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!

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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.”

zara-gravel-writing-1

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.

zara-gravel-writing-2

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.

zara-gravel-writing-3

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.

zara-gravel-writing-4

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.

four-frames-tree

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.

 

Artists in deep

DSCF4130We have had a wonderful project running in many of our schools over the past few years, a project that brings working artists into classrooms to work with young children and their educators in and through the arts. I hope you’ll have a look at the incredible work they’ve been doing, share it with your networks, and leave them some comments. I look forward to hearing your thinking! Visit them at: https://4elementslivingartsreggioproject.wordpress.com/

They aren’t interested in anything.

The last several weeks and months have been busy ones as I’ve been getting used to my new job and figuring out how to manage all the competing priorities in my life.  How does she do it all? Well, I don’t always do it all very well, so there’s that!

It’s been harder, in this new role, to tease apart the thematic threads of my work and to find things that are worth writing about.  It’s not that they aren’t there, it’s just that every day is so different.  Just when an idea springs forward, another idea replaces it in an endless loop of upstaging.  If I don’t have time to write about it right away, poof… it’s gone.  People ask me where I went in a week and I have to check my calendar to remind myself.  The whirlwind suits me but it isn’t really conducive to thoughtful reflection.

But, as I looked back on my notes over March break, I noticed that one phrase has come up several times in my conversations with Kindergarten teachers.  We talk about their challenges working with an inquiry-based program, often for the first time, and they mention that they’re frustrated because, it seems, the “kids aren’t interested in anything.”

Now, I’ve taught a lot of kids over the years, I worked as a nanny and a camp counselor, and I have kids of my own.  I have yet to meet a kid who, literally, isn’t interested in anything.

So, what does this really mean, this lack of interest?

Does it mean…

  • they aren’t interested in anything that I’m interested in?
  • they aren’t interested in anything that I already know about and feel confident teaching?
  • they aren’t interested in anything that I can link easily to the curriculum?
  • they aren’t interested in anything that looks academic?
  • they aren’t interested in anything that resembles a theme?

It could be any one of those things or it could be something else entirely but more than anything, what I notice when I spend time in the classrooms where that frustration sits, is the lack of patient observation.  Several bloggers that I follow, Teacher Tom most notably, talk a lot about not doing.  He often mentions what he could, but doesn’t, say or what he could’ve, but didn’t, do in his interactions with kids.  We get a glimpse into this alternative, teacher-led universe, and are then reminded how things turn out when the adults don’t lead and choose to listen and watch instead.

I think the biggest barrier to students expressing genuine interest is our adult desire to teach, to make it look like something is happening, to busy the room with activity, even when the child’s pace is slower, more meandering, completely un-linear.  As I’ve learned all too well in the past few months, activity can be the enemy of observation and reflection.

I think we also sometimes suffer from a profound lack of imagination.  We wait for an interest that looks like school and, when it doesn’t land at our feet, we get annoyed.  I have a 7 year old boy at home and, while he has many interests, he is very, very interested in poop.  He isn’t the only one.  I came across this documentation in a small rural school I was visiting and I thought it was delightful, a great example of locality in pedagogical documentation.  I wonder, where would you go with this?  What questions would you ask next?  How would you develop this interest if this were your classroom?  Happy kid-watching and, as the snow melts, watch where you’re walking!

who pooped (1).jpg

 

 

The Christmas Quandary

I’m a bit of a scrooge, I’ll admit it.  I do not slip easily into the holly-jollies of this time of year.  I’m pretty serious by nature and it’s a difficult posture to shake.  I find it hard to toss life aside, to suspend disbelief, to step outside of myself for a while.  I’m working on it.

The contrast between my scrooge-ish tendencies and the general December explosion in schools is always a bit jarring.  The tinsel, the Santas, the trees, the gingerbread men, the sparkly, doo-dad, whoop-it-up craziness that barrels into most schools on December 1st and overtakes programming until the end of the calendar year always feels more like a tidal wave than I’d like it to.  There I stand on the beach, watching it tower over me, unable to stop it.  I can’t run away fast enough.

When I had my own classroom I would actively buck the trend,  looking for ways of acknowledging the cultural significance of the holidays without completely giving into the madness.  And, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t about the much vaunted but largely fictional “War On Christmas” that we hear so much about in the media.  For me it was more about creating an oasis in the classroom, a place where my students could rely on a routine that would be sustained, a rhythm that would be protected, even while the rest of the world was going mad.  

Kids are tired right now.  In most Canadian schools, we haven’t had a holiday weekend since the middle of October.  That’s nine weeks without a day off.  Oy.  Kids are also up late, eating foods with a lot more sugar, and very excited about the big day(s).  My own kids have been having full-blown Hanukkah meltdowns.  Eight crazy nights… picture it… let’s just say it doesn’t lead to Norman Rockwell scenes of familial peace and harmony.  It’s more like eight nights of cage-match parenting.  As much fun as Hanukkah is, I’m always happy when it’s over.

