"The free play of art is the result of mastery. " --Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art

"Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them." --Ladybird Johnson

"...a well-trained ear, a well-trained intelligence, a well-trained heart, and a well-trained hand...." --Zoltan Kodaly


What is the true goal?

Hey J,

I heard a snippet of news on the radio this morning.  Apparently, our state government is seriously considering correlating teacher salaries with student test scores.

If  national test scores alone, out of context, are the sole determinant factor in salary assignment, it could quickly affect who would teach in schools where students are already struggling with impediments to learning.

 Aside from any personal economic realities on the part of educators,  most classrooms have a stock of  high quality materials that have been paid for by the teachers themselves (and not reimbursed: I know, personally, at least 3 teachers who spend around $1500 annually, on classroom supplies).  Not as easy to do, if the base salary is reduced at the onset.

I find it difficult to believe that such an obviously punitive action could have arisen from anything other than a sense of desperation.   There are so many factors which influence how students learn-- nutrition, sleep patterns, prenatal development, home environments and nurturing, teachers and school social climates, TV, social media--the list seems endless.

 Small wonder that we are all grappling with the enormity of how to truly help children to learn and to succeed.

Well, J, for what it's worth: I've been teaching for more than twenty years.  Seems to me that small class sizes and active, experience-based learning is where it's at.

And, by the way, as you know--- test scores do not reflect anyone's true learning---or the work that's been put into teaching.

Want to have a clearer view of that, J?  Look through a portfolio of student work.

  Or look at our portfolios--as educators, our portfolios are walking around us and talking with us, each day.

 We're working in their lives--for the whole child, not just for their test scores.  Working to help safeguard their  sense of wonder about life, their courage and their curiosity. Working to strengthen both  their skills and their joy in learning .  Working--in the words of Zoltan Kodaly--to 'instill a thirst ... which will last a lifetime": a lifetime of learning.

I'm thinking that's newsworthy.

More, later.

What enchants you?

Hey J,

Found a great idea over on Dudecraft:  tiny 'record album' gift tags that are easy to make.                     
(www.dudecraft.com ---look in the search box under 'Mini LP Record Gift Tags") 

Love how it looks; the tiny size is enticing.  In fact, I find working with miniatures enchanting, all around.

In this instance, I'm planning to have my students create their own albums--- listening to several music selections while they create the miniature albums.  They'll choose a favorite piece and write it up as album notes. And draw the album covers (while listening to the tunes again).

 Then, we'll shrink their work on the copier, incorporate the notes on the templates (that are also available on the website) and--there we are!--they've created their own 'My Faves" album.  (Thanks to Paul Overton, from whose website the whole idea originated.)

The kids were so excited, and eager to get going on the project.  They listened with far more care than usual, and discussed the music with lots of detail.  Yay...

We're also going to create tiny 'Musical Treasure Boxes'---from white pastry boxes (purchased in bulk at a local restaurant supply store).  Each child will decorate his/her own box, and create 'locks' from ribbons and buttons.

We'll fill them with their tiny Music Journals (little, half or quarter-size booklets about rhythm or melody or listening or composition or just plain thoughts about music), and---of course--the various album miniatures they create.

And whatever else we can think of, that has to do with music and dance.

"How did all of this come about?",  I'll bet you're asking.

Well.  A few days ago, I was leaving a local grocery store when a Mom stopped me and asked, "Were you the Music teacher at our school, years ago?"
"Yes, actually, I was."
"See, Ryan? I told you I recognized her voice."  This, to the (very tall) teenager at her side.
"Ryan? First Grade Ryan, with the big eyes? Last time I saw you, you were hardly as tall as my knee.  Not 'little' Ryan anymore, I guess."
Ryan smiled and looked slightly embarrassed.  When I asked him if he were still involved with music or the arts, he said no, but he liked to sing.

Then he said, "But I remember you.  Well, I don't remember much at all about you, actually.  Or what we did in class. But I do remember your imaginary friend, Harold, and your Jack & Mary stories.  Those were fun."
After we smiled at each other and parted ways, I started to think about my Elementary years.

In truth, J, what I remember was pretty much what Ryan remembered: the stories.  The projects.  The plays.  and---of course, for me--the concerts.

So now it's making me look at what I'm teaching and ask, "How can I make mastering this skill, learning this knowledge, seriously fun for my students?  What form can this take, so that kids find it fascinating--so that they invest themselves in it, and--in consequence--will retain the knowledge, the skills, the memory---and the joy?"

