"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


Learning from others..

Yesterday, I watched someone dear to me receive news which was hard to hear.

She received the news with dignified acceptance, and with warmth towards the news-bearer. That kind of strength of character can only come from a lifetime of responding to each day's challenges with grace-- from building that strength throughout the press of daily details. (In this instance, that would be for more than eighty years!)

That's how I want to live my life--that's how I want to respond to the challenges of teaching, of living: as opportunities to build the kind of strength of character which will enable me to respond to life with dignity, warmth and grace.

...and with gratitude for the gift of knowing others who are already walking that path with style.


Character and education

"...learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.” --Angela Duckworth

Discussing the impact of character on academic (and life!) success, this article is a long but interesting (and thought-provoking) read. Well worth the time, I think.

What do you think? Should schools focus on inculcating character in the emotional and academic development of their students?

Reality Check

It seems to me that this is all about figuring out what's most important, and pouring focus, energy, commitment, and resources there.

Which means being willing to take a long hard look at what's already actually happening. Not what I believe to be happening, or what I intended, but what's going on right now in my classroom.

The spirit & attitude with which I handle the incredible gift of working with young, creative, active students can help to propel us--my students and myself-- into creative growth or spiral us downward into apathetic flatlining.

For me, at least, it takes an ongoing willingness to choose to grow: to find the resources which help me to sustain energy in the midst of many needs/finite time; to seek out ways to help me to focus on what truly matters and to assess whether that is what I'm actually teaching; to hone my skills and stretch my mind's flexibility in the midst of the daily demands of teaching.

Seth Godin (my favorite business writer) talks about this process as being willing to look at 'the truth just around the corner'. (Read the post here.)

September tends to be a month when the delight, the demands, the responsibilities and the daily realities of teaching are condensed. It helps me to remember, in the midst of all of this, that being able to do this work that I love, within a community that is vibrantly alive, is a tremendous amount of work, an incredible gift, and an opportunity to stretch myself to grow.

We're all students.


Working to make it right

Seth Godin's take on the structure, function and philosophy of our current education system neatly compacts nearly a century of public school education in a few short paragraphs. He articulates a common understanding of the institution of public education as shaped by the financial needs of our country, rather than the educational needs of our citizens.

I think this is a fairly accurate assessment for much of our public school system--but not for all. Even within a system that is largely failing, there are many schools that are getting it right.

Of course, it should be ALL of the schools that are getting it right.

That would be why we're working so hard to make it right.

What's your opinion? Read the full article here.


Getting to the core (sometimes it's a slow reveal...)

Exploring the motivation in being a writer, Jennifer Gresham asks, "How many of us choose to follow the crowds instead of obligating ourselves to the things that matter?"

Rainer Maria Rilke's advice was to "Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse......A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it."

Teaching calls to the very center of who I am. The actual experience of teaching, that is. However: teaching, as a profession, is crowded with requirements which seem superfluous, which serve more to draw us away from the 'things that matter' than to strengthen and build the toolkit.

Yet most of us comply. Is that 'following the crowd', or is it simply fulfilling the required but mundane duties of the work?

Kids tend to be most engaged in learning when the teacher functions more as a coach--and as an active learner. Sometimes that means putting aside whatever is currently being touted as the 'next best thing' when we know it conflicts with best practices. But where does that fall, along the spectrum of responsibility to the requirements of the job and to what's most important: responsibility to the creative nurturing of young minds?

I'm not entirely sure yet, but you can bet I'll be thinking about this one for awhile. What do you think?


"If you can create a classroom where kids feel safe to take creative risks, most likely the stress level is lower and they're more available to learn in every way."
--Jan Kirsch, Director of Creative Development: Inner City Arts

"We've got to stop thinking of the students as vessels that get their education poured into them, and instead start thinking of them as drivers of culture. Can we get them deployed as drivers of reform in the school, instead of beneficiaries of it?"
--J.B. Schramm, Founder: College Summit

Intrigued? Want to hear more? Check out the short video, here.


Transforming spaces

I ran across a great story over at BoingBoing about graffiti artists reclaiming decayed urban spaces with vibrant artwork.

Perhaps I should have saved this link for "Art in our schools" month?

Full story, here.


Resources: Learning to play guitar

Short and sweet post today: here's a great site for learning how to play guitar.
The information is presented in a well-organized sequence; youtube videos complement the written material. (Sometimes it's nice to learn from a video....you can rewind it as many times as necessary, to practice a tricky spot!)

Interested? Find out more, here.

Daily Life

While kids were setting up for Summer Jazz Band rehearsal this morning:

Sam* Yeah, so I was hanging out with these people who kept talking about books, and I said, "It's the middle of the summer! Come on already!"

Me Then what happened?

Sam Well, they said that books were better than movies, so I was like, "You guys need to get out more".

