"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


Daily Life, 43


Kindergarten kids: Miss N, why do you have two skins?

Me: Hmm? What do you mean?

Kids: Your legs. They have two skins.

Me: Oh, those are called stockings.

Kids: Oh. They're like long socks, right? But clear. Cool.

First Grade kids: Hey, your legs' skin is a different color than your arms. What happened?

Me: I'm wearing these things called stockings.

Kids: Are they tights, but clear?

Me: Yep. And they're lighter than tights.

Kids: Why would you want to wear them?

Me: They're not as warm as tights, so they're easier to wear in the Springtime.

Kids: They're sort of like tights. But they're sort of like long, long socks, too. My Mom wears those things.

Well. You just never know what they're going to notice!


Too well-behaved?

I had my once-yearly formal observation today. With one of my energetic 2nd grade classes.

I'd told them ahead of time that I'd asked our Principal to come in and watch them because they were such good musicians...which is true. They are. They also tend to be lively to the point of 'rowdy'.

But today? Today, they were perfectly--I mean, PERFECTLY--well-behaved.

And extremely boring.

Intriguing. The corrollary to their not-always-appropriate behaviour is a ton of energy.

Yep, they are impulsive.

Yep, that sometimes leads to peer-to-peer arguments.

Yep, it sometimes means the class has a little melt-down and I have to stop, calm everything down, and reboot them.

And yep: I'd much rather have 'em that way than the way they were today.

With that 'wild' ness comes blasts of creative energy, bright firing of all those minds, and fun. We ride the ukes/drums/ dancing waves together.

Today, they were so proper and correct that it was completely bland. In fact, I wanted to shake them up a bit (I tried, but they maintained their completely controlled behavior).


Kids who are 'rowdy' because they're being creative?

Yes, please.


Winging it? or Improvising?

Had an interesting discussion today with my Principal. This was during a discussion I initiated, about changes I've made in my teaching, in response to having my classroom space displaced this year.

Me Well, I actually got the idea from a friend of mine who's worked in both theater and dance. He suggested I try teaching some of my classes by improvising. The results have been pretty astonishing.

Mark* Can you tell me what you see as the difference between improvising and what some teachers call 'winging it'?

Me "Winging it" generally indicates a lack of thought or planning--more like coming in and saying, "Oh, dear, I don't have a plan. Guess I'll just do whatever I can think of, to keep the kids busy." Right?

Mark* Usually.

Me Improvising operates under completely different parameters. I've been learning how to take solos while playing jazz. It involves knowing appropriate scales, chords and arpeggios, likely rhythm patterns, what your audience composition is, what the cultural references are for the style of music, and remaining aware of what the other musicians are doing.
Most importantly, it involves intent listening and focus--responding to things happening right now, while listening on many levels.

Mark* Right. Working within the style of the music.

Me Exactly. The same is true for improvising while teaching: I have a clear idea of where my parameters are, and what the goal is. I listen carefully to where the children are--how they're responding--and shape my teaching throughout the class, to interact with them in a way that draws out their best effort, and also involves all of us in the active process of learning.

Mark* So you teach without a plan?

Me The plan is to not have a plan. The plan is to know exactly what I'd like the children to be able to learn and to do as a result of being in class that day, and to use materials, pacing and activities to accomplish that--tailoring it to fit the 'music of our learning' as we go along.

Mark* I see. Have you seen any benefits to this style of teaching?

Me Well, yes. First, it only works when I'm quite clear about the underlying goals and very secure in the actual use of the materials. Second, I'm not doing this in every class each week, just consistently in each grade, as part of the pattern of learning. The result is that I hear how the children learn, in a quite different way. I'm much more flexible in responding to their learning pace and individual needs. And I've seen that some of the things I do need to change.

Mark* Like what?

Me Many kids need to move a LOT. Even more than I'd thought. When I'm carefully listening to them, directly pacing the class to them rather than to a preconceived plan, it's much easier to say, for instance, "Let's stomp to show the beat this time. Put the rhythm in your hands" or whatever.

Mark* Many teachers do plan, and then tweak the plan as they teach--leaving some things out, adding some things in.

Me Yes. That's improvisation, too. I do that, too---it's just part of teaching. But it's on a different scale than what I'm talking about. No pun intended.

Mark* Sounds fun, actually.

Me Can be. Can be both a lively ride and an intense learning time. For the kids, yes---and most definitely, for me.

*Mark, of course, is not my real Principal's actual name.

Choosing how to respond

So the climate at my school is pretty tense right at the moment.

Actually, in the entire town. Hmm, perhaps in the entire country. For the parts of it that have to deal with school budgets and program cuts, anyway.

I'm noticing that there seem to be two primary choices: worry, and talk in tightly-knit groups powered by negative, stressful energy. Or worry, and not talk about it at all.

What about another response?

What about NOT worrying, and choosing to work on the challenges and joys inherent in today?

What about attributing to each person or group involved, the best of all possible motives? Even if it's quite possible that the motives are mixed, how about responding by giving everyone--including the state financial decision-makers--responding by using Zander's idea of 'giving them an A"? (Zander and Zander, "The Art of Possibility". Great book.)

What would we lose? What would we gain? And how much more energy and joy would we bring to each day if we chose to respond to difficult situations by viewing them with the clear realization that this is a chance to practice the kinds of skills which build good character?

I'm not sure of the answers--and I'm mostly just asking myself this, here. But I intend to try this out. I intend to remain in focus on meeting each day's challenges with cheerfulness, and to choose to respond to any negative talk with a healthy, independent steadiness.