Now there's a question that the kid in me finds endlessly fascinating.  How about you?

More, later.


In praise of amateurs

Hey J,

We rang the bells at the mall tonight, for Salvation Army.

Rang the bells, for real:  a motley crew of adults and children, playing winter holiday tunes on pitched hand bells.

None of us is a professional bell ringer.

Only one of us is professionally trained in music.

The sound was nowhere near as polished as a concert performance or even as the (dreadful) piped-in music crowding the mall air.

Was it fun?  Oh, yeah.

Did we learn how to work together as an ensemble?  Yep.

Was it satisfying, musically, to hear the tunes emerge from chaos into recognizable form?  Yup.

I think, sometimes, we all worry too much about being perfect at everything.  Worry about having to be the best before giving things a go.   Worry so much we sometimes end up not even trying, at all.

Tonight was a brisk reminder to me:  sometimes, it's just plain fun to be an amateur.

more, later.



Check it out!

Hey J,

Found some great information on these websites  (among, probably, millions--but who has the time to look up millions?) about great ideas in education.

The first one is about a movement to include hours spent outside as part of each regular school day, for Kindergarteners. This article gives details about how it's done within the Waldorf school system:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/nyregion/30forest.html.   Interesting--and timely.

The second is a website which is loaded with information about arts and education:
http://www.americansforthearts.org/news/national_arts_news/default.asp.    Seems as though they cover a wide range of news, from arts funding  (see the article on the site, about a moveable FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics)--helping to fund artists through events which use sustainable agriculture, local decision-making, and a fun social outing)  to ways families can encourage artistic learning in children's lives, to the ways in which  our arts-supporting President highlights and encourages the arts nation-wide.

Now if we could only find more time in the day to learn even more!

More, later.


Thinking about arts and tradition

Hey J,

Just saw an interesting post about 'updating' famous artwork, on Dudecraft, one of my favorite sites (http://www.dudecraft.com/2009/11/old-masters-new-additions.html).

Started me thinking about tradition vs. innovation.  About what it means to carry the responsibility of passing on the riches of our cultural heritage with our students.

Do the arts of past eras speak to our kids?   Or is there a need to re-frame the 'classics' with  current style,  in order for our kids to be able to make a connection?

In this instance, this one particular piece that started the questions originally is very familiar.  So the additional artistic overlay, with its juxtaposition of new and old, provides a new perspective on a known work.

It works, to a great extent, because the original art is already familiar.

Looking at it started me  thinking about songs, and the current tendency to market traditional work as 'children's music',  using modern harmonization and instrumentation, and current styles.

 Thinking about fairy tales, and the plethora of 'fractured' or "updated" (read: washed clean of any references to real life) versions.

Wondering if, perhaps, we need to be sure that our kids know the original tradition before springing a modern version on them.    So, for instance, I'm using both a rap version and a jazz version of "Hush Little Baby"  in some classes this month.

 I think I'm going to be sure that the kids know the original lullaby, and hear some traditional versions, before we move on to the new ones.  So that the art they're hearing today is framed by an awareness of its life, yesterday.

And yes, J, you're right: this is similar to the ongoing discussion in the world of fiddle tunes and folk music:  updating seen as the villain ('losing our heritage') or the hero ('preserving great stuff by using it in the living tradition, not keeping it as a museum piece').

Not sure what I think about the whole thing yet, actually.   But one thing I do know: it's thought-provoking.

Hmm.... must be good art.

More, later.


Gifts and Demands

Hey J,

So.  I've had occasion, during the past few days, to think about gifts vs. demands.

How the gift of time spent with others,  and the gift of being willing to be present, to connect, are treasures.

How necessary it is to handle those gifts with respect and care.  How easily being demanding can dismantle a gift into a commodity.

Started me thinking more, about community in my classroom.  Sometimes, I think I treat the children as though their presence were demanded: as though they had no choice about being present, and so they had to be fully, completely, present--and to live up to my expectations of what that would look like.

 Interactions, community, on my terms.

It's pretty dreadful when that happens.  With a classroom or with a loved one.

I'm wondering what it would be like to steadily, gently, consistently remind myself that the gift which has been given to me--the treasure of being present with people whom I deeply care about--in the classroom, and out of it--is, in fact, a gift.

