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Braggin’ about my students…

I had some excellent teachers when I was younger. The ones that were the most brilliant exemplified the sort of razor-thin line between creativity in the classroom and outright psychotic sadism. (My favorite was a bio teacher who came in to a dissection lab dressed as your classic maître d’, white gloves, linen towel on the arm and everything, carrying a silver tray, neatly lined with lettuce, and the objects of our academic investigations – cow eyeballs, each one with a toothpick neatly inserted into its optic nerve. It was brilliant object lesson in our cultural views on food. Half the class looked like they were going to vom.) I don’t teach biology, so I don’t get to play the gross-out card. Sadness is. But I do teach design, which has some other possibilities… ;)

Technically, I’m also teaching flat patterning right now, which is awesome, but allows less room for me to really mess with them in the name of education.

My design class, on the other hand…

The topic of the week a couple weeks ago was shape. One of the things I try to encourage them to do is to actually look at the things around them.  (“Look with your looking eyes!”) I want them to stop automatically judging things for what they are used for or what they technically are, and to start seeing them as lines and shapes and colors and textures and possibilities and materials and ideas. The world is full of amazing that we mostly just skim over.

closeup of bug
Like this fellow, who is quite possibly the most couture bug I have ever seen. I want that jacket. This is, like, costumer candy. (Devil’s Flower Praying Mantis, Idolomantis diabolica, Photo by: Igor Siwanowicz)

Ok, I suppose if you really dislike bugs, I do play the gross-out card a lot. I think bugs are pretty cool, so they seem to keep popping up in my design lectures. I spent a semester pinning bugs in high school. My still-forming brain may have been permanently altered by the intriguing aromas of preserving fluids that probably hadn’t been legal for a decade or two.


I felt like I needed an activity to force the see-it-don’t-judge-it issue.

So the lecture ended with me pulling out a standard flat-bottom coffee filter, which is one of the most mundane items I can think of. Everybody in the class knew what it was. Personally, I think coffee filters are nifty. They’re such an odd little gift of pretty, graceful functionality. (Except for the cone filters, which are merely functional.) Some of my students were a politely enlightened by the idea that these are actually nicely cut circles. Then I did a little fold-a-gami, and presto-change-o, cute little flower for behind your ear. Aww, so cute. Awesome. Is it lunch yet?

Then I pulled out the other 561 coffee filters, the box of pins that mom donated because they’re hurty on the fingers, and some half scale dress forms. I told them to make groups of 2-3, grab some pins and filters, and make me some fashion.  “Think celebrity wedding!”

There was heavy sort of silence and a general lack of movement.

At some point they realized that I was Not Kidding(tm).

I am not sure they were all 100% clear on how the words “Just play with them! They’re awesome!” were any sort of useful direction. (When you’re teaching a creative class, you either have to give people so many vague examples that they completely lose focus and their brains go into free-fall, or so few examples that their brains never get out of free-fall. If you give a limited selection of good examples, that tends to be exactly what you get back in assignments. That is why design teachers mostly all sound like fruitcakes. I didn’t believe it when I was warned by a far more experienced teacher, but she was right. This is also why your design teachers won’t answer questions like, “When you say you’re grading us on creativity – can you give me an example of what you’re looking for?” No. Because the second I tell you, you doing that is no longer creative and I’d hate to limit your options… It’s a perverse form of logic, but there you go.)

But then they did stuff, and it was AMAZING. It was like, I need Oprah to announce this just to convey the level of AH-MAAAY-ZING!! involved. They started having fun, and playing, and then they actually took words of concern involving editing and visual paths for the eye seriously. (I was surprised by that, honestly.) And there was running up front for more coffee filters. And there was some complaining about the ouch-factor of the pins, but less than I had thought. And there was active editing, and conversations about design choices, and generalized awesomeness.

And they did this:

group of three designs
Me? Stuff insane classroom activities straight into a department display case? Never….
group of 2 designs
I am much too lazy to do it myself, so I made them set the displays up. ;) It was adorable to watch them primp and fuss and try to find best angles.
single design
I love the amount of structure they got out of the humble coffee filters…
single design
…and the level of couture insanity that happened…
single design
…and the dramatic editorial looks.
single design
I was so proud of them!
single design
‘Cause, like, coffee filters, y’all…

I’d say these things are totally wasted on making coffee, but really, no, coffee is a higher calling. But I digress…

I cannot even tell you how proud I was of them and the work they turned out here. :)

My poor little heart swells up a little every time I hear some one go past the display and say “Oh, those are coffee filters!” or I see kids pulling out their camera phones and taking pictures. The students hear it too, which is quite cool. Fluffs their little feathers right up, it does. This kind of thing is, by far, one of the most awesome parts of that act of loving sadism known as teaching.

Grading, on the other hand: not so much awesomeness. I should probably get back to that…


  1. Chris D.
    Chris D. February 10, 2013

    Those are amazing! Bravo on the unusual materials. Your students have a great eye and sense of style. Now I kinda want to make a ballgown out of coffee filters…

  2. Beth
    Beth February 12, 2013

    Now I have visions from my youthful efforts at “tie dye” with food coloring droplets on wet coffee filters and turning that into awesome designs like this. Back in the 70s they actually sold paper dresses (my aunt had several but I don’t remember what they looked like) … just thinking

  3. Brad
    Brad February 13, 2013

    Excellent creative participation idea!

    I want big green blobs around my knees…I’m sure it’s the next fashion craze.

  4. Jeanne S.
    Jeanne S. February 18, 2013

    Nice! (My mom and I had “paper” dresses in the 70’s that were printed like the yellow pages–a promotional thing as my dad worked for the phone company. They were really more like non-woven interfacing.)

  5. […] properties of an everyday item and re-interpret it as a fashion material.  Last semester was coffee filters.  That worked so well as to be  a tough act to follow.  The idea of what to do next has been […]

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