A Teacher to Trip the Imagination

By Amy Stoll and Martin Graff
April 27, 2020


What is your role at WPHS?

I teach English language arts to advanced ESOL students. We work on a combination of academic and functional English so that they may increase their engagement in both professional studies and in their daily experiences outside school for a full life here. They are a big part of the future of this country, and I enjoy helping to open opportunities for them through increased literacy and critical thinking. Having lived in China myself, I know how they feel to be immersed in a new language and culture, though I was an adult when I moved to Asia, whereas they have to navigate that mind-bending challenge in adolescence! They are inspiring.

What was your path to teaching?

I took a long way. I started out in the fine arts, completing a bachelor's degree in music composition and classical piano performance. Though it was my passion, I burned out on music for a time, as spending 12 to 14 hours a day in a practice room or music lab became too isolating and my life fell out of balance. An older, wiser friend of mine suggested moving overseas and teaching English, an idea I hadn't thought of and one that blew me away.  Rather than go immediately, however, I decided to return to school to learn to do it properly. As a teacher, you’re asking people to trust you with their time and effort, and I didn't want to waste anyone's. As with music, I wanted to be the best I could be. So, I did a master's degree in education and then moved to Shanghai where I taught middle- and high-school English. Eventually, I found my way back to the states and finally here to Northern Virginia. This is my eighteenth year in teaching. 

You’re also currently a professional spoken-word performer, artist, and musician. How did you come to perform your show at West Potomac?

Last summer, I had five performance dates at the Capital Fringe Festival in D.C. and Tangy, our principal, came to see the first one. During the show, it occurred to her that much of the subject matter was related to the spiritual side of teaching, so she asked if I would perform for our staff as a different sort of staff development, one that gets to the heart and philosophical reflection of what we do as educators. The show is called The Face Zone: Surreal Daydreams to Trip your Imagination...

Marty presenting Daydreams to Trip your Imagination to the West Potomac Faculty
Martin Graff presenting The Face Zone: Surreal Daydreams to Trip your Imagination... to the West Potomac Faculty.

Explain the unusual show title and how you ended up with that concept.

The best way in is to quote the introductory piece that I do at the start of each performance:

The Getaway

“The Face Zone is my point of view: a creative space where I reflect on inner and outer worlds, a place where I imagine, draw, and write about it. The resulting pieces could be flashes from fantastical narratives for which you must construct the plot. They could be metaphors. Could be puzzles. Jokes. Commentaries. Commands. Questions. Visions. What connects them is that they all begin with some kind of captioned ‘face’ to prompt reaction and thought.

“As much as the material is a window into my worldview, it's also a mirror reflecting yours, as your particular combination of experiences, values, and beliefs influences the meaning that you take away. Though some of our associations may overlap, they don't have to. The point is to set mind in motion. Toward what and to what end is for you to decide, but enjoy the sights along the way: surreal daydreams to trip your imagination...”

The development of my current vision was a slow drip over many years. After I left music, and even though teaching can be creative if done right, I felt a hole develop that needed to be filled again with the fine arts.  At first, it was doodling to pass the time, and I noticed that most all the doodles were a face of some kind—human, animal, alien, abstract—many of them off-the-wall in a surreal way. I decided next to write little captions below each one to capture what the image represented. Eventually, that led me to print and frame the pieces to be hung in art galleries, and I had a series of successful art shows over a five-year period, calling each exhibition The Face Zone: Surreal Daydreams to Trip your Imagination

Original artwork by Martin Graff

Next, I started a website to further promote the work. In doing that, I realized that you can't have an art site without accompanying information, so I started writing artist statements to go with each piece. Pretty quickly, I found that to be a redundant task because each piece was part of the same shtick. Instead, then, I decided to make artful writing to accompany each piece, writing that would be part of the piece itself: a story, commentary, or poem connected to the topic of the drawing.

That, in turn, led to publishing a series of illustrated books of the material under the same name, The Face Zone. The next logical step after that was to turn the material into a live spoken-word performance with the art projected on a large screen beside me on stage. It was a way to bring the books to life in real time. The final touch was to get back in touch with my musical self and add original piano compositions to the act as a way to punctuate my speaking, give the audience reflective spaces during the set, and add another spiritual dimension to the show. My January, 2020 appearance at WPHS was my fortieth performance!

Though I've performed the show many times, the one at WPHS was the most personally gratifying because it was the first time my teaching life and performing life overlapped so completely. A bright moment, for sure.

What’s next for The Face Zone?

I’m working on a second feature performance at Busboys and Poets in downtown D.C. (I last featured there in December, 2018), as well as a feature performance for an event called Spit Dat D.C. I am also planning to apply for a grants geared for up-and-coming performance artists in the Washington area. Overall, my mission is to introduce this unique and moving material to as many people as possible. It’s a beautiful long-term commitment like teaching and my relationships with family and friends.

Where can people check out your work?

I’m currently making a studio album of all my piano pieces as well as a third book of illustrations and writings. Always new material in the works. Hope to see you soon in The Face Zone…

Martin Graff on the piano

Staff quotes:

“In the middle of his presentation, I found myself reflecting a lot on what I do as an educator.”

—Tanganyika Mallard, Principal

“Marty’s show brought a lot of different people together. For those 45 minutes, teachers got to do what we ask our students to do: turn down the chaos of whatever was happening that day and tune in to some ideas that might bring us closer together. His pieces were a reminder that we all have more in common than we may think.”

—Katherine Lodge, ESOL Teacher

“Marty is a wonderful pianist who artistically weaves his music with poetry and drawings in a way that will take you on a journey of thought and emotion . . .  a very inspiring experience!”

—Rosemary Gano, Music Teacher

“Teachers do and are so much more beyond the classroom. It’s his/her passions and background experience that enrich students and the West Potomac community. During The Face Zone performance, Marty’s integration of original music, art, and storytelling captured my attention and imagination. The musical interludes were calming. I kept thinking how inspired the students must be by him and his creative vibe. I was given a unique chance to reflect on my own past experiences that shaped me and think about how I present to and are perceived by my students. It was a moving experience that I think about from time to time. Power lies in the moments that make you reflect. We are fortunate to have Marty as a part of our community.”

—Amy Stoll, Art Teacher

“Mr. Graff is an amazing teacher. He is cool and gentle. He is quick of mind and special. He cares about his students and never gives up on them. He sees all of his students equally. His teaching is wonderful and simple.”

--Merhawi Ghebreamlak, ESOL Student

“I sometimes feel hopeless in school because I am not fluent in English, but I am always encouraged and motivated by Mr. Graff since he actually listens and totally understands me. Also, he tells me that I can do it.”

-Euginia Hyiamang, ESOL Student

“Mr. Graff has shown his students how hard he works by doing each [lesson] with his own [materials], not Internet [materials]. He always wants the best for us, and as a teacher he wants us to learn as much English as he can teach us. He understands how difficult it must be for us ESOL students, that learning a foreign language is not as easy as it seems. Each student can clearly see how much effort he gives when he is working.”

-Daphne Tellez, ESOL Student

Highlights from the show