One of the biggest obstacles to fundamentally changing practice in Kindergarten classrooms is our adult attachment to holidays.  We seem to be very stuck on how to manage without “doing Christmas” or “doing Easter.”  

Here’s my observation, for what it’s worth: we are our own worst enemies.  We complain that the kids are “crazy” at this time of year but we feed into the craziness by completely giving our classrooms over to Christmas.  We abandon routine, we abandon inquiry, and we steer children in the direction of focusing on one event at the expense of everything else that might be interesting to them.  We complain about the madness as though it’s something that’s happening to us instead of something that we are actively participating in.  

We have this idea that we’re “doing it for the kids” but I really question whether that’s true.  Yes, the children like Christmas but they don’t like it at the expense of everything else in the universe.  For them it’s one tile in a mosaic of interests.  They don’t stop building because it’s Christmas.  They don’t stop making art because it’s Christmas.  They don’t stop dramatic play because it’s Christmas.  In fact, when I surveyed my documentation from Decembers past, I couldn’t find a single instance of children “playing Christmas” spontaneously.  

clay play (1)
4 days before the Christmas holidays: “Now you’re just like me, we all have capes.” ~ superhero play

If we believe that play is a window into a child’s inner life, then what can we learn by noticing the absence of Christmas in their play?  Maybe we’re not “doing it for the kids” after all. Maybe we’re doing it for us and maybe, just maybe, if we want December to be a more productive, more pleasant, less crazy time in schools, we’ll need to dial back our adult preoccupation with all things green and red and offer our students a more neutral space, a space into which they can project their own values, create their own celebrations, and express their own sense of festivity, unencumbered by an adult agenda.  There are other colours out there… we can choose a wider palette. 

pencil spectrum (1)

 

 

What’s the Medium? What’s the Message?

“Ugh… I hate art.”

“He never wants to do art.”

“I can’t draw.”

“I’m not creative.”

I’ve heard all of these words, and more, coming from teachers and students over my years in Arts Education.

It’s often a self fulfilling prophecy, this dislike of art or the Arts, as the case may be.  If you tell yourself over and over you’re not creative then you’re not likely to develop much creativity.  I find it particularly distressing when a teacher says “I’m not creative.” because I believe that teaching is a creative process.  All of the steps that creative people go through as they make Art, good teachers also go through as they try new techniques, experiment with ideas, and reflect on what to change.

What I’ve found over the years is that the negative self-perception of self-identified non-artists is largely shaped by the materials they’ve been exposed to.  Most of that exposure happens in schools and it’s mostly paper-based.  Children paint, they draw, they might do some collage, but most of what they do is confined to the limited geography of a piece of paper.

So why is paper-based art so priviledged in schools?

#1 – We have paper.  Many schools have very small Art supply budgets but there’s always paper.  The paperless school is still a long way off.

#2 – Paper is easy to store.  It doesn’t take up a lot of space, it fits in a portfolio, and it goes home in a child’s backpack without too much fuss.

#3 – Bulletin boards.  Paper-based art is easy to display.  Anything 3-D requires a shelf or table and those are in short supply in many schools.

#4 – We teach what we know.  If you were never exposed to anything beyond paper-based art as a child, that’s what you’re most likely to feel comfortable with as a teacher.  It’s cyclical.

The trouble is this: paper-based art, like writing, is just one language of expression.  Cutting off all other forms of Art (sculpture, carving, ceramics, environmental art, digital art, etc…) severely limits children’s expressive capacities to the point that we may entirely miss a child’s talent and passion in a particular area because we never give them the opportunity to demonstrate it.

This past Friday I was visiting a class of grade 5 and 6 students (ages 10 and 11).  Several of them, at the outset, declared that they didn’t have any ideas and didn’t like art. Arms crossed, head down, done.

The lesson was on mixed media sculpture and I had available for them plasticine, a bin of stones, pieces of copper wire, and their teacher provided a large container of mixed beans.

“What are we supposed to make?” they wanted to know.  By this age, students are often very used to being directed towards a product and they may struggle to figure out how to approach any open-ended task.  The struggle is good… stay with it… it’s supposed to be hard.

I let them stew in their juices as they played with the clay.  Slowly, things started to emerge.

b2ap3_thumbnail_clay-abstract-process

The teacher sat down and started to work with her own piece of clay.  What a difference that makes: watching your teacher struggle with an idea is so validating for students.

I walked around with a piece of clay in my hands, making suggestions about technique and assisting with the development of some ideas, while creating my own little piece.

The creativity was astonishing.  Students who had been most vehement about not having any ideas and hating art were engaged, on task, and, clearly, very creative ideed.

Just changing the medium was enough to show them that they are creative, they can “do art” and that they have great ideas.  Plasticine is very forgiving; if you don’t like what you’ve done, just smush it and start over.  There really aren’t any mistakes and it’s the medium itself that sends that message.  Teachers can speak about the value of mistakes until we’re blue but if we’re always doing it in a paper-and-pencil context, our speeches will have a limited impact.  You have to change the medium to change the message.

2e1ax_elegantwhite_entry_clay-abstract

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