Roots in the Key of Life

Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand…

And you can tell right away at letter A….

Stevie Wonder, “Sir Duke,” album “Songs in the Key of Life”

  (bryan farley)

Where do we begin?

Last week I photographed the three day Inventing Our Future Integrated Summer Learning Institute at The Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California. The Alameda County Office of Education’s Alliance for Arts Learning Leadership organizes the ILSI so that area educators will be better prepared to integrate art into their curriculum. After I photographed last year’s conference, I wondered if educators would love connecting with each other as well as the content. This year I will remember how students inspired me to wonder about a different question.

How does one distinguish between Courage and Good Art?

 (bryan farley)

The institute is one place where everyone accepts that art education is important. I can relax and learn from others without feeling that I must continually justify arts integration. Let’s face it, America is just not that into integration.

The three days of the institute were divided into the following goals. I have included photos from each day if any viewers want to see evidence of learning.

Day 1 “How are we preparing youth to take care of themselves?”  (70)

Day 2 “How are we preparing youth to take care of each other?”  (70)

Day 3 “How are we preparing youth to take care of the planet?”  (74)

 (bryan farley)

On the first day, participants selected metaphors that described their learning style.

I did not participate, but I recalled my personal metaphors. I love bamboo. persistent. below the surface. I dig into crevices and extend my networks. Bamboo roots can grow under concrete and break through planters and sidewalks. Gardeners try to isolate bamboo. Bamboo irritates and integrates. Slowly. Suddenly.

Most observers do not see the bamboo’s underground activity, and while that has often served me well, sometimes I feel ignored. I fear that I have become…

all roots, no shoots.

 (bryan farley)

Because humans are already connected, we desire connection. As Sarah Crowell of Destiny Arts Center reminded us, we create false dichotomies when we discuss life/work balance. We even disconnect from ourselves. When we work, we might be unbalanced, but we are still alive. If we are going to teach youth to take care of themselves, we must take care of ourselves. We must connect to our needs.

Just as humans are already connected, we are also integrated. The institute’s timing illustrates how life integrates historically, globally and personally. The institute began on the one year anniversary of Robin Williams suicide and ended the day before the 70th anniversary of VJ Day. Later this month, New Orleans will remember the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Sunday was the eleven year anniversary of my father’s suicide. Many of us need art to explain this upside down world. We need teachers and artists who can provide context when the levies break and the roots break through … and the roots always break through, even if we do not see them approaching.

I need art. I need artists. I need teachers who have the capacity to connect to themselves and others.

The 2015 Integrated Learning Summer Institute is a three day education conference sponsored by the Alameda County Office of Education from August 11 - 13 at Chabot Space and Science Center. The second day's theme is "preparing youth to take care of each other." (bryan farley)

In my previous blog post about musician Nina Diaz, I referenced musician Nina Simone. Simone argued that it is an artist’s duty to reflect the times. This leads me to another question,

What is a teaching artist’s duty?

Somehow this label of “teaching artist” minimizes the responsibilities of the teacher and the artist. I wonder how an art teacher inspires students without having been an artist. How does an art teacher help students struggle with risk taking? How can a teacher help a student find their voice?

Perhaps Oakland Technical High School student artists presented an example during their performance. The students were courageous and technically skilled. During the discussion afterwards, the students explained the importance of integrating the arts into the rest of the curriculum. Students also expressed the need for integrating play into science, math and other subject.

To become a master teaching artist, the teacher must perform courageously and skillfully under pressure. The master teaching artist much have courage and skill and a willingness to grow. I would imagine any good teacher would need courage, skill and desire.

 (bryan farley)

This next part is important to emphasize. Integrated curriculum improves learning by increasing participation. When students can participate more fully, students are more likely to learn and retain information. We are encouraged to access our multiple intelligences to find multiple solutions. We are not limited by little boxes.

I started mixing my words and letters more than usual last week. For example, I thought a “Writing Back” poster was about the classical composer J.S. Bach (as in Johan Sebastian). I allowed myself to feel the automatic shame with missing something so simple. Then I reimagined my learning style as a variations on a theme. I felt much better when I photographed a session incorporating variations and when I sat in a pew on Sunday and Bach’s Variation IX was played during Quiet and Prayer Time. I may have missed the Writing Back message, but Writing Bach would be an awesome lesson for someone… oh, and by the way, Nina Simone loved Bach.

The 2015 Integrated Learning Summer Institute is a three day education conference sponsored by the Alameda County Office of Education from August 11 - 13 at Chabot Space and Science Center. The second day's theme is "preparing youth to take care of each other." (bryan farley)

My variations on a theme thinking can also lead to unintended satire. Last week I started singing (very quietly) the Whitney Houston classic The Greatest Love of All?

I sang, “I believe that children are the furniture.”

While many educators seem to treat students as moveable chairs, I wondered how many neighbors in the education community I have ignored. Who do I not see? Who do I not hear? Who am I ignoring?

The 2015 Integrated Learning Summer Institute is a three day education conference sponsored by the Alameda County Office of Education from August 11 - 13 at Chabot Space and Science Center. The second day's theme is "preparing youth to take care of each other." (bryan farley)

Educators must keep asking ourselves tough questions. Who are we missing? Where do we send our own children to school? How can we take care of ourselves and others? How can we model courage, compassion and excellence? Too often educators rush to create new systems and new schools when our students need something basic. Too often, when educators think “our students,” we create false dichotomies. Let’s really face it, Americans are just not that into integration.

 (bryan farley)

My father taught me that if I wanted to change the system, I needed to work within the system. For what it is worth, he gave me this advice when I was a long haired Women’s Studies major at UCSB and he was a retired California Highway Patrol Officer. My father also shot himself eleven years ago. He did not know how to take care of himself. Eventually, he could not care for others.

As public school educators, we must learn to trust a system that has never worked. We must learn how to trust dreamers who also choose to work in a dysfunctional system. We must believe that the system will see us, even if administrators do not know how to use internet search engines. If we are artists, we must believe that our work will change hearts.

How do we find the strength to continue? How do you find the strength to quit?

 (bryan farley)

We have access to more imagery, but we see less.

We can access more knowledge, but we have yet to solve big problems. Do we know more? Do we have authentic answers to life questions? Do we have the answers to the key of life? I don’t. I do not even know if I have access to my authentic root key or if someone else accesses my computer, but as I continue dancing across the curriculum, I will remember what the prophet sang.

It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

 (bryan farley)

Inspired by master photographer Erich Salomon (more background info included in notes)

My friend, and former newspaper editor, Shelia D’Amico moved to Colorado last week. Before leaving, she gave me a few photography books, including one by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson is arguably the world’s most influential photographer. (He is like Babe Ruth, Elvis or Madonna.) Arthur Miller wrote the forward to Cartier-Bresson’s 1991 “America in Passing,” and I will conclude with his last few sentences. You might appreciate the thoughtful metaphor.

“What is our next chapter? Where do we go from here? And can the new impulse, whatever its mode, come forth with such rooted beauty?”



5 Responses to “Roots in the Key of Life”

  1. Gorgeous photos of an amazing week!
    Whoo hoo!
    Would love to ask about getting a photo or two of myself leading a workshop to add to my website.

    • bryan farley says:


      It was great seeing you. Thank you for the compliments by the way. Feel free to contact me directly about specific photos. You can select the photos and contact me from the photo galleries or send me a general email.

      Hope to see you soon.


  2. Jacqueline Bogdan says:

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful, reflective words and photos, Bryan!

  3. […] To read about last year, see the post Roots in the Key of Life […]