they did a series of encyclopedias and then had authors and artists choose the word they wanted to illustrate or write about.

I did that project and she liked my work that I did for that, and so...Kate and I are both mothers of young kids. I have a seven-year-old, and she has a five-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old, and so when she had her daughter, who's five, she had an idea to do a children's book, and there's so few...there's a need right now for diverse children's books. There's a hashtag you may be aware of right now called #weneeddiversebooks. She had an idea, like “I want to make a book for my daughter has rad women in it”. You know, strong, powerful, feminist women and so she she had thought of doing an A-Z book.

[Kate is] part of this book called Binders on facebook, it's all these women writers, the name came out of that thing from when Mitt Romney was running for President where he said “I have binders of women”... and so she kind of put the call out onto there, “Hey, if I did a women A to Z book, what women should be included?”. It kind of started there and she sat with the idea for two years, and then called me and we had coffee and talked about collaborating on it.

So she asked “do you want to do this book?”, and I tend to say yes so I said yes. And I had already made paper cuts of five of the women that were on her initial list.

MRR: What were some of the specific ones that really grabbed you, that you were super stoked on?

Miriam: Well, she had an initial list and then we worked on that list together, and that's where our collaboration started. We were in pretty much agreement about most everything besides one - she wanted Sonia Sotomayor for S and I wanted Sister Karita, this radical nun.

MRR: When was Sister Karita active? I think my parents were really big fans of hers...

Miriam: The sixties and seventies, Vietnam War. Yeah, she was awesome. [laughs] So that was our only disagreement...I was mad at Sonia Sotomayor, it was during that Hobby Lobby stuff last summer, and she wasn't saying anything [about it]. I also wanted to kick Patty Smith out at one point, when she decided to play the Pope's Christmas party.

MRR: At least she hasn't gone full-Exene Cervenka yet.

Miriam: [laughs] Aw, man. So, [Kate and I] met for coffee, and I just started making paper cuts for the people on the list, and I tend to work really fast so I think I made about 20 of them in a week. It was summer [laughs]. We got together A thru E in a week, and she did the writing for those. I had known Michelle Tea for a really long time, who does Sister Spit and Radar Productions, so I emailed Michelle A thru E with the images and some of the writing, and was like “Hey! Wanna put out a children's book?”...Kate and I were busy and didn't have time to do a kickstarter thing, and I'm not really interested in doing that. I see the value of those projects, but my ideal was to work with a local publisher with a feminist perspective. But, you know, Sister Spit is known more for queer debauchery and not children's books [laughs], so I wasn't quite sure … but I knew at the time she was pregnant, so maybe she would be interested. I didn't hear back from her for a couple weeks, then all of a sudden I got an email from her, which was like “I just saw your email, yes I wanna do the book!”. Right after that we had a meeting with City Lights and they were like, “Yeah, we wanna do your book”, and I had all the images so I brought them in a portfolio and they totally loved them, and then Kate wrote the book over the summer...

MRR: That came together fast!

Miriam: Yeah, so it was really really quick.

MRR: [The book] almost seems like it could be a shelf reference, or even assigned for classes.

Miriam: Well, we are both teachers so we have reached out to teachers to write lesson plans for it in trade for a free book...wanna make one? I'll give you a book and some posters.

MRR: I'd love to!

Miriam: Yeah, we don't have much middle school or high school lesson plans yet. So, my kid's at Malcolm X in the second grade, and her teacher's doing a whole project with it for International Women's Day, or Women's Month, or whatever. So, for the month, her class is researching their own rad women and doing drawings, and are gonna make their own book, which is really great.

MRR: So are you going to have the lesson plans online?

Miriam: So we have and that's meant to be a resource, there will be lesson plans online etc. The book will be available at many independent bookstores, I always tell people to order direct from City Lights and avoid Amazon.
MRR: ...So it was designed as a children's book AND an educational tool.

Miriam: It's a really fun kid's book. Me and my daughter, the seven-year old, have been picking one a night, she'll pick a letter and we will read it. She's going to read at some of the local readings. She likes X.

MRR: Who's X?

Miriam: X is the unknown woman. The woman that made you dinner. All the women who do things and don't get acknowledged.

MRR: So the tour that's happening...

Miriam: March and April. It's a whole Sister Spit tour that's happening, down in Southern California and up to the Pacific Northwest, so there's great authors on that bill. Then Kate and I are doing a bunch of other stuff at bookstores and various events. There's an events page on

[bell sounds, everybody scrambles] 

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