Leaning against the television in Maxine Greene's Fifth Avenue apartment is a guitar, its body shimmering with decorative blue feathers.
It was a gift from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where the 87-year-old Greene is a "guru" whose ideas on how people learn and grow have been used to train teachers in about 600 schools across the United States, and in South Africa, Mexico and Japan.
"Imagination is the answer," says the Columbia University professor. "The idea is to get kids to imagine how things could be otherwise than they are, to reach beyond where they are toward the 'not yet,' toward the 'might be.' "
One of Greene's books is titled "Variations on a Blue Guitar," from the "blue guitar" in a Wallace Stevens poem that represents the creative energy of each human mind.
The Brooklyn-born daughter of a jeweler, Greene remains a force in education. She insists that students be driven not only by facts and grades, but by passions in literature, music, films, paintings -- and today's news. That includes the horrors seen on television, from terrorism to urban crime to the Iraq war.
In September, Greene's groundbreaking ideas will come alive in a new Manhattan public school called the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, where the standard subjects for a diploma will be taught with a twist.
Stephen Noonan, the school's principal, said one science teacher at first "didn't believe that contact with great music, dance, painting or any art could support his work with students in, say, a physics lab. But what he found was that studying a dance made students observe motion, light, movement, speed -- and their observations and notes in science improved, they became clearer."
The school is being financed by the city and grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Soros Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation through New Visions for Public Schools, a not-for-profit intermediary. It'll be housed in what is now the Martin Luther King Jr. High School, right behind Lincoln Center. It sits on what was once the turf of the urban gangs that inspired the hit musical "West Side Story."
The new school will open with 108 ninth-graders, growing each year by about that many to eventually form a full high school. Greene helped plan the curriculum, and she'll be dropping by classes to participate.
At Lincoln Center's Institute for the Arts in Education, where her job officially is "philosopher in residence," Greene has for 25 years helped create summer seminars attended by thousands of teachers who now run institute-inspired classes at their own schools. In South Africa, the latest foreign addition to the institute's roster, local tribal cultures merge with the approach of the American educator.
Some of the institute-linked schools are visited by live Lincoln Center performances.
The impact of Greene's ideas is clearest in action, among children.
On a recent morning, the venue was a grade school on a tiny island off the Bronx, with a view from a first-grade classroom of seagulls soaring above Long Island Sound and sailboats bobbing in the water.
A teaching artist from the institute had come to coach the first-graders at P.S. 175 to find the "secrets" in their lives and tell them to others. It's what Chinese American director Ping Chong did in his "Secret History," a documentary theater piece with the protagonists acting out real-life struggles and whimsical moments from their native Liberia, Iran and Kosovo.
The children already had been treated to a performance of "Secret History." Now, they were creating their own "secret" dramas.
"Tell the person next to you one thing that's the same about you -- and one thing that's different," actor Patricia Chilsen instructed the children.
Like a flock of chirping sparrows, they got busy, facing each other in pairs, examining one another from head to toe and comparing. Then came the "performance" on a piece of white cloth -- the stage -- as each child shone a flashlight over his partner while the other told his or her "secret" truths.
Nicholas Gjonaj, 6, revealed a part of his young life as an ethnic Albanian in war-torn Yugoslavia. "I remember going to the beach, and playing with my cousins. But my grandmother came here because she didn't want to get killed."
His little classmates listened, rapt.
Two other boys announced they had something in common -- big ears.
Such exercises, says Greene, have a bigger aim: "What I want to do is open the box, so kids don't feel so trapped, so they focus on what they feel and love."
She's not afraid of unsettling anyone with realities that shake up hearts and nerves. She prods people to question everything, from why a father sacrifices his child in an ancient Greek tragedy to some people's presumption today that Saddam Hussein was behind the 2001 terrorist attacks -- to why Mel Brooks did this or that.
"People should be shocked into awareness that makes them ask, 'Why?' "
Her own discovery of the arts as a powerful instrument of learning came only after she graduated from Barnard College, married a doctor and had a daughter (who later died of cancer). While divorcing, remarrying and raising a son, Greene earned a PhD at New York University in the philosophy of education.
Getting close to great artworks, she says, "touches something in a kid, whether they want to dance -- or play basketball. Eventually, you hope they'll reach beyond what they can do, to their community, to images of justice, to more humaneness and vibrancy. You hope you light a fire."
Cathleen Gruen, who was Greene's Columbia teaching assistant for several years, says her openness extends to her daily contact with people. "She's so generous. She deals with everybody in a very respectful way, whether it's a taxi driver or the dean of the college."
These days, Greene teaches her Columbia graduate seminars at her Manhattan apartment.
During one class, the sun was setting on Central Park below as joggers circled the reservoir. Two dozen students packed the living room, spilling off the sofas onto the floor. Greene led a discussion abuzz with trendy topics like the use of iPods to block out the urban subway crush, and whether people are leading "virtual" lives that isolate them by using technology.
At the end of the two-hour graduate seminar, Greene asked, "D'you think it might be a good idea to have some champagne?"
She had turned 87 that day and wanted to share a toast with her youthful students. Many ended up literally kneeling in front of their physically frail but magnetic teacher to tell her how she was shaking up their lives and careers.
On a nearby table lay a technology magazine, keeping Greene abreast of what's new along with newspapers that help her probe everything from shifts in politics to what's happening on the streets of New York.
She remains a realist who insists that every human spirit has the capacity to blossom -- with a little imagination. A foundation she started offers modest financial sponsorship to talented students, as well as new artworks and activism she wants to sustain.
"We cannot repress the memories of the World Trade Center tragedies" -- the lives of men, women and children changed or gone forever, she told a group of educators after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"But out of the rubble and the panic, we can create new shapes."