"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


Responding to uncertainty

Grace. Dignity. Generosity. Kindness. Quiet. Energy.

Our school, along with many others, is facing the challenge of responding with excellence to the needs of student learners, despite drastic reduction in resources.

The sole certainty is that this is our commission, our mission.

One possibility is that there will be even fewer resources next year, and the year after, as Federal and State funding drains away.

On a personal level, this could mean that individual teachers could lose their jobs.
This includes me.

Here's what I see: for twenty years, I've been lucky enough to make a living by doing what I love. I've been offered the daily opportunity to spend time being challenged to grow, enriched by interactions, and steeped in the joy of working with young people just bursting with life.

I'm struggling right now, knowing that kind of work could end, in this context, due to the overall school system's need to concentrate financial resources.

It's difficult to work when uncertainty looms. It's a challenge to continue to respond well to the needs of each day, knowing that everything could change drastically in June.

OK. So, I have no control over that. But---but I do have control over how I respond to this. I can choose to set the uncertainties, the worries, aside---and to focus on the work right in front of me. In the words, from twenty years ago, of a wise Jesuit friend of mine, Father Ollie, "Do not let worries over the future blind you to the very real need for service right in front of you, right now."

I'm choosing to live right now. I'm choosing to respond--or at least, to remain in focus on working to respond--with

Grace. Dignity. Generosity. Kindness. Quiet. Energy.



Quality & Service: Giving it away for free

Just finished listening to a great podcast by SisterDiane and Paul Overton, about a new business trend, giving things away for free. Lots of good information, all of it applicable to education as well as to online businesses. Here's the link,
on CraftyPod: Free and Service, with Paul Overton (www.Dudecraft.com):

The underlying message is that great work arises from passion & investment of ourselves. Paul amplifies his point that the marketing value is more of a by-product of that passion and investment rather than the impetus for it with solid examples drawn from his businesses.

They discuss how the drive to be of service is more than merely one component of good branding. It's the natural corollary to being excited and enthusiastic about whatever it is that you do. Which applies across the board. I kept thinking about my music program and education in general. (But that's a discussion for some other time.)

However: Paul's way of looking at work: "always looking to give people the best possible experience, to surprise them with the level of quality" and "it's all about the artist and the experience"---that is service at a very deep level. Service that can't be sustained or fed by simply a surface-level motivation (wanting to get good job reviews or a raise or whatever). It needs to come from intrinsic drive: whether from passion for the subject or the people involved, or for our own need to make it be the best that we can.

I loved what he said about that being what 'makes it fun' for him.

There was a section on talking about starting out, about how to build a following, about how to 'cherish your few readers' (customers, clients, whatever) and build from there. Nuts and bolts tools for building, for folks who are eager but confused about getting going.

A good discussion on setting limits, too--and advice to view this all as an opportunity rather than allowing it to get us bogged down, or to, in his funny phrase, "not to wallow in frustration" (that makes me smile!) but to use it to learn.


I think this quote should be a bumper sticker for this whole topic (it's from the section where they were talking about free as being a way to give a gift to the community): it is "a way to differentiate yourself, to be the person that people want to come to see".


(If you enjoyed listening to the podcast, check out this other article on the same topic: http://makeandmeaning.com/2010/02/09/join-us-for-free-thinking-an-interactive-liveblogging-conversation/
and Seth Godin's newest book, "Linchpin".)

Kids' Cabaret

This past Thursday, we had our 8th annual Kids' Cabaret. It's the culminating event for several months of studying Swing music from the 1920s--1940s. We turn the gym into our own Savoy ballroom, complete with seating at tiny tables (aka cardboard boxes covered with tablecloths, dishes of mints and flowers), a dance floor, a free 'cafe'
for ginger ale and cookies, and a "house band" with local jazz musicians.

The 4th and 5th graders are part of the band--they sing standards, they scat sing, then they hit the dance floor and do the Lindy Hop. (The Lindy is one of the original dance forms for Swing music--some say, the original form.)

All of the kids dance. All of the kids sing. All of the kids light up with joy and laughter and excitement. All of the kids succeed.

Some of the kids are showing, for the first time, that they can be really good at something.

