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.

 

 

 

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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/

Cultural Navigation

I had an interesting experience this summer watching the musical Fiddler on the Roof.  Produced by one of our local community theatre groups, I had been following the rehearsal process with interest and was looking forward to finally seeing the show after hearing great reviews from friends.  Now, you should know that I’m Jewish and that I live in a small city where most people aren’t at all familiar with Judaism; for this Northern town, Jewish is exotic.

The show was very well done; beautifully staged and directed.  The performers were committed and deeply in role.  They were physically present and their characters were wonderfully embodied.  It was a great night of theatre.

But I had a strange reaction to the play, one I hadn’t expected.  At points during the evening, I felt very uncomfortable.  It was unsettling to watch actors pretending to light Shabbat candles and bless bread and wine as an act of entertainment.  These are rituals that I perform every week as part of our Shabbat meal either at home or at synagogue.  To see them on stage was very odd.

Later on in the play when Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, marries the non-Jewish Fyedka, the actor playing Tevye inserted the mourner’s kaddish prayer into the script, to make the point that Tevye now views his daughter as dead.  Again, I had that ticklish feeling of discomfort.  Here’s a very solemn prayer that we only say when we have a prayer quorum or minyan of 10 adult Jews (or 10 men, depending on your branch of Judaism) and there it was being performed on stage.  I found myself reflexively muttering “amein” under my breath at the appropriate moments.

My final moment of discomfort came during the scene when the soldiers arrive to advise the residents of Anatevka that they have to leave.  Behind me, a woman whispered “it’s the Germans.”  “No!”, I wanted to shout back… “It’s the Russians!”  Having that historical inaccuracy hang in the air, uncorrected, really bothered me.  It itched at me the whole way home.

Altogether, it was a revealing experience; this is what it’s like to have your culture on display, represented as entertainment… appropriated, to some extent.  Now, I’m not suggesting we halt all productions of Fiddler on the Roof.  It’s a great play; if I were a rich woman I’d see it again.  But I think it was a really good experience for me to go through that discomfort.

In the community where I teach, we are confronted daily with the legacy of First Nations residential schools.  We are struggling as a system to find ways to reach out to First Nations communities, to repair the damage that years of at best assimilationist and at worst genocidal policies has created.  One piece of that effort has been to ensure that there are opportunities for First Nations students attending our schools to have the opportunity to study their language and culture while at the same time building some cultural literacy among the non-native students too.  Sometimes, this work involves having First Nations teachers and elders presenting cultural teachings to classes, to familiarize all students with First Nations cultural beliefs and practices.

Last week, I was asked to come into a class to follow-up a cultural teaching with an arts-based activity.  Now, as far as I know, I have no First Nations heritage.  My children have Haudenosaunee heritage but, alas, not from me.  So it’s awkward, to say the least, to be in the position of having to support teachings that I’m not that familiar with and which don’t belong to me.  It’s additionally loaded with meaning because of the many ways that First Nations Art has been appropriated by the mainstream culture over the last several hundred years, including some particularly egregious examples in the past few years.  The optics of a white lady standing in front of a class “teaching” First Nations Art… it’s not good.

But there I was, trying to figure out a way to compliment a cultural teaching on the subject of long hair through a Visual Arts activity that wouldn’t just devolve into cultural theft.  I wanted to share with you what I came up with, not because I consider it some kind of authoritative solution to what will remain a challenge, but both because I think the wrestling itself is a meaningful process and because I think it’s important to share our discomfort and to respectfully ask for guidance.

One of the things I have taken away from my years in Kindergarten is a healthy respect for materials, guided by the practice in Reggio Emilia of establishing material-rich ateliers in schools.  I’ve been trying to position myself as an atelierista, a provider of materials, of techniques, of curation, but not an instructor with any particular end in mind.  So for a teaching about long hair (here are two videos if you want to learn more), I decided to work on the ideas of personal identity and expression of belonging that seemed central to the teaching while working with textiles, to link to the idea of hair.  I taught the students how to braid, presented the materials (beads, thread, pipe cleaners, and wicker) and off they went.   They produced amazing work that had symbolic meaning for them, using the cultural teaching as inspiration.  A perfect solution?  Likely no, but maybe a step forward.

long hair art

I will never forget the feeling of discomfort I experienced sitting in that darkened theatre watching Fiddler on the Roof.  I hope it remains fresh because it’s helping me to approach this aspect of my job with a greater sense of understanding and compassion.  I think it’s making me a better teacher.

The Capable Child

I believe that children are capable.  If my teaching life has a base, that’s it.

I’ve started so many experiences with that assumption that it’s become second nature.  I’ve tried, over the past few years, to make that assumption really clear and obvious to children, parents, and colleagues.  Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge: You think kindergarten kids can’t do that?  Let’s try!

