"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, 50

Second Grade, right after lunch. (It was around 90 degrees in my cafeteria 'classroom' today--despite the fact that we had a dusting of snow about two weeks ago...)

Me OK! Would you all rather start our puppet show, or sing some songs first?

Kids It's hot.

Me Yep. So would you rather start working on the show, or just sing?

Kids It's really hot.

Me Mmhmm. Which would be more fun for you, working on the show, or singing, right now?

Kids It was hot out on the playground. It's hot in here.

Me You are so right. But we still need to decide, puppets or singing?

Kids I'm tired...It's hot...I'm all sticky from sweating so much...It's hot...

Me Hmm....once upon a time,

Magic. Instant attention. Those 4 words never fail. (And, of course, we finished the story, just in case you were wondering...)


Daily Life, 49

First Grade, before school began (during Breakfast/Morning Recess time):

Katie* I fixed my Dad's lawnmower this weekend.

Me Really? Tell me more.

Katie* Well....I watched a kids' show while he was getting all the stuff ready. Then we took off the mower part. We put a brick in front of the back wheels in front, and a slat of wood behind the wheels in back.

(At this point, I was thinking, "What 6 year old knows the term 'slat of wood'?!")

Me What came next?

Katie* After that, we got all dirty on our hands, so we went inside and got a drink of orange juice. Then we went back outside to work. Dad put a tarp on the ground for us to lay on, and while that was happening, while we laid on it, some stuff he was tryig to get out bonked him on the head.

Me Ow!

Katie* That's what he said.

Me So what happened then?

Katie* Then we went and put the mower part back on. Then after that, (big sigh), well, he tried it out to make sure it was running.

Me Wow. Did it work?

Katie* Well, it went BOOM. Then it worked. And now I know how to fix a lawn mower, and I can drive it, too.

*Katie* is, of course, not this budding young mechanic's real name.


Thinking about listening to music

Cigarettes and cold beer.

Earl Grey Tea and warm apricot scones.

Ponder awhile or answer in a hot minute.

Bach and blues.

As adults, we can choose to engage the spectrum of experience.

Why is it that so often we insist on presenting children with only one side of things, when it comes to music? And too often, the dreadful mockery of childhood which is called 'children's music'?

It's not that way in life: different pleasures for different moments. As in life, so in music class: lots and lots and lots of different kinds of music. Fill those ears with a wide variety of sounds, of ways that people express emotions through lyrics and sound pictures.

Zoltan Kodaly said something along these lines: one moment can affect a child for a lifetime of music. It's the duty of the school to provide it.

He's right. But not in the watered-down textbook versions of folk tunes and jazz and rock. Let's give kids the real stuff. Who knows where that could lead?

Towards a classroom full of kids who are eager to debate the various merits of different styles, certainly. A classroom full of people who are on fire about music and dance. And maybe...just maybe...a classroom full of people for whom the process of saturating their lives with music begins, with the real thing, in all its glorious lively panoply.

Just sayin'.


Daily Life, 48

This, from one of our Kindergarten teachers:

Ms. D* Nate*, why are you playing with your matchbox car instead of finishing your work?

Nate* I'm tired of school. I don't wanna be in school anymore.

Ms. D* Well, I'm sorry to hear that, but you still have to finish your work.

Nate* You know what? I'm not gonna come to school tomorrow.

Ms. D* Really? Why?

Nate* I'm going to have a sore throat tomorrow.

Spring fever??

*Nate and Ms. D are, of course, not the real names of these two people from Kindergarten-land.


Staying on the path

I ran into a wall this week.

Someone-- whom I'd considered a good friend--tried to push me to see the world through her wellmeaning but negative lens.

It took courage and considerable stamina for me to clearly assess what was happening, reflect upon it, and remain upon what is, for me, the right path.

To, in the beautiful language of Langston Hughes, "hold fast to dreams".

All of which made me think about my students...about how powerful our words can be, how much the development of their potential abilities can be nurtured (or not) by the views of all of us who have an impact on their lives.

Ladybird Johnson:"Children have a tendency to live up to what you believe of them".

Just thinking, today, about how vital it is to retain buoyancy of spirit and steady strength in ourselves, especially if part of the purpose of our lives is to help ourselves, and others on the path, to reach for dreams.

Choosing to respond to reality, to rise to challenges through steady hard work and nurturing inner strength---requires being willing to grow, to stretch, to push beyond hindrances out into a reality which includes our dreams. The 'hero's journey', as Joseph Campbell puts it.

