Teacher humours both children and adults

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      Special - Education

      Maureen Kushner covers a lot of territory-as much as any ambassador of peace, although she works with schoolchildren rather than heads of state and her chief tool is not diplomacy but humour. Based in both Jerusalem and New York City, the renowned educator was in Tel Aviv when the Straight first located her this summer; then she travelled for a brief vacation to the Greek island of Santorini, where an e-mail correspondence began.

      Writing from an Internet café, Kushner described the setting. "Oia is a gorgeous village on top of the volcano in Santorini, and it is remarkable how something so beautiful could be built on top of a place where there were [volcanic eruptions] and earthquakes.…It's a testament to the human spirit, the need to propagate, to create, to endure and to triumph." It's a metaphor, too, for the creative projects Kushner has undertaken with kids in some of the tougher boroughs of New York, and with Jewish, Arab, Bedouin, and Druze children throughout Israel.

      Peace Through Humor, an exhibition of paintings, drawings, and collages on view in the hallways of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, reveals not only the aspirations and experiences of the Israeli children, ages five to 12, with whom Kushner first worked in the mid-1990s but also the nature of the humour-based practice she evolved before that, teaching art and creative writing to elementary-school kids in Harlem and Washington Heights. "In Washington Heights, I had a kids' comedy club…for about eight years," Kushner says, speaking by telephone from her home in Brooklyn. "I taught the children how to read and write using humour." In the context of the comedy club, students produced books, masks, art, and performance works addressing a range of real-life issues, from crime to pollution.

      Humour, Kushner has discovered, is an important educational tool. "Humour has to do with sequential thinking, creative thinking, logical thinking, critical thinking." It also allows people, young and old, to address their fears, achieve catharsis, and find new routes into learning. In Washington Heights, an area plagued with drug problems, Kushner worked with children whose parents were immigrants and who were struggling with reading and writing. She assigned them joke homework.

      "Some of the teachers would say, 'You're giving them joke homework? What is this, funny?'?" Kushner recalls. They didn't realize that jokes would introduce the kids not only to the possibilities of wordplay, metaphor, and creative association but also to an alternative way of viewing the world. "Once you start to look at things from another perspective, already it's the threshold to understanding."

      The structures and sequences they encountered in word-based humour-for instance, formulaic jokes of the knock-knock, doctor-doctor, or waiter-waiter variety-boosted their English-language skills and enhanced their ability to learn math, she continues. "When they took their standardized tests in reading and math, these kids who weren't succeeding in anything ended up in the 90th percentile-plus nationally."

      That kind of success led Kushner to educate other educators by giving courses and workshops on teaching reading and writing, classroom management, and conflict resolution-all through art and humour. A graduate course she taught at Bank Street College of Education in New York, titled Projects for Peace: Approaches to an Integrative Environment, garnered international attention. In 1994, a colleague of Kushner recommended her to the Israeli Ministry of Education, to work with Israeli schoolchildren, creating art relating to the Mideast peace process then under way.

      Initially, she says, the ministry didn't quite know what to do with her. Humour? What? "They stuck me in a school with Kurdish and Moroccan Jewish kids who were doing very badly," Kushner says. "They figured they were doing so badly, I couldn't make it any worse." She began, as she frequently does, by teaching cartooning techniques, applying them to words associated with peace and war, and then talking with the kids about the words, about their meanings and roots in Hebrew and Arabic. This strategy, she explains, expands students' awareness of shared meanings and values, providing them with a route to compassion and, again, unleashing creative associations. As for the "so-called incorrigible" students she first encountered, she says, "I saw these kids as filled with great potential.…They were funny and couldn't believe they were allowed to be funny." By the end of two months there, working with fifth-grade students twice a week, she found her reputation in the Israeli educational community was assured. "Before you knew it, I had a waiting list of over 200 schools."

      A number of the kids in the more than 50 schools Kushner visited in Israel in the mid-1990s were Jewish immigrants from Chechnya and Ethiopia, as well as from Kurdistan and Morocco, and had experienced considerable hardship, loss, and armed conflict in their young lives. The non-immigrant children, too, were constantly exposed to the threat and reality of violence and terrorism. What the exhibition makes clear is that humour is a means of expression and catharsis. Although there are drawings of doves, rainbows, and kittens in Peace Through Humor, there are also images of rocket attacks, suicide bombers, murdered civilians, and weeping families.

      Carla Girvitz, a teacher at the Richmond Jewish Day School, encountered Peace Through Humor by chance, when she was a student in her final year at York University, where the show was mounted about 18 months ago. (Over the past decade, the exhibition has toured throughout the United States, Canada, and Israel, often with Kushner attending to give workshops and slide presentations.) Initially, Girvitz says, she didn't know what she was looking at. "But it was striking and it just stopped me," she recalls in a phone interview. "It instantly brought tears to my eyes." She talked to Kushner about the work, about the themes and issues it addressed.

      "She's so charismatic, she's just full of life and energy, and she's so into what she's doing," Girvitz says. "I would hope that one day, as a teacher, I'll be able to answer questions with such confidence and such knowledge."

      The exhibition Peace Through Humor continues at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver until September 16. Maureen Kushner will be in Vancouver next month to speak with both adults and children. She will lead a workshop for children aged eight to 10 at 2:30 p.m. on September 11 at the JCC (open to the public). She will also give a slide lecture in the Norman Rothstein Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on September 11 (limited seating available). For information and registration, call 604-257-5111 between September 7 and 9.