Interview with Harold Olejarz, Art & Technology teacher
by Wendy Born Hollander, Questions by Dr. Dorothy Heard
October 14, 2008
- What kinds of things are you trying to accomplish in your work as an art teacher right now?
- Is there a goal in your work that gives meaning to what you do that is essential to making your work worthwhile? What is it?
- Why is this goal important?
- Are there other comparable goals?
Mr. Olejarz: I’m trying to give my students an approach to art making that involves using digital tools. It’s very important that they learn how to use these tools because they will be ubiquitous in our society & culture. The products of these tools are the media outlets that are available now are all embracing digital technology. So, by giving students the opportunity to create for this media, it’s giving them the tools for expression in the 21st century.
- How do you know when your goal(s) are met?
Mr. Olejarz: When kids make great things. I feel a tremendous amount of satisfaction… (Interruption- a student stops by to borrow digital video camera and tripod to film his brother’s sporting event that evening.)
- What are some of the things that have helped you reach your goals?
- In your work as an art teacher, to what or to whom do you feel responsible or loyal?
Mr. Olejarz: Loyalty to the creative process, loyalty to respecting the ideas of my students & their needs… (Interruption- cell phone call.)
- Are there specific personal or social qualities that have contributed to your achievements as an art teacher?
(Qualities meaning—attributes like, determination, persistence)
Mr. Olejarz: I think the most important thing is having gone to art school, having been an art student. Having been involved in the creative process has really given me insight into the creative process. That has helped me to help students to be more creative and do more interesting work. Because, I guess my pet peeve is that you really have to be involved in art making before you can teach art. If you’re just involved in the education end of it then I think it’s sort of theory but no practice. I think you need both theory and practice to put it all together.
- Which of your personal beliefs contribute to your achievements as an art teacher?
(Beliefs meaning-- worldviews like belief in justice, fairness, truth)
Mr. Olejarz: Those are all sort of abstract things. I do believe in a just and equitable and fair world. I try to carry that through in my teaching and grading and dealings with students… including peaceful solutions.
(Related: See Mr. O’s “No Family Left Behind” blog comment from July 13, 2006 at http://digitalharold.blogspot.com/)
- Personal beliefs that hinder your achievements?
- Do you feel that your beliefs conflict with the dominant values in education? In the art world?
Mr. Olejarz: Well, the values in education are different from the values in the art world. The values of the art world are more commercially based than people would want to admit. And the values of education are more in line with the classroom. I mean, the values of the art world… it’s sort of like a star making process. And I do think that you have to take the outstanding work that students have done, you have to acknowledge that and promote that within the school community. I like to use that work as exemplars to help other students to see what’s possible, to inspire them to work better and harder. I’m a firm believer in student examples. I save outstanding student work because I like to show it to other students. I was just showing some videos to sixth grade classes and at the end of looking at 2 or 3 they said, “Can we see some sixth grade work now?” And I said, “That was sixth grade work!” So, now all of a sudden, their view of what they have to accomplish is really kicked up as opposed to let’s just do this and get it over with.
Personal Working Process
- What attracted you to your work as an art teacher initially?
- Is that still what appeals to you about it?
- If you hadn’t become an art teacher, what might you be doing instead?
Mr. Olejarz: I had hoped to have been a practicing artist, unfortunately, it did not work out. At some point I decided I would have to re-direct myself to teaching as a viable means of supporting myself and insuring myself & concerning myself with my retirement needs, so to speak. So, I made a choice to go into education and there are a lot of things I like about education. I like working with kids, I like working in the art area, and from the time I started working until now I continue to have a deep interest in technology & using those tools. Fortunately, the teaching I do allows me to do that. I’ve taught digital video and TV production, digital imaging and things like that.
- What of your work as an art teacher are you most proud?
- To what do you attribute your success in this endeavor?
Mr. Olejarz: Well, I’m most proud of my students who have created fantastic things who are thrilled by the recognition and feel empowered to go on to do more things. So, that’s what sort of, gives me my education thrills. I’ve done lots of presentations at conferences and I get satisfaction out sharing with my colleagues my excitement about using digital tools and having students create digitally.
- Is there documentation of this work? May I have a copy of this work?
