Michael Liang

Reflections on design. Living a creative life, fully. Putting ideas into words.

Gatherings, Plastic, & Seasonal Training

I’m flying back from New York City, having completed my first of two years of graduate school. Within my leadership in museum education program, we put theory into practice at three levels: individual, institutional, and field. I’ve found our regular self-reflections to be rewarding, and while I will continue my private writings, I’m feeling ready to put some thoughts and ideas out into the world.

One of our professors, Donna Walker-Kuhne, charged us to write publicly, to add our voices to society’s conversations. There is no need to wait, no perfect time, no permission needed. Just start writing. Similarly, one of Bank Street’s great lessons is that we are never fully formed, always learning and growing. We can, and should, lead from wherever we are.

In that spirit, I hope to write about what is sparking my curiosity as an artist and designer. The title of the column, Prototype and Play,  is a reminder to myself to accept that learning comes from trying and failing and trying again. What matters is the continued effort.

Each week I will offer reflections in two forms: What I am reading and what I am making. Put another way, consumption and creation. Both acts are important to my creative practice, and I hope that you will find something that resonates. Here we go:

What I am reading:

“The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters” by Priya Parker

This past week at Bank Street, we changed something small for one of our class dinners. Rather than sit in our usual u-shaped table configuration, Brian, our program director, suggested we create 3-4 clumps of tables. Previously we could only chat with the person to one's side; now we could face and engage with half a dozen classmates and guests at a time. The atmosphere of the room was noticeably different, with crescendos of conversations and laughter.

These kinds of simple transformations can be deliberate design choices by hosts, argues Parker. In addition to changing the physical space, there are also “rules” one can create to make gatherings more thoughtful, memorable, and transformative. These might be controversial—like no kids at a wedding—but they exist to support gatherings that are purposeful and set with intention. (You can also listen to an hour-long interview with my favorite podcaster, Debbie Millman).

Precious Plastic: Manual

This organization has the goal of reducing plastic waste by sharing tools and resources for individuals to recycle plastic at the local level. Not only do I love their environmental stewardship message, I love the art-making potential. I’ve always been drawn to art-making with the plentiful and inexpensive resources we find in our surrounding environments. With Precious Plastic's free and open-source plans for shredding, extruding, injecting, and compressing machines, my mind has been sparking with what I could make. I just need to find some collaborators and/or a grant to get access to these machines. And then start collecting and sorting my plastic.

What I am Making

In two days, we’ll be starting our annual summer seasonal training, and I’m in charge of leading introductions and ice-breakers. Or, as I like to call it, community building. Admittedly, I’m not close to being ready, as my mind has been grad-school-focused this past week in NYC. But here are a few ideas I’d like to try.

  1. Get rid of tables. I’ll bring some of my picnic and camping blankets and invite the group to divide up and sit on the ground. My hope is that this is different enough to chip away at their expectations for a training. By changing the configurations of their bodies, I hope to prime their minds to engage the training with creativity and open-mindedness. I’ll lead them through small group discussions around question cards or an activity like: create a list of everything you have in common with the people on your blanket.

  2. Vote with your feet. This is one of my favorite activities, from a facilitated dialogue training with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. I’ll place tape or string on the ground to represent a physical spectrum. Then, I’ll call out two options and invite people to stand somewhere along the line. This quickly and visually shows our differences, which we can then discuss and unpack. Since there is no anonymity and we’re trying to build trust among strangers, I try to keep the scenarios light, such as: night owl or early bird, introvert or extrovert, cats or dogs, savory or sweet breakfasts. As with many of our training sessions, I try to model activities our future interpreters can actually use with the public.

  3. Reflection journals. To no surprise, I’m a big fan of reflection. I plan to buy some thin notebooks for their use during their training and summer with us. My writings from my early seasons as a park ranger are priceless, and I hope that this cohort will also benefit from a written record of these next 10-12 weeks. And for my specific intern, I will assign her weekly reflections to give us a tool for our advising and check-in sessions.

I hope you enjoyed this first post. To be honest, I’m now a bit apprehensive of the time required each week to do this. But, I’ve made a commitment to myself and others, and I trust my abilities to become a faster writer through practice. Besides, I’ve got two months off from school. :)

Third Teacher, Lucky 13, and Up Rock

Third Teacher, Lucky 13, and Up Rock