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.

 

 

 

Inquiry and the Gifted Child

I have a confession to make (I think I may need a support group).

My name is Emily and I was a gifted child.

Joking aside, it’s something that I always feel awkward admitting – a bit shameful.  It smacks of elitism, this gifted label.  “What, you think you’re better than me?”  I don’t.  I really don’t.  I know all about the pitfalls of intelligence testing, of narrow definitions of intelligence, of sub-tests that were later thrown out.  The day I took the intelligence tests is one of my few clear memories of early elementary school.  I can remember tearing through the verbal/analytical part, flying through the general knowledge, and grinding to a halt at the spatial reasoning – darn those puzzles. Was there a puzzle of a duck?  I’m pretty sure there was.

I can remember being called to a little room by one of my classmates as she returned from her test and being told to fetch the next child when I came back.  Neither of them joined the program.  The reasons why we were chosen for testing and why we did or didn’t get invited to join the program were mysterious to us.  No one ever explained and the whole thing was spoken of in hushed tones.

girl creating a tree using a stick and blades of glass
Creating her own tree using a stick and blades of grass

My parents were very uncomfortable with the whole thing – embarrassed even.  My scores weren’t something I should ever talk about – I didn’t even know what they were until I found them as an adult – I knew not to ask.  I can remember telling a friend about what we did ‘in gifted’ and being admonished not to talk about it – I might make her feel badly.  As a child it was very confusing but as I got older I started to understand more about the complications of privilege.  What we did at school on Wednesdays during our pull-out program wasn’t a subject of conversation at school or at home but, and here’s the kicker, it was, by far, the best day of my week.  From grade 5 to grade 8 I lived for Wednesdays and from grade 9 to grade 13 I survived because of the space that the school allotted for gifted students to work and hang out and the events that they organized for us.

So here’s the rub; I’m torn in two directions about giftedness.  On the one hand, I question whether it even exists.  Aren’t all children gifted in some way?  Children have so many gifts, so many talents, and so many ways of communicating them.  Doesn’t a narrow intelligence test reduce all of that complexity to a falsely simplistic score that can’t possibly capture all of the miraculous diversity of children’s potential? Yes, yes, and yes.  But then, there’s this first hand-experience of being outside of the norm, feeling different, weird even, and of being saved and supported by the very elitist programming that supports children who, popular wisdom tells us, will succeed regardless of what we do, even in spite of us.

So where does all of that angsty internal conflict leave me when it comes to my own classroom and to the children in my classes whose abilities lie outside of the bounds of that famous bell curve?  It leaves me flumoxed sometimes, to be honest.

When I was in grade 5, we learned (in gifted class, of course) about Bloom’s taxonomy.  We learned that acquiring knowledge about a subject – which was what we did most of the time in our regular classrooms – was only the beginning of learning.  We were aiming higher, towards the upper echelons of the pyramid.  Analysis… synthesis… evaluation… onward!

old pyramid for Bloom's Taxonomy
The Old Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning

This type of learning typified my experiences in those special classes – we were always pushed to go deeper, to think bigger, to look at problems from another perspective, frankly, to do what I now call “inquiry learning.”  Subjects were never assigned to us; we got to choose what interested us.  I can remember creating personal utopias and doing research in Dance History.  I even worked for the local Provincial Member of Parliament – I was 13. Follow your interests, that was the mantra.  Imagine if school had been like that every day.  Would the program have even been necessary?

Today Bloom’s Taxonomy looks different.  A new level has been added to the top of the pyramid: creating.

New Bloom's Taxonomy
The new version of Bloom’s Taxonomy

So where does that leave us in Kindergarten, when creating is at the foundation of everything we do?  For our students, knowledge doesn’t come first – it’s not a prerequisite – it often grows out of their creativity, not the other way around.  Children are creating from the very first day they come into the classroom; they’re creating from the day they’re born.  How do we frame this notion of giftedness when we’re tackling learning from a completely flipped point of view?

Another story: When I was in grade 6, our teacher decided that we needed an extra challenge so she chose a few students who would use a different spelling book for weekly dictations.  They were small pink books – hard words lived inside.  Each week, we would wait for our turn to have our own, super-hard words and sentences read out for our special dictation.  While I am grateful that I can spell chrysanthemum (that may have more to do with Anne of Green Gables than with grade 6 spelling), this experience represents for me the worst of what enriched programming can be.  Too often, our attempts to challenge kids just mean giving them more of the same; more surface learning, more rote learning, more but not better.