As I see it, in that way--we can all choose to be heroes. And to stay on the path.


Daily Life, 47

I needed some 'roadies' to help me load instruments and other materials into my car after school today for a big concert at my other school tomorrow.

Fourth graders from the Afterschool Program, to the rescue!

Me Hey you all, is anyone interested in helping me bring instruments out to my car? It means hauling stuff for a few minutes.

Kids Me! Me! Me!

(Enthusiasm. Wish the whole world had more of that!)

Me Well, I only need four kids. How's about it, Renz*, birthday kid? You pick 3 other kids.

We carried out the first load of bags and boxes, then returned for the kid-size drum kit. When we got to my car, which was near the curb...

Renz* Hey, Ms. N, can we play the drum kit before it goes in the car? Like they do downtown, on the sidewalk?

Me Um....let's see, most of the classroom windows are closed, so we won't bother people. Sure.

Enter, organized cacophony! All five of us were beaming when the kids finished playing---and I was treated to the best improvising I've heard all year. Given complete freedom to play as loudly as they wished, and whatever they wished--complete freedom to explore the boundaries of their musical ideas and the range of the instrument....and four pairs of ears & eyes in their completely attentive audience....wow! They rocked!

*Renz* is, of course, not this musician's true name. But it is true it's his 'double digit' birthday year. :-)


Heroes, no songs

So today, I noticed some of the people at school who are heroes.

There's the Primary-grade teacher who's brand new, intelligent, capable, organized, and kind....who ended up with a very needy class--one that's both socially and academically challenged. She was not re-hired for next year, and knows it.

However: each day, she's still arriving early, leaving late, putting in tons of extra time on projects for the kids, and working on being steadily cheerful and kind to all.

Or how about one of the para-professionals, who's going through tremendous personal difficulties, but still manages to go through her day with a quietly cheerful attitude, and who volunteers to help others?

Then there's the staff person whose Mom is dying, who divides her time between going home to help and going to school for work. Who also remains in focus and generous with her spirit and energy, for the children.

Not to mention all of the children whose home lives range from typical childhoods through seemingly insurmountable challenges in daily life. Kids who are clearly struggling to control themselves, to gain mastery over their own response to life, to rise above their circumstances and soar.

It's amazing, isn't it? How so many of the people whom we encounter each day are truly heroes? Sometimes, that even describes ourselves.

What a rich and glorious gift, to interact with these folks every day. What a rich and glorious opportunity, to rise to the challenges in our own lives with the same grace, dignity and generosity. What a gift of grace, when we're able to do so.

May that be true, in all our lives.


Postmodernism and pop music

I was surprised yesterday by a 4th grade student, who chose to bring in a Beethoven piano recording as his 'first choice' for the pop music analysis unit we've been doing in Music class this month.

After being immersed for several classes in contemporary pop music tunes--some good, some tedious--I was unprepared for the shocking beauty of the Beethoven melody.

Which got me to thinking: who's to say that one is a masterwork and the others are ephemeral?

Postmodernism at work, yes?

On the other hand...that Beethoven melody brought me near tears.

And also...why am I surprised by the fact that a child would recognize and love the same beauty?

Just thinking.


Friday morning thinking...

Public school teaching offers an opportunity to change the world.

The world of the individuals involved, certainly, and beyond.

It's entirely possible to celebrate small advances while keeping the larger goal in sight. Equally possible to make big mistakes from thinking too small.

If art is, as Godin says, 'using your humanity to effect a change in another person'--are we doing that, in our daily work?

Or is the high from clearing away twigs and weeds from the common path blinding us to the fact that the way to truly go forward hasn't even been blazed yet?

Are we, as CS Lewis says, "mistaking the sand pile for the beach"?

I'm trying to see beyond the fog here. Just thinking.


Daily Life, 46

Had a child request to speak with me alone after class today. We sat down on the bench in the hallway...Grade 2:

Jalissa* Ms N, what happens, exactly, when a kid doesn't get to go on to 3rd grade?

Me Well, they stay in the same grade for another year, and make new friends, and still get to play with the friends they have already. They also get a chance to understand what they're learning, in a better way.

J (studying the tips of her black patent sneaker-shoes...I kid you not, those exist in little-girl land)
How do you know if you're gonna have to stay back?

Me Usually the teacher tells you. I don't think you have to worry about this, Jalissa*--you're a good student. Are you worried?

J Yes. My tummy aches when I think about it.

Me Did someone tell you that you were gonna stay back?

J (Nods her head.)

Me A grownup, or a kid?

J A grownup.

