Back to Basics: 5 strategies for success in Kindergarten

The first few weeks back at school have had me going back to my roots in Kindergarten.  I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many classrooms and interacting with lots of curious and capable kids. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but there’s always a part of me that’s struck by the timelessness of early childhood.  As much as we lament the way society, or technology, or time changes children and families, there are some constants that remain, regardless of the specific moment we find ourselves in.

I’ve had two kids this week tell me that I look like their grandmas (because I don’t dye the grey out of my hair – I’m 41) so perhaps you’ll indulge me in a little walk down memory lane.

  1. The floor is where it’s at.

As Karyn Callaghan so eloquently describes in this video, children quite literally see the world from a different perspective.  They are closer to the ground than we are and it’s important that we get down on the ground to see what they see. Often when an educator tells me she can’t figure out what a group of children is doing or how to move their learning forward, I suggest that she spend some time sitting on the floor, watching the students or even playing alongside them.  Creating your own drawing or building or ramp or pattern that pushes the learning forward by increasing the complexity or the height or the structural challenge can be as effective (or more) than verbally prompting a child.  So much of our communication – regardless of our age – is nonverbal and you will miss a lot of what’s going on between children if you always remain at adult height. Make the floor your friend.

2. Go outside

Those kids look too old for kindergarten, you may be thinking.  You’re right. That’s my son and one of his friends. They’re much older but they’re still fascinated by building things outside, playing outside, all things outside. Technology is seductive but outside is absorbing.

Time spent outside with your students is never time wasted but, like being on the floor, it helps if you’re close to the action.  Watching from afar rarely allows you to understand what’s going on. You’ve got to be in on the action.

Irrigation, erosion, dam buiding and water management are hot topics in the fall.

Grab a shovel or a stick and go with them.  You’ll have a much better idea of where to take the learning if you’re there when the questions (verbal or not) are being asked.

3. Move

Sitting is bad for us. Sitting is the new smoking. Sitting is sufficiently problematic that many of us wear alarms that chide us when we sit for too long. And yet…

And yet…

Too often we expect young children (both in Kindergarten and beyond) to sit for far too long and then we get upset because many of them can’t. Even when they can, it’s often not because they’re attending to what we’re trying to teach, it’s just that they’ve become expert self-regulators. They rub their legs or tap their fingers or zone out so that they appear compliant, don’t get into trouble but still manage to cope with the stress of remaining immobile for so long. Consider limiting your carpet meetings to 10-15 minutes.  You’ll get more bang for your buck, children will attend to what you’re saying and you’ll have less negative behaviour to manage.

4. Sing

Somewhere between the days when Kindergarten teachers spoke to everyone (bank tellers, police officers) in a sing-song tone and today, we’ve lost the connection between Kindergarten and singing. I’ve visited too many classes where there is hardly any singing. This summer I was giving a workshop and a teacher asked me if there was a website where all the songs I was teaching were available so that she could stream them on her SmartBoard and thereby avoid actually singing. We have become singing phobic.

Maybe I should blame American Idol but many teachers are convinced they can’t sing. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the kids are not Simon Cowell and they really don’t care how great your voice is.  Another secret: being “good” at singing is mostly about practice.  I’m always amazed when I have the occasion to sing Happy Birthday with people who go to church on a regular basis.  They harmonize effortlessly, they stay on the beat and they all find the same key.  It’s not because they’re formally trained in vocal music, it’s because they sing regularly; they are good at it because they practice.  You’ll get better too, I promise.

The other reason singing is so important is that it is one of our best strategies for developing phonemic awareness, the bedrock upon which we build literacy skills. The way that sounds are segmented, emphasized, and placed into rhyming patterns in songs helps children to build their awareness of sound to symbol relationships. Song lyrics can also be used as shared reading text and then posted for students to read and sing together which continues to build their developing literacy skills.

Finally, singing helps to smooth out transitions (lining up, walking in the hallway) and builds routines that kids look forward to. Singing feels good and it gives kids something to do during times when they might otherwise find themselves at loose ends and irritating each other. Sing your transitions and you will find they are much more manageable.

5. Recognize the good

It is very easy sometimes to fall into the habit of managing behaviour by saying “no” a lot.  I’m not advocating that you allow behaviour that is anti-social or dangerous but it is often so much more effective to recognize what’s going well.  Most children will notice when other children are being praised and will rush to join the club. This works equally well with teenagers.  You can even do it in a song!  Developing a practice of noticing when kids are doing well will also shift your perspective towards the things that are going well in your classroom. Too often we fall into despair about how much work there is to do and we forget to acknowledge how far we’ve come. It’s October… to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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If we want Global Competencies we need to stop stigmatizing the Arts.

There are conversations in all of our lives that we have repeatedly.

“Did you brush your teeth? Are you sure?”

“Do you have to pee? Please try to go before you put your snow pants on.”

“Where is/are your lunch box/agenda/library book/snow pants/mitts?!? The bus is coming!”

Clearly, I’m ready for winter to be over, already.

Beyond those quotidian rants however, there are professional conversations that I’ve had so many time they’re staring to feel scripted.

One of those well-rehearsed conversations is about the Arts and whether or not students should be encouraged or even allowed to pursue them past high school.  Sometimes the conversation is even about high school courses and whether students “have time” for subjects like Music and Visual Arts in their timetables.