Would it change the texture of daily interactions? Would I ask more questions and pontificate less often? Would there be more joy, as a result?  The joy of giving, and receiving, gifts?

Perhaps I'll give myself the gift of finding out.

more, later.

Abundance and need, for all of us

Hey, J

So the Thanksgiving holiday is finished, and we're jumping into the frenzy of December.  As I sort through the piles of presents and cards and decorations,  I'm thinking about abundance and scarcity.

It's been a long time now, that I've been teaching children--many of whom live near the poverty line.

When I hear about a need for material help, I---as do most of us---try to respond.

When I look at their lives,  I look for the treasure that's there, as well as the need: often, children who are struggling with any kind of lack in their lives develop a rich depth of inner courage and determination.  (When you know your clothes are not 'cool' and when you might be tired from sleeping in a too-cold house or not enough to eat for dinner--or breakfast,  just getting on that school bus and going to school requires a level of stamina that is truly astounding.)

I worry about the far-reaching effect that a lack of abundance--never mind abundance, how about sufficiency?!--can have, in our kids' lives.  Worry over the implications of the fact that good nutrition & sound sleep  directly impact the way that minds learn and grow.  Worry about what our kids'  dreams are, for their future---and whether their horizons are too small for their innate abilities,  only because of the constrictions of their daily lives now.

I wonder, too, J, about condescension, compassion, and community.

 Wonder about where community ( being willing to be responsible for each other) and compassion (being willing to help by  donating goods/funds) intersect.

Wondering about the unspoken social communication involved here .  Wondering about whether it's  mixed with any level of condescension, on the one hand, and resentment, on the other.

 Hoping that's not the case, at least with our kids.  With anyone.

Thinking about how much we all need each other, and wondering whether we can be blinded to that need by having too much or too little.

I want to fill my students' daily lives with an abundance of joy and beauty--with the fun of playing music together--with sheer delight in just learning together.

  Fill my life with that, at the same time.  We need each other to be present, for that to happen.

Just wondering, J.  No answers, just thinking.

More, later.


Hey J,

Check out this great version of "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly" that Cory Doctorow posted at BoingBoing today. (http://www.boingboing.net/2009/11/25/grim-and-delightful.html).   That song is  perennially a  kid favorite, and this looks like a book with visuals to enthrall them as much as the text does.

Which leads me to think about an interesting thing: often, the songs our kids relish the most  have macabre elements.   I mentioned this to you before, around Halloween.  Still wondering why these songs become favorites.

 This song--"There Was an Old Lady..."-- is, of course, a camp song....and there are also many old, beautiful ballads that speak of the harder sides of life, which can offer solace by allowing kids to express their feelings.  I'm thinking of the old English ballad, "Who killed Cock Robin", for instance.  Or even some work songs..."Dark as a Dungeon" or "The Farmer's Tale".     Rich stuff.

These songs deal with deep topics and have solid melodies---and are  songs the kids request often.   Hmmm, perhaps it's their inherent good taste: balancing out the 'happy, self-esteem, we all get along' rubbish that's sometimes considered all that kids can hear.

Just thinking.

More, later.


How could I forget?!

Hey J,

Played, and played, and played again, today.   All day: just music, instruments, some Thanksgiving playparties and Georgia Sea Isles stuff.

Oh, yeah.

Laughing and joking around and singing up a storm at 'work': now that's something for which to be thankful.

Ended the work day by spending about an hour looking at Lindy dance clips and music performances from the 1930s and '40s--my intention was to find good material to use in class, but I was reminded yet again how captivating this stuff is.  How much energy it gives.  How alive it all is.

OK, J.    So I've been worrying over so many things lately.  Thinking about how to bring joy into every day and lively learning into every class....when here's the answer, right in front of me:  immersion.

Oh, right.  I forgot: the best way to learn is to do.

So, J, you were right.  Focus on being present, on doing the music & dance right now, on being right in the game with the kids--and we all end up being students,  we all end up learning from each other, we all find joy and fun in the learning.

Help me to remember that, OK?

Thanks, J.

more, later.


What is our intention?

Hey J,

Today, I'm re-reading Rilke ("Letters to a Young Poet", Rainer Maria Rilke),  and thinking about calling.  Thinking about  some of the ways we live our calling, in the midst of the press of daily details.   Starting with looking, a bit, at  intention.

 You know we have to write formal goals for each school year--within the expected parameters: specific objective, sequential action steps, measurable outcome--all of that.

