Just over a year ago, I was beginning to plan things out for the imminent school year. I was not doing a complete revamp of a curriculum, but I was moving things around a bit and doing a pretty serious polishing of how things could connect. I wanted to do something right off the bat that would get my 4th graders motivated and excited about the school year. I decided on doing a lesson on creating a motto right at the beginning of the year. I would introduce some basic methods of font design that 4th graders are pretty perfectly aged for, and I could give them some historical context about political mottos and we would tie it in by creating buttons, very similar to the ones that political candidates would give out when they were running for office. I wanted to have this motto be something they thought about with their approach to the school year, combining aspects of their personality with ambitions they could have to make the best of their months ahead. I needed to come up with an example, my own motto, with some design ideas that might point them in the right direction. I took a few days thinking about this. I wanted a motto that meant something to me, as well as something that 9 and 10 year old kids could connect to.
"Weird" was in the mix pretty early on. I tried working with some variations of the word - strange, odd, peculiar, and I am not sure what else, but weird always sounded better to me. Then, I needed an active word to make it into an idea to work towards, a motto. "Be Weird" sounded bossy, like if a student didn't feel like they were already weird, I didn't want them to think that was a problem. I played around with other combinations too - "Act Weird", "Live Weird", "Think Weird", etc., but they didn't sound quite right to me. I eventually thought of "Stay Weird" and it didn't immediately sound like a winner, but I found myself coming back to it again and again in what it could mean. I liked the idea that it was sort of recognizing the idea that yes, we are all weird, and that is ok, in fact it is a good thing. What makes us weird is what might help us give some uniqueness to the work we make. The phrase reminded me of the quote that may correctly or incorrectly be attributed to Picasso - "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up." I have read that there is some debate on whether or not he actually said that, regardless, the sentiment rings true. If I wanted one idea to stick with students past the time they have with me, it would be to hold on to that unique side of them. Don't let the world make you think you have to be like anyone else. Your ideas are already filled with life and originality, and please hold on to that. Then it reminded me of a quote from an even better human, if not the best ever, Fred Rogers who would say "There is no person in the world like you, and I like you just the way you are." Mine was in a way just a shorter and somewhat goofier version of this, something I could say to kids without getting too choked up, something that would fit on a button. So I settled on it "Stay Weird" was going to be my motto going into this school year.
Since the motto lesson was going to be the first lesson I was going to do, I was planning it out right around the time when I was thinking about decorating my room. In years past I had often put various posters of work I thought kids would like, and quotes from artists that I planned on teaching about in the coming months, and I still had those things, but I thought about really embracing the "Stay Weird" motto. So I decided to do most of my decorating with design variations with those words. I did a bunch of quick artworks with the phrase - a Lego design a parody of a Wayne White word painting, wall stickers with the phrase over and over again, I even made some of my "signature" mazes that had the phrase hidden in the mazes' solutions. I was mostly just having fun with it. It felt like a fun way to decorate the room and I expected that kids would find it amusing, and that was plenty for me.
The reaction was a bit bigger than that. It worked well enough as an example for the motto endeavor, but what caught me by surprise was how it seemed to have a life far beyond that. Kids seemed to really respond to it. Before I knew it, I was getting art handed to me from kids that said "Stay Weird" all over it. And it wasn't just the 4th graders that the whole motto idea started with, everyone seemed to get a kick out of it. My 2nd and 3rd graders were writing it on the back of their assignments. Some kids would say it to me as they left the room - "See you tomorrow Mr. Pawlowski, Stay Weird!" It warmed my heart about as much as anything I've experienced as a teacher. The "Stay Weird" signs around the classroom continued to grow in number and the motto was stronger than ever.
For the 2nd half of the year, I was beginning to plan out an after school club. It was going to be a combination of several clubs I had run before, a sort of hybrid of a tabletop game/ movie appreciation/ upcycling/ art club. With "Stay Weird" hitting such a chord, I decided to just name the club the "Stay Weird Art Club". It was so popular, that the school asked me to offer it on a second day of the week so that more students could sign up. I was stoked. And the students that signed up, were the kind of kids that really embraced the "Stay Weird" motto. I had run clubs before, and they were always a mix of some fun and a big frustration with kids that just sort of turn into mutants after their last class gets out. The Stay Weird Art Club was an exception. It was the best part of my week as a teacher. I can't say exactly how much the motto itself influenced this, but I feel that there must be a particular parent/student combination that sees all of the options for after school programs and then decides on the one called Stay Weird Art Club.
So now where am I with the "Stay Weird" philosophy? I have moved away from that school in order to support my wife in her career path, and I am challenged with finding a new path for myself. I am trying mostly to find employment in my expertise, but I am trying to be open-minded as well. Part of this journey has pushed me to rebrand myself in some ways. I am not currently Mr. Pawlowski, the elementary Art teacher in Tucson, I need to be Ben Pawlowski, creative individual who is trying to make the best of what is available to him. Essentially what that means, is that I am trying to take the stay-weird-attitude with me in whatever I end up doing. If I can teach Art full-time again, I will do so in the weird and positive manner in which I have always strived to. But it could be in whatever I do, even if I end up as a cashier at Target, my daily interactions with others can have plenty of underlying tones of "stay weird". I have always recognized that as a teacher, the organized curriculum was only part of what I was teaching, and that I was teaching them quite a lot in the ways that I interacted with them and treated them as humans. And now that I am not specifically a teacher, I can still do a lot of that other part of influencing the world around me. How exactly that will take form is still being sorted out, but chance of weirdness is high.