(The funny thing is, Sam is a bright kid who loves to read...)

*Sam is, of course, not the real name of this relaxed vacationer...)


Resources: Banjo and Bass videos

I found these helpful for review & learning new stuff--maybe you will, too:

Examples of different styles of playing (useful if you're just starting and not sure how to do so)

and a good tune, taught here.

Bass-- There's a lot out there! This one is an entire series of short lessons--clear and concise. Covers everything from how to hold the instrument through both styles of bowing and more. Check it out,here.

Last but not least, if you're at all interesting in playing traditional tunes and learning social dances, check out the Fiddle and Dance Camp weeks at Ashokan. Wonderful place and amazing classes. See for yourself, here.

Good luck--and if this was helpful, or if you know of other good teaching videos out there, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!


Process and Product

Which matters more, process or product?

I've been playing upright Bass this summer: for the first time, working to improve simply by playing, rather than through endless hours of drills and theory.

It's working: I can hear progress.

Been thinking about how that process can be applied to the school year. As an educator whose medium is music, the product (concerts & student music journals, mostly) tends to be a primary focus.

What if it weren't? And what if the focus on end results simply leads to what Seth Godin calls 'cul de sacs'?

Immersion in theory and preparation, for me, has sometimes meant that my tools are quite sharp, but lacking in the comfortable usefulness that only experience can bring. Merlin Mann, writing for the site 43 folders, characterizes this particular cul de sac as "tool mastery vs. productivity....– Finding and learning the right tools for your work vs solely dicking around with the options for those tools is just so important, but also so different." (Read the entire article here--heads up, though: sometimes he uses strong language--not for the faint of heart. But a great article nonetheless, with some valuable insights. )

Too much 'hands on learning' leads to lack of foundational knowledge.
Too much 'theory' and talk leads to understanding without functional skills.

Both are needed--but it's not an easy balance, is it? Not in our own learning, not in our classrooms.

I've been mostly happy with leaning towards a classroom full of active musicians, with enough music theory to enable independent progress.

Somehow, though, that's been more difficult to attain in my own learning. Pushing past the comfort zone--in music, in using technology more effectively, whatever--can heighten the desire to postpone 'shipping' in favor of 'preparing'. --Something I'm definitely continuing to work on.

How about you? Where are you, in your classroom or in your own journey of learning?


Resources: TED talks on learning by making mistakes

Economist Tim Harford proposes a way to explore how to 'actually use a problem-solving technique that works" :'successful complex systems evolve through trial and error".

Harford begins with the insights of Dr. Archie Cochran, who--in the midst of WWII prison camps--found ways to improve the lives of the men under his care. Cochran "all his life, fought against a terrible affliction--he realized it was debilitating to individuals and it was corrosive to societies...he called it the God-complex".

How do we spot this kind of attitude in our own thinking? Harford says, "no matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution...I see it around me all the time...people who, in the face of an incredibly complicated world, are nevertheless absolutely convinced that they understand the way the world works".

Perhaps this seems obvious: Harford encountered many people who told him so. His response? "I'll admit it's obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don't have a correct answer. Stop giving them lists of questions, every single one of which as an answer, and there's an authority figure in the corner behind the teacher's desk that knows all the answers--and if you can't find the answers, you must be lazy or stupid".

Relying upon the advice and analysis of so-called 'experts'? Teaching from mass, standardized, commercialized, bland textbooks? I'll stop before this becomes a rant, and end with Harford's suggestion: He calls for us to "try a bunch of stuff", to employ 'systematic way of determining what's working and what's not"....to keep trying, and to work on making mistakes which lead to solutions.

Or, in Daniel Coyle's words (The Talent Code), "Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways--operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes--makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you're forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them...end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it".

A great pairing with this talk is Diana Laufenberg's discussion on learning from mistakes , which has been featured in this blog before.
Laufenberg's take? "We won't get there with a standardized test and we won't get there with a culture of one correct answer".

Time to go try out a bunch of stuff of my own.


Reality: daily life

Today, one of the First Grade kids gave me a mug with music notes on it. 

I said, "Let's see what this music sounds like", and went over to the piano to play.

She looked at the piano as I was playing, and then at me, and then said, "Are you playing those notes that are written on the mug??"


"Wow!!! That's sooo cool!"

Well, uh, yeah. It kinda is, isn't it.


Resources: Agency

From one of my favorite books, Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft, talking about agency:

"The idea of agency..is activity directed toward some end that is affirmed as good by the actor...it flows from an apprehension of real features of the world....

In activities that are directed toward some end...the goodness of the end in question isn't simply posited.  There is a progressive revelation of why one ought to aim at just this, as well as how one can achieve it.

As you learn your trade, this particular end takes its place in a larger picture that is emerging, a picture of what it means to be a good plumber or a good mechanic.  ....

