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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Where do the Arts Belong?

Last week, I had an interesting conversation with one of my sons’ teachers. He has a classroom teacher who delivers the “core” subjects (not my favorite term, by any means), a physical education teacher, and a teacher whose job it is to teach social studies and the arts. I had asked her to call me in response to some assessments she had sent home. I was a little bewildered as to how she could manage to teach all of these subjects (Dance, Drama, Music, Visual Arts, and Social Studies) during the approximately 30 minutes a day she has with my son’s class.

It turns out that her background and mine are not all that different and that, until this year, she’d been doing a similar job in her school board to the one I have now. So we had a good chat about the challenges of her current role, the ways she’s trying to cope (by focusing on one subject per month in a rotation) and the near impossibility of giving any of these subjects their due in 30 minutes per day.

When I hung up the phone and went back to cooking dinner, I found myself thinking about these strange things we call subjects and how we often treat them in schools. I’ve come to realize that we really like boxes. We love boxes. We like boxes that describe our roles and we like performing those roles inside more boxes. We like boxes for timetabling and boxes for drawing. We can’t get enough of them.

But is that reality? Does it give students a real sense of the scope of a subject or a domain when we point to something and say “Here, this is math… that is science… and that is Art. They are different. They don’t go together.”? I don’t think so. I think that not only does it do our students a disservice, it doesn’t reflect the reality of the work being done in those fields.

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I have observed an interesting phenomenon over many years of teaching and learning in the Arts. I’m going to call it the Beginners Paradox. Often when someone starts learning in an art form, they are very open, very curious and are willing to try almost anything. They don’t have a preconceived idea about what is and isn’t part of that form. As they become more advanced, however, their ideas narrow and their willingness to experiment with techniques or ideas that they perceive to be outside of their sphere dramatically declines. Only at the most advanced levels do people again become more willing to open up and, ironically, try to become more like beginners – to see their domain with fresh eyes so that they are able to innovate and push the work forward.

Yesterday, I was asked to create a question that would guide my work this year. We were working with Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question (put it on your reading list, it’s really good). I’m not sure that my question is all that beautiful but here it is:

How do I move teachers towards a more integrated model of Arts education that sees the arts less as discrete subjects (stop and teach) and more as languages of expression (ways of knowing) that are available all the time for all students?

I think that in most cases, in most schools, this is the way forward. If we want the arts to be central to education we need to integrate them into the curriculum, seeing them both as valuable subjects and as teaching tools that infuse the day with creation. However, I know that some artists and arts educators won’t agree with me. This model won’t produce as many technically skilled musicians and dancers as perhaps we’ve been accustomed to. High school music teachers will find that students don’t have the same knowledge and skill base as they have in years past because they’ve spent more time composing a body percussion opus describing the European settlement of North America and its effects on First Nations people (for instance) and less time learning how to read sheet music. That’s the trade-off.

In the introduction to his amazing little book, HearSing, R. Murray Schafer writes an indictment of music education. We could easily substitute any of the other arts (drama, dance, visual arts) and the indictment would still stand.

“This is the indictment I make against music education as currently taught:

  • That foreign music is valued above our own;
  • That music composed by others is valued above anything we could achieve ourselves;
  • That in trying to meet excessively high technical demands, many students become discouraged or are forced to forgo the pleasures of music-making;
  • That by insisting that music is an expensive subject, opportunities for inexpensive music-making are ignored;
  • That teachers (and parents and principals) fail to understand the value of music beyond the year-end concert or tour;
  • That music has been isolated from contact with other subjects (science, the other arts, the environment);
  • That teachers do not speak out strongly enough against the commodification of the music by the entertainment industry and the trash that it produces.

The music room is neither the beginning nor the end of music. Music is the whole sounding universe. We are simultaneously listeners and performers and composers of the universal symphony.”

Drama is the whole emotional universe.

Dance is the whole moving universe.

Visual Art is the whole seeing universe.