How about you? Do you ever face difficult situations in your work? I'd love to hear other good ways of responding-- and it's good to know that other people are working on this, too. I guess instead of 'misery loves company' we could say that 'good energy loves company'. What do you think?


Daily life, 42

First Grade Classroom, during before-school morning recess.

Shera* Hey, Ms N, look at my big boo boo! I got it on my knee, see?

Me Wow, Shera, that's a doozy.

Shera Doozy. (chuckles) That's a funny word.

Me How'd that happen?

Shera Wellll......I was standing on a, well, I was standing on a chair, well...
I was standing on a chair that I pro---bably shouldn't have been standing on...and then I fell off.

Me Ouch.

Shera Look at how purple it is. Isn't it cool?

All right then.

*Shera is, of course, not this completely endearing First Grade explorer's real name.


Daily life, 41

Well. Today was a first.

In twenty years of teaching, I've never been in a classrom where a student fell asleep right before my eyes.

Fell, being the operative word.

Kindergarten Music. Monday morning. In the middle of singing a new song... Jannika* blinked a few times, then nodded her head slowly as her eyelids lowered...then slumped to one side....then collapsed onto the rug.

Well. I guess Mondays can be a little rough sometimes.

*Jannika is, of course, not this sleepy little one's real name.



Awhile ago, I wrote about a great idea from Dudecraft--one of my favorite sites. (www.dudecraft.com) Paul Overton (the 'dude' behind Dudecraft) came up with a great way to make gift tags that look like little record albums. (Here's the link, in case you want to make them yourself--it's easy: http://www.dudecraft.com/2009/12/how-to-mini-lp-record-gift-tags.html)

So, we took the idea and applied it to the classroom. Each young jazz musician in 4th and 5th grade chose a Swing music era musician, wrote album notes about why they're recommend this artist's music to a friend, and then created album cover art.

Meanwhile, they listened to a LOT of jazz.

Here's some of the results. We put everything on display at our Kids' Cabaret. What a blast--thank you, Paul!

TED Talk

Have you heard this TED talk?

Adora is 12 years old, and an advocate of listening to children's ideas and learning from kids. She speaks with clarity and humor, offering good thoughts such as this:

"It is imperative to create opportunities for children so that we can grow up and blow you away...kids need opportunities to lead and succeed....the goal is not to turn kids into your kind of adults, but into better adults than you have been.." (Adora Svitak, TED talk, February 2010)

If you've never listened to a TED talk, this would be a great introduction to the amazing world of TED speakers. If you're a regular TED listener, this one's well worth the 8 minutes it takes for Adora to convey her ideas.

(I'd love to know what you think about the talk, and about her ideas--if you'd like to make a comment.)

Daily Life, 40

Second Grade, start of Music class, everyone up and doing the Lindy.

We've been working on following a leader (so far, that would be me) doing Lindy shines. At some point, I say, "Freeze!" then "Improvise!"--and everyone does.

Today, I went around to each child as they were improvising, and tried to copy their steps. Wow! Some subtle movements that I only caught by trying to do them myself.
It never ceases to amaze me how much different it feels, to try to move like someone else.

I asked the kids to make a big circle, all clapping, and invited anyone who wanted to, to come into the center to take a dance solo, improvising, with all of us trying to copy their steps.

To my utter surprise, EVERY boy wanted a turn. And they were good: they matched both the style and the tempo of the music.

Only one girl took a turn. Bing! Warning bells went off in my mind. I stopped the music for a minute, and we all sat down.

"Hmm...I see lots of boys wanting a turn, but only Sarya for the girls. What's happening, girls? Anyone else want a turn?"


"You do know you're guaranteed to do it right, don't you? I mean, this is improvisation. You're supposed to be making it up."

Kate*: "But what if we make a mistake? What if we can't think of anything?"

Matt*: "Just tap your hands. Or do one of the Lindy shines. It doesn't matter."

Sarya*: "I think it's fun. I think it's OK that it's fun."

Matt*: "It's SUPPOSED to be fun!"

This started a discussion about 'doing it right' and 'fun'. Ideas flew around. After a few moments, one of the boys said, "OK, can we just dance now?"

So we did. And this time, most of the kids wanted a turn in the solo circle.

They fixed it themselves. Sweet.

*Sarya, Kate and Matt are, of course, not these young dancers' real names.


Daily Life, 39

Music class, First Grade. Making our Music Treasure Boxes--white cardboard pastry boxes, which the children color, then fill with their teeny Music composition books, their clay instruments, their mini-music albums, and other treasures.

James* sat quietly, completely absorbed, intent on drawing tiny, exquisitely fine lines of color. His treasure box lid slowly shifted from being plain white cardboard to small colorful canvas, glowing with life.

This, from a six year old boy who has difficulty controlling his gross motor movements. Who seems to fall into or flail against any object within 5 feet. Who smiles, even as he unknowingly knocks over the xylophone because he leaned against it while listening. Whose arms and legs always seem to have their own ideas.

The little boy whose lunch ends up all over him because he has trouble holding his fork...this young artist is the one who drew a small picture of such beautiful intensity that it leapt into focus amongst the group of 20 or so boxes, piled loosely near the drum kit so that we could move on to playing singing games.

Children's innate abilities and ways of seeing the world burst with richness. And this one piece of art has forever changed the way that I see--the way that I see James, the way that I see children, the way that I see HOW I see.

What an incredible gift from one generous-hearted six year old artist.

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