(See link below for examples of Mr. O’s student video projects. These include short films on subjects ranging from artist interviews, character “pillars”, commercials, Aesop’s Fables and “Poetry in Motion”.
Also click on this link to view an amazingly diverse array of 7th grade digital imaging art assignments:
- How important is creativity for your work?
- What qualities are instrumental to your creative process as an art teacher?
- What role does reflection play in your creative process as an art teacher?
Mr. Olejarz: I’m always looking at what I do and revaluate that. So, middle (school) age students, it’s hard to get them to reflect. I do try to get them to think about what we’ve done and at the end of projects we lay (them) out and discuss them. And hopefully think about them and look at them in a new way.
- What qualities inhibit your creative process as an educator?
- Is it necessary to take risks as an educator?
Mr. Olejarz: I don’t know, I think I’m pretty well suited towards education. Once again, in middle school there’s sort of this little dance you do with kids and sometimes it’s kind of about using a veiled threat. Like, “You have two choices, either you sit down and do the work. Or, you don’t do the work and you have to come after school.” So, in a sense, you’re trying to get kids to make better choices. At this level, I don’t know, I haven’t found a better way to do that. As for risks- it’s necessary to grow as an educator. It depends on how you define “risks” and what kinds of “risks” you’re talking about. I think you do need to try new things, you do need to give your students the freedom to explore things and you have to trust your students to make good choices. So, you have to sort of take a risk in terms of trusting your students. But, you don’t go out and try something really half-assed without thinking really thinking about it and exploring it. That’s not a risk, that’s foolish.
- What direction do you see for the future of your work as an art teacher?
- How do you spend most of your time at work?
Mr. Olejarz: I feel as though I’ll probably continue using digital media and I spend most of my time at work teaching classes. There was a time when I was doing more in terms of school technology & my schedule has changed. I sort of float between the art & technology area.
Wendy: How long have you worked here?
Mr. Olejarz: I started teaching in 1990 and from 1990 to 2000 was a traditional media art teacher. I started teaching some digital stuff, and September 2001 I came to Eisenhower in Wyckoff and started teaching digital media- digital imaging and digital video production, went all digital.
Positive and Negative Pressures in Your Area of Work
- Reasons that make it difficult for you to achieve your goals as an art teacher?
- Constraints of workplace?
- Relate a specific situation?
- Unique to your area of work?
- Practical economic concerns/money?
Mr. Olejarz: I think anyone who teaches, one of the biggest problems they confront is time. In the K-12 sphere generally they try to make sure you have enough classes, you know, you’re sort of covering enough classes that your time is taken up teaching one class after another after another. That does inhibit learning about new things, trying new things and bringing new things into the classroom. So, if you’re on this treadmill it’s hard to get off and take a look and see what’s around and see what things you can do differently.
Wendy: How many classes do you teach in a day?
Mr. Olejarz: My schedule this year is as full as it’s been. I teach six classes. I teach two eighth grade classes of TV production, I teach two seventh grade classes of digital imaging and two sixth grade classes of technology type stuff and then I also do the morning TV show. I think it’s like the equivalent of another class, so I’m doing, well- it’s the equivalent of seven classes a day. So, from 7:30 to 3 o’clock it’s one thing after another.
Wendy: Wow. What’s the morning TV show?
Mr. Olejarz: We do a daily show. We use the TV studio to do a live broadcast that goes out to the entire school and goes out on local Cable Vision. It runs from five to eight or nine minutes. We do interviews and news and weather and all kinds of stuff. It’s on-line, you can check it out on the school web site.
- Thinking about art teacher work that you respect, what are the common denominators? What are the common denominators of what you don’t respect?
Mr. Olejarz: I respect art educators who work hard to get kids to produce great things. I mean, not cookie cutter, simple, brain dead busy-work kind of stuff, but things that allow kids to work with ideas of their own, images of their own and produces something that speaks about who they are.
- Institutional Work Process
- What kind of art teacher work is rewarded/discouraged?
- Is innovation/creativity in teaching rewarded?
Mr. Olejarz: Ah, I’m not involved so much in an overview of the profession. I don’t supervise teachers, nor do I speak to them, so I don’t feel qualified to answer that. In my own experience I’ve tried to be creative in terms of using digital technology and I feel as though I’ve been rewarded in the sense that I’ve been given the tools to do that kind of stuff. Although, I did change districts, I think the district change helped.