Me Your teacher?

J No.

Me Well. Does the person know how well you read? And that you're smart at math? Because I can tell, just from how you do in Music, that you're nearly ready for third grade.

J Not my behavior.

Me Hmm. Well, that's true. You've been having a bit of a hard time lately, right?

J (Looking at her toes, knocking each foot against the other) My parents told me that the teacher might hold me back because I've been so bad.

Me Hmm. Well. What do you think about that?

J (Looking up at me with tear-filled eyes) I'm scared.

Me Yep..... Did you talk with your teacher about this?

J (Looking back down, mumbling) No.

Me Well. I don't think this is something you really need to worry about, Jalissa*. I think you'll be going on the third grade.

J (Looking up at me, earnestly) But are you SURE?

Me Honestly? No. But I can find out. Would you like me to?

J Yes, please.

Me OK. I'll check it out, and stop by your room. Thumbs up means you're OK, but if I make my hand wave like this, it means they're still deciding what to do.


Me And Jalissa*, before you go back to class, you do know there's a good way to fix things if it does turn out that you might have to stay back because of your behavior, right?

J What do you mean?

Me Well, there's more than a month left of school. What do you think about working on listening better, and not talking so much to Ben*, and doing your best now?

J Wellllll.....I guess I could do that.

Me Just think about it first, and then make your decision. But either way, I'll find out how things stand.

Which I did do. She, of course, is fine. Except for the undercurrent of fear that's been her constant companion for the past month or so...

*Jalissa and Ben are, of course, not these earnest young students' real names.


Thinking about mastery

I recently finished reading Daniel Pink's newest book, "Drive", about what motivates us.

(He also has a great TED talk on this subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

His insights into extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation, and his extended discussion about our inborn need for 'autonomy, mastery and purpose' in our work (and our daily lives) are rich food for thought.

One of the fascinating things for me, about Pink's findings, was the entire section on mindsets for learning, in the section about laws for mastery. The idea that our own deep convictions about ourselves and our inherent abilities shapes how we interpret experiences, and how we go about accomplishing things--that's obvious to anyone who's worked with children.

It's harder to spot in ourselves.

If there's a strong inner focus on mastery, sometimes it's hard to sustain open-minded learning and the willingness to fail along the way, or to struggle along the way after a certain point.

I loved Pink's whole idea about how we respond to difficulty--the "helplessness" vs "mastery" view. Seeing our abilities as being full of endless possibility to hone towards mastery, rather than a finite set of skills or of skill potential.

Pink says, in reference to an educational study about types of learners: "setbacks (are) inevitable on the road to mastery"; that, in fact, setbacks could even be "guideposts for the journey".....'begin with one mindset, and mastery is impossible. Begin with the other, and it can be inevitable." (Pink, "Drive", p . 123)

The quote from Robert Reich, about knowing that we'll never really satisfy ourselves that we'll be a 'master'--and that that's OK--was something to think about, as well. (p.121)

I think it's vital to remind ourselves that mastery matters, that it takes steady applied determination and actual work, and that we can do it. And that the journey is what it's all about.


Daily Life, 45

Grade 3, during the 'what do you hear?' section of class, where we listen to various kinds of music. During the open discussion time at the end of the piece:

Shane* What WAS that?

Me Music by Bob Marley.

Jasper* I've heard of that dude. My dad has a bunch of his CDs.

Marly* I like it.

Shane* It doesn't sound like normal music.

Me What do you mean?

Shane* You know, like the stuff on the radio.

Chandra* It depends on what radio station you have on.

Brandon* Ms N, one of our kittens got out of the box last night and crawled under my bed. We couldn't find her this morning.

Annie* Can I go to the bathroom, please?

Shane* Well, I like it.

Jasper* Me, too. It sounds kind of summery.

Brandon* We're going to Darien Lake this summer. My Mom promised.

Chandra* Can we listen to that again?

*Shane, Jasper, Marly, Chandra, Brandon, and Annie are not, of course, these alert young musician's real names.


Daily life, 44

Second Grade Spring Concert, Thursday evening. Danell* knew that I'd tell him when to do the big drum roll at the end of the song set, and was watching me closely. Midway through his turn on the drums, I looked over with what was meant to be an encouraging smile.

Danell responded with a perfectly timed, flamboyant drum roll.

Me (whispering & shaking my head) Not yet, Danell--it's not the end yet.

Danell stopped dead, said quite loudly, "OOPS", and resumed playing.

Oh, yeah.

*Danell, of course, is not this self-composed young drummer's real name.