Noah Purifoy

The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, in North Joshua Tree, is a priceless treasure.

Purifoy fascinates me because of his background in social work. He was both a major artist and a significant figure in community programs and education. He was also a sophisticated, erudite artist who, according to everything I’ve learned about him, did not get caught up in the politics and materialism of the art world.

He is my favorite American artist. I am not an art historian, but I am an enthusiastic amateur admirer of art, and until recently I had three favorite artists: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Van Gogh. I now have four.

The Outdoor Museum rewards repeat visits as a great book rewards multiple readings. This time when we arrived, a woman introduced herself as the caretaker, Pat. She handed us new brochures and welcomed us to the site.

We started with “Carousel,” one of my favorite pieces – a round “building” decorated inside with a collection of 1980s-era computer parts. Near “Carousel” is my very favorite piece at the museum: “Ode to Frank Gehry,” at right below.


I read this piece as both homage and critique. Yes, Purifoy pays tribute to the “starchitect,” but he also seems to chip away a bit at Gehry’s mystique – I can do that, too, Purifoy seems to be telling us.

This was the piece that made me a Purifoy admirer when we first visited the Outdoor Museum a few years ago.

The eastern end of the Outdoor Museum has two pieces that especially resonate with me: “Adrian’s Little Theater” (left) and “Gallows.”

“Adrian’s Little Theater” is one of two theater-themed assemblages at the Outdoor Museum. (The other is next to Carousel.) The presence of two such pieces on the property suggests how important the one-time Watts Art Center director believed such public performance spaces were.

“Gallows,” on the other hand, is chilling in its perfection. It is furthest east of the pieces; of all the pieces at the Outdoor Museum, it appears to me to be the most sturdily-constructed. I am not sure if it was constructed from cast-off items, as the rest of Purifoy’s pieces here are, but it appears as though it could have been constructed by a contractor sourcing his items from the local hardware store. That the artist who was born under Jim Crow in Alabama placed this symbol of state-sponsored violence in his desert wonderland seems significant to me. It is as though he wants to tell us that hatred and violence are, like the gallows, sturdily constructed; it seems to be a warning that evil can follow us wherever we go.

“Shelter” is another piece that challenges me. All of Purifoy’s work is constructed of cast-off items, but here the trash feels like trash.

Irene Rible writes that this piece was “made from the charred remnants of a neighbor’s burnt down house and filled with all the manifestations of poverty that Purifoy knew so intimately from his time as a social worker.” I think this sense of the “manifestations of poverty” is what I find so unsettling about this piece. A sign that reads “Kids World,” strategically placed as a sort of welcome mat at one opening reminds that this is the world of many children–bare shelter and little else. Though I don’t especially enjoy looking at this piece, I think I need to spend time with it: when a work of art bothers me this much, it’s a sign that I need to pay attention to it.

On a happier note, the witty “Library of Congress” ends my post. The reading room may not be the most up-to-date, but as you can see from the photo at bottom right, the view is hard to beat!



Inquiry Update

My effort to establish routines has been of mixed success. I have been able to establish certain routines, such as the weekly check-in I describe below, as well as the “research workshop” on Fridays. On the other hand, I have not written as regularly as I would like – at least not publicly.

My classes have made some progress with the research workshop; it is more clearly structured than last year. I also believe that our Class Constitutions are working better this year than they have in years past. One reason for this: I’ve done a weekly check-in on Mondays (or Tuesdays, due to our block schedule), where students quickwrite about how things are going. Students then have the opportunity to share concerns or positive feedback. In one class, students shared that they enjoyed our biweekly visit to the library and that they enjoyed working on Letters to the Next President.

This week, in place of the quickwrite, I conducted a survey in three of my four classes (I’ll conduct the survey with the fourth class on Friday). I’ll write more about that later this week.

Starting this week, I would like to re-focus on my goal: to write at least weekly, in a public space, about my inquiry. I also want to set aside time, each day, to write in my teaching journal – in sentences! – about my progress and my practice. As my fortieth birthday rapidly approaches, I need to put these routines in place.

“Share Something Small Every Day”

I’m reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, and one of the book’s many great ideas is “share something small everyday.”

I’d really like to do this, and I think Twitter would be an excellent place to start. Condensing my reflection on my work day into 140 characters (or, I suppose, 134 characters, since I’ll add the CLMOOC hashtag) would be an interesting, and I hope useful, experiment. Perhaps, if I can write a focused tweet every day for an extended period of time, I can expand on that as the semester goes on.