They can’t climb and jump?  Let’s try.

They can’t paint with acrylics?  Let’s try

They can’t play with sticks?  Let’s try.

They can’t play on the ice? Let’s try.

They can’t build scale models?  Let’s try.

As a society, we place so many limitations on children, I take some mischievous delight in challenging them.

Sometimes it’s me that gets challenged.

This morning, I worked with some Kindergarten students, introducing them to clay for the first time.  I was expecting the usual progression: some exploration of the properties of the material, followed by some basic sculpture-building using the tools and techniques I had shown them.  Maybe in a few days, they would build something interesting.

Wrong.

This is what they built… in the first hour.

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So, yeah, children are capable.  Often more capable than I could have imagined.

The question that remains for me is this: how much of this capacity do we miss when we don’t allow children access to these rich materials?

I had a great conversation with a teacher of older students this morning.  We were talking about how her students, as they worked on printmaking, were having a hard time dealing with the fact that their prints didn’t always look exactly the way they had envisaged. Their discomfort at seeing art-making as a process with surprise embedded in it, prompted me to wonder how much of this anxiety is related to our cultural stigmatization of mistakes and how much is related to the product-based way we teach art.

One of the kindergarten sculptors took his piece apart three times and in the end didn’t have a final product.  He was fine with that.

The grade 6 students were upset when their prints weren’t “perfect”.

What happens in between?

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Observation Frustration

The child has a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture

(Loris Malaguzzi)

Children can draw from observation.  They have an eye for detail and they can reproduce those details with remarkable accuracy.

Even very young children, only just able to hold a pencil, can draw the concentric petals of a rose or the long lines of stalks of grass.  But what happens when children forget that they can draw?  When they insist that they can’t?

I’ve been faced with exactly this challenge this year as most of our students have resisted drawing from observation.  Every time I or my colleagues have put out a drawing invitation, we’ve been met with motifs: flowers with happy faces and 6-8 identical petals around a circle, for instance.  When I’ve asked the children to show me the flower they were drawing, they’ve resisted, shrugged, and declared “that’s the only flower I know how to draw.”

I’ve trucked out my usual strategy of sitting and drawing with them; perhaps they’ll realize that Madame’s flowers aren’t perfect representations either and maybe watching me struggle will encourage them to try.

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I’ve put out the work of a variety of artists whose work ranges from representational to abstract, hoping that it might encourage them to try a new way of drawing.  We’ve even had group conversations about the mechanics of drawing what you see – moving your eyes and hand together to draw.

Unlike other years none of these strategies has met with much success.  While a few individual students have been engaged, the idea has never really caught on.

But I’ve kept at it and finally, in the last month of school, victory!

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What’s the magic? Was it the subject?  Maybe dandelions, that most common of flowers, is less intimidating than roses, faces, and block towers?

Maybe it’s just time having its often miraculous effect.  Maybe it has taken a year for the cultural message of sameness and cuteness to be washed away and for the children to realize that their own representations, however different from each other, will be valued as much, more even, than any smiley face.

Wouldn’t it be great if they didn’t have anything to unlearn?  If their interpretations were always valued?  If we allowed the aesthetics of childhood to exist without needing to modify them to suit our own adult ideas about what childhood is?  Wouldn’t it be great if children’s interpretations of the world were as precious to us as the motifs that the media presents as childhood for sale?  That would be a smiley-face moment.

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

Art, Perspectives, Flipped

How did that happen?  Where did it come from?

Those questions are so important when we’re teaching from an inquiry stance but tracing things back is sometimes hard.  Ideas are so organic that we can struggle to identify where the ignition point was.

This was not one of those times.

When our partner architect talked to us about drawing from different perspectives, it got me thinking about other ways that we could get the children to consider multiple view points.

Then, serendipitously, Teacher Tom sent out this blog post.  In it, he wrote about cutting wooden blocks for something he called “tall paintings“.  What are tall paintings, I wondered?  So I clicked on that link which brought me to another post of his and then to this video.  Wow.

Now, I do not have much in the way of woodworking skills so I sent the video out to the parents on a Friday and by Monday (Monday!) we had several boxes full of mini tall painting towers.

We got busy with the glue gun and tiny cups of acrylic paint.  What amazed us was the way that this art project appealed to children who very rarely visit the art studio.  Its structural elements and the kinaesthetic quality of pouring the paint mesmerized some of our reluctant artists and kept them engaged for the entire morning play block.  Then they begged to do it again!

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The finished products are mesmerizing, even hypnotic, and I’m particularly intrigued by how different they look when viewed from the top versus from the side.  This part of our architecture project has been a great reminder of how important it is not to dismiss a child’s lack of engagement with a particular subject – it may just be that they want to approach it differently.  Providing those multiple entry points is so important!

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