Teaching has a tall poppy problem and it needs to change.

There are lots of problems in education, big systemic problems, governance problems, structural problems that seem unsolvable sometimes because they’re so deeply rooted in the way things have always be done.  And then there are problems that are so darn easy to fix, it’s a wonder they haven’t already been solved.

One of those easy problems is the tall poppy problem (or syndrome).  If you’re not familiar with that expression, it’s one of those fabulously apt British turns of phrase (also popular in Australia).  Wikipedia defines it as describing “aspects of a culture where people of high status are resented, attacked, cut down and/or criticized simply because they have been classified as superior to their peers.”  While I’m not keen on the term “superior” in their definition, I’m sadly all too familiar with the problem itself; virtually every teacher I know who has moved into a leadership role, whether in their school or in their system has experienced it.  When a poppy gets too tall, we cut it down to size.

poppies in a field

“Wow, the superintendent is coming to your class again?!?”

“You’re sure out of the school a lot.”

“Why does she get to go to so many conferences?!?”

“Giving another workshop, are we… what’s that, the fourth one this year?”

Comments like these, tossed around casually in the staff room or peppering the conversation in the hallway, are the tip of the tall poppy sword.  They give new teachers the message that it’s not good to stand out, that it’s better for your social survival to blend in, to be average, to find the middle and stay there.  These comments stigmatize striving, they punish achievement, and they disparage risk taking.  It’s already scary to take risks, to try new things in your teaching, to put your hand up when opportunity comes knocking; when we normalize comments like this and the social exclusion that often comes with them, we make it even scarier.

I am grateful to my dance training for many things but top of the list is that it has made me basically immune to these types of remarks. I get angry about it, sure, but it doesn’t ever stop me.  Not everyone, however, spent their adolescence having their every flaw and foible pointed out to them.  It toughens you up and it helps you to understand that other people’s opinions are valuable only insofar as you deem them relevant.  Feedback is great when it helps you to get better; in that context it’s an investment in your practice whether it’s as a dancer or as a teacher. When its goal is to bring you down, however, it’s not worth paying attention to.

While a thick skin is great, and I highly recommend developing one, it’s no substitute for a culture of lifting people up, of celebrating when colleagues are recognized and of supporting each other to take risks, stick our necks out and become ever better. The tall poppies among us should inspire us all to grow, to reach, and to make our classrooms and schools better places for kids and families. We need to start challenging comments that disparage the tall poppies; like all forms of bullying, this type of power play thrives in dark corners. Naming the behaviour when we see it would go a long way towards changing the culture.

Cutting people down makes us all worse off and, at a time when we’re encouraging our students to take risks and to find innovative solutions to our many problems, we need to make sure that our schools are places where teachers too feel safe and supported as risk-takers and innovators.  We need to grow to meet them; I hear the sun is warmer up there.

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5 Lessons from the Stage for Teachers

Recently

All the world’s a stage

I was recently working in a busy kindergarten classroom.  I arrived to a room full of activity, bustling with energy, teaming with learning.  The students were engaged at play, active and joyful with the noise of conversation and materials interacting.   A group of boys had build and obstacle course/pathway and they were challenging themselves to jump between the blocks while staying balanced.  Another group was using a mirror to draw self-portraits.  Other children were playing with puppets, painting, and reading.

After a period of observation, we asked them to leave their play and to join us at the carpet for some music and storytelling.  The teacher tapped the outside of a singing bowl to get their attention and the children slowly began to make their way towards the carpet.  I love singing bowls so I took the opportunity to use it as a way to draw all the students in, playing it by rubbing the outside edge and then slowly moving it across my body so that the sound moved through the room.  The students, familiar with this sound, were transfixed and watched me as I raised and lowered the bowl, moving it from right to left as it vibrated in my hand.

It was a bit of theatre, a gimmick perhaps.  I use all of my performance skills in these transitional moments; I draw myself up to full height, exaggerate my gestures, and use my voice to effect: when the sound of the singing bowl faded away, my voice was a whisper. Later in the lesson, the children went and gathered items that they could use to make soft and loud sounds in the room and I conducted their found-sound-orchestra with the nearest pencil, using flourishes and facial expressions to indicate when I wanted each group to play.

So many times when I watch teachers who are struggling to maintain students’ interest and to manage a group, I notice that, while the may have a good grasp of the content they’re teaching, they’ve forgotten (or have never thought about) that teaching is a performing art.  While I am absolutely an advocate of teacher as guide on the side and meddler in the middle, I am noticing that many teachers don’t know how to grab onto those ‘on stage’ moments and make the most of them.

