Monday, March 30, 2015

RECAP // MF @ SXSWedu Conference

This post was written by Felice Cleveland, the Mattress Factory's Director of Education.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the SXSWedu conference in Austin, TX. Most people associate SXSW with music, films and technology, but five years ago they launched SXSWedu as a place to imagine the future of teaching and learning. SXSWedu is a community-fueled event, and one of the unique qualities of this conference is the Panel Picker feature where anyone can submit a proposal and the crowd votes on which sessions, speakers and topics they are most interested in. According to, this conference “fosters innovation in learning by hosting a diverse and energetic community of stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds in education.” During the conference I met fellow museum educators as well as architects who design schools, educational app-builders, designers and all sorts of teachers.

I participated in a panel with several Pittsburgh-based colleagues about a project-based learning collaboration called The Galleries Project. The panel was titled “Using Art to Transform Physical Spaces and Minds.”  The Galleries Project is an opportunity for high school students to partner with a mentor from a local art institution (the Mattress Factory, the Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Pittsburgh Glass Center and last year it was the Toonseum and this year the Children’s Museum). The students visit their partner organization, learn more about career opportunities in the arts, and see behind-the-scenes how exhibitions are installed and curated. The students then work together as a group to choose a place within their school to create their own installation inspired by their partner institution. The students present a detailed plan and budget to their peers and partner organizations. Once their project is approved they have to work on installing and making their plan a reality. This sort of holistic way of thinking about an assignment is called project-based learning. Through this process the students begin to gain many 21st century skills – like teamwork, collaboration, creative problem solving and communication. Another key aspect of this project is that students have a direct impact on the physical space in their school. They are allowed to paint the walls, hang work and create art that they will see every day in their hallways. During our panel discussion we had several educators who were very interested in the project and asked questions about how they could replicate it in their cities and schools.

The conference was a lot to take in and I am still pondering how the Mattress Factory Education Department can tap into and respond to many of the trends, concerns and new ideas around education. I wanted to share some information about the people that I heard speak who were particularly inspiring, and other interesting issues that arose at SXSWedu.  

The conference started with a keynote by Charles Best who is the founder of It is one of the first crowd funding sites, specifically built for teachers to request resources for their classroom – anything from pencils and paper to field trips, iPads, books or art supplies. (Check it out! There are many Pittsburgh-based schools and projects featured.) I also got to hear Rosanne Somerson, the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design speak about the impact of critical making. Design is not just a way to solve problems, but a way to reframe the questions. Learning how to be a critical maker means coming up against uncertainty, being nimble and working through it. At the Mattress Factory this is a quality we encourage in our artists and all of our students. Many of the challenges that we face here we have never had to deal with before – whether it be an installation where we are slicing through the building inthe name of art or creating a rainbow in one of our galleries. We don’t know the final product and how it is going to work out, but we problem solve and work through it. We encourage our students to do the same and know that this is a quality that will serve them well as creative adults in the world.

One of my favorite parts of the conference was eduFilms—at the Alamo Drafthouse (imagine a movie theater that serves you food and drinks during the movie!). They showed a series of poignant narratives and documentaries focusing on all aspects of education. I saw Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary about how our education system has remained the same in many ways since 1893. A school is highlighted that is turning our current education model on its head, instead of focusing on content and testing, students are given one large project to work on as a class for the course of the year. In this way students are asked to work together and problem solve and these teachers believe they are sending students out in the world that are better prepared for college and the workplace. I also saw a documentary called This is My Land about how students in Israel and Palestine are taught about their history and each other. The last film I saw, If You Build It, followed a keynote by the subject of the film, Emily Pilloton. Emily is the Founder and Executive Director of Project H, which according to their website is a non-profit teaching youth to design and build their future with hearts, hands and hammers. The documentary is about a course called Studio H that Emily and her partner Matthew Miller designed for a rural town in North Carolina. They worked closely with a group of 10 students over the course of the year teaching them design and hands-on building techniques with the goal that at the end of the class the students would build something for their community. I definitely recommend all of these films if you ever get a chance to see them. They also really brought home the idea of project-based learning and the power of trusting students and motivating them by connecting them to their community.

Getting back into the routine here at home, I am still thinking about these ideas and working to bring more project-based learning and community connections to our work on Pittsburgh’s Northside. To learn more about what we are doing in the Education Department at the Mattress Factory be sure to check out Please feel free to e-mail me at if you ever have any questions.

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