Fine.  Useful, even (sometimes).   But that's not what I'm thinking about right now.

I'm wondering what my intentions are, each day, as I work with a hundred or so young, impressionable minds and spirits.

What is the one thing I hope we learn, today?
What is the one activity I hope we can create together, successfully?
In what practical ways can I show my students that they are important--not just to me, but to the world?
What would help me to be a better listener today?
How can we work together to create beauty in this day
What needs to happen so that we can have fun while working on learning--so that the 'joy comes from doing it well'?

I'm thinking this list could be many times longer, easily---and probably should be many times shorter (not so easily), so as to focus on what's truly our intention.

  Perhaps time will help me to hear the questions more clearly.

 Time to, as Rilke says, 'live the questions'.

 Perhaps I need time to hear the answers: "answers which only your innermost feeling in your quietest hour can perhaps give you' (Rilke, "Letters to a Young Poet", p. 12).

What do you think, J? Where are we going, and how do we wish to get there?  What is our intention? Lots to think about here.

And more, later.

Time to eat

Hey J,

Rushing.  We're always rushing.

No wonder our kids have such shallow learning--being educated at school is a lot like eating at fast food places.  It's difficult to get food cooked to order, to suit one person's individual nutritional needs, at a drive-through.  Eating that kind of food is not a slow-paced pleasure: no time to soak in the taste or the nutrients, no time for relaxed conversations and communication over dinner.

As a society, we rush our children through their meals, through their play, through their learning. We're asking our kids to grow at a pace which suits the needs of the adults--not at the speed of true learning.  We crowd their days with fast food.

It's frustrating, J.  Hard to change, even when the need to do so is clear-----because there's so much to cover, and just not enough time.

I know what you're going to say.  "Slow down the pace, anyway.  Work on what's there, in the moment, one child at a time."  

You're right....but the noise and clamor of testing and politics and reports and big business textbook interests and and and and....all of that crowds the classroom like anxious customers crowd the front counter at a bigbox fast food place.
It's noisy, and everyone is in a rush.  Too much.  Too much of everything....except time and quiet.

No answers today, J.  Just thinking about how to feed our kids real meals that will nourish their hearts, minds, and bodies--at a pace which will truly allow them to absorb it all and grow, as they are meant to do.

more later.


Thinking about Quitting

Hey J,

So today was easily one of my most difficult days in a lifetime of teaching.

Why? Why is it, that a challenge which should be met with energy and thoughtfulness, becomes instead an impasse, a barrier, a castle wall that feels  too high to climb over--and for which there seems to be  no drawbridge?

I'm reminded of  fairytales and folk stories---facing the dragons, figuring out the password, finding the hidden treasures.

Teaching is a lot like living in those hero/adventure stories.  It is a daily story---one which involves joy,  delight, and deep responsibility.

 What an incredible gift we, as teachers, have  been given: to be able to use everything we've got, in work which directly impacts the stories of children's lives.

And on the days like today, J? The times when I seem to spend most of the day trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong, and how I can do things better? Days when everything seems to go wrong, and I struggle to stay upbeat?

 Those kinds of days are hard. (Good thing they're infrequent!)  Still,  I thought a lot about quitting, today.

Decided that yes: I am going to quit.

Quit worrying about results, and focus only on process.
Quit thinking about what could happen, and focus on what IS happening.
Quit rushing kids--and myself!--through activities, and allow for some rich 'steeping' time.

It is hard.  It is challenging.  And I am grateful to be one of the storytellers.

more, later.


So what is most important?

Hey, J--

Can we talk for a minute about what's most important?  I have ideas, but not answers--and I'd like to hear what you think.  How about it?

Been thinking about how much  time  we spend, worrying over test scores and pondering big budget issues.  Trying to figure out how to use the ponderous textbooks: those one-size-doesn't-fit-us packets of learning which talk big and deliver small.

Thinking about the food we offer to kids at school:  heavily processed food that's laced with sweeteners.
Noticing how closely the decline in play time correlates with the decline in attention span.

What do we do, J?

Work harder?

Most teachers--at least at my school, which is one of the best I've been at-- --most of our staff care deeply about each child.

Most already  spend many hours in preparation: 7AM until 5pm is the norm....with many staying even later or coming in on the weekends, working to have the materials ready and the myriad details smoothed out, so that each day will hold solid learning and also fun, for our kids.