So, in the spirit of building dramatic tension please imagine a drumroll as I give you my top five tips for creating student engagement through performance.

1. Body Language

If there was one thing I would give new teachers, it would be an awareness of their body language.  Women (who occupy the majority of elementary teaching positions) have, in many cases, been taught to take up less space with their bodies, to be quiet and unobtrusive.  Good performers take up space.  They occupy the room with authority.  They plant their feet and square their shoulders.  Their spines extend and their heads lift.  They don’t fidget; their gestures are purposeful and clear.  The maintain eye focus.  They make no apologies for their presence in a room.  Be aware of your own physicality and what it’s telling your students.  What messages are you sending?  Is the subtext of your body language sabotaging your teaching?

2. Use your voice.

We use our voices all day in the classroom but rarely do we think about how we use them.  Too often, teachers’ voices maintain a consistent range, which starts loud and gets louder when the noise level in the classroom increases.  I almost never hear a whisper or a change in pace, tone, or intonation.  The brain loves novelty and children’s ears will generally perk up when the teacher starts speaking in a very low tone or starts stretching out her words.  Not only does it help students to pay attention, it will also help to save your voice, which brings us to my next suggestion…

3. Silence

Think about that moment before a concert starts, when everyone settles in and leans forward, straining to hear the first notes.  That is a beautiful moment.  Dramatic pauses are sadly underused in teaching.  There are few techniques more effective than a short pause. To wait. For the next. Word. Try it.

4. Move

A few times in my teaching career, I’ve had parents request that their child sit closer to the front of the class due to challenges with attention, vision, or hearing.  These requests have caused me to ask: “Where is the front?”  I very rarely stand in one place in a classroom.  Unless I’m sitting down, I’m walking.  Movement is another way to help students pay attention; it forces them to track you through the classroom and gets them to move in their seats.  It also demonstrates confidence and allows you to touch base with every student while giving you something to do if you’re prone to fidgeting.

5. Transitions

Transitions are the tip of the sword in teaching.  They can absolutely ruin a good lesson.  Every transition is an opportunity to loose the students’ interest.  Think about performances you’ve seen when the scene changes are clunky, when the lighting cues aren’t in synch or when the performers are under-rehearsed.  Those transitional moments are agony for an audience.  People start to shift in their seats, check their phones, or whisper to their friends… and these are fully grown adults, presumably more capable of self-regulation than the kids in our classes!  Practice your teaching transitions, make sure you have all the materials you need, give the kids something to do during the transition, sing a song, tap dance, 7th inning stretch… anything.  Being aware of transitions, cutting them back to the bare minimum and smoothing out the ones that remain will make a huge difference to your classroom management.

Break a leg!

The missing ingredient

I attended my first meeting about full-day kindergarten in the Spring of 2010, 7 years ago now.  In the intervening years, I’ve worked as a classroom teacher in FDK and as a support person for FDK classrooms.  I’ve thought hard about the progress we’ve made and the progress we’ve missed as I’ve observed and documented, reflected and refocused.   And I have to say that, although there are some shining examples of excellence, our progress, across the province, hasn’t been where many of us would have hoped.   We are, in many meetings, still talking about the same issues we were discussing 7 years ago.

Why? Why haven’t we, in spite of our best intentions, been able to move the needle on some of these critical issues in early learning?  Why is my daughter still coming home from her second year of Kindergarten with worksheets and fixed-result crafts?  How can I possibly be having the same conversations with her teachers that I was having with my son’s teachers in 2012? They’re getting tired of it and so am I (imagine for a moment the delight a teacher feels when I walk into their classroom information night… oy).

I’ve been thinking hard about these questions a lot this year, especially as I’ve been working with the teachers, educators, and artists in our Artists-in-Residency (AIR)(education) program (generously funded by the Ontario Arts Council).

Without exception, the artists working in this program bring an entirely fresh perspective to the classrooms they’re working in.  They see things with new eyes.  They don’t have the same preconceived notions that many of us in education do about children, their capacities, and the possibilities for learning in the classroom.   Let me give you an example.

In one of our schools, we have had an artist working with both a kindergarten teacher/ECE team and a grade 3 teacher.  The same artist also worked in the school last year but this is the first time we’ve extended the program beyond kindergarten.  She has been in residency, typically spending two half-days per week in each class, for 8 weeks.  As the grade 3 teacher pointed out, that’s the equivalent of 9 months of Visual Art instructional time according to the minutes allotted in our board (which are comparable to instructional time allotments across Ontario).

