Sunday, December 17, 2017

How to Turn An Essay Into Cardboard

Olga García Echeverría

It's true. I have spent the last semester torturing a wonderful group of students at Cal State LA with cardboard and paper lunch bags. Our 3200 Chicanx Latinx Studies class, Pre-Columbian Myths in Latin American Literature, was a standard class in the sense that we met regularly, had assigned reading, took quizzes, participated on online Moodle forums, did presentations, and had plenty of in-class wiri-wiri on topics such as the Popol Vuh, the destruction of pre-Columbian texts during colonization, Joseph Campbell, a little Carl Jung. We explored some of the texts of Julio Cortazar, Elena Garro, Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Fuentes, Edwidge Danticat, Yuri Herrera, Sandra Cisneros, and Myriam Gurba, who came to our class and dazzled us with her insight on and obsession with mythology and ghosts. If anyone can tango with La Llorona and Juan Rulfo's ghosts, it's Myriam!

In the Beginning was Cardboard 

I will blame my cardboard obsession partially on my mom. Thanks to her, my siblings and I grew up always having the almighty recycled cartón at arm's reach. Recycled cardboard served many purposes--childhood playpens, Moses-looking writing tablets, scattered rugs to cover up peeling linoleum, to name just a few.

Eloisa Cartonera, an Argentinean publishing house that  prints, distributes, and sells handmade cardboard books in Buenos Aires, is also an inspirational culprit. As is Cuba. In the 1990's, I traveled to an international poetry festival in La Habana and found cardboard book wonders, intricate and incredibly beautiful, cardboard things to fall in love with, really.

My obsession deepened in 2010, when my good friend tatiana de la tierra (a long-time fan of Latin American cardboard books) and I embarked on our own self-publishing adventure. Cardboard was our chosen medium that allowed us to take publishing into our own hands.

The result was late night rendezvous with boxes, X-Acto knives, Mod Podge, and the creation of about 100 poetry chapbooks each. To read a previous blog on this self-publishing cardboard adventure:

The thing is it's easy to get obsessed with cardboard. It's pretty accessible and abundant. Almost everywhere you look, there is used cardboard to be given or collected. It's workable. With a good blade, it cuts easily. It bends without much resistance. It's incredibly versatile; it can be canvas, paper, book cover, protest sign, or even life-size political cutout. The work of Ramiro Gomez, another major inspiration, illustrates how versatile and powerful cardboard can be. Gomez uses life-size cardboard cutouts to disrupt social spaces and bring attention to marginalized people/workers.

Cardboard is also contagious. Take my colleague, Alejandro Covarrubias. We used to share an office and talk cardboard. Inspired by Ramiro's work, he has taken cardboard into his classrooms the last two semesters. These are life-size testimonies and narratives on issues of race, class, gender, police brutality, and more.

A.K. Toney's Paper Bag Literacy Books

Another primary inspiration in the creation of handmade books is poet A.K. Toney. It was A.K. who first introduced me to mini-poetry books made out of paper lunch bags. We were at a Poets & Writers Workshop Leaders Retreat about 3 years ago when A.K. pulled out a wallet-sized poetry book that captivated me so much I later emailed him, asking him for an interview and a lesson in the bookmaking process. He graciously complied to both. A.K. and his wife Kristi Toney have been using these handmade mini books to teach literacy and the arts to inner city children via their organization Reading is Poetry. To read a previous blog on A.K. Toney, and his paper bag books:

Taking Cardboard and Paper Bags Into the Classroom

For the past few years, inspired by the previously mentioned people and places, I have been teaching students how to make their own cardboard and paper bag books. This has been mostly with 5th graders in Wilmington, California. Thank you Angels Gate Cultural Center and LAUSD for providing creative writing to 5th graders! Everywhere I go these days, cardboard and AK Toney's paper bag books seem to go with me.

To read a previous blog on how fifth graders are using paper bags to showcase their own creative writing:

This past year (first in the spring and now in the fall), I decided to bring cardboard into the college classroom. Why did I wait so long? My Pre-Columbian Myths in Latin American Literature class at Cal State LA seemed like a good place to start. My primary goal—to disrupt (if even a little bit) traditional writing assignments and to challenge students to engage with course material and their own ideas via recycled materials, visuals, and text.