Fun for the staff, too: this is a labor of love, if ever there was one.  

So what's the answer, J?

How in the world do we address the quickly multiplying needs of our kids?  How do we feed them meals for the mind and nourishment for the body, which will encourage and sustain their growth?

It feels overwhelming sometimes.  The odd thing is, all of that extra time--time spent worrying, time spent working longer hours--it doesn't seem to be the key.  Sometimes, I'm wondering if the secret is something else entirely.

It gets frustrating sometimes.

OK, J.  I hear you:  I should try following  Maria Rainer Rilke's advice--"live the questions and the answers will follow".
One day, one child, one song, one story, one science experiment: one thing at a time.

Be present now, and focus on pursuing excellence, in that moment and in that activity.  For those children.

For all of us.

OK. I'll try.      ---Thanks, J.------

More, later.


Is it real?

Dear J,

So today, Mrs. Turkey came to Kindergarten Music class.

(She apparently does not realize she's a puppet.  Or that she's not an elderly English lady.)

Me:          Mrs. Turkey, why are you hiding your head?
Mrs. T:     Oh, oh, oh! Don't you know it's only two weeks until my special day?  I'm getting my beauty rest!
Me:          Uh, Mrs. Turkey, do you know why your day is so special?
Mrs. T:      Oh, yes! It's when everyone admires ME, because I'm so bee-YOU--ti--ful!

At this point, the kids could barely contain themselves.  Their voices scrambled all over each other, trying to set poor Mrs. Turkey straight about what 'really' happens on Thanksgiving Day.

At the end of class, one boy came close to my seat.  We'll call him Jon.

Jon:          Missus N, maybe Missus Turkey wants to come to our house for Thanksgiving.
Me:           Hmm.  Why would that be, Jon?
Jon:          We do not eat turkeys at our house.
Me:           You don't? What do you eat instead?
Jon:          Tofu turkeys.
Me:           Oh.  I guess that might make Mrs. Turkey much more comfortable.
Jon:          I like her.  She probably would like me best.
Me:           Maybe so, Jon.  We'll ask her about that, next class, OK? She's sleeping right now.
Jon:          OK.

Started me thinking once again, J, about the line between 'real' and 'play',  and how often truth winds its way between the two.

Children are naturals at this.  They live in both worlds so easily, often simultaneously. It's part of what makes teaching so fun---telling stories, talking to puppets, singing songs that are juicy with rich words and storylines.

When I engage kids directly, when I'm in the game with them, everything comes alive.

When we're all playing,  the learning becomes real.

Not sure where that's headed, J.   Just thinking about it some more today.

Makes me wonder why we spend so much money and time and effort, as a society, on standardized tests and mechanized assessments,  when what our kids need is more time to play.

 More time to discover the outdoors, that natural classroom, and create songs, and read stories--- to help them find their way in life.

 Stories and songs and nature:  play, that's alive, that provides kids with the strengths and skills they need in the real world.

Sometimes, the 'real' world and 'play' are the very same thing.

Just thinking.

more later.


dancing during class

Hey, J--

You know how much I love to dance with you.  Even when the music is blazingly fast, we ride in the center of it.  Listening to the music, listening to each other, listening to the dance.

Been thinking lately about how much that mirrors teaching.

My classroom is often like a crowded dance floor: lots of motion, crowded with chatter, liveliness and fun.   Sometimes it can be difficult to listen to the music in the midst of all of that---the music of children's lives, children's thinking patterns, children's minds opening and growing.   For that matter---listening to all of that for the grownups, too.

We're all caught up in the bustle.

Seems to me that there's a lot of joy in  learning to ride in the center of all of that---learning to listen, learning to respond to the people, to the materials, to the music.  Learning the steps of the dance, then letting the steps melt into response.

Dancing.   Teaching.  Life.

It's all about listening, isn't it, J?  All about being in the moment, living in the present moment, responding--right now.

Grant me the ears--the eyes--the heart--to do that each moment.   To do it well.

more, later.


Performances and performing

Dear J,

Been thinking a lot lately about performances and performing.

Sharing music in performance can be such a strong vehicle for sparking joy--for reminding everyone involved about the juicy vitality just beneath the surface of everyday life.

Sometimes, I lose that awareness of joy.

  Sometimes, I get tangled up in the details, trying my best to  work towards the goal of---in Seth Godin's great phrase--"delivering out-of-the-box-remarkability day after day".

