What is the Role of Art?

We live in a polarized society where just about everything is right or wrong, black or white, either/or, and rarely both/and. Perhaps this is some of the starting point of the discussion about the Amity High School Theatre Department's production of Sweeney Todd. It is violence ladened entertainment, or it is art. Even when talking about art, we find this dichotomy, art for art sake versus art as a means of societal change.

Last night, at the Amity Board of Education, I suggested a middle ground. Can we look at Sweeney Todd as both art for art sake, and art capable of bringing about positive societal change? Can art contain distasteful violence and be redeeming at the same time? If we are willing to step outside of our preconceived assumptions, it just might be possible.

For me, this relates back the whole idea of indirect lessons. Kids learn football for football's sake, yet at the same time, they are learning about teamwork. There's a lot of teamwork you learn when you are in a musical. Yet there's even more. There is a certain amount of emotional intelligence and empathy that can be indirectly learned by the cast and the audience a like. There can be catharsis and redemption even in a play about revenge.

Amity has a great tradition of theatre, yet one thing that I've not been able to find around that has been groups gathering to share with one another what they have experienced and learned from attending the productions.

The dust up around the production of Sweeney Todd appears to be offering an opportunity to fill this need. Over in a discussion on the Orange Patch, The Rev. Ann Ritonia wrote,

"a community discussion on violence is a wonderful idea. All are invited to attend a continuation of a community dialogue on April 23rd at St. Barbara's Greek Orthodox Church sponsored by the Orange Interfaith Clergy Fellowship. Prevention of Violence in our Culture: The Next Steps will begin at 7 pm and childcare will be provided. The public is welcome and Middle and High School Students are most welcome to participate in the discussion."

I hope people will attend Sweeney Todd. I hope they will then join the discussion at St. Barbara's Church. Let's celebrate and share art for art's sake that brings about positive social change.

"Art Isn't Easy"

This evening, I attended the Amity Board of Education meeting, where the public comment ended up being about the theatre department's upcoming production of "Sweeney Todd". I decided to go after I saw an announcement in the Patch, Violence Continues at Amity High School.

It was an unfortunate headline for an unfortunate announcement. The violence continuing at the high school is in the form of the musical, "Sweeney Todd". One high school student commented that the only violence at the school is freshmen during the first part of the school year, and that most of the time, Amity High School is a pretty mellow place.

The announcement resulted in an article in the Patch, "Parents Plannning [sic] to Protest at Amity BOE Meeting". It appeared in both the Bethwood Patch and the Orange Patch. Between the two articles and the announcement, there have been around 40 comments on the topic. It was also picked up in the New York Times.

Many of the comments talked about those opposing the production as "small-minded protesters [who] should be ashamed of themselves" and who "should get a grip on reality". Yet I think this misrepresents what is going on.

The first person to speak talked about an inter-faith coalition that was concerned about violence in society, and particularly as it exists in the media. She raised concerns about the violence in the musical and if it was teaching the sort of lessons we want to teach our youth. Others spoke about the musical in terms of art.

I spoke about how, perhaps if we think seriously, the two positions aren't as far apart as people would like to imagine. Art is a powerful way for people to deal with trauma, with the evil that is in the world. It provides an opportunity for people to discuss violence and the sort of society that we want to be part of.

I encouraged everyone to attend the musical, and then to gather with friends to discuss it and broader topics of violence in society. Afterwards, I encouraged the husband of the first speaker to attend, and to distribute leaflets inviting other theatre goers to an open discussion on a later date about violence in society and how art, and the musical addresses this problem. We shall see if anyone takes me up on this.

After I spoke, Howard Sherman echoed some of the same themes, reflecting on Sondheim's words, "Art isn't easy". Art isn't easy. Confronting evil and violence in our world isn't easy. Teaching our children isn't easy. But all of it can come together to help make the world a better place.

So, please come see Sweeney Todd, and then engage in discussions about the music with your friends and neighbors. Join in a broader discussion about how we can make our community a better place.

(This blog post has also been submitted to The Patch)

Can Empathy Be Taught? Online?

For the CT Health Leadership Fellows Program this month, I've been reading Daniel Goleman's "What Makes a Leader?" In it, he asked, "Can Emotional Intelligence Be Learned?"

Being the social media person that I am, I wondered if we could look at this from a different angle, "Can empathy be taught online?"

My mind went to a few different videos. One was Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. The lecture is about an hour and a half long and is very powerful.

In the lecture he tells the audience:

OK, and so one of the expressions I learned at Electronic Arts, which I love, which pertains to this, is experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And I think that’s absolutely lovely. And the other thing about football is we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake, or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it’s really nice that I have a wonderful three-point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff. But we send our kids out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etcetera, etcetera. And these kinds of head fake learning are absolutely important. And you should keep your eye out for them because they’re everywhere.

Perhaps the head fake, the indirect learning, or when it comes to learning emotional intelligence, some sort of 'heart fake' is part of how empathy is learned or how it can be taught. If we learn by doing, perhaps we lead by example. Perhaps what matters in social media is not the content of the post, but the feelings that surround it. Perhaps, to twist McLuhan, it isn't even the medium that's the message, but the emotions that surround the experience of the medium.

Two other videos come to mind, and I always link them together. They are by Jane McGonigal. The first is Gaming can make a better world. The second is The game that can give you 10 extra years of life.

In the first video she sets up the importance of gaming, and in the second, she makes it intensely personal. The second also ties nicely back to Goleman's article. McGonigal starts off the second video saying that she is a gamer and because of that, she likes to have goals.