If you want to disrupt a college classroom in an interesting way, take in crayolas, crafts, and cardboard, and then tell your students to do something with it. There will be a few students (probably artists already) who will instantly love the idea and be ready to fly. You had them when you walked in with the art supplies. But there will also most likely be those students who respectfully mad-dog you. Their eyes will seems to say, Crayons? Is this the 5th Grade? And there will be the students who are totally down, this is evident in their openness and enthusiasm, but they will tell you later, "The truth is, Ms., I didn't know what you were talking about, but it sounded interesting, so why not?" In any case, all classrooms are full of personalities and different preferred learning styles. No assignment can please all the students all of the time. It's good to keep that in mind.

Aside from wanting to engage students in new and interesting ways, I confess that bringing cardboard into the college classroom was also for me. When you've taught writing and literature for an extended period (22 years and still counting), the writing assignments and the grading can, well, to put it mildly, begin to kill you softly. There is nothing more dreadful than reading disengaged essays written in formulaic five paragraph structure. Mátenme, please. Even when we attempt to “unteach” that old pedantic dinosaur, the five paragraph essay persists. What I learned this past semester, however, is that cardboard and paper lunch bags are well equipped to bring down dinosaurs. It's not even a battle; it just happens.

Pre-Columbian Myths in Latin American Literature 

The assignment I gave my Pre-Columbian Myths class this semester was to engage with a myth using, among other things, recycled cardboard and paper lunch bags. Images could be created or they could be cut out from magazines or taken (for collage-type visuals) from the Internet. For their topic, they were free to chose a myth covered in the course, a myth not covered (the chosen myth could be from any place/culture in the world), or students could also opt to retell a myth from their own family and/or create their own original myth. They could, if they chose, flesh out their story in stages, using Joseph Campbell's concept of the monomyth and the Hero/Shero's Journey as a guide.

Students were given specific guidelines. For instance, everyone's book had to include a summary of the chosen myth and a discussion of the deeper meaning of the myth and what it reflects about the culture from which it originates. Lastly, a re-envisioning of the myth; if you could change anything, what would you change and why? Students writing their own myth had to answer a few brief questions on the creative process and make connections between their original work and course material. Aside from having students post short reflections and pictures of their books in an online class forum, students also presented their books to one another face-to-face. Our presentations were our final exam and although I know presentations can be nerve-racking for some, I don't think anyone suffered too much during our final. We were, after all, munching on tamales, brownies, carrot and celery sticks, and listening to myths and ghost stories from Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, Haiti, Japan, and Greece.

This one takes place on a rancho in Mexico. It's about the student's father's encounter with a supernatural algo. The cover, which features a pirul tree, was on the verge of turning into a piñata. These are the things that wake up a teacher "a un jalón" and send her on the Internet to research pirul.

The inside was also interactive. With "Reach In If You Dare" and "Lift Here" instructions. Best of all was that the student engaged his father and brought a piece of him into the classroom. In his reflections, the student wrote, "I took the chance to share this myth with my classmates due to its originality and coming from a person who does not share much, or what I like to call him 'un hombre de pocas palabras.' I’ve know a lot about this myth due to always hearing it in my father’s hometown since everyone makes fun of him for what had happened to him. However, I got the full story when my father broke down the whole story. I chose it because I value the few words my father tells me and I took this opportunity to share what I believe is a true story with many others.”

We got to hear about El Sombreron, who seduces women with his guitar and then bewitches them by braiding their long beautiful hair. (If you want to render him powerless, get a pixie cut). Despite claims to lack of artistic ability, many students created their own drawings for their books.

We heard about Central America's La Segua/La Cigua, who appears oh so beautiful to drunk and disloyal men. When the cheating men least expect it, La Segua's head turns into one of a horse and the men are, to say the least, pretty much screwed. 

Fantastic, no?

A womyn of color femynista in the class dismantled Coyo, the Aztec Moon Goddess, and then lovingly put her back together again. This is cardboard, paper bag, broken pieces of glass, and critical text that unfolds as you read. It's one of the most beautiful "essays" I have ever seen and the dismantling/discussion of patriarchal elements in the myth are refreshing and right on. The student shared that her title "Even In Pieces I Exist" was partially inspired by Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise." 

This book belongs in a book museum.

We looked at the far away and the local. This student delved into Tongva creation myth because we're on Tongva soil, after all. This one was a book housed within a book.

