My mother’s puzzlement

I’ve found this blog a few days too late but I’m going to enjoy reading through the archives. This one in particular spoke to me; I often chuckle at the ways that my dance and theatre training help me in the classroom – especially since I was often told how useless those skills were. I would love to see more teachers develop stronger performance skills!

Granted, and...

My mother is an extraordinary person. Yesterday, while I made lunch for my son, father, and her, she was playing her weekly game of tennis – at age 90 – for an hour and a half. Two days previously she had hosted 6 for dinner. She is a force of nature.

As with all such vital people, she has strong opinions. Indeed, one of the time-honored family traditions is to discuss and argue the issues of the day over meals. Naturally, when I am around, discussion often turns to education.

My mother was shocked and irritated to learn that teachers do not have to take voice lessons to become teachers. “How in the world can you engage young kids and make the teaching clear without having a trained voice?”

This query does not come from ignorance. My mother took acting lessons back in the day from the great Stella Adler and Stage…

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Architectural Voices – Part I

In documenting our architecture project, I’ve struggled with how much to interrogate the children about their buildings.

Tell me about your building?

What’s this?

What’s that for?

All of the questioning gets a little tedious for both of us and the buildings themselves speak so strongly on their own that I wonder about the need to layer text on top of that.

Part of this project, for me, was to validate building as an important language of expression by really digging into in and creating longer-term building projects instead of the build and break construction projects that kids create every day using blocks, tiles, cups, etc…

I’m astonished by the diversity of their work and by how clearly they’ve communicated their own personalities and thinking without using a word.  To say that they are different from each other isn’t enough – in many ways they are their buildings.

But, once they take their buildings home all we will have left are photos and text, so I decided, in the interests of posterity, to ask them to tell me whatever they thought they would like people to know about their architecture. I’ve formatted them as poetry because it seemed to fit – one language for another. Here are the first two:


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The roof is straight and not bendy.

The steps help you get up and down the slide.

There’s a stove on the roof.

That part (the V) is for bad guys to trip… it’s the tripper.

The chimney is for smoke.

The flower is for people to see it.

The diving board is for people to jump off; water is there.

The square behind the slide is for bad guys not to get in the house.

No Santa allowed in the house; there’s no more Christmas!

The hole is for people to pop up. There’s an invisible trampoline underneath.

It’s all done.


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I don’t have any chimney

There’s a window in the wall and in the roof.

There’s a gate and around it is to hold the gate up.

There’s a triangle mouse hole on each side ‘cause the mommies and the daddies go in one hole and the babies go in the other hole.

There’s a surfboard on the roof.

The glue is snow.

There’s a chair inside the back door.


I couldn’t have made them more different if I’d tried – the buildings or the girls who built them.  I’m still not sure about how much to value the text but I’m hoping that we are becoming more multilingual these days; maybe we can speak architecture and English without privileging the latter.

Versions of Risk, Versions of Reggio

Last week, Teacher Tom posted this article about climbing.  In it, he shares photos of some of the amazing climbing contraptions that his students build in their outdoor play space.  Some of them took my breath away; a plank balanced on a swing – wow!  Now there’s something that could cost a public school teacher her job!  Looking at that picture, I find myself feeling equal parts jealousy and awe.  It takes a lot of courage and trust on the part of any teacher or parent to let children explore the environment and materials to that extent.  Chutzpah… serious chutzpah.

boy climbing stump

While I do plenty of things that may make other people shake their heads, I’m not in that league, much as I admire it.

This puzzling over my own comparative cowardice led me to think about how the work done in Reggio Emilia during the last 60-odd years gets translated as it moves around the world.  How many times have I heard teachers talk about “doing Reggio” as though putting coloured water in glass jars will somehow transform their pedagogy?  My wonderings brought me back to Jerome Bruner who discusses the value of locality in the schools of Reggio Emilia.  He writes that:

The idea of locality and a sense of local identity are absolutely essential. This is the heart of the Reggio model, it is the model of living within your locality and being conscious of your local tradition. This does not mean that you need to ignore what is universal about mankind. The great task is to translate the local into the universal, and the translation of universals into local use. Politics is local, morality is local, knowledge is local, meaning is local. The process of making these local matters into universals is a process of negotiating.