That’s how beginners see it. It’s how every 4-year-old I’ve ever met sees it. I think that’s how we need to teach it. Weave it into the day. Take away the boxes. Those subject divisions are illusions; we created them and we can make them disappear.

The little girl in the pink shoes

An apology to everyone who reads this blog for its Kindergarten content… your regularly scheduled blog will return in the next post!

girl in yellow dance costume

There’s a meme/post flying around Facebook lately, featuring a demure-looking little girl in a poofy tutu, pink tights, and ballet slippers. She’s adorable and the message accompanying the photo is very well-intentioned. Boiled down, it’s saying that dance is good training for life; it teaches you lots of skills (perseverance, time management, fitness, resiliency) that you can use to build success in other areas, it gives you a strong social network and is, basically, worth all the hassle of money and time spent on classes and competitions.

I don’t disagree. After you’ve read this whole post please come back up and read that sentence because I’m very serious. I have many, many, many former students who were high level elite dancers as adolescents and who have gone on to pursue ambitious careers in other areas. They are doing exactly what this post suggests; they are using all that they learned on stage and in the studio to make the most out of their lives.  I’m incredibly proud of them and awed by their achievements: engineers, physicians, teachers, welders, all of them.

I have a good friend who is an accomplished musician.  He has the same level of academic training in music that I have in dance.  He plays with our local symphony, he is their guest conductor, and he is often asked to perform at local events, all in addition to his teaching duties.  One night, he was feeling particularly exhausted and was lamenting that he would have to put on his tux to play that evening.  I chuckled and said: “Well, you should have done a Masters in Dance instead of a Masters in Music; I hardly ever get asked to perform.”  This wasn’t an attempt to solicit pity but it is true.  Whereas I have many, many musician friends and colleagues who perform on a regular basis, older dancers are hardly ever asked to dance.  To quote that post, “before you know it, she’s danced her last recital and discarded her last pair of shoes… she’s left the stage for the last time”.  Dance is viewed as  a worthwhile pursuit for children and teenagers but after that we’re expected to hang up our pink shoes and move on to something practical.

He’s not expected to hang up his instrument but I am.

His art form is seen as something worthwhile for adults and mine is seen as something for children, good only for what it can bring to the rest of your life, not for its own merit.   I often wonder why this is.  Does it have something to do with not wanting to see aging bodies – are we only comfortable with physical expression when it’s coming from a lithe 16 year old?  There are a few dance companies that cast older dancers but not many.  Is this just a manifestation of an overall societal obsession with youth?  Maybe it’s because many young dancers aren’t taught to view it as an art form at all but instead as a physical contest that is mostly about how high legs can be kicked and how many turns you can land.  What’s left when some of that physical prowess declines?

I don’t know the answer but in an effort to provide some balance to the viral conversation, let me take a second to tell you about a few of my students who are dancers. Who are not using the skills they learned in the studio for something else – who are using them in the same places and for the same purposes they learned them.

This is Lucy: she is a dancer, a writer, a choreographer, a teacher, an incredibly imaginative and talented person who I was lucky enough to teach.

This is Mayumi: she is a dancer, choreographer, traveler, and teacher.  When I taught her she was an amazingly talented 12 year old.

This is Daphné: she is another fabulous dancer, choreographer, and teacher, off on great adventures.  She blows me away with her energy and talent.

That’s just three and it doesn’t touch on all of my amazing dancer friends who continue to write grant proposals and audition and fight the good fight to keep dancing in spite of the struggles.  It shouldn’t be such a struggle.  It should be more like throwing on your tux at the end of a long day.  All of the engineers, physicians, teachers, and welders should be able to dance for recreation too, just like their colleagues who are able to play music or participate in community theatre or paint recreationally.  Dancers need to keep dancing and we need to keep saying out loud: I’m an adult, a full-fledged, tax-paying adult, and I dance.  It’s not something I’m going to give up nor should I be expected to.  I’m not hanging up my instrument any time soon; there is dance beyond the little pink shoes.

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