Some kids, who struggle with the written word or with math problems, shine like luminarias when singing their solo at the microphone.

Some kids, who find it difficult to sit still and fit within the behavioral expectations of a classroom, light up the dance floor like shooting stars.

Some kids, who rarely engage with anyone for any reason, were smiling and letting go, for just a little while, of the burdens they're carrying each day.

Music and dance---and art, and reading, and theater, and crafts, and sports--help to bring us into the center of life.

That's what I want, every day, in every class, for every one of us.


Daily life, 38

Overheard in the cafeteria right after lunch (my desk is in the cafeteria, right behind a small bulletin board divider):

Custodian Now boys, you're in 2nd grade. You knew you shouldn't be throwing food during lunch. What in the world were you thinking?

Boys We WEREN"T throwing food!

Custodian What do you mean? I saw it!

Boys No, we weren't throwing the food. We were ROLLING it.


Then, later in the day, with Kindergarteners, singing the old English song, "Down came a lady". The last line repeats each time, with 'and she was dressed in...."
(filling in the blank with different colors). I use pictures for each verse so that the children know what color to sing. On this particular picture, the lady in question was wearing an outfit which was a little strange. One little boy, quietly singing along, said, "Down came a lady, down came 2, down came Lord Daniel's wife, and she was dressed in ugly."

Well, all right then.


A moment in the day

So today I had the big first grade class using picks. (We made picks out of big yogurt lid ones, that make a great sound.) Kids on ukes & guitars and one kid drummer.

I've been teaching them to mute, so that they can work just on steady beat. We hit a moment today with one of the drummers, when it was all in the pocket--actually sounded like a baby Django band. For about 10 seconds.


Daily life, 37

Fourth grade today joined both 5ths for a big music class. Started with two Lindy Hop Heaven tunes.

At the end:

Selina*: Miss N, do grownups do this kind of dancing?

Me: Oh yeah, Selina*. It started with young people--teenagers and people in their 20s--and now everyone does it. Remember Paul and I danced for you guys last fall? That was the same thing.

Dehran*: Lots of people?

Me: Well, yes...not everybody, but yes, lots of people--kids and grownups.

Dehran*: NORMAL grownups??

*Dehran and Selina are, of course, not these inquisitive dancers' real names.


Daily life, 36

In one of the first grade classrooms today,there was an animated discussion over whether or not leprechauns are real.

Finally, James* stood up to settle the dispute. He said to the classroom teacher,

"Mrs. S, let me see that book."

The teacher held up the library book.

James* : Does it have a label on the side with library numbers? Yes? Well, that settles it then! They have to be real, it's in the library!

*James is, of course, not this child's real name.


Daily Life, 35

Today, in a double-5th grade Music class, while doing the Lindy--everyone was up groovin' around, laughing and generally having a good old time.

Shandra* : Ms N, do we get to do this again?

Me: Yep. Why?

Shandra*: It makes me feel so happy inside! I like it.

In another class, helping Second Graders get their coats zipped up to go outside:

Hendron*: Ms N, my brother's living with us now.

Me: Really?

Hendron*: Yes. My Mom found out that my Dad was bringing my brother to the bar with him, and not giving him enough to eat even though he was hungry.

Me: Hmm.

Hendron*: Yes. She wanted him to come stay with us so that she can spend time with him, too.

Me: Oh. Hmm.

Hendron*: And now I have to wait to get into the bathroom in the morning. But it's OK. He's pretty nice.

*Shandra and Hendron are, of course, not these young students' real names.


Daily Life, 34

I played a beautiful 16th century Spanish waltz on baritone uke for Kindergarten musicians this morning. They listened with an intensity which astonished me: there was not one teeny wiggle or sound during the entire two minutes. At the end...

Kirsyn* : That was so sad.

Manton*: I think it was beautiful.

Angelina*: It sounded like a desert.

*Kirsyn, Manton and Angelina are not, of course, the real names of these young, very aware musicians.


Daily Life, 33

We went skating as a school community today (yes, all 250 of us were on the ice at a local rink, for an hour--half in the morning, half in the afternoon).

Marty* (Kindergarten): Ms N, you know, I learned how to skate all by myself now!

Me: Wow, Marty, good for you!

Marty*: I do keep falling though.