To be ourselves we must first be local: Reggiani, Modenesi, Bolognesi, Londoners, New Yorkers. It is a sense of our locality that helps us to appreciate the universal. This is what the Reggio schools help children to do – to see the universal in the local. That is how we can become ‘global’ without losing our sense of our own local identity. And that is what Reggio stands for. The ‘Reggio idea’ is a local idea. Yet, what is so striking about it is that is has inspired an international movement. Its international message is that you must take your local task seriously. (Bruner, 2000, p. 12)”

One of the things I struggle with as a public school teacher is how to reconcile the necessities of my job with my ideals.  There is a creative pragmatism that grows out of this wrestling.  Sure, kids can probably climb our chain-link fences safely, but we have a school rule against that and, if I want to have the relationship collateral with my administrators and custodian that I’ll need to embark on my next slightly insane art project, I might have to scale back the climbing a bit.  Please take a moment here and imagine what it’s like to be the custodian in any school I’m working in… exactly.

girl landing jump

So how do we translate those global Reggio ideas into a local context that not only has pretty strict rules about safety but also a mandated curriculum?  Maybe it has something to do with pushing just to the edge of those structures, to see how far they will stretch.  In the dance world we have this notion of structured improvisation – two terms that seem at odds with each other but that, in practice, work beautifully together.  You can sketch the outlines of a dance – first we enter one at a time, then we move forward and backward, then into pair work and then we exit one by one until only one dancer remains on stage – without actually deciding in advance what you’ll be doing in those moments.  Structure without choreography.  You can push right to the edge of chaos without going over, hovering there on the precipice with your arms circling.

That’s what my locality feels like to me, exploring the tension between child-led pedagogy and curriculum, between risk and safety, between climbing and falling.  Sometimes it’s about letting them climb the stump instead of the fence.

girl jumping

The little girl in the pink shoes

An apology to everyone who reads this blog for its Kindergarten content… your regularly scheduled blog will return in the next post!

girl in yellow dance costume

There’s a meme/post flying around Facebook lately, featuring a demure-looking little girl in a poofy tutu, pink tights, and ballet slippers. She’s adorable and the message accompanying the photo is very well-intentioned. Boiled down, it’s saying that dance is good training for life; it teaches you lots of skills (perseverance, time management, fitness, resiliency) that you can use to build success in other areas, it gives you a strong social network and is, basically, worth all the hassle of money and time spent on classes and competitions.

I don’t disagree. After you’ve read this whole post please come back up and read that sentence because I’m very serious. I have many, many, many former students who were high level elite dancers as adolescents and who have gone on to pursue ambitious careers in other areas. They are doing exactly what this post suggests; they are using all that they learned on stage and in the studio to make the most out of their lives.  I’m incredibly proud of them and awed by their achievements: engineers, physicians, teachers, welders, all of them.

I have a good friend who is an accomplished musician.  He has the same level of academic training in music that I have in dance.  He plays with our local symphony, he is their guest conductor, and he is often asked to perform at local events, all in addition to his teaching duties.  One night, he was feeling particularly exhausted and was lamenting that he would have to put on his tux to play that evening.  I chuckled and said: “Well, you should have done a Masters in Dance instead of a Masters in Music; I hardly ever get asked to perform.”  This wasn’t an attempt to solicit pity but it is true.  Whereas I have many, many musician friends and colleagues who perform on a regular basis, older dancers are hardly ever asked to dance.  To quote that post, “before you know it, she’s danced her last recital and discarded her last pair of shoes… she’s left the stage for the last time”.  Dance is viewed as  a worthwhile pursuit for children and teenagers but after that we’re expected to hang up our pink shoes and move on to something practical.

He’s not expected to hang up his instrument but I am.

His art form is seen as something worthwhile for adults and mine is seen as something for children, good only for what it can bring to the rest of your life, not for its own merit.   I often wonder why this is.  Does it have something to do with not wanting to see aging bodies – are we only comfortable with physical expression when it’s coming from a lithe 16 year old?  There are a few dance companies that cast older dancers but not many.  Is this just a manifestation of an overall societal obsession with youth?  Maybe it’s because many young dancers aren’t taught to view it as an art form at all but instead as a physical contest that is mostly about how high legs can be kicked and how many turns you can land.  What’s left when some of that physical prowess declines?

I don’t know the answer but in an effort to provide some balance to the viral conversation, let me take a second to tell you about a few of my students who are dancers. Who are not using the skills they learned in the studio for something else – who are using them in the same places and for the same purposes they learned them.

This is Lucy: she is a dancer, a writer, a choreographer, a teacher, an incredibly imaginative and talented person who I was lucky enough to teach.