In Ontario, students are required to complete one Arts (music, drama, dance, visual arts, media arts) credit during their four years of high school. One. For some students, that’s all they do because that’s all they want to do… and that’s fine. I understand that for those students, the Arts are not going to be where they find their passion and I can accept that.  I still think that in the interest of human wellness we should be requiring more than one secondary Arts credit but this particular post is about another kind of student: the kind that wants to pursue more Arts credits but feels that they can’t.

The students I’m thinking of are talented in many areas, academically capable, high achievers.  They excel at school and beyond.  Their horizons are wide open and their futures are bright.

Unfortunately, what tends to happen as these students progress through high school and begin to make choices that will shape their career pathways, is that we, the well-intentioned adults in their lives, discourage them from pursuing pathways that we feel are less likely to safeguard their financial futures. We steer them towards maths and sciences because we think that’s where the jobs are.

We’re not altogether wrong.  There absolutely are job vacancies in those sectors: Statistics Canada reports 28,095 vacancies in professional, scientific and technical sectors in the third quarter of 2017.  However, our well-meaning advice is having unintended consequences.

In many Ontario secondary schools, teachers refer to the “six-pack” of grade 12 courses that many motivated, university-bound students take in their last year of high school: Chemistry, Biology, Physics (the Sciences), Advanced Functions, Calculus and Vectors, and Mathematics of Data Management (the Maths). That’s a lot of very intense courses to take during one year, and a lot of pressure to be ready for those courses by taking the pre-requisites in grades 9, 10, and 11. Students also have a mandatory grade 12 English credit to complete.  It sure doesn’t leave a lot of time to be in the band.

The conversation therefore becomes about whether these students have time to “waste” on subjects like music and dance, given that they’ll “never get a job doing that.”

People have actually said that to my face: “Oh, my son/daughter/student will never get a job doing that (Art, Drama, Dance, Music) so why would they pursue it?”  Keep in mind that I have two degrees in Dance and that I have several jobs that use my Arts training every day. There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, there’s the assumption that the only purpose of education is to prepare you for a job.  What kind of impact is that having on our kids? Is their only value as income-earners, cogs in an economic wheel?  What about their value as humans, as thinking, feeling, creative beings?  We wonder why people become less creative as they age while we simultaneously pressure them to abandon the activities that honour and foster their creativity – the activities that make them happy. It shouldn’t surprise us when they fail to develop the skills that we repeatedly tell them don’t matter.

Second, people who make this argument assume that students have to make a choice between pursuing the Arts and learning in STEM subjects.  Life is long.  Most people will change careers several times. What do we gain by forcing students to choose such a rigid path so early? More importantly, how much do we loose?  How inflexible does our workforce become when people have been steered so powerfully towards focusing on one narrow thing? How devastating for them when it doesn’t work out.  I remember playing Trivial Pursuit with my grandfather, whose degree was in History but who was also a Geologist and prospector.  He could answer any trivia question.  He could also light a fire in the pouring rain, but that’s another post altogether.  We need to foster that kind of flexible thinking and learning in our schools, not squash it by forcing students to make a stark choice.

Finally, the most troubling assumption that’s made about learning in the Arts is that the skills we teach aren’t valuable or marketable.  People seem to have this image in their heads of a rail-thin starving artist in a cold garret, painting his un-sellable canvases and eating stale bread.  That image is so far away from the reality of the artists I graduated with as to be laughable.  Some of my former classmates are still pursuing performing careers but many have parlayed their expertise into careers in medicine, education, design, or management. The performers too are rarely doing just one thing; often they’re pursuing multiple career pathways at once… triumphantly.  If you want to learn about successful career transitions, ask an artist.

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All of the skills that we’ve now labeled “Global Competencies” (formerly known as 21C) are taught through the Arts.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving? Ask a theatre company who has to tour a show with an ensemble cast, a modular set, and a shoestring budget.

Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship? Ask an independent dance artist who has to write grant proposals, organize a summer dance camp for children, perform and stage her own work, and market herself to festivals.

Collaboration? Join an orchestra, a band, or the cast of a play… you’ll be an expert on collaboration.

Communication? In the Arts we practice communicating in every way possible: visually, acoustically, linguistically, through body language and movement, among others.  When words fail, we step up.

Citizenship? Look at any progressive movement in history; you’ll find artists at the forefront, pushing for a fairer, more diverse, better world.

Self-directed Learning? That’s our bread and butter.  Artists are constantly seeking out opportunities to learn from each other in order to move their practice forward. In the absence of an obvious pathway, we create our own.

If you’re reading this post and sensing a certain desperation in my tone, you’re not wrong. I am feeling a little desperate. I’m frightened for our kids.  I’m scared and sad for the kids who have enormous potential as artists-in-progress, and are put off pursuing their passions by well-intentioned but ill-informed adults. I’m also afraid for the many students who are struggling with anxiety and depression, whose pursuit of a perfect transcript has left them floundering with no way to express their angst.  Put some clay in their hands, give them a brush, or a role, or a trumpet… let them create.  Most importantly, don’t tell them that they have to choose.  The things they’ll learn in arts classes, be they in high school or beyond, will serve them well for the rest of their lives, whether or not they go on to a career in the Arts as we have traditionally conceptualized it. They will learn exactly the skills they will need to navigate this uncertain world, a world of career changes, entrepreneurship, and acrobatic flexibility.

We are a culture in love with the dichotomy but we have to get over it… fast.  The world is changing all around us and without these 21C/Global Competencies, we’re going to be left behind. It’s not either STEM or Arts, it’s AND.

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!

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.

 

 

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The Best Laid Plans

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.

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.