So, here’s my first daily share.



Research Brief: 2016-17

When I sat down to write my research plan for the upcoming school year, I began my re-reading my brief from last year. I realized that much of last year’s brief still applied; I also realized with some embarrassment that I had written some sections last year and then completely failed to follow through with them.

So, rather than write a new brief, I’ve updated last year’s brief:

The text in italics is new.

The text in blue indicates plans from last year’s brief that I failed to complete last year but want to pursue this year.

Dates are updated to reflect this year’s calendar.


How can I involve students in setting their own learning outcomes and meaningfully pursuing these outcomes?


How do the power relationships at my school affect (or even constrain) efforts to create democratic spaces?

Can teaching practice that is non-coercive or non-deficit influence student motivation positively?

If students are involved in co-designing curriculum with teachers, will students have more meaningful learning experiences?

What is a meaningful learning experience?  How can teachers collaborate with students and families to determine what a meaningful learning experience is in their context?

What scaffolding or support is needed for students to design and pursue self-determined outcomes?


I am hoping to discover and describe practical ways to empower students and create a learning space that is more democratic. I am also hoping to include families in an authentic (non-coercive, non-deficit) manner.

Literature Review 

As I conduct the inquiry, I will conduct a limited research review by blogging about relevant research.  (I did not do this last year. It would be fun to do a monthly “research corner” post.)


We will use James Beane’s Curriculum Integration model as a starting point for inquiry.  In particular, we will use the approach described in Chapter 4.  I will blog about this model at greater length in future posts.

I am going to modify this somewhat, in part due to this year’s special circumstances.

In the spring, our district and teachers’ union agreed to end the Fall 2016 semester at Christmas – an excellent idea, in my opinion, given that our previous model had two weeks of class plus finals after winter break before the change of semesters, which made January seem rushed and disconnected from what came before break. However, because an earlier start to the year was deemed too disruptive, we will have an 81-day fall semester with a 99-day spring semester. 

Another special circumstance is the presidential election, which has ramifications for all of my classes but especially, I think, for U.S. History.
As a result, I plan to use the following modifications this year:

  •  In the fall, seniors (English) will work in groups complete a project that is smaller and less student-directed than I would ideally like. I will structure our workshop time more carefully and spend more time up front helping the students think about time management and outcomes
  • In the spring, seniors will work more independently to pursue a project that is closer to the ideal described in Beane’s work.
  • In the fall, juniors (U.S. History) will deepen their research skills by writing Letters to the Next President.
  • In the spring, juniors will complete a Common Core Project, as described by Peter Paccone of San Marino High School. I will blog about this project later in the year.

We will create a Class Constitution and attempt to build a collaborative, non-coercive classroom culture that is based on honoring our agreements to each other.  We will also have brief but regular “check-ins” to discuss how well our Constitution is working for us. Check-ins will take place on Mondays/Tuesdays (i.e., the first meeting of the week in our block schedule).
I will use surveys, interviews, and perhaps sociograms to gather data from students on their perceptions in October, January & May.  I did surveys last year but not interviews or sociograms. 

Data collection 

  • Field notes
  • Teacher blog posts
  • Student questionnaires/interviews/sociograms re perceptions of power
  • Student work
  • Student blog posts

Data analysis  
I will analyze my field notes daily using a version of Shagoury & Power’s method of “cooking” notes, or reflecting on notes shortly after you take them (page 45-50).

I will reflect in writing in my inquiry journal regularly – daily, if possible; otherwise at least three times weekly.

I will blog weekly about the inquiry’s progress.

I will meet twice monthly, or weekly if possible, with our instructional coach, Jennifer Yoo-Brannon, and/or my lesson study group, to reflect on the data collected.


August 22 – publish research brief on my blog
August 23 – September 2 – obtain permissions from students, revise research brief as needed
September 5 – September 23 – initial data collection (student perceptions of power); implement strategies; begin field notes
September 26 – December – implement strategies, collect data, analyze data, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group
December, end of semester – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power
January, February, March, April, May – continue to collect & analyze data, implement strategies, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group
May – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power
May/June – final data analysis
June/July – draft report


I will publish the report on my research on my blog & at Digital Is by the end of August 2017.

Reflection before beginning
I learned a lot last year, but I failed to make the inquiry systematic and organic. That’s my goal for this year: to establish inquiry – and especially writing in public about my inquiry – as a part of my professional routine.