Professor Ruth Vinz and “The Body Project”: SPI Summer Institute Session ☆

On July 11-14, TC hosted the Student Press Initiative (SPI) Summer Institute, where 75+ educators of all disciplines gathered to learn about teaching writing, project-based curriculum, and the process of publishing student work.

According to Christine Gentry, SPI Curriculum Consultant and Ph.D. Candidate in English Education, the event program had something of a “braided” focus,  with three distinct strands conceptually organizing the actionable information that teachers received.

One strand of this braid included a selection of presentations by in-service teachers who talked about their own experience with SPI, including clear tips and anecdotes on the potential pitfalls and many victories of the process.

Erick Gordon and Kerry McKibbin (founding and early SPI team members, respectively) offered the braid’s second strand, with their presentations providing background and SPI’s big-picture message.

The final—and largest—strand, organized under the description of  “Above and beyond books: Authentic writing assignments and creative ways to take your students’ voices public,” offered presentations on a diversity of topics from oral storytelling (by Peter Aguero from The Moth), to community-based research (by Professor Ernest Morrell), to comics (by Art and Art Education doctoral student Nick Sousanis).

It was this third and final strand that gave framework to the presentation of Professor Ruth Vinz (the Enid & Lester Morse Chair and the Arts and Humanities Department Chair), which will be the focus of this posting.

Vinz introduced her workshop, “The Body Project: Tattoos, Piercings, Perfumes, and other Adornments” as an “agent of inquiry” to get students writing.  Vinz explained that in her 23-year history of teaching highschool students, she perennially noticed her student’s fascination with images of bodies and their captivation with personal adornment.  She employed this natural interest into “The Body Project,” and shared this methodology with SPI Institute attendees.

Vinz’s session offered a unique approach:  attendees learned by “doing” and went through the exercise as Vinz loosely envisioned it working in a classroom.  She displayed a plethora of images (ancient, antique and contemporary) which dealt with body adornment:  a heavily tattooed man, a woman in corsetry constructed by skin piercings, a bodybuilder, a woman wearing a large lip plate, male and female high-fashion models, and a host of others.  Vinz invited the room to comment on these images and the ways we think about and control the body.  She urged that there was no need for students to come to conclusions, but rather better to keep exploring and talking.  Inciting texts, like the photos (culled from a myriad of sources) shouldn’t produce answers, but rather more questions.  The key to such inquiry-based projects, Vinz explained, is for students to produce their own ideas about what it means to adorn the body.

Vinz’s session next progressed to investigating texts, where again the audience learned by “doing”.  They read book excerpts from books and poems (bell hooks’ Bone Black:  Memories of Girlhood, Nancy Etcoff’s Survival of the Prettiest, kira-kira by Cynthia Kadohata), while Vinz advised teachers to provide multiple texts that offer different perspectives on the concept of the body:  “Cluster quality fiction and non-fiction, including oral histories and interviews to demonstrate that both literature and non-fiction help us experience and understand certain perspectives on various places, cultures, traditions, and practices,” Vinz explained.

As the room discussed the texts, Vinz asked, “Are your minds racing with topics you can raise with your students?”  (Beyond “The Body Project”, Vinz has lead inquiries on such issues as ecology, gentrification and school resources).  She explained that once a teacher gets an inquiry going, she should help her students hear multiple and contradictory perspectives.  “We narrow down information too fast.  We look for answers, so students think there are only answers.”  Instead, Vinz wants students to experience a myriad of opinions so they feel their heads are “so full.”  Her desire is for students to listen, hear and withhold judgment.

Vinz summarized her session with three key pedagogical principles.  First:  Learn the landscapes.  Walk the hallways of your school and the streets of your neighborhood.  Notice, observe, collect, jot, write, reflect and really see through all the media available.  Second:  Map sites for exploration.  Gain perspective on particular issues.  Third:  Take it to the streets or to the school square.

“We aren’t coming to any conclusions—we are keeping the inquiries open,” Vinz emphasized.