Me: Mmm. That happens.

Marty*: Yeah, you get really tired out when you fall down and have to get up all of the time. But it's still really fun!

*Marty, of course, is not this intrepid learner's real name.


Daily Life, 32

Yesterday, we did Lindy shines in every class, while listening to Louis Armstrong tunes.

Lots of laughing kids.

Kaitlan* (Gr 3): Oh, Ms N, that is SOOO much fun! Can we do that all class?

Michael* (Gr 1--in a tone & facial expression of obvious approval): This is so silly!

Jekennia* (Gr 5--while walking in the door): Hey, Ms N, do we get to dance again today?

Me: Yep.

Jekennia*: Yay! Then what?

Me: Xylophones and ukes, blues.

Jekennia*: Sweet!

*Kaitlan, Michael and Jekennia are not, obviously, the real names of these young musicians and dancers.

Looking and seeing

This is report card week at school.

Most staff are utterly stressed from the piles of detail-heavy forms, test result grids, and on. Putting in long, long hours each workday, and over the weekend.

Great. So now each child has a meticulously documented trail of assessments on their educational progress.

The whole process exhausts the adults. It pleases/alarms/doesn't matter to the families, depending on their worldview. The kids? The living, lively," needing to go outside and play, wanting to share their stories" subjects of all this study?

They're gradually being pushed out of the community and into being objects of intent concern.

Isn't data important? Isn't it true that we need to know, objectively, what and how children actually learn? Shouldn't we be tracking their progress, so that we can spot areas where help is needed? And--at least in our school--isn't it true that social/emotional/nutritional needs are carefully attended to, as well?


But not at the risk of losing communication. Not so much that we break the fibers of community, that we stop listening to their stories, stop realizing they need to get up and move and make LOTS of noise sometimes. Not so much that we take their childhood away.

Yes, children need to learn. Yes, we should be doing all we can to help that to happen. Address all the needs that we can see. And yes, all of that needs to be considered.

How about figuring out how to accomplish that while still seeing the whole person? How about throwing out all of the tests and giving children tons of opportunities to create and puzzle and wonder, and time to chew on a topic or a skill until they 'get it'?

Do I think I know how to do that, in our current educational system? No.

Do we need to figure that out, right now? Oh, yes.


March 4th

Just read a thought-provoking post at one of my favorite blogs, Make and Meaning. This time, the discussion centers around something most of us work towards: using our creativity and passion for one's "mission" to help make our parts of the world a better place. Here's the link:

While you're there, if you've time--read some of the rest of the posts. Even if you're not a 'crafter', you probably will find much to interest you. Hope you enjoy it!


Daily Life, 31

OK....this ranks as one of the most odd--and intriguing--conversations I've ever had with a child. Cross-sensory perception? Poet? Interesting, wherever it came from.

Kindergarten Music class. I was sitting on a very short chair, with the kids all around me. I was wearing a long, forest green dress.

Jonathan*: Ms. N, your dress feels like grey.

Me: Hmm, Jonathan*. Do you mean that it looks like grey?

Jonathan*: No. It FEELS like grey. It's kind of slippery.

Me: Yep. That's called 'rayon'. It's a kind of fabric.

Jonathan*: It feels grey. Or, like silver. Yes, like silver. It's so, you know, it's so...smooth.

*Jonathan* is, naturally, not this young artist/poet's real name.


Daily Life, 30

Working with a group of children during the AfterSchool program, to fold and fix the paper boxes which will become our Music Journal 'treasure boxes'.

Joey*: Ms N, it's my birthday tomorrow.
Me: Happy birthday! It's mine, on Friday.
Sara*: Really? How old are you gonna be?
Me: 107. (My standard answer.)
Mihail*: No way. No way you're gonna be 107.
Me: Why not?
Mihail*: That's too old. You'd be all bent over and everything. I think you're 17.
Me: Hmmm. You might be right.
Joey*: So how old are you, really? I think you're 37.
Me: Right now? I'm 106.
All the kids groaned a bit at this point, then
Sara*: You guys, you know how old she is. She's old enough that she doesn't want to tell us
how old she is!

*Joey, Mihail, and the perceptive Sara are not, actually, these children's real names.