This is Mayumi: she is a dancer, choreographer, traveler, and teacher.  When I taught her she was an amazingly talented 12 year old.

This is Daphné: she is another fabulous dancer, choreographer, and teacher, off on great adventures.  She blows me away with her energy and talent.

That’s just three and it doesn’t touch on all of my amazing dancer friends who continue to write grant proposals and audition and fight the good fight to keep dancing in spite of the struggles.  It shouldn’t be such a struggle.  It should be more like throwing on your tux at the end of a long day.  All of the engineers, physicians, teachers, and welders should be able to dance for recreation too, just like their colleagues who are able to play music or participate in community theatre or paint recreationally.  Dancers need to keep dancing and we need to keep saying out loud: I’m an adult, a full-fledged, tax-paying adult, and I dance.  It’s not something I’m going to give up nor should I be expected to.  I’m not hanging up my instrument any time soon; there is dance beyond the little pink shoes.

Something you’re great at

I worry about our dance parties.  Do we have too many of them? Is there such a thing as too much dancing?

I worry about our artwork too.  Clay, paint, wire, beads, pastels, collage, photography, murals… how much art is enough?

And the dramatic play – goodness, that never stops.

Then there are the marching bands and the singing – what a racket!

Is it all too much?  When do we get down to the real school work?  How will we know when we do?

I worry that other people think it’s too much, that parents may think it’s too much, that some nebulous person in the upper echelons may disapprove.  My husband says I worry too much; he’s probably right.

Elementary school teachers have to be all things to all students.  We have to teach everything; unlike our secondary colleagues we don’t have the luxury of teaching only to our strengths.

Don’t feel confident with History, Math, or Music?  Too bad, you’re teaching it.

Fake it ’till you make it – that’s my usual advice.  Kids pick up on your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) and if you present the material with a sigh, they’ll feel your wariness and trepidation and adopt it as their own.  How much of our own math anxiety was actually inherited from teachers who themselves were anxious about teaching math?  Young children love to play with numbers and quantity.  How much of that excitement is drained away when teachers approach teaching math in the same way they approach a rendezvous with a root canal?

So, that’s my usual advice – find an entry point that you’re comfortable with, slap on a smile, and give er’.  Say YES, as Tina Fey would advise.

But then I heard comedian Jessica Holmes speak at a conference.  While much of her presentation was light and hilarious, toward the end she became more reflective.  One of the the things she said that stuck with me was this:

“It’s harder to get good at something you’re bad at than it is to get better at something you’re great at.”

Hmm… that’s interesting advice for teachers.  In education, we’re always looking for places to improve, doing gap analyses to find out where we can grow – usually that’s because there are things we’re not doing very well.  You’ll get no argument from me that there are things we should improve in schools.  I’m not suggesting that we stop trying, not at all.  But, how often are we looking at things that we already do really well and asking ourselves how we can do them better?  How often do we get to direct our energies towards our passions? How great would that be?!?

That’s where I’m at as we slide towards the summer holidays.  We have 5 weeks left together and I’m going to keep the arts humming in my class.  Not because we’re not working on the rest of the curriculum – we are – but because it’s what I’m great at and the kids deserve to be with adults who are pursuing their passions with a smile.

children dancing with drum accompaniment

High-Y-Nest

Kids are fascinating creatures.  They are perplexing and curious, bewildering and bewitching.  Frequently, when I document a conversation or an event, I look back at it and think: “What was that all about?”  It’s often not immediately clear; it may never be clear.

Yesterday, when we went into the greenspace, N.I. perched himself in the little rock alcove that they’ve all decided is their chair.

high-y-nest

M.P. said: “It’s the chair of high-y-nest.”

I thought at first he meant “highness” – like a throne for a king.

But when I asked him what he meant he told me “it’s because the rocks are high.”

Oh… okay.

Then, as we continued our walk, the children started to push their way through a dense patch of bush near the back of the property.  They said to each other: ” We’re going to the camp high-y-nest in the high-y-nest city.”

On our way to high-y-nest camp
On our way to high-y-nest camp

I’m standing there thinking: “Like hyenas? Does this have something to do with Africa? The Jungle?”

Then we got to the edge of the bush and a white dog dashed out and started barking at us.  His exuberance was met with a solemn: “Look, Madame, we found a high-y-nest dog.”

