"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


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.