The progressive character of revelation energizes your efforts to become competent--something about the world is coming into clearer view, and it is exciting.

The sense that your judgments are becoming truer is part of the experience of being fully engaged in what you are doing; it is a feeling of joining a world that is independent of yourself, with the help of another who is further along."  (pp. 206-207)

It would be hard to find a better description, it seems to me, of what it is to teach--whether the learning is centered on plumbing or music, the incredible exhileration  of active engagement in the teaching process arises directly from the experience of agency.

Now, to figure out how to incorporate this awareness, even more, into my classroom....


Reality: Balance

Well, it's been a while since my last post....lots of stories happening, though!

Here's a First Grade interaction, after playing my fiddle & Bass, then giving each child a turn to  play the Bass.  (The two instruments had a little 'discussion' about who had the better sound, accompanied by delighted giggling from the students...)

Me   What do you think about the instruments?

Kids   Well, they're a little bit the same, and a little bit different.  Just like us!


Rejuvenation: inspiration

Today's post is simply a quote I liked and wanted to share:

"We find greatest joy, not in getting, but in expressing what we are...Men do not really live for honors or for pay; their gladness is not the taking and holding, but in doing, the striving, the building, the living.

It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things but more to make them.

The happy man is he who lives the life of love, not for the honors it may bring, but for the life itself."    --  R. J. Baughan


Resources: Video

Today's learning link is to a two-minute (or so) video by Alan Watts....just a bit of thoughtful fun for the start of a new work week.

Watch, here.

(Surprisingly, I saw this first, not on youtube, but on a good small personal finance site called The Simple Dollar.)


Resources and Rejuvenation: Tunes

Some joy from Louis for your Monday morning: "St Louis Blues".

1933 talks to 2011...technology is amazing, sometimes.

Catch it, here.


Reality: daily life

Second Grade, this afternoon...

Me    Oh, would someone close the door?  Matt  forgot.

Arthur  (another student)   He always forgets.  He'll never learn.

Me (and other children)   Arthur!  That's not fair.  Just because someone made a mistake doesn't mean they'll never learn.

Arthur    Well,  he won't.

Me     Hey, wait a minute.  Everyone makes mistakes.

Arthur    Not me.

Me  (laughing)  All right then! In that case, that was your first one---because EVERYONE makes mistakes.  Even grownups.  It's just part of being human.

Arthur    Nope.  Not me.  I'm nearly perfect.

Me (smiling incredulously, because he was clearly utterly serious)   Well, good for you. But no one is perfect.  That's why we have to give each other some space to learn.

Arthur   Well, not me.

*Arthur and Matt are, of course, not these 7 year old students' real names.


Reality: daily life

From a First Grader, as she walked out of the Music Room door at the end of the line, back to her classroom:

Leslie*    I want a little sister.

Me          Really?  Little sisters rock, you know. 

Leslie*   Well.....I want Mommy to have another baby, but she said that I'd have to ask Daddy, 'cause he makes all the rules.

*Leslie is, of course, not this hopeful big sister's real name.


Reality: daily life

From classroom teachers' stories about talking about Martin Luther King, what racism means, and how kids can help to change things:

from the First Grade Classroom....

Teacher    Does anyone have anything they'd like to add?

Francine*    Yes! My Mom shows racism, 'specially during the winter time.

Teacher   What do you mean, Franny?  Can you explain that a little more?

Francine*   Oh yes!  She's mean to mice, she catches them in a trap, so she shows racism.

and from Fifth Grade:

Teacher   Would anyone like to add anything about the movie and discussion we had today?  Did anything confuse or surprise you?

Danny*    Well, I would.  I was surprised to hear  that Martin Luther King worked to end puberty.

Teacher    Hmmm....he worked to end puberty?

Danny*   Oh.  That's not the right word, is it?  It starts with 'p'.   Let me think about this for a minute.
 Oh!  I meant, 'poverty'...

*Danny and Francine are, of course, not these students' real names.


Resources: Music & the Mind

Yet another instance where science supports the notion that learning about music trains the mind to think more creatively....read more, here.


Reality: daily life

There are often times when listening, and caring about our students as people first, changes everything.

Here's just such an example, drawn not from the classroom but from real life....a brief vignette which surprised and delighted me, when I read it.  Reaffirmed the real need to establish connection first, whether in the classroom or out on the city streets.

Read the rest---or hear the story--here.


Resources: Music

Yeah!  A groovy tune to start your week off right--check it out--Sister Rosetta Tharpe, "Up Above My Head".

Get ready to dance!

Listen here.


Learning Link, 114

Most of us in the United States  have heard the recordings of  the "I have a dream"  speech enough that the very words carry the cadence and power of Dr. King's voice as we read them.   Those words have the power to bring a class of ten year olds to  quiet, thoughtful stillness.