During this time, the grade 3 students have made plaster casts, abstract maps, and clay pots.  They’ve experimented with linocut printmaking and copper tooling.  They’ve also made their own paper and learned about 3-dimensional drawing techniques.  It’s been a rich and rewarding experience for everyone and represents a particularly brave leap for the teacher; grade 3 is a testing year in Ontario and many teachers would be reluctant to give so much time to an Art project.

But we’re here to talk about Kindergarten so let me tell you about the project in that class.  Last year this artist worked with the students’ interests and curiosities to create a very detailed 3-dimensional model of a coral reef, including a reef sculpted in wire, covered in plaster bandages, and painted in bright acrylics.  This year, the class began working on a few projects to test the water and get an idea for where the students wanted to take the project.  They began with the students’ existing fascination with building which prompted tall paintings (à la Holton Rower) and architecture-inspired floor plans and building designs.

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tall paintings mounted for display

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Kindergarten blue print
The project quickly shifted, however to a focus on space.  Space.  As we had done the previous year with the coral reef, this direction prompted some soul searching on the part of all the adults.  Space seems an awful lot like a theme.  Was this really where we wanted the project to go?  Did it have enough to do with Art? Was it a genuine place of curiosity for the students or was there a bigger question we were missing? But given that we didn’t have any other obvious direction, we decided to go for it.

I ordered batteries, wires, and LED lights while the artist’s receipts revealed purchases that stretched from one end of the dollar store to the other.  The students made a planetarium out of a giant cardboard box, featuring constellations that were wired together and used finger pressure to connect the circuits.  They created Mars rovers and a dramatic play centre that featured plaster bandage helmets and moon shoes.  They created a cave populated with crystal sculptures.  The project went well beyond where anyone would have predicted at the outset. The teacher and ECE reflected:

“It was interesting to observe an inquiry progress through the arts. The children’s questions lead us. I wonder how our project would have looked if we had not used the techniques introduced by the artist?”

And that’s the rub that we’re facing, 7 years in.  We’ve tried to adopt Malaguzzi’s broad view of 100 languages without bringing in the translators he used.  We are like aliens, fish out of water.  We don’t know how to navigate and though we’re trying, gamely in many cases, we keep reverting back to our old languages of reading, writing, and mathematics because there isn’t anyone to bridge the cultural gap for us.  The gulf between the culture of school and the culture of childhood remains in large part, I think, because the people who could comfortably stand on both sides of the divide aren’t in schools.  We haven’t asked them to come in.

Vea Vecchi, writing in the journal Innovations in Early Education writes:

“In the late 1960’s the decision was made to have an atelier and an atelierista in each municipal infant-toddler centre and preschool in Reggio Emilia. It was a choice that was revolutionary then and now because it changed a conformist way of thinking about education, of looking at knowledge and learning. This choice created a dialogue between social constructivist pedagogy and the poetic languages of the atelier. This decision was actually quite subversive. In a very short time after the original institution of the atelier, the culture of the atelier began to infuse throughout the entire school. The atelier brought certain techniques and certain culture into the school but also had an intense effect on all the aspects of the school.” (Fall 2012, Volume 19, Number 4)

The artists of the atelier are not teachers, just as our AIR artists aren’t teachers.  They bring a subversive set of eyes and hands and legs to the classroom and in the upending that occurs, the very nature of what school is changes.

Vecchi writes: “Loris Malaguzzi talked about the atelier as a being an “impertinent atelier.” This is a term that I like very much because it implies that the atelier is a place of provocation. The atelier is a place that guarantees that knowledge and learning are taking place with the mind and the hand as well as rationality and emotions connected.”

Learning with the mind and the hand… learning with emotions.  How many of the issues that we talk about in education, be it a better future for learners who identify as Indigenous, a focus on Mental Heath, physical literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration are so obviously served by having artists present in schools, active in schools, integrated into schools?  How far could we move the needle on student Mental Health if kids had access to an art studio in their schools, if their teachers had access to an artist-in-residency… full-time? How much more creative could we all be if we had the kinds of opportunities that the students and educators involved with the AIR program have had?  What a difference it would make to the culture of school if we had fluent adult speakers of the 100 Languages in the building. I think we’re missing out, our kids are missing out, and our society is missing out.  Send in the artists. There’s no time to waste.

 

 

There’s a lot to worry about in the world these days and I’m a worrier, so I’m finding that my plate is quite full most of the time.  I try to give each worry-worthy bit its own segment of the day but I’m running out of pie pieces to distribute as the list of necessary bits gets longer and longer.  So I’ve decided to do something different to assuage my anxiety.  I’ve decided to start thinking about the things I don’t need to worry about.  Between that and a strong cup of tea, I figure I should be well on my way to earning myself a piece of real pie sometime soon.