Of course you did.

high y nest dog

At this point, I probably looked a lot like a confused dog with my head cocked to one side and a perplexed look on my face.

Now, if there’s one thing that I wish I could change about school in the interest of furthering inquiry, it would be to remove the schedule.  I wish we could eat when we’re hungry, go outside when we like, and stay out as long as we want.  But, that’s not the reality of busing and contracts and bells.  Part of my perplexedness (it’s really a word – I checked) is because I can’t always stay with something as long as I would like to, as long as the kids probably needed to in order to develop this high-y-nest narrative to the point where it might have made sense to me (maybe it never would).  It was time to go in so we trooped back towards the school, with the world of high-y-nest remaining mysteriously elusive, at least for the adult among us.

PS: If you ever want to read a great story about ditching the schedule (and more), check out William Ayers’ To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher – fabulous book.

Big and Tall

Someday my students (and my co-teachers, let’s be frank) are going to reminisce about the year they had (or worked with) that crazy teacher who did all the weird stuff.  There sometimes comes a moment when I’m in the middle of one of these projects when I think to myself: this is a little nuts.  Yesterday, that moment was when I started pouring out 34 cups of paint.  teacher pouring paint into solo cupscups filled with paint

It also occurred to me again when the wind picked up and started flinging streams of paint around as I was pouring it.

But… in for a penny, in for a pound, so away we went pouring paint onto our big tall tower!

child pouring paint onto wooden towerchild pouring paint onto wooden tower

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And, in the end, I was the only one who got a little paint on my pants; the process was more than worth it.  It was amazing to watch the effect of gravity on the paint as it poured down the tower and then across the board underneath.  The kids were captivated – all in a day’s work!

teachers carrying painted tower
We resorted to garbage bag dresses for the really messy part.

Guns and their cupcake cousins

Some teacher friends and I have been talking about guns for a long time.  It’s an open question for us, one we’ve struggled with over the years.

I’m not a gun person.  As a child I fired a hunting rifle a couple of times – meh… it’s not really my thing.  I don’t pretend to understand some people’s love of guns but I try to separate my discomfort with guns from my relationships with the people who like them.  We have a lot of avid hunters in this area and many of our children have very responsible, safe relationships with guns at home.

I started my teaching career in a very challenging school context where guns were a daily fear for staff and students.  Because of that experience, and in an effort to implement school rules, I have often taken a very hard line when it comes to gun play in my classes.

And it comes up all the time.

“No guns at school.” – I say that almost as often as I say “walk”.

I understand why it’s a rule; we want children and adults to feel safe at school.  It’s hard to feel safe when someone is pointing a gun (pretend or otherwise) at you.

But still they play with guns – they make them out of sticks, out of blocks, and out of snap-cubes… oh, the snap-cubes!  We always wind up putting them away because they lead almost immediately to gun play.

children's hands holding snap cube guns

So I understand why it’s “no guns at school” and generally I adhere to that maxim but then I find myself torn.  Most of the time, I pay extra attention when children are very engaged in something and, let’s be honest, they’re VERY engaged by gun play.  They are totally captivated, riveted, and engrossed.  They’re not actually hurting each other but they are playing at hurting each other.  Where is the line between acceptable play and unacceptable play?  I have so many questions.

I don’t have the answers to any of those questions but I do have some student voices to add to the mix.

Some students are particularly savvy about rationalizing their gun play so that it will be acceptable to adults.  This week alone I’ve been told that what looks like a gun is actually:

  • a laser – “And it’s okay Madame, because the lasers on Star Wars don’t really hurt people.”
  • a ketchup squirter
  • and my personal favourite… a cupcake thrower (reminiscent of that moment in Ghostbusters when Dan Ackroyd conjures up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – “the most harmless thing”)

A colleague also has some great video of a child holding a snap-cube gun who, as the teacher approaches, flips it around and declares with a smile: “Look Sir, it’s an L.”  This one is particularly brilliant as it shows that the child knows that teachers are so fixated on literacy that making a letter might deflect any reprimand for what was clearly gun play.

These kids are aware that they’re transgressing school rules by playing gun games.  They’ve even come up with alternate explanations to placate the adults.  That’s some pretty sophisticated theory of mind going on.

So I’m left wondering: is there any place for this play in the classroom?  Is there something to value here?  The kids are obviously very engaged and that’s usually my bellwether for valuing.  What do you do in your classroom when kids are engaged in gun play?  I’d love to know!

 

 

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