The same is true of other works by Dr. King--for older children, for teens, for adults.  His "Why I am opposed to the War" speech is one of those works--it  carries strength, conviction and stirring truths in equal measure.  

 I read some thoughtful words for us as educators in a  beautiful post, on Paul Overton's Every Day is Awesome blog,  about this particular speech of Dr. King's.  Paul said King's words were   "Sobering, yes. But also hopeful in a strange way. Forty-two years later, a man’s passion for justice still has the power to move us. His words still carry the weight of truth and, most importantly, he is still calling us to action. The fact that this speech is timeless is simultaneously sad and beautiful. I don’t know if he thought we would have reached mountain top by now, but you can bet that he wouldn’t have wanted us to stop trying."


(Read the rest of Paul's  post, here.)


Reality: daily life

It's been a ride, this week has--- fatigue,  not enough outdoor time, and general crankiness (hmm....for children and adults!).

In Kindergarten and First Grade....

Me   "Um, you guys? Would you please tell the aliens who kidnapped you in the middle of the night and sent me these (sleepy-tops, silly beans, grumpy-heads...) instead, to send me back my kids?"

Kids  giggle giggle giggle....

or, just recently:  "Oh Ms N, you know, we just got up on the wrong side of the bed."

Me   "Uh, yeah, I can see that."

Kids  "What does that mean, exactly, anyway?"



Resources: Creativity

Great ideas about creating, improvisation, and just plain inspiring listening from two amazingly creative people, Paul Overton (of Dudecraft.com and everydayisawesome.com)  and Noah Scalin (of Skull-a-day
and 365:Make Something Every Day).

The bonus?  It's really fun to listen to--a good creativity boost for our mid-January days.

More, here.


Resources: TED talk

Have you heard this  TED talk yet?  It's intriguing.

Charles Limb is  a surgeon and a musician who studies how the brain operates when musicians play.  He says that creativity is a neurological process that can be--and will be, even more intensively over the next ten years---studied from a brain-based viewpoint.   He uses a special MRI machine that measures blood flow in the brain to track the creative flow  while jazz musicians improvise, and while rappers perform.   Amazing stuff.
It's totally absorbing.  I want to listen to it again...

16 minutes--listen, here.


Resources: Compassion

Today's Learning Link is to a podcast of the NPR show,  Talk of the Nation,  which is an interview about compassion, with Karen Armstrong.

Armstrong, winner of a TED award, is a religious historian who chose to use her TED award to further the awareness of the dire need for compassion in our world.   She asked TED "to help me create, launch, and propagate a Charter for Compassion that would be written by leading thinkers from a variety of major faiths and would restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life. The charter would counter the voices of extremism, intolerance, and hatred. At a time when religions are widely assumed to be at loggerheads, it would also show that, despite our significant differences, on this we are all in agreement and that it is indeed possible for the religious to reach across the divide and work together for justice and peace."

In her words:  "One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect.........The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect."

This interview, and her TED talk, are less a presentation of new ideas and more a recognition of the universal application and need for this basic tenet---- a call to action in our daily lives, and in the larger communities in which we live.

As a religious historian and author,  Armstrong naturally grounds her work in the language of religions (not one but all), although the discussion is applicable within a secular context, of course, as well.

More, here.


Rejuvenation: food for thought

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."  --W.B.Yeats


Daily Life, 102

Today, I was in a second grade classroom during their literacy block--sitting on the floor with small groups of children while we took turns reading aloud. 

Max*    Would you please help me to hold this book up? It's pretty big, and my head hurts.

Me   Sure.  I'm sorry to hear that you have a headache, Max.

Max*    No, it's not a headache, really.  My spine just hurts from the top of my backbone all the way to the bottom.

Me    Ouch!

Max*   Yeah, well....it happened last night when my Dad and me were headbanging to Metallica.


*Max, of course, is not this young heavy metal music fan's actual name....


Learning Link, 110

Where do artists find inspiration?

Once they've begun, how do artists nurture their creativity?

How do artists connect their work with their worlds?

NPR/CBC radio interviewers spoke with several well-known creative people in the arts, during the 1970s.  The result was a two-hour radio documentary about creativity and the arts--a discussion which both informs and inspires adult artists, even 30+ years later.

Listen, here.


Learning Link, 109

 Great, short post about learning languages, over at ZenHabits.  Substitute 'music' and nearly all of it applies...interesting.

More, here.


Learning Link, 108

Seth Godin, once again, wrote this past week  not one but two great posts to think about, for anyone who's concerned about education....the first is about impact, the second, more about the quality of our  process and tools.   He knows how to provide much food for thought in--generally--less than one page of writing.  Great stuff.

Check out the first one here, and the second, here.