In this, she comes close to capturing the five components of emotional intelligence at work, Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Motivation, Empathy and Social Skill. She starts off by talking about the Top five regrets of the dying, all of which could me mitigated by playing more games.

She then explores the idea of post traumatic growth in contrast to post traumatic stress disorder. She notes that people experiencing post traumatic growth talk about how they end up doing things that make them happy, feeling closer to friends and family, better understanding who they really are, having a new sense of meaning and being more focused on goals and dreams. She notes that these are the opposite of the regrets of dying people, and I notice that they seem to mirror the five components of emotional intelligence at work.

So, what does it take to experience post traumatic growth? She talks about resiliency. As a side note, one of the Rabbis at the funeral I attended on Sunday made some comments about resiliency that sounded very similar. She described four types of resilience: physical resilience, mental resilience, emotional resilience, and social resilience. In the video, she suggests ways to build up these resiliencies.

Again, as a social media person, I'm wondering if there are ways to build up these resiliencies online. Are there things that can be shared via social media that will help others build up these resiliencies?

When I think about so much that is shared online, it is about the content itself; people praising or cursing the President or members of Congress. People advocating for various issues. Yet perhaps this is not making a difference, or, even worse, it is having a different effect than intended. Are people just becoming more polarized, more offensive by focusing on the content?

Where does indirect learning and emotions around the medium fit in? This is a thought I've been focusing a lot since the shooting in Sandy Hook. I've avoided, as much as possible, news reports going into the horror of the event. Instead, I've focused on sharing stories of people helping one another. I've especially been interested in posting pictures of cute animals, particularly when they are helping others. For example, Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses has many images and stories, that I believe can help build some of the resiliencies that McGonigal talks about.

Can empathy be taught online? Perhaps; perhaps by focusing on head fakes about resiliency. I'm trying to bring some of that into my social media footprint. Are you? What sort of impact are you having online?

"Then Came Bronson"

As part of the Learning Creative Learning MOOC from MIT, I am writing about something that has impacted my approach to learning. This is based on Seymour Papert's essay, "Gears of My Childhood". When I first read about the essay, I thought about the old alarm clock I had been given as a Christmas present one year, along with a set of screwdrivers. I took apart that alarm clock, looked at how all the pieces fit together, including plenty of gears, but never managed to put it back together into a working alarm clock. Nor, did this experience stay with me as a key force in my educational pursuits over the following years.

So, what has stuck with me all these years? It was a television show that came on when I was about ten years old, "Then Came Bronson". The starting point is Bronson heading off on a motorcycle to find meaning in his life after his best friend commits suicide. Bronson rolls into one town after another and gets involved in the lives of the town people at some crucial point, helping them find a healthy resolution to their situation.

Yes, I loved trying to figure out what made that broken clock tick and I still love tinkering, trying to find out how things work, and exploring how they could work differently. Yet what really pulls it all together for me is trying to figure out what makes the people around me tick and if there are things I can do to help their lives run a little more smoothly.

So, what are the gears of your childhood? How are they helping the people around you? Whatever the answer, "hang in there."

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Creating Better Health, Part 2

On Monday, I wrote a blog post entitled Creating Better Health trying to pull together themes from patient education, the e-patient movement, discussions at the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media and the Learning Creative Learning class at MIT.

Tuesday, I had a meeting with people from a health care foundation to talk about messaging around health care. It struck me how much money and effort is spent marketing unhealthy products, and how little effort is really spent encouraging Americans to live healthier lifestyles. Wednesday was mostly devoted to health disparity issues, and this morning started off on a similar note.

Then, this afternoon, I had a fascinating discussion that really helped pull some of this together. It seems like so much of patient education is about imparting information to patients. You have diabetes. You need to exercise more. You need to eat less sweets. It also seems like so much of this 'patient education' fails because patients aren't compliant with what their doctors are telling them.

Some of this may relate to health equity issues. Are the doctors imparting information providing information that is culturally aware? Perhaps they've been trained and think about difference between latino patients and caucasian patients. Yet perhaps this is too blunt a tool. My friends of Venezuelan descent are quick to point out how different they are from our Puerto Rican, Mexican or Argentinian friends. For that matter, there are similar differences between Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans, and then you get to families like mine. On my side of the family, there is English, Scottish, Irish, French, Dutch which has been mixed together for generations. We have certain traditions around food and family gatherings. On Kim's side of the family, there is Italian, Irish, English and Russian, some of it much more recently arrived in the United States and mixed together. There are a different set of traditions. As a family, we try to mix all of this together that into something that is uniquely part of our family.

A couple of us have specific dietary concerns related to our health so meals and traditions are created that specifically relate to our cultures and our health conditions. My wife takes great pride in her ability to create great meals that meet all the family requirements. Every family is different. How do other families create meals that meet the specifics of family tradition and health needs? This probably is something that needs to be created by the family, and not imparted by medical providers.

When you look at people confronting major health challenges, they gather at online sites, where they share experiences and ideas, where they discover, together, aspects of their diseases, perhaps information that the medical community has yet to discover. This seems to be constructivist learning about health which is far different from most patient education. The patient support sites, are, in certain ways, massive open online courses (MOOC).

As an alternative to traditional patient education with low compliance rates, can we design massive open online courses where patients with more common and in some cases less threatening diseases can participate in shared learning experiences that result in better health? It seems like an interesting challenge.

Related to the MIT MOOC, I have set up a Google+ community LCL Health. If you're interested in exploring this further, please join us.

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