- What are innovations that have changed your teaching process?
- How do you work differently from when you started?
Mr. Olejarz: Well, it’s just night and day. I started in traditional media- clay, pencils, paper, paint and now it’s all entirely digital. So, I don’t get dirty and my hands don’t crack because of plaster and clay. It’s just a whole different thing.
- Does your job as an art teacher proactively allow for time alone, to make art, reflect, read, write? Please elaborate.
Mr. Olejarz: Unfortunately, I guess, there’s a big difference between teaching at a college level and teaching at a K though 12 level. It’s 180 day, so you have some time during the summer, some breaks, but generally it’s… I can do some things in the evenings but there are also school obligations that take up time and other obligations. I think being a K through 12 art teacher is very difficult. You continue to pursue your work at a very high level continuously, but there are opportunities and I have continued to take advantage of those opportunities.
- Does your work require you to work with special needs students and other students who are identified by their learning needs? If so, please explain.
Mr. Olejarz: There are some special needs kids in the building, but I haven’t had to deal with much of that.
(Childhood and Adolescence)
- Reflecting on your formative years as a child and an adolescent, what influences do you view as most salient in the way you approach your professional work?
Mr. Olejarz: I grew up in Brooklyn and I was on my own most of the time and was not involved in structured activity. I sort of met my friends and we ran around in backyards and through the neighborhood and we built things and did things. And I think that because I didn’t have such a structured childhood that it kept me open to thinking about possibilities instead of saying, ok what do I have to do now?
- Influence of family background?
- How did you spend your time as a child? What would a person have seen if they shadowed you for a day when you were a child?
- As a child, were you intensely involved in one or more activities? Which ones?
- Influential or religious and spiritual factors?
Mr. Olejarz: I was not involved in religion or spiritual things. I basically wanted to run around and play with my friends. I mean it was just that simple. That’s what I liked doing.
Wendy: What part of Brooklyn?
Mr. Olejarz: I started in the East NY Brownsville section on Hinsdale Street between Dumont and Livonia and by the time I hit fifth grade the whole neighborhood was dramatically different and then we moved to Ocean Parkway between Beverly and Church and I went to Ditmas Junior High School and Erasmus Hall. And then I got my Bachelors from Brooklyn College and my Masters from Pratt Institute. Masters in sculpture, now I’m all-digital.
- Do you remember the first time you thought of yourself as an art teacher?
Mr. Olejarz: Ah, yeah- as a student teacher, during the process there were a couple lessons that went well and then I felt as though, yeah- I can do this, I can be an art teacher.
- What attracted you initially to the field of elementary/secondary school art teaching?
Mr. Olejarz: Actually, I’d wanted to start in high school and was offered a middle school job and stayed there. Then tried to transfer to a high school in my previous district but that didn’t work. So, the assistant-principal at my old middle school became the principal here and he invited me to come along and gave me the opportunity to be a digital art teacher, so I took that. I think I would have preferred to be in high school, as I said my goal early on was to be in a college environment. High school might have been a little more satisfying because I think I could have had the kids do more stuff. I think if I were in elementary I would have been very frustrated because of the achievement level. But, middle school has worked out well for me. Once you’ve been teaching for a certain number of years it’s hard to move. This is a K though 8 district. It becomes hard to move into another district because you’re so high up on the pay scale and you’d be giving up seniority and security and it starts getting a little tricky.
- Describe your education/training.
Mr. Olejarz: High school, I really didn’t see myself as an art student. I was in a couple of art classes, my drawing skills were never really terrific but I did do some sculpture stuff. I remember my high school teacher being thrilled with it and I didn’t know why and I thought the teacher was a little wacky. And then when I got to college I was doing a major in psych and I started taking art classes- and my kind of standard line is, “The more psych classes I took the crazier I felt, the more art classes I took the saner I felt.” So, I decided to opt for sanity. And I really liked building things, so I went on to sculpture and did a master’s. Professionally, I started out doing sculpture and then go into performance art and then got into digital things.
- Have you had any mentors who have significantly influenced how you approach your work and/or how you have made crucial decisions in your career?
- An influential book, experience, or project?
- Any “anti-mentors”?
- Weaknesses of your mentors?