It’s also Kindergarten open-house season right now as parents visit their preferred schools to try and decide where the best place will be for their little ones.  It can be a confusing time and parents often have a lot of questions.  One of the ones I heard most often on those nights, and still hear from parents of young children, is “How will you teach my child to read?” or its variation “When will she/he learn to read?”

The older and more experienced I get, the more this question falls into the category of “things-not-to-worry-about”.  Now, I’m not suggesting that children don’t sometimes need adult help learning to read… some do.  I’m just not adding it to my list of things to worry about.  I’m also leaving off teaching children colours, numbers, shapes… all the usual “content” of kindergarten day plans.

 

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Writing new and familar words

My own observations as a teacher and a parent tell me that three things really matter in learning all this critical content: people, books, and materials.  When children are exposed to adults who care about them, interesting books, and materials rich in possibility, they will, almost always, learn all of this content through questioning, listening, play, and observation.  Very little, if any of it, will need to be explicitly taught.

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Circling (okay, not quite) the words “un” and “le” in one of her favourite books
My own daughter had almost no interest in print during her first year of Kindergarten.  This year she can’t get enough of it.  She is constantly asking how to write new words, she is finding familiar words in books, and she wants us to scaffold for her as we read aloud: “Which word is ‘six’ Mommy? Oh, that looks almost like ‘dix’ and they rhyme!”

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Doesn’t matter what the medium is these days… letters are the message.
I’ve observed the same pattern in child after child. The little boy whose only interest for the whole first year of Kindergarten was marble runs is reading independently halfway through his second year.  The little boy who was so shy that he would hardly speak through two years of kindergarten is plowing through books and reading them aloud in grade 1.  It happens.  It happens all the time.

One of my children walked at 17 months, the other learned to walk in the Hong Kong airport just days after her first birthday (I was wishing for a few extra days of non-mobility, frankly).  No one suggested remedial walking lessons for the first child.  And yet, we expect reading to happen for children in a predictable way.  We, parents of the latte generation, want our children reading based on our timeline and we get anxious if little Bailey isn’t exactly as precocious in learning his letters and numbers as small Sadie down the street.

Please, take it off your list.  They’re going to get it – keep reading to them, show them that reading is something you love and they will love it too.  Read for pleasure; there’s no better motivation for learning. Pretty soon you might find yourself wishing you had a few more weeks of iliteracy to luxuriate in, believe me… I’m stuck monitoring a complex points scheme that my children invented… apparently you get 300 points for pooping your pants and only 10 points for not whining.  If you need me, I’ll be in the laundry room.

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It’s all about you

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching one of my own children.  Now, it’s only for 75 minutes a week, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. My son, who’s 8, is having a very hard time separating Mommy from Miss Emily and it’s a challenge for me to manage his needs effectively when I have 9 other kids to teach at the same time. It’s usually not pretty and I often leave with a nagging headache.

But this week, for the first time in several weeks, I managed to sleep through the night uninterrupted prior to teaching his ballet class.  Instead of going into the class feeling exhausted and edgy, I went in feeling pretty good and I even had enough energy to teach the following class without worrying that I’d fall asleep on my feet.

I’ve been doing some extra reading about how to best teach younger boys in ballet class (there are 3 boys in my son’s class) so I’ve been putting some of those strategies into place for the past few weeks (floor exercises instead of centre work, movement games, team ballet ‘battles’, and lots of fun breaks between the serious bits… in case you’re wondering) but this was the first week when it felt like the dynamic had shifted.  For the first time this year, I felt successful with this group of kids and I didn’t get so frustrated with my own child.

After the class was over, I found myself reflecting on why things had shifted.  Was it because I had tried some new things that were more developmentally suited to that group of kids or was it because I was more well rested and better able to teach effectively and be present in the room?  How much of my frustration with the kids was really about me and my state of mind?  I had been blaming my negative experience of the class on them… but was it really all about me?

We get into this kind of thinking a lot in education.  Too often, I hear teachers talking about being “saddled with behaviours” in their classes, as though the children are choosing to overwhelm their teacher, as though their behaviour is a personal affront to the adults.  We talk about kids in a way that dehumanizes them, that ignores their individuality and that focuses exclusively on their deficits.  I have, many times, observed teachers who have become blind to the amazing things that children are doing right in front of them because they have become so focused on what their students aren’t doing that they can’t see anything else.  It’s one of the most challenging parts of my work: trying to push back against that negativity and advocate for the kids while at the same time not alienating the teacher.