Never mind 'remarkability': sometimes it's hard just to stay current with each day's demands!

Watching some of the  great ukulele videos on youtube (check out James Hill's sparkling performances in particular, J---you'll love them) reminded me today about how important it is, each day,  to nourish my ability to hear.  To listen, in the midst of performing the daily details, as carefully as I listen to a music performance.

To listen, with the same delight that our kids show,  to life.

More,  later.

After Halloween

Dear J,

So today, one of my second graders mentioned to me, at the end of class, that the music we'd listened to in class ("Peer Gynt: Hall of the Mountain King") reminded her of the monsters under her bed.

"Hmm. Do they come there often?"
"Yes, they're there a lot."
A child sitting nearby chimed in: "I have a monster, too--he lives in the closet."

At this point, every child in the room was quiet.  I mean, J, they were  perfectly still.

Completely attentive children: this is not something to be taken lightly, in a second grade classroom a few days after Halloween---when candy is still a part of just about every child's  breakfast and lunch.

I continued to load the ukuleles onto the cart, waiting to hear what to say in response.

"Know what I do when those monsters show up under my bed?"
"I laugh.  They can't stand laughter."
"No, Ms. N-- you can't laugh---they'll grab you and eat you if you laugh at them."

Heads nodded.  Several children started tying and untying their shoelaces.

"Monsters aren't real, you guys."  This, from Shivone.  Was he trying to convince the others, or himself?

"Well.  They sure do seem real, don't they?  In any case, I think they realize you're stronger than they are, when you laugh.  Especially if you're really afraid.  Give it a try and see what happens.  'Course, you could always turn the light on--that gets rid of them, too. Or tell them you're gonna make them brush their teeth--they hate brushing their teeth, that's why they smell so bad."

In the midst of the animated discussion which followed,  I thought about how important it is to give our kids a chance to learn ways of dealing with the terrors they face--from monsters under the bed to the possibility of parents' divorce.  How much they need--how much we all need!-- tools for handling our fears.

Thinking, too, what a deep toolbox we have available, through play: through  the safe venue of music and stories---not just the mass market stories and movies, but all of the old stuff, our rich heritage of songs and folk tales.

 Much better sustenance than the candy they consume--filling  our kids with the warmth of real nourishment.

How lucky are we, J, to be a part of all that---because it warms us in the process, too.

More, later.


Finding the time

Dear J,

"Finding the time":  a phrase redolent of complaint, wishes, bewilderment, passionate interest, and action.

I've heard myself uttering all of the above lately---trying to learn how to integrate web-based tools into an already-full curriculum.  And into an already-full life.   Realizing that working  for competency and understanding here is a vital, if sometimes frustrating, component of being an educator--especially for elementary-age students.

Found some ideas recently that were helpful in this area of experimenting with web-based tools and media:

"Media that's targeted at you, but doesn't include you, may not be worth sitting still for."
"You hope that everyone who fails, fails informatively."
"People like to consume, produce and share...media is a triathalon"
All, from Clay Shirky, on an interesting youtube video. (He also is featured in the TED talks: www.TED.com)

 Shirky's website is www.shirky.com, but I found the link for the video on yet another interesting site, by Wesley Fryer: www.speedofcreativity.org/2009/10/04/where-do-you-find-the-time-shirkys-answer.

Perhaps, J--as with everything else--it's less about 'finding' the time and more about 'making' the time. So that we can help our students, our kids, be ready to jump in when it's their time.

more, later.


Learning, speed and courage

Dear J,

Today, in the middle of a jam session (ukuleles, Grade 3), one student came quietly, shyly, over to where I was tuning the ukes.

Student:   Everybody's playing all of the chords, all at once.
Me:          Yep.
Student:   It's really loud in here.
Me:          Mmm hmm.  Does it bother you?
Student:   Well... (looking down at her uke, randomly plucking a string) they're all playing all of  the chords.
Me:          Want to show me the chords?
Student:    I can play them! (Playing the chords, accurately, slowly) It's just that everyone else is going too fast. I can't
                go that fast.
Me:           Yep.  That happens to me, too.  Just keep going at your own comfortable speed. It'll get faster on its own, as
                you play.
Student:     (Calming down) Oh. OK.

A normal interaction in the world of learning music, right?  That's what I thought, too.