Mr. Olejarz: Let’s see, as an undergraduate there was a professor who I’m still in contact with today, a painter named Len Petrillo who I’m still in touch with today and he got me very, very excited about art. And just the excitement and energy that art conveyed to me. And what was amusing was when I started talking about grad school as an artist he sat me down and said are you sure you want to do this? He kind of read me the riot act, and said this is not an easy profession, do you really want to do this? And I respect him for doing that. So, if there was one person, he was it. Also, there was a sculptor named Richard Kresnar who showed at OK Harris at the time. His attitude and interests really excited me and I sort of identified with and related to him. And grad school was ok, but there was nothing there that did that. In terms of artists I’ve always had a tremendous admiration for Alexander Calder.
(For a few images and some background information on Leonard Petrillo go to:
Perspectives on Your Work as an Art Teacher
- What do you like about art teaching? Dislike?
- What do art teachers do well? Not so well?
Mr. Olejarz: Hmm, I keep coming back to this. I like it when kids make really terrific things. That’s the greatest satisfaction for me. Dislikes? It takes up a lot of time. (Laughs)
- Give an example of an aspect of elementary/secondary art teaching you respect? Don’t respect?
- If you were in a higher position of authority, how would you do things differently?
Mr. Olejarz: I guess, I’d go back to that same theme; I’d try to get more time for teachers to do real professional development. I’ve always said in K though 12 professional development is an oxymoron. They have these professional development days and they don’t treat you like a professional, they don’t trust you with your own development. They bring in these generic speakers who work the circuit and every couple of years it’s a new flavor of this that or the other thing. And it’s like it’s the next big thing and then it’s gone and there’s another next big thing.
- What direction do you see for the future of your work as an art teacher?
For beginning or mid-career Art Teacher: What direction do you see for the future of your own career?
- Does your work serve the public? How?
- Is the work you do as an art teacher linked to democratic practices, if so how?
(Training the Next Generation)
- How well do universities train new teachers to have the qualities that you think are important to be a good art teacher? How would you train them differently?
Mr. Olejarz: Well, I think the most important part of my training was student teaching and being in the classroom. I guess what I would do differently is very early on in the process is have people who are interested in being art teachers spend time in the classroom. Spend a day in a classroom, spend a half a day in a classroom even before you get into a practicum or student teaching thing so you can start looking at it from the teacher’s point of view instead of the student’s point of view.
- How would you advice a someone who is thinking about a career as an art teacher?
Mr. Olejarz: If you get a job it’s good! If you get a job at a really good school it’s really good. If you get the budget and the tools to do stuff it’s really good too. It’s nice to be in a program that works and continue from there. And it’s a challenge to be in a place where there is dysfunctionallity and try to straighten it out and you know, more power to people who can do that.
- What are some promising or warning signs of a new person in your area of work?
- What would you change about new teachers entering your profession?
- What’s important for you to transmit to prospective future art teachers through words and deeds?
Mr. Olejarz: Let’s see, I’ve had one student art teacher in all of my time teaching and I felt as though it was a good relationship and she did go on and she is teaching. She is teaching on an elementary level and I think she wanted to be in a middle school, but she ended up in elementary, and it’s sort of working out for her. I really don’t spend too much time thinking about the training of teachers and what should be done and how it should be improved. I’m not really aware of what you’re doing in your program now so, I don’t feel qualified to say anything about that.
- What are you learning from the students you teach?
Mr. Olejarz: I think it’s their energy. I mean, in terms of their energy and teaching technology to kids VS adults, adults freeze up and they’re afraid to do stuff. They ask what do I do next, how should I do this now and kids just keep banging up against it. They’ll try this and that and they’re much more experimental. And so it’s the energy of always trying new things and breaking the rules because you don’t know the rules. Stuff like that, so there’s this kind of freshness.
Family Relations/Community Involvement
- What do you consider to be your principal community/communities?
- Do you retain ties with communities in which you grew up?
- Are you an active member of communities outside of work?
- To what extent is your family related to your work as an art teacher?