Children are capable… what does that really mean?  Does it mean that we can never talk about the challenges we’re having with kids?  Does it mean that we have to adopt a Pollyanna tone in our conversations so that everything is about sunshine and robins who perch on your finger as you sing a merry tune?  No, I don’t think so.

A colleague once described me as a creative pragmatist, something I took as a great compliment. I don’t want to suggest that problems don’t exist; we all need to vent sometimes and it’s good to have people with whom you can let out all your frustrations. But when venting becomes the tone of all our conversations about children, we have a problem.  Children come to school with all sorts of experiences and it is our job, our mission, our vocation to help them learn.  They are children, we are adults; it’s not their fault, it’s just their turn.

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Courtesy of Anita Simpson @asimpsonEDU

This week has been an excellent reminder of the power of “yet” in my life both personally and professionally.  When things aren’t going well, I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that they’re not going well… yet.  Keeping that mental door open to the possibility of change makes all the difference in my perception of the problem.  As my perception changes, the problem changes too and I start to be able to see solutions that weren’t obvious when I was in full venting mode.  In order to be there for kids I need to be there… really in the room, wide awake (both literally and in the Maxine Greene way), and present, prepared to advocate for them even when it’s uncomfortable and prepared to make the changes in my own practice that will make a difference for them.  You’re the only teacher they have and so am I; what we do and what we say matters.  There are no mulligans in childhood.

I wonder…

I should start this post by lamenting my lack of posts.  My duties are derelict and I’m feeling the loss of time to reflect in this more concrete way, to share those reflections with you, and to get your feedback. I miss it.  But the nature of this consulting work seems to be frenetic and by design a bit fragmented.  Today I’m here, tomorrow I’m somewhere else completely.  The threads just don’t draw themselves together very often.

But there is one that I keep revisiting in my conversations with teachers.  It happened again yesterday, prompting me to dig some photos out of my library and write this.  Again and again as I work with teachers and their students, we come back to the theme of patience and the lack of it in our schools and, more broadly, in our culture.  More and more I hear teachers lamenting this impatience and wondering at the impact it has on teaching and learning.  What does it do to children?

Yesterday, I sat in conversation with a group of grade 4-6 teachers (not my usual Kindergarten gang) and we talked about assessment.  All of them told stories of children they had taught as well as their own children whose development didn’t follow the accepted curve but who wound up having successful lives.  They expressed their frustration with the assessment framework we currently have which demands that they assess children based on graded standards instead of assessing their progress as individuals.  They are frustrated by having to apply letter grades that don’t capture the complexity of a child’s learning and that create (whether intentionally or not) a hierarchy among children, causing them and their parents to compare their grades and creating a situation where parents ignore the comments that may contextualized a grade in favour of attention to the grade itself.  If that’s not a hidden curriculum then I don’t know what is!

What would be possible if we walked back a little?  If we took the long view of childhood instead of being so focused on the next benchmark, the next milestone, the next report card?  What would we see?

I was visiting a school recently, and Z approached me on the playground with two rocks, both pink quartz.

“This is a leech rock.” she said.  “Oh,” I replied, “why is it a leech rock?”

zara-rock

“Because it’s red.” she responded.

“Are leeches red?” I wondered.

“No, they’re grey and black but they eat blood and that’s red.  This rock is grey and red, that’s why it’s a leech rock.”

And she skipped off, seemingly content with our exchange.

A few weeks later, I was back at Zs school, once again outside.

Z approached me again to show me what she’d been doing in the gravel.

“I wrote an F and an A, that makes FA.”

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I asked her what else she could write with her feet and instead she picked up a larger rock and started writing in the softer sand.  She wrote her name.

I told her that my little girl’s name is just one letter different from her name – an M instead of a Z.  Z was able to ‘erase’ her Z and replace it with an M.

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Another child joined us and said that her name also started with an M.

I wondered if her name was also one letter different from my daughter’s name but she explained that it was spelled differently and spelled it for us.

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Z wrote her classmates name in the sand, using a lowercase a.

Her classmate was confused because she thought that Z had written it wrong, expecting an uppercase A instead. She said: “That’s not my name.  My name has an A and an A is like this.”  She put her index fingers together to show a triangle shape.

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This led to a great conversation about the different ways of writing letters.

As I look back on this conversation and the great literacy and social learning that came out of it, I wonder about the alternatives.  I wonder about that first interaction with Z, the one where she showed me the “leech rock.” What if, instead of just commenting on the rock, I had said: “What letter does leech start with?”  or “Does leech start with an uppercase L or a lowercase l?”  What would the impact have been on Z’s understanding and interest in writing and language.  How would that have changed our relationship? What would we have gained? What would we have lost? Would Z ever have sought me out again to share something special?

