It’s all about you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Courtesy of Anita Simpson @asimpsonEDU

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

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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.

 

 

 

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.  

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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. 

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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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Oh very young one

Today while we were out and about, my son nuzzled into me, pushing my arm over his head and onto his back, demanding my closeness. He’s 7; every time he wants to be that close is a gift. I know that soon he’ll start pushing me away, he’ll start finding me embarrassing – and not just when I sing and dance in public.

He goes back to school tomorrow and so do I but, for the first time in my career, not to students of my own. There have been no cubbies to label with names, no parents to meet with, and no anxiety about the work of meeting the needs of 30 small people. Instead, I spent last week unpacking boxes, organizing a storage space, setting up a 4’x6′ cubicle, and learning about my new job. Unlike all of the years I spent in the classroom, I may actually sleep tonight.

For him, things are changing too. He starts in a new school tomorrow, away from his friends and the comfort of the teachers he’s always known. He’s been down the stairs three times tonight, unable to fall asleep. As I walked him back to bed this last time, he asked “Mommy, can you Google ways to help kids cope with starting in a new school?” My heart aches for him. I know how the system works, how hard it is to make friends sometimes, how slow things are to change. I want him to walk into a transformed school: experiential, experimental, expressive – I know that’s not what he’s getting. There will be too many worksheets and too much time in a desk. There won’t be enough Art or enough time spent outside.  He’s creative and kind, sensitive and imaginative, insightful and curious. Schools can be tough places for kids like him. They can be tough places for lots of kids.  We need to do better because, frankly, we know better.

I will catch my breath as he gets on the bus in the morning. I will mutter a prayer under my breath and wave goodbye. I know, in my teacher way, that he will probably be fine but, oh very young one, how I wish for something better than fine for you. I promise that I’ll keep working on it.

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I just used my imagination…

Where do ideas come from?

While A-frames were a popular building style in the 1960s and 70s, most children aren’t familiar with them.

And yet SN built one.

a-frame house built with cardboard

Where did she get the idea?

She says: “I just used my imagination. It was a little bit easy to build cause you could grab the two squares and put them together and then make a box around it.”

In her reflection, she captures the ease of building that made A-frames so popular 40 years ago.

When I was at Bennington College in the late 90s, the college had recently undergone a process known as Symposium.  This re-thinking of college life had seen the elimination of Art History as a discipline and the re-evaluation of the reasons for teaching the history of art.  In my own dance classes, Dance History was taught as a required, but not-for-credit, section of a dancer’s course work.  The rationale we were given at the time was that we were there to make dance history, not to read about it.

What interested me as I moved out into the world was the ways that we, knowingly or not, make and re-make the histories of whatever discipline we are working in.  Often what children make, whether they are building or dancing, reflects the history of the form.  As in the development of concert dance, children will often make narrative dance/dramas before they are ready to venture into abstraction and post-modern chance dances of pure movement.  We are seeing the same kinds of explorations in our Architecture inquiry, as children are drawn first towards the forms that they are familiar with (square and rectangular boxes, with flat and pitched roofs, then towards forms that are different but easy to build and next… who knows?

Michael Lee Chin Crystal

We can’t wait to find out.

 

Teaching tips from the verge

It’s really, really hard to write resources for inquiry-based teaching – it’s hard to even think about how to write them.  It’s easy (or at least easier) to write reflections, questions, wonderings, and documentation of that teaching and learning but resources, in the way we traditionally think of them… that’s tough.  This way of teaching (or not teaching, as it sometimes appears) resists the consumerist bent of our culture.  It is impossible to sound-bite.  It does not reduce well and it is so individual that every person’s path will be quite different.  We want that individualism, that diversity – we don’t want to teacher-proof this.  Who we are matters and that can be very empowering, especially when so much of education leans toward soul-crushing standardization.  So, I can tell you about an inquiry my students have worked on but that doesn’t create a plan for an inquiry you might do – you and your class have to walk that path on your own.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. He is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, he must have been there himself. When asking himself: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? He must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not “textbooks” but “textpeople.” It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.

Teaching becomes, on purpose, a much more intellectual act than it has often been.  We have to think hard about what we’re doing and we can’t follow a prescriptive lesson plan.  Play isn’t prescribed.  It is an improvisation, a never-ending work-in-progress, a call and response dance that demands that we be active listeners and observers, deeply in relationship with children, bringing our whole selves to the table and asking them to do the same.  This is a stance, a paradigm, a perspective – it’s not a list of activities.

The process reminds me very much of contact improvisation.

So… I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of teaching tips from the verge – I hope that’s okay.

But, to make this blog visit worthwhile, here’s one for your trouble.

When you’re introducing natural clay in the classroom (and you should, it’s wonderful), use small canvases that you can get at the dollar store as workspaces.  Students can work with the clay inside the canvas.  It absorbs the moisture, the clay doesn’t stick, and you avoid the ire of your school custodian by keeping the clay off the tables.

girl handbuilding a mug with clay

Have a messy day – the best kind!