Until tonight.  I was struggling to understand yet another mystery of using Internet technology: looking at web-based tutorials and trying to keep up.

I can do it.  It's just too fast sometimes.  I want things to go at a pace at which I can grasp the information--don't we all?--and when it doesn't, it's completely frustrating.  Makes me want to shut down and stop trying.

Experiencing that firsthand made me realize something important about our kids: they have courage.

 Just about everything they're doing in life involves  new, or nearly new, learning experiences.  Constantly.  But they keep going--they don't shut down, and they respond quickly to help. Until it becomes overwhelming: that's where  the slow withdrawal from learning begins.

So maybe we need to think about how to make the pace of learning comfortable--challenging, but accessible--for every one of our students.  We have all kinds of systems in place for that:  good, but not enough.  Maybe we need to change the very structure and expectations set for our school days.

No answers, just thinking about how to nourish that courage to learn.  For all of us.

more, later.


Snow in October

Dear J,

"Children are apt to live up to what you believe of them" : Lady Bird Johnson clearly knew kids.

The first snowflakes of the season fluttered past First Grade Music class  at 12:40 today.  Of course, we stopped everything to rush over to the windows, so that we could gaze at the snow, and  dance in delight.  Even if it is a bit early for that cold white stuff, the first snow of the season does carry a magic all its own.

Why?  Why does something as simple as snowfall bring that joy out in every kid every time, but the learning process doesn't  always?

Could it be because I expect them to be excited about snow? Because I believe that children will respond with delight to the first snowfall?   If so---and if Lady Bird Johnson is right (and I know she is!)--then clearly, my beliefs  about the learning process need  to be stretched a bit.

   I do believe that each child will respond with intent interest and sustained focus on music-making: that's what does happen, generally, on a day-to-day basis.

But perhaps I've been expecting too little of their ability to be 'on fire'  as musicians.  I would like that fire of excitement which lights kids up inside, upon seeing the first snowfall, to be kindled by day-to-day music making.  I want to see my students light up with learning, to have them dancing in excited interest during every music session, and to sustain that throughout their entire year---throughout their entire lives.

Perhaps today's 'being present and aware of the moment' work lies just there: in my own mindset, in steadily setting my own expectations to attract the response to learning that I believe kids are capable of: steady joy.

And, as we all know, if that's the belief, children are ' apt to live up to what we believe of them".

Thanks, L.B.J.

More, later.


Dear J,

"The joy comes from doing it well." -- Laurdella Bodollay

Right.  It can be an elusive goal, though---holding to the standard of excellence.

I mean, what is excellence, anyway?  Is it being able to perform music without a single error?  Performing every note with exactly the correct pitch and rhythm?  Getting the answer right every time?

Or is it about play?  Play:  being comfortable enough with the skills & materials at hand to be able to use them as part of  imagination, as an integral part of the communication  toolbox we all carry around.  That's a lifelong skill---one  not limited to a single subject, either.  It's part of learning to live well.

Ernst Fischer, in The Necessity of Art,  says that 'the free play of art is the result of mastery'.

OK.  So now, it's even more clear that the goal is to provide our students with opportunities to develop 'autonomy, mastery and purpose"  (in Ken Robinson's pithy phrasing), so that they can experience that "joy that comes from doing it well".

How do we do that?

 I said yesterday, J, that I was going to try just  being very aware of the present, working on whatever came up that was right in front of me during class.  Specifics, not general vague ideas.  Well:  we created a rhythm piece together today--working on listening to each other, staying in the same tempo, playing our parts clearly, holding the instruments correctly.  Playing real music, enjoying a jam session together.   On our first round, we tried to do it all, all at once.

Disaster.  Too much to think about, not enough chance to get comfortable with any skill.  Well, in truth, it wasn't really disaster--the music sounded like the kind of stuff one might expect from little kids.  

But not from young musicians.  So we tried again. This time, I reminded students (and myself!) to listen carefully to each other, to play their instruments as a part of a conversation.  To focus on their own technique and to listen, to listen hard, to the music we were all making.

What a difference.  Not perfect--but right in the pocket.  In the groove.  It was obvious to all of us: the children's faces  (and mine!) lit up with delight, and the circle literally leaned in closer.   I'd say that was excellent.  I think I like this building up process---going slowly enough so that each experience yields fruit, so that our play can also--even for just a few measures at a time--feel like mastery.

More, later.