In Kindergarten we have the privilege of time, of space, of patience.  In many grades, teachers don’t feel that they do.  I wonder about the impact of that and not just on learning.  I wonder about what it does to our spirits when we feel we can’t relate to children in the ways that serve them best.  I wonder if some of the cynicism we see in teaching isn’t related to exactly this lack of patience, this focus (or perceived focus) on curriculum and results ahead of relationships and trust and I’m reminded of the power each of us has to make a difference for kids, one little rock at a time.

 

 

Welcome to the new school year!  I hope it’s been a great experience so far, full of the excitement and rush of newness.  In the spirit of that classic September assignment “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” I’m going to tell you about one of the adventures I had this summer and the way it’s changing my thinking about the work that I do.

A colleague and I had the good fortune of leading a 3-day summer workshop for Kindergarten teachers hosted by our provincial teacher’s union (If you’re reading this from outside of Ontario, you may be thinking: “Your union provides PD… what’s up with that?!?” We’re a lucky bunch.)  This workshop was focused on the new Kindergarten Program Document and the assessment framework laid out in the Growing Success Addendum for Kindergarten.  We also wanted to touch on some of the themes (eek! that word!) of our Kindergarten program: the teaching partnership, the classroom environment, outdoor inquiry, and the thoughtful use of materials.

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It was a jam-packed agenda for three days together and we approached the planning with some jumpy nerves.  How could we plan for three days of learning without knowing who we were going to be working with?  When you’re presenting about a student-led, inquiry-based program, it doesn’t make much sense to plan everything out minute-by-minute.  We felt that the meta-message of the workshop needed to align with the messages coming out of our mouths.  You can’t credibly tell people: “You need to be flexible and responsive to students’ needs.”  while simultaneously ignoring the learning needs of the people in front of you.

So we began with enough material for the first two days, with the intention of planning the third day responsively, but after the first morning it became obvious, based on the questions that teachers and educators were sharing and the notes they were sending forward to us, that we would need to re-think our planning sooner than that.

So we did, and we continued to plan in the same responsive way over the next two and a half days.  We also talked to each other about our plans, right in front of the workshop participants, because we wanted to model that collaborative teaching partnership that is so important to a successful Kindergarten classroom in Ontario.  Sometimes it probably looked like we weren’t organized but, while the type-A part of my brain squirms uncomfortably at that perception, I know that the structured improvisation of inquiry-based planning is often what dictates its success in keeping it closely tied to the learning needs of the students.   It’s going to look a bit messy; by nature it’s not a tidy process.

In reflecting on the process of those three days, I’ve been thinking about the nature of the professional development experience in education.  We are very accustomed to receiving our professional development in a tidy, packaged format.  We’ve been schooled in being good consumers and we often expect to be passive receptacles of information that’s delivered to us in a well-polished box.  I know that I’ve been guilty of those preconceptions.  What does that do to the process of professional development?  When it’s so one-sided, what are we really learning?  How does it impact on changing professional practice when the process is so divorced from the needs and interests of the people around the table?

The learning for me, as a person who’s often at the front (side, back – I like to wander) of the room, has been that shifting those perceptions about what professional development “should be”is a challenge.  Our expectations are a strong fortress.  They protect us, true, but they also confine us.  Teaching responsively requires not just an attitude of curiosity but it also requires honesty from both sides of the process.  You can’t meet people’s needs when they won’t share them.  It really distributes the burden of responsibility when the “leader” isn’t always the one in charge.  The success of our professional learning suddenly isn’t someone else’s responsibility; it’s ours.

I was at a meeting last week, led by a teacher who has been seconded to our provincial Ministry of Education.  At the beginning of the meeting she announced, with a twinkle in her eye:  “I have an agenda for today, but really, it’s nonsense… we’ll be going wherever you want to take us.”  And so we did, and it was great.  It was a little bit chaotic, and we didn’t always know what would happen next, but we left having learned what was relevant to us.  For each of us that was different.  And we were okay with that.  I wonder what would happen if this started to be our new normal.  Would some of our cynicism about teacher PD dissolve if we felt more responsible for our learning, if it were more responsive to us?  Would we rise to the challenge?

 

 

 

Critiquing the un-critiqueable

Twenty years ago, Arlene Croce, writing in the New Yorker, declared that she felt that Bill T. Jones’ work exploring his own AIDS diagnosis and the terminal illnesses of his performers made his work “undiscussable” – beyond the reach of criticism. She coined the term “victim art” and vented her frustration at the way she felt manipulated by art that seemed more about issues than it was about aesthetics.  Now, I don’t agree with Croce, but I’m finding myself this morning sympathizing with her frustration.