This student, who wrote about La Llorona, created transparencies of her own drawings and text. She said she originally wanted to stick solely to recycled material, but she decided not to because she also wanted to use transparencies to highlight the theme of invisibility. It's hard to capture in Iphone pictures, but the way this book works, when you're holding it in your hands, you can't really read the text or see the pictures clearly. You have to put a blank piece of paper behind each page and then the scenes of the narrative appear like ghosts as you read. 

Who in their right mind wouldn't want to read Chela, Mi Abuela, y Los Duendes? 

There were students who chose to write about the cultural or familial myths they grew up with. This student, for instance, wrote about duendes, which her mother believes in. Inside one of the book's pockets are two family duende stories handwritten in Spanish by the student's mother. It was such an intimate experience to read this family's stories. I felt like I was reading a letter from a relative in Mexico. The fact that this student's mother was participating in our class in this extended but meaningful way meant so much to me. More evidence that creative projects open up unexpected windows and that if you put your heart (or your momma) into it, you can start off with cardboard and end up with gold.

Of course, there was overlap of topics sometimes, but every approach and cardboard creation was completely unique, each its own art piece. More Coyo...

The books weren't free of their technical errors, glitches, or gaps, but these things were minimal compared to what they produced. Really, these are so lovely, it's going to be hard to give them all back.

This is La Loca Siguanaba. Chiquita pero picosa y asustosa...

And this is The Story of Dreams, done by a student who insisted, "I'm not creative..."

There was a book on the flower of Day of the Dead...

It had hummingbird pop-ups! Yo, these students have pop-up skill!

More pop-up with Belphegor...

There were mini-book wonders on Myriam Gurba's work that opened up like this...

Books that wept and wept and wept until they became A Pond Full of Tears...

Hold onto your horses, everyone, here comes El Jinete de La Muerte. Ajua! I wished for popcorn while reading this one.

Even when they appear quiet and small, don't underestimate these libritos. In this one lives a Chichen Izta pyramid.

And you can't have a cardboard museum of mythology, without the Greek Goddess of the Underworld, Persephone. It's okay if she's not Pre-Columbian or from the Americas. For the final, they could venture anywhere in the mythical world.

And you know how it is, whenever Persephone's around, Hades is bound to show up...

This student delved into Aphrodite, Greek Goddess of sexual love and beauty. She confessed she wasn't feeling the cardboard as much, so she created a pamphlet-like book. She shared during her presentation that she works with elementary-aged kids, and as she was puting finishing touches on her book at work (they have lots of crafts, so aprovechó), the kids circled around her and asked her if she would read them her book.  Sex Goddess and elementary school? Maybe not the best combination. Even when we want to translate for age appropriateness, you can get in trouble, so it's better to be safe. I know this because recently I had La Sirena (the Loteria card) banned from my 5th grade classes. Yeah, her chichis are exposed, but nobody seems to mind El Apache's nipples, and El Mundo is shirtless and wearing calzones. But that's another battle to be discussed in another blog. My student managed to keep naked Venus away from the children's view and dodge the reading request.

This student dyed the pages of her book in tea, crumbled them for texture, and then burned the edges. She said she wanted the book to appear old and magical, similar to the book given to Ofelia, the child protagonist in Pan's Labyrinth.

She drew original drawings in ink and all the text was beautifully handwritten. 

Aside from contemporary film, Indigenous Mexican myth (via Subcomandate Marcos) was also presente.

As were stories from the Popol Vuh...

One student wrote about her family's traditions on Dia de Los Reyes. Remember, if you get the baby inside the rosca, you have to make tamales! I think the whole thing is a ploy to continue with the tamal eating well past Christmas.

We went to Haiti and learned about Voodou. This book opened up into a portable presentation and addressed the racist media depictions of this spiritual practice. Did you know that the first major African slave insurrection in the Americas, which led to the Haitian Revolution of 1791, initiated with a Voodou ceremony?

And we traveled to Japan and into the sea. This is the tale of Urashima Taro who fell desperately in love with a mermaid...

One student discussed the Aztec mythology in the structure of Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World. When we have to make the shero/hero's immigrant journey through deserts and militarized border zones, that's El Camino Seco. 

One student admitted that it was very hard for him to stick to the cardboard. He kept wanting to prepare a laminated presentation (because he has a laminating machine at work and he couldn't help himself). He seemed a little stressed about laminating every single page, but it worked out fine. Creatively speaking, I met the students wherever they were and I practiced being as open with them as they were with me. Lamination (this time) okay. 