Dear J,

So I've been reading about design in Dan Pink's interesting book on creativity.   One of the ways he suggests getting a handle on design is by choosing an item around the house that is annoying in some way, and--after thinking about how to improve it--sketching out ideas for solutions.  (p. 90, "A Whole New Mind")

The other book I just finished is by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk.  He talks a lot about being present, about living each moment fully, about doing the work that's right in front of you, right now.

Seems to me a combination of those two ideas might just be a good way to approach education.  Maybe it's time now to focus on just being present in each moment, on looking at whatever it is that's not working right in front of me--not systemically but right here and now, and listening for solutions.  Rather than putting a focus on what's wrong: instead, listen  and respond--improvise--and see what happens.

I'll try this today.  Let you know tomorrow what happens.


Dear J,

"A complicated, intricate  combination of paths  in which it is difficult to find one's way' :  the definition of labyrinth...and, more and more, a defining characteristic  of teaching.

Our calling, as educators within the public schools,  has  become as much about navigating across a sea of paperwork as about being present in the moment, with the children, with the learning at hand.

What's that all about?

I listen to the swirling eddies of conversation at meetings and in the hallways. Everyone has stacks of papers to be filled out, forms to be filed, rubrics and commentaries we must complete,  to use as documentation for this or that.

Yes.  Documentation for all sorts of things  is clearly needed, and often quite helpful in spotting patterns which might not otherwise be revealed.

But, S,  I fear the paperwork has become a dragging anchor rather than a ballast providing  stability.

I suppose the next question is, what gets jettisoned in order to keep us all afloat?


Dear J,

We had an 'evacuation drill' today at school.

A friend--a fellow teacher---described the drill as a 'mini-vacation'.  Yes:  get outside for a few minutes, stop work, stand quietly in the (nearly) absolute stillness and listen to the wind dancing with  the leaves.  Look up at those fat autumn clouds.  Enjoy the quiet presence of an entire school community, waiting in the silence together.

I think there needs to be more of that.  I think our world moves too quickly.  So much to absorb, even before we sit down at a desk to 'study'.

What about if we had more pauses?  What about if, in the course of a day, we slowed everything down to complete stillness for just a few minutes, so that all of the stuff that we've already heard has a chance to be absorbed?  And then again, so that the questions had time and space to find themselves, and rise up to be voiced?

What about if we slowed down the day enough to have time to listen?

Perhaps that would hush the incessant 'do more' clamor.  Perhaps there would be more space for real learning to take root.

Just thinking.


Hey, J,

Sometimes I think that we're 'educating' the life right out of our students.

 You know: school's become far less about learning for life and far more about learning for outside assessment.  No one wants to 'teach to the test", but....

We try not to.  Yes.   We give them projects to do, and spend hours preparing 'hands on' learning activities.  Some of us even incorporate going outside (what? use nature to teach kids?) and movement into each day.

It's not enough.  We're letting our kids starve.  We're feeding them pre-packaged junk food in the form of mass market texts:  brain food created for volume rather than quality.   Then we wonder at the stupor and sleepiness where there should be alert  curiosity.  

I don't know, J.  I don't know how to fix it, systemically.

But I'm starting now, with me: slowing down the pace enough to really listen, to be present with each child's learning process.  Giving them what I know they need--and using the best ingredients I can, to do so.  

Because every meal matters, in helping our kids grow.


Wednesday 9-30

Hey, J--

Thinking about calling, about vocation, about life in service to a larger goal.  About how much our children, our students, need the gift of listening.

We hurry them through their days.  We push and pull and prod them,  frightened that somehow, they won't measure up--and we will look bad.

We ignore their confiding stories, or brush them off with a nodding head and a wandering mind.

After awhile, they get the message: your experience is important, but keep it to yourself unless we want you to write about it in your literacy journal.   Or share it, in an appropriate way--no hesitating or searching for words here, please! clarity! speak louder!--during circle time.  During a staged 'sharing' time.

What happened to being present? What happened to standing on the playground and listening to stories?  What happened to hearing our children?

And where will they go if we continue to ignore them?

I don't know, J.  But it troubles me.  All the more because, even knowing all of that,  even while working to be present and to listen, I still fail to hear.

Grant me ears to listen, eyes to see, and a heart to care.  And energy, sustaining energy.

Because our kids' stories become our kids' lives.  Listening to them speak now will nourish them to speak up with their lives, later.