I’m frustrated because I’m struggling with another type of performance that we do treat as undiscussable, performances we don’t dare to critique, not because the performers are victims but because they’re just so darn cute.  I’m talking about performances that are so far away from Bill T. Jones as to hardly be in the same universe.  I’m talking about the school concert.

I have been part of school concerts as a music teacher, classroom teacher, director, and parent.  I’ve spent long hours rehearsing kids for all sorts of shows, some good, some bad, some cringe-worthy.  I’ve toiled in the trenches of recorders, boomwhackers, and box steps.  I know how much work it is to put on one of these shows, even the worst of them.

So, I’m reluctant to criticize, really I am.  But, I just can’t hold it in any more.  We need to take a hard look at this ritual and ask ourselves some big questions.  Like, why in the world are we doing this? What’s the value? What’s the point?

I attended the annual concert at my children’s school recently and found myself so uncomfortable watching it that I couldn’t stand to stay past when my children performed.  Part of that discomfort was the hard metal chairs and part of it was a sinking feeling of frustration at the image of the child that we seem determined to cultivate in our culture.  Their concert was full of what we’ve come to expect from these sorts of events: lip-synching, children trying to sing over-top of a recorded vocal track, and vague, gestural dancing whose lazy choreography hides some children in the back rows while others are featured.

When did we decide that children’s voices needed to be covered up by adult vocals?  When did it become okay for children to pretend to sing instead of actually singing? What’s the value in spending hours and hours of class time preparing a performance whose relationship to the Arts curriculum is tangential at best, if it exists at all?

Here’s what happens when children are forced to sing over recorded music: they don’t sing, they yell.  They force their little voices to shout so that they can hear themselves.  They can’t hear their peers so they can’t match their pitches to each other and they aren’t singing melodically at all both because the recordings often offer a very poor vocal model for children (a low chest voice instead of the head voice that children use) and because the recording is overpowering so they loose the melodic line almost as soon as they start to sing.

So, here’s an alternative: sing acapella.  If there isn’t someone in your school who can accompany the children on a guitar, a piano, or a ukulele (anything, really, most of this music isn’t complicated), let them sing without accompaniment.  I’ve accompanied kids on a tambourine and a hand drum just as a way of keeping the beat for them.  They sounded beautiful.  Another idea: sing with them.  No one expects you to be Celine Dion but I’d much rather hear children singing along with their teacher, regardless of her singing skills, than have to sit through another concert of yelling.

And then we come to the dance, oh, the dance.  For me, this is the hardest part.  It is like nails on a chalkboard having to sit through a dance performance that clearly has no relationship with the children who are performing it.  Our Arts curriculum in Ontario is very centred on children’s creativity and on facilitating children’s creative ideas as they develop in sophistication through the grades.  It is not about step-touching your way to a more developed understanding of compliance as an educational value.  Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 7.48.35 PM

I had to watch my beautiful boy struggle through a dance that used none of his skills as a creative mover, none of his choreographic ideas, and none of his physical skills but instead featured him repeatedly being bumped from both sides as his classmates struggled to maintain the two horizontal lines they had been placed in and two of his classmates lip synched and danced at the front of the stage.  He came home crying several times prior to the concert because he was so frustrated.  Where is the pedagogy, the inclusiveness, the art, frankly, in that?

That these performances are accepted unquestioningly by so many parents and teachers speaks powerfully to our image of the child.  We blithely accept that children don’t have a voice, they don’t have agency, and they don’t have anything to contribute.  We have to do it for them.  We have to sing for them (or some adult does), we have to micro-manage their movements, and we have to limit their expressive choices so severely that they’re left with only two options: comply or act out.

I spent part of last week at the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) conference in Toronto.  Besides taking so many notes that I felt like my hand might fall off, I was struck by the enormous contrast in the image of the child between the Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres of Reggio Emilia and the average North American public school.  As part of the conference, I got to visit the Wonder of Learning exhibit that will be housed in the basement of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel until November 23rd of this year (you should go!).  Included in that exhibit is the documentation  that is featured in the Reggio Children book Dialogues with Places. This documentation tells the story of a group of children who wanted to prepare a gift for a new school building.

“The children explored the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre while construction on the site was still underway. They chose a space that was interesting to them and designed a work of art, a gift conceived in harmony and in dialogue with the chosen place, respecting its identity while at the same time modifying it.”

