"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


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.