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Charlie Alderman

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This House: A Film About a Pre-School Art Teacher

Posted: 11/04/11 07:43 PM ET

If you're reading the education blog on the Huffington Post, you already know that great teaching continues affecting us long after we leave the classroom. And that's why investment in education is so worthwhile -- the dividends keep coming. The story of unconventional Chicago art educator and artist Jackie Seiden invites us to reimagine the limits of the classroom's influence.

Jackie started teaching in the late 1950s at the University of Maryland but turned away from the expanding Cold War university and the tenure track to teach young kids. She's done so ever since -- in New York with Head Start, in India, and for most of her life, in Chicago, where she's a one-woman institution. Jackie has taught students in just about every demographic and venue, from very private pre-schools to workshops for teachers to special education at Joyce Kilmer Elementary.

And at every level, she has brought her truly unique methods. I first heard about Jackie from one of my college classmates, Daniel Hymanson. We were sitting in the cafeteria and comparing our favorite and least favorite teachers. Never the first to speak, Daniel waited till we had all gushed about this or that math teacher, and he calmly said, "You guys don't understand Jackie."

He told us that he had an art teacher in nursery school with the following lesson plan: make the class into a cave. Using chairs, tables, blankets, construction paper, wall paper etc., she built a collective fantasy world and invited the children to come up with stories and paintings inside. Daniel remembers the smallest details of those lessons, including one of his "cave drawings." These journeys, he swears, have taught him more about art -- and why we need it -- than anything in private high school or elite liberal arts college. It's worth noting that Daniel's mother, whose education could be described as rigid, agrees. She has taken core humanities classes for more than a decade at the uber-traditional University of Chicago but always believed in Jackie and signed up Daniel for everything she offered.

It wasn't until Daniel actually visited her house in Rogers Park years later that he understood Jackie's commitment to studying fantasy. Painted in garish pink and yellow, the house is a site of her own art: large-scale, constantly evolving installation pieces made up of -- among other things -- children's toys and household objects. In one airy room with bring pink walls and dolls, Jackie attempts to get in touch with her three year-old self. She conceives of the art as further exploration of the very subject that, based on Daniel's testimony, she has mastered in the classroom: the early childhood experience of wonder and awe and its reverberations in our adult lives.

Daniel's art mirrors his teacher's. His first short film, a thesis at Wesleyan University, is about a young boy who imagine he's a sloth playing in the NBA. It has played in five film festivals in America and France. As a way of coming to terms with her influence and paying tribute to her, Daniel is about to make a feature-length documentary about Jackie and her house. He's currently in the fundraising and pre-production stage. To learn more about or support the project, check out: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/danielhymanson/this-house