Have you ever heard of Kapre, the Tree Dweller? I hadn't. This is a dark creature that appears as a half-human giant dwelling on treetops and smoking cigars. I was captivated by this Filipino myth which my student traced back to the enslavement of Africans in the Philippines. During Spanish colonization, the Spanish brought Africans to the Philippines and called them by the Islamic term "Cafres" (later becoming Kapre), which connotes brute, pagan, savage, something uncouth. The stories about the dangers of Kapre can be tied to slave revolts and the Spanish's attempt to vilify all things African and instill fear in Filipinos. My student argues that this was perhaps a tactic to create divisions between the native Filipino population and Africans to weaken the possibility of a unified revolt. Although he grew up hearing stories about Kapre and being warned about him, he was unaware of the myth's origins and deeper meanings until doing this project. 

One student wrote about the Changuengue of Nayarit, Mexico, who is so mysterious, "even Google does not know of him." 

And as a cardboard bonus, she recreated her mother's bedroom in a shoe box! Her mother is lying there under the blankets. Now we're really going 3D. That's the crazy Changuengue trying to be sneaky, sticking his head out from behind the closet door. Can you imagine how much fun I had reviewing and grading these?

This is an original myth, "Mundo y Mujer." It's a story about a woman who embarks on a journey to save the planet from destruction. She succeeds.  

The inside contains lovely watercolor and cut-out art.

I'm still going through student feedback, and it is too much to process and share in this post, but one student shared that "she felt like a real writer" while creating her book, and another that laying out the myth in separate pages made her pay closer attention to the details. Finally, here is what the writer of Mundo y Mujer said about her experience with creating a cardboard book in lieu of a traditional final essay. 

"This project was very different, in that I had never done anything like this before in my college career. I think this project made me have to think, and make more connections between what we have learned in class, and art. I liked that we had the option to make our own myth up, and I felt I had to make even more connections, and engage more with previous class content in order to make up a meaningful myth. I also think by using an art component, it made it more engaging, and less monotonous than what we normally have to do with essays. This project should continue to be the final for the class because it requires deep thinking in both the art, and the writing component."

There are many ways to make cardboard and paper bag books. Here are a few links if you'd like to try:

How to Make Cardboard Books #1
How to Make Cardboard Books #2
How to Make A Paper Bag Pocket Book 

Thanks to my students who were so open-minded with this project. Despite a good number of them claiming, "I'm not creative," they did an amazing job. I have no doubt their right and left brains were activated. Did I mention that they had cardboard for the midterm too? That was warm up. We made archetype-like Loteria cards with an image on one side and text on the back. Here they are standing by their thematic cardboard Loteria cards, which we displayed on the 3rd floor of King Hall at Cal State LA. Look, there's actually a dinosaur being overtaken by cardboard in the display case! Evidence of co-existence as we move forward onto multiple ways of learning and writing.


james b chester said...

I want to be in your class.

I've been doing similar book-making/journal-making non-traditional essays with my middle schoolers for many years, now. For so long that it has become a bit old-hat. Lately, I've been in need of some inspiration to mix things up some, bring back some of the excitement that was there when we first started.

Thank you for providing it. This looks like a wonderful class.

Paul said...

Wonderful! Thanks!

Antonio SolisGomez said...

cardboard has been a part of my life for a very long time, starting in El Paso in the 1940's when my brother and i would walk the streets and back alleys to find cardboard boxes that we sold for a nickel to a local shoe maker that he used for shipping shoes. later as a professional using discarded large cardboard boxes used to ship refrigerators, once to create a magical kingdom and another time to create a Halloween Haunted House. your article was most interesting and creative and i thoroughly enjoyed it.

Unknown said...

Your love, passion, knowledge, and insight are only paralleled by what you have inspired in your students. I want to learn from you. I want to read everything on your syllabus since I know so little about it all.

Amelia ML Montes said...

These are fabulous, mujer! Thank you so much for posting these wonderful cards. You are theee best teacher
and these students shine because of you! Abrazos y felicidades. Gracias!

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments everyone. They are very much appreciated. I updated the blog and added a few instructional links from YouTube in case you'd like to try. Viva el carton and arts in our schools!