What I am most thankful for in Ontario’s Kindergarten program is that it gives all children the opportunities that I only got on Wednesdays.  In our class we spend most of our time creating and that provides children whose interests and gifts lie all over the bell curve with regular opportunities to problem solve and to ask big questions.  Children’s questions are spectacularly different.  Their play is as diverse as they are and sometimes what they do doesn’t fall into a neat, academic, curricular box.  But I have, without question, observed children who I’m going to call gifted (for lack of a better term) find challenges for themselves in play.  I have had students who have led read-alouds in their second year of Kindergarten.  I’ve had students learn how to crochet, knit, and play complicated string games.  I’ve had students create their own fashion designs.  I’ve also had students create marble runs and block structures of incredible complexity.  Today I had a student describe a long narrative about her block structure; she has a spectacular imagination.  Last week, FI problem-solved how he could create trusses for his roof using tongue depressors.

boy building roof trusses on cardboard model

It is often challenging to stay ahead of them, to remain nimble enough to meet their needs in a large classroom.  But I am heartened that, if education can remain focused on creativity, great learning will follow.  Like water trickling down the side of the Bloom’s pyramid, we will get to the knowledge if we start at the top.

Scavengers

A snippet of a post that I wrote on the last week of school…

We’re out of tape in the classroom. Completely.
It’s been a few days without tape and things are getting dire.
Today, as I unwrapped some early end-of-year presents, the scavengers descended. They took the used but still sticky tape. The took the wrapping paper. Right out of my hands… gone!
It quickly turned into a design competition – who could create the best tissue paper dress in the least amount of time?

As funny as it was, I was delighted by their scavenging.  It made me feel that we’ve done something right this year.  We’ve preserved their ingenuity and imagination, fed it, recognized it, aided and abetted it.  I sometimes joke that the biggest part of my ballet technique job is not to screw it up; avoiding bad technical habits is as important as teaching good ones.  I feel the same way about parts of my classroom job.  If, by the end of the year, I can look at the kids and honestly declare that we’ve honoured them as people and preserved their creative impulses, whatever they are (whether they involved spinners made of snap cubes, huge block towers, or paper dresses), then I can comfortably say we’ve done our jobs.  Maybe “first, do no harm” should be our oath too.

high fashion

In praise of simple toys.

We’re into week 3 of the school year.  Friendships are being forged, routines established, and materials explored.  As I’ve watched the children explore the room over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of the value of simple toys.  Because I teach kindergarten, people in my life (parents at school, acquaintances, relatives) often approach me to either ask me or tell me about toys they’ve purchased or are thinking of purchasing for their children.  Increasingly, these are electronic toys.  It’s not unusual to hear that someone has bought their child an ‘app’ or a child-marketed tablet because they think it’s educational.  They think (and are encouraged to do so by the marketers) that these toys will give their child a leg-up, that they will be more advanced than their peers once they get to school.  They also think that successful completion of these programs indicates that their child has learned something important, particularly to their school success.  Now… before you read what I’m about to write, I want to tell you that I’m not a perfect parent, far from it.  On Tuesday night, I was so sick that I sat my children down in front of the miracle that is the Treehouse channel, put dinner in the oven and prayed that my husband would get home soon.  I well understand the power of electronics to occupy children, to keep them quiet and subdued, and to give adults a little relief.  I’m reminded of what Rachael Lynde tells Diana in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams when they’re discussing the ubiquity of the Eaton’s Catalogue in late 19th century Canada.

“Well, they’re splendid to amuse children with,” said Diana. “Fred and Small Anne look at the pictures by the hour.”

I amused ten children without the aid of Eaton’s catalogue,” said Mrs. Rachel severely.

I don’t want to be the Rachael Lynde in this story.  I know that all of this gadgetry is amusing.  I know it occupies kids and keeps them out from under your feet when you’re cooking dinner.  But… educational, brain-developing, mind-stretching?  I doubt it.  I think that success in completing those programs mostly means that you’ve successfully learned how to complete the program.  I’ve met children who can identify letters by tapping on them in an app but can’t then identify them in a book.  It’s largely a conditioning system… ring a bell and the dog salivates… tap the screen and you get a song or a picture or a digital sticker.  It’s a very effective reward system but the learning is dubious.   I don’t think they have any more value than a paper worksheet; you can scroll down to see how I feel about those.  We have some very simple toys in our classroom.  Have a look at the amazing variety of things the children have been doing with them in the past few days.  They aren’t expensive, they last forever, you can play with them in many different ways, many of them are quite beautiful to look at and they all stretch the mind and imagination.  They provoke problem solving and social negotiation with other children and best of all… they’re fun!

Wooden blocks... need I say more?
Wooden blocks… need I say more?
They all start out as cubes but they hinge differently.
They all start out as cubes but they hinge differently.

More architecture blocks

Wow... another amazing simple toy.
Wow… another amazing simple toy.

DSCF0306 DSCF2032

All sorts of learning here.  Building stable structures with unusual elements, relative size, shapes...
All sorts of learning here. Building stable structures with unusual elements, relative size, shapes…

Rainbow Arches, wooden blocks and magnetic tiles the view from above

balance, stability, largest to smallest
balance, stability, largest to smallest