Mr. Olejarz: My wife’s an art historian, so it’s a big part of our lives. In terms of communities, I’ve been involved in the AENJ web work and newsletter work, stuff like that. Also, on a national level I’m involved in the National Education Association. I’m on their web advisory board. I’m also member of list-serves, and I’m also a Dodge fellow (http://www.grdodge.org/index.htm), there’s a lot of people who’ve gotten Dodge grants so there’s a community there. I am involved in using technology for community building because I created a list-serve that all the Dodge teachers are on so that they can communicate. And I think I was instrumental in getting the web site up for Art Educators of New Jersey and try to build community through that.
(See http://profkoslow.com/index.html for professional background on Mr. Olejarz’s wife, Dr. Susan Koslow, Professor Emerita of Art History.)
- How do you balance family and private life and teaching?
- Do religious or spiritual concerns play an important role in your life?
Mr. Olejarz: Well, there are times when you have to put your personal life aside to do work and there’s times when you have to put your work aside to get to family issues, you’re always trying to keep those in balance to take care of the needs of your family and friends. It’s just an ongoing, day-by-day decision-making process. Let’s see… religious and spiritual… I do not have any religious affiliations… I believe in a spirit, but it’s not a belief in an afterlife and all this other stuff, it’s kind of like the spirit of the person and the energy of the person- so, that’s the extent of it.
- Some people say that the standards in your area of work are more rigorous than they used to be, and some say they are less rigorous. What has been your experience?
Mr. Olejarz: I’ve taught for 17 years and have been in two high performance school systems, Ridgewood and Wyckoff and they’re both high achievement and, you know, upper-middle class. Parents want the kids to do well and kids want to do well and the environment of the school is such that they want the kids to do well. So, it's about setting your sights high, trying to keep them up there and I try to communicate that to my students. I really want them to achieve and perform well.
- Can you tell me about an incident in your work as an art teacher where you weren’t sure about the right course of action?
- How did it become clear to you what to do?
Mr. Olejarz: Let’s see, way back when I was doing printmaking there was a 7th or 8th grade class and there was this boy who was bothering this girl. She had sort of, had it with him and I unfortunately didn’t see it beforehand, or was unable to pick up on it. She got so frustrated that she took her linoleum block and rubbed it across his face. So, part of me was like- yes, this kid’s a jerk- who need’s it! Then the other part of me is like- UH-OH, you’re not supposed to do that! It was one of those moments. So to resolve it you have to go through the whole standard school routine, you’re not supposed to do that- but in the back of your mind you’re thinking he deserved it, what the heck, but you can’t say that, you don’t say that.
- How do you deal with beliefs/practices you disagree with?
- Has it become harder to do work that you consider pedagogically responsible and ethical?
Wendy: (feeling the pressure of time) I mean, it seems like the answer is no. You’ve detailed the amazing support of the school systems you’ve taught in.
Mr. Olejarz: Basically, yeah.
- Are there things that you would not do in your profession, even though it is not unethical or illegal?
Mr. Olejarz: (We laugh.) I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it may incriminate me!
- May I make a photograph of your classroom?
Mr. Olejarz: Feel free.
- May I have your verbal permission to use this interview for educational purposes?
Mr. Olejarz: Only if you give me a copy.
Wendy: Oh- I’d be happy to.
Mr. Olejarz: OK.
Wendy: Just two more questions. How much of the curriculum were you responsible for creating from scratch as a new teacher? And what were your sources for creating it, how was it revised, evaluated in your current position or previously?
Mr. Olejarz: Well, I came to two schools, I started at Ridgewood. The curriculum that was there when I started I sort of re-did. There were three middle school teachers, two at my school and one at the other school. And, I think, there was a collaborative effort amongst the three of us to put this all together, to create this curriculum and it sort of evolved. I’m a strong believer in an evolving curriculum, not one that’s all dreamed up and then put into place and implemented. Take things that work and use them and develop them and evolve it from there. And when I came here seven years ago there was no digital imaging, there was no digital video, and there was no TV production class. And basically it is trial and error and building it up from scratch. Coming up with ideas for projects, listening to students, seeing what they did, learning to listen to students, finding out where they’re at and what they need to learn to get to the next level. So, letting all that define what the curriculum will turn out to be. It’s very student driven.
Wendy: What’s your system for evaluating and grading and keeping track of who does what?