While the photographs of their work are stunning, seeing a video of the dance they created was a revelation.  This was a dance of running, of leaping, of hiding behind pillars, of chasing, of spinning, and of falling down – not a step-touch or a gesture to be seen.  It was a dance that, while guided by an atelierista (artist-in-residence), was of the children and their creative voices were both strong and visible in the work.  It was a piece of art that was both discussable and critiqueable because it was thoughtfully created with children not pinned on them like ill-fitting clothing.  It was not about them being cute and it did not treat them like objects who exist to be passively viewed by adults.  It was a performance that celebrated their agency, their energy, and their individuality.  It was beautiful.

What is stopping us from giving children these same opportunities to express themselves?  The world is changing so that our creative skills are becoming more and more valuable but we are, largely, still stuck in a model of education that values compliance far ahead of creativity.  We do children an immense disservice by valuing their cuteness ahead of all else.  They are people with ideas and opinions and agency; they deserve to be treated that way… yes, even at the school concert.  Discuss.

 

 

 

Rights and Wrongs

Today was a day spent listening and talking, reflecting and remembering as we sat together, myself and colleagues, to talk about our Kindergarten program and about the now almost completed Ontario Kindergarten program document and Kindergarten addendum to Growing Success (Ontario’s assessment policy document).  For those of us who have been going to these meetings since the Spring of 2010, it was more of a re-framing and a revisiting but I was reminded today of how we felt at those first meetings, of the excitement, certainly, but also of the tension.

I can remember that in those early days we were asked to create a mock schedule for what we thought a typical day in Full-Day Kindergarten might look like.  Our group, in a moment of tongue-in-cheek, submitted what we called a John Cage schedule… i.e.: a blank page.  It was our way of saying that we had no idea what this new day would look like because, well, how could we? No one had tried it yet; it was, like the program itself, emergent.  We didn’t want to create something that might actually block the emerging wisdom of the people working in the classrooms (kids included!) and we didn’t want to pretend.  We didn’t know, we knew we didn’t know, and we were okay with that.

It’s in that place of not knowing that I find one of the most challenging aspects of helping teachers to work in an inquiry-based, play-based, emergent environment.  We live in a consumer society; one in which I can order virtually any book I want at the touch of a couple of buttons, one in which we are accustomed to easy answers.

Last weekend, I had to organize a dance costume for my son so that he would have something to wear that would compliment the glittery polka-dots of the girls in his class.  I decided to appliqué a tie onto the white t-shirt he’ll be wearing.  I’ve never appliqué-ed anything in my entire life. I don’t sew. I can’t find my iron. So, what did I do?  I went on YouTube, of course!  In 5 minutes, I learned how to appliqué.  One quick trip to the fabric store, a borrowed iron, and several hours of work later and ta-da!  I had my glittery tie and my children finally know what that funny-looking table in the basement is for.

glitter tie

How do you appliqué?  There’s an easy answer to that.  It’s easy to find and it’s relatively easy to follow.  How do you teach in an emergent environment?  There aren’t any 5-minute YouTube videos for that.

The challenge of getting this message across was brought home to me recently in a conversation with a new teacher.  She slid in beside me at a recent in-service day and asked for my opinion about something she had been working on in her class.  She had put out some materials for her students, Cuisenaire rods and photocopied sheets with Cuisenaire-shaped rectangles in the various sizes traced onto them.  She then sat at the table and observed what the children did with the materials, asked questions, and played with them herself as the children interacted with her.  Some of them began to realize that they could, for instance, fill the 8cm traced box with either the brown rod or with two purple rods (or four red rods, for that matter).  They could also use a dark brown rod (6cm) and a purple rod (4cm) to fill the longest traced box (10cm).

I thought this was a great way to use the material and I was really impressed at how deeply this young teacher had thought about the mathematics learning in her classroom.  She, however, was worried.  “But, it’s a photocopy” she said “another teacher said I can’t do it because I used a photocopy… is that true?”

Ah, I thought to myself… here’s the rub.  She’s right, we have tried very hard to get the message across that we want to move away from photocopies, particularly of worksheets.  But here was that message being interpreted in such a way as to exclude even the most thoughtful use of a photocopy.

And that’s the challenge ahead of us.  As we move out of this implementation phase, there will always be teachers who are at the beginning of their journey and for whom the John Cage schedule is still very relevant.  They need to know that it’s okay not to know.  In fact, they need to be encouraged to sit in that uncomfortable place of not knowing, of questioning everything, and of being unsure about what’s “right”.  If we expect there to be a sound-bite out there waiting for us, a succinct list of dos and don’ts, or a packaged resource that will answer all of our questions, we will be disappointed.  If, however, we come to the process fully expecting complexity and knowing that there will be just as many moments of confusion as there will be moments of triumph then we have a good shot at getting it right… whatever that means.

 

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