You Can’t Do That

by beccaborrelli

Sunset Beach. Frank Stella. 1967.


When deeply ingrained norms are challenged. Even open-minded, and educated people freak out.

I don’t present many solutions on this blog because I’m sensitive. I don’t like people freaking out.

Perhaps I’m a wimp.

Which I’m mostly ok with.

Nor am I trying to paint myself as an enlightened soul who embraces new maps, while more archaic, uneducated types desperately cling to the Stone Age. I started changing my map five years ago. I used to prefer the old map. In ways I’m not aware of… I cling to it still.


paradigm (aka- a map): A set of rules, norms, and standards that societies follow as “things that can’t be done any other way, because that’s the way they are done.”

On the happy end of the spectrum, paradigms organize society and create security.

On the destructive end they create rigid standards that hinder society’s ability to evolve beyond antiquated ways of thinking and being.

It’s easier to fire teachers. It’s easier to re-district and close schools. It’s easier to create races, competitions, and consequences. It’s easier to make tests, more tests, standards and tests.

Conversely, it’s harder to fix the highest child poverty rate in the developed world… harder to fix an antiquated industrial model that doesn’t serve diverse 21st century needs… and much harder to fix the mindset that is responsible for it all.


My first year teaching I taught a lesson to First Graders on the artist above: Frank Stella.

I had standardized it to perfection. No hazy, convoluted, or subjective notions in MY class. We were going to learn actual artistic disciplines. None of that “feel good, art is in your heart baloney”… I was going to make people respect my subject. We were going to learn principles and elements of design, we were going to learn art history and critical thinking skills.

This was real work dammit.

Not an “A” for effort. Not “anything goes.”

In the middle of studio time I walked past a little boy I’ll call “J.”

He was scribbling tornado lines around and around the page.

“J… what are you doing???”

“I’m mixing colors!” he proclaimed with shining eyes.

“I see that, but we’re not learning about right now, so I’d like for you to follow directions.”

“J” wasn’t inspired by my directions.

“No… I’m going to do this…” and he continued to swirl.

So I took his paper.

Right in the middle of his swirling… I plucked it up and put in on my desk, returning with a blank piece of paper.

Ten minutes later I felt a tug on my pant leg as I was helping another student.

Little first grade wide eyes looked up at me:

“J is crying, and won’t do the project.

I walked over and gently touched J on the shoulder. I explained in my calmest teacher voice: “that part of growing up is we don’t always get what we want, and learning to try new things is important…” ya, ya, ya…. Oh I was good. I nearly convinced myself until halfway through my diatribe, J tossed his coloring tool aside:

“I hate this…”

On the way home in my car that afternoon… I cried.


“Education often dislocates children from their dreams, passion, and natural talents. If you’re interested in education, you don’t start with a production-line mentality. We shouldn’t be getting children through education by anaesthetizing them, and hammering in a singular conception of what they ‘should be…’ We should be waking them up to what they have inside themselves.”

— Sir Ken Robinson


Sometimes in my dreams I pull J aside to my filing cabinet and find a print by Jackson Pollock. What if I told him about Pollock’s life a little bit? How he splattered colors. Why he splattered colors. What if I had given him some paint, some direction, and let him play? What kind of impression would he have about art then?

Ooh! Ooh! I like this dreaming game…

I no longer have 600 children per week, I have 25. The whole country will be swimming in teachers, and small class sizes. I will customize work for each and every child. We will utilize art as a means to enhance their personal journey in life! Children will love school so much they will be sad on Fridays. They will mourn on graduation day. They will eagerly clamor for new experiences and knowledge every day for the rest of their lives…

About this part of the dream, I wake up.

Children must learn to conform, says the hater in my head. They will have to work 8 hours a day to support themselves as an adult. Life is hard. Life is conformity. School should be the same. I think about how people live for weekends. They spend most of their life enduring work. I ponder how people do this so they can acquire, consume, and dispose of goods and services. I ponder how I am no exception. I remember that this economic system is linear, unsustainable, and systematically destroying our planet….

Sheesh, how does one reform that?

I’m convinced it’s by starting with a new map.

Even if it freaks us out.