Mr. Olejarz: Well, rubrics are really popular. I’ve drawn some up and they do make things a little easier in terms of grading. I just had kids do some Power Point presentations that were technology oriented and drew up a rubric for that, and that made it nice and simple. In the digital imaging sphere, I feel it’s very important for me to communicate to students what I expect them to do and show them examples of what I expect them to do. So, they have that visual standard which is impressed upon them and then I just look at it and make a decision about whether it meets that standard. I can formalize it, but to sit there and do a rubric and go through all that stuff I think is unrealistic when you have six classes a day of twenty or more kids. So, ideally that would be a nice thing to do but, when you’re dealing with 140 kids over the course of 36-day cycle, I mean, get real. And I we do layout projects and I tell the kids essentially, this is what I thought was good. I do acknowledge that it is my opinion, but it is an educated opinion, and I am setting the criteria for the project but I don’t try to promote myself as the absolute and ultimate authority. In art, time and a mass of people are the ultimate authority; it’s not just one person. It’s a collective judgment.
(Beyond making student’s work available for viewing on the web, Mr. O also has included links to resource documents such as forms his students use in the creation of their projects and some of the detailed rubric pages used to assess their work.
- Is there anything you would like to add?
- May I follow up with you in the future?
Mr. Olejarz: Yes, follow up. Let’s see, anything else I’d like to add… It’s fun if you’re in the right school situation, you can have a great time.
Wendy: Thank you.
Follow up thoughts:
After having the pleasure of interviewing Harold Olejarz, I’d like to briefly sum up my thoughts and feelings. I think that Mr. Olejarz is a remarkable artist and educator. Speaking with him has made me begin to consider more closely how I might incorporate technology into my classroom. If possible, I feel I would like to straddle the worlds of both traditional and digital media. I feel strongly about working with and teaching “traditional” media, but do not wish to ignore all things digital. This would require me to develop and maintain my technological skills. For example, I would love to know how to build and update a website by myself, work with programs to create animations and much more. I learned that creating and teaching an engaging, student driven curriculum is an ongoing process. Mr. O confirmed my notions of rethinking and revising lessons as I see what does and does not work with students. He also confirmed my impressions of as life educator as being a very demanding and time-consuming profession. However, I learned that if a teacher can find a supportive environment in which to work it can be a very rewarding experience. Lastly, it is clear that finding a job as an art teacher is not a simple matter and that I should consider carefully what age level I would like to work with most. If possible it seems I should seek and accept a job at the level of my choosing at the beginning of my teaching career because switching schools, districts or grade levels is problematic after having become established. I am beginning to think that teaching middle school or high school students might be best for me partly because an older student is (mostly!) more mature and capable of sustaining interest in projects and achieving a “higher” level of development than elementary students. I like the idea of being a positive influence on young people who will likely soon be attending college and choosing a career. Perhaps my career as an illustrator and my interest in continuing to create, write, illustrate and develop professionally as an artist would be of benefit older students more than elementary age children.
After he generously agreed to be interviewed I sat down to read through Mr. Olejarz’s web site in order to research his background and influences. There is a wealth of information about him and his work at http://www.olejarz.com/. I especially admire his in-depth knowledge of technology and how he uses it to communicate and share his work on the web. I appreciate being able to access his amazing body of work including:
• Link to a glass brick public art installment at the Newport Mall Light Rail station done with students at Visual Arts High School in Jersey City, NJ: http://www.olejarz.com/art/publicart/index.html
• Photo Manipulation Collaboration which seems to have spontaneously grown out of some email exchanges between Mr. Olejarz and Tom Chambers, a Visiting Lecturer in Digital/New Media Art for the Fine Arts Department at Zhaoqing University, Zhaoqing, China. http://tomharold.com/about.html
• This is a link to a heartfelt and poignant series of images of dead suburban animals and a very personal sharing of Mr. Olejarz’s feeling of a “profound sense of loss” after losing his mother to cancer. http://olejarz.com/art/deathinsuburbs/index.html
• NY Times article about Mr. Olejarz inhabiting his art/sculpture and “self-curating” himself into shows and museums, including the 1985 Whitney Biennial.
• Photographs of wearable art, movable sculpture and self-installations:
• Video of performance art / inhabited sculpture:
• Link to Mr. Olejarz’s traditional sculpture work:
• Pod cast, request to answer question about the Vanitas photo series:
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