We don’t know what comes next.

I make a lot of jokes at my own expense. One of my chestnuts is that I have 6 undergraduate credits in walking backwards… I drag this one out when someone notes how deftly I walk backwards down a hallway, leading a group of kids from the gym, or I catch myself after slipping on the playground ice, or I balance on slippery rocks to free a grounded boat. All those years of movement training pay dividends in unexpected ways.

As a child, what I liked about ballet was that it had rules. There was a right and a wrong and progress towards the perfected ideal was clearly defined. You worked hard and you got better. I liked the control, the planning, the purpose, the vocabulary, the known. Like many kids growing up in alcoholic families, my reaction to all the things I couldn’t control was to control as many things as I could. Ballet was all about control and I loved it – I still do.

But then my dance world grew and I was introduced to forms that valued release, fall, suspension, and spiral. I was asked to find my own definitions of progress by teachers who challenged me to decide for myself what meaning movement was making in my life. That was hard work and I didn’t always like it – I really, really wanted there to be a right and wrong. I didn’t want the grey; I was nostalgic for the certainty of ballet.

Just as I was getting comfortable in the modern dance greyscape, I found improvisation, or maybe more accurately, it found me. Whereas in modern dance classes, there were at least some structures for me to hang my control needs on, now I was completely at sea – making it up as I went along, trusting that I could.

I had the good fortune of having improvisation teachers who took my angst in stride – I wasn’t the first recovering ballerina they’d met. They were patient with me and probably kinder than I deserved. Dana Reitz, Lionel Popkin, Sara Rudner… I’m not kidding about the backwards walking – we did everything backwards until we sort of forgot how to do it forwards; that was probably the point.

Bit by bit I got over myself and learned to love improvisation. I learned to trust that I could come up with solutions to problems, in the moment, on my feet, sometimes just on one foot. Sometimes those solutions would be brilliant but most of the time they would be just enough to get us to the next moment, where I could make a new choice and another and another. Sometimes I fell down so then I got up; the dance continued and I learned some humility. I learned to make better in-the-moment choices, I got better at taking in the circumstances and choosing a good path. I also learned to live with the uncertainty of reality – man plans and G-d laughs isn’t an old adage for nothing.

If planned teaching is like gardening, with rows of orderly plants, staked and supported, planters and edging clearly defined, then improvisational teaching is like sidewalk flowers, bursting up unexpectedly in fertile but forgotten corners, largely unnoticed but still beautiful. It’s so much easier to measure the former, that most researchers ignore the latter. We pretend that we can plan everything and we participate in the collective illusion that one is better than the other because one is more predictable, knowable and nameable. Research tells us that improvising uses distinctly different areas of the brain than scripted performance does (Limb & Braun, 2008, Harris & de Jong, 2015, Alexander et al., 2020).

I’ve written in several places that if I could change one thing about teacher preparation in North America, it would be to focus less on planning and more on improvisation. Pre-service teachers graduate knowing how to plan, in almost inconceivable detail, lessons that are very likely to go sideways, if not backwards, in the process of delivery. They get no training in how to cope with the inevitable unpredictability of teaching life. They’re taught to teach as though things usually go as planned when, in reality, they rarely do. This system of planning-based teacher preparation leads to teachers who have a hard time managing the inevitable changes in practice that occur over a long career and sometimes leave the profession in their first five years, disenchanted by the messy reality of a teaching life.

Teaching, like ballet, attracts planners, organizers, and controllers. Most elementary teachers like to plan; they like colour-coded filing systems and day planners that map out instructional units and field trips months in advance. Not knowing how things will unfold every day is stressful and so the idea of going back to school this fall, without knowing what that will look like in any detail, is making many teachers extremely anxious.

I feel that stress too; I want to have good answers for people when they ask me what September will look like. But I don’t and you don’t and we won’t… even when we have a plan from the government, we still won’t. No one has done this before. We are in uncharted waters and we feel adrift.

movement improvisation in a teacher workshop

But are we actually drifting or are we just moving towards a shoreline that we can’t see yet? Five months ago, teachers moved an entire system of K-12 education online, something that had never been done before. It wasn’t perfect, mistakes were made, lessons were learned, but we did it. We have to trust that we’ll be able to do the same thing with whatever circumstances we’re facing in the fall. We have to trust that we’ll be able to take the next step, and the next one, and the next one, be they sideways or backwards and that we’ll be able use the tools we already have and the ones we’ll pick up along the way to make the moves that will see us and the kids to the next moment. It may not always be brilliant but we have to trust that it will be enough – goodness knows we won’t be doing it alone.

How do you get better at improvising? How do you learn to live with uncertainty without feeling panicked? How do you develop that kind of generous trust in yourself and in others? Well, ideally we’d all get into a studio or a field and play for a few hours and it would look something like this. You might start by watching uncomfortably on the sidelines but eventually you’d find a way to participate. Ideally, you’d have lots of time to practice.

In the absence of a contact-jam or a theatre improv class which sadly will have to wait for a post-COVID era, I’d suggest picking up a pencil and sketching something (anything), dancing in your kitchen (making the moves up as you go), writing a journal, collecting interesting things on a walk, sorting them and making a temporary installation, or sculpting a piece of clay into something unrecognizable. As a culture, we’ve subscribed to the idea that the only people who get to do this stuff are the people who are already good at it. That’s nonsense.

Practice not knowing. Practice playing. Practice making, or drawing or dancing even if, especially if, you’re bad at it. It will get those improvisational muscles working, even if they’ve been flaccid since Kindergarten. Have faith that we’ve got this, whatever it is.

Belden, A., Zeng, T., Przysinda, E., Anteraper, S. A., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., & Loui, P. (2020). Improvising at rest: Differentiating jazz and classical music training with resting state functional connectivity. NeuroImage207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116384

Harris, R. & de Jong B.M., (2015). Differential parietal and temporal contributions to music perception in improvising and score-dependent musicians, an fMRI study. Brain Research, 253–264.

Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE3(2), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001679

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It’s okay to play

We’re about to embark on week 6 of distance learning in Ontario, week 4 of that learning being led by classroom teachers. The novelty has worn off and our reserves of cheerful optimism are running low. Teachers, elementary teachers in particular, are known for their cheeriness but even the sun-shiniest among us are showing the wear and tear of this uniquely stressful time. If you’re feeling out of sorts you’re in good company.

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Kids are feeling weary too. It’s a long haul and it’s going to get longer. My own children are tech-savy and have all their basic needs met: they wake up and go to bed on a regular schedule, they’re getting outside every day, they’re eating well and they have parents who can help them academically (although I confess that dividing fractions required me to do some review).  If my kids are struggling to remain motivated with their online classes, which they are, then it’s likely that everyone is. The teachers I’m in touch with reported that this week felt like heavy lifting with kids. They weren’t engaged, they weren’t handing in work and they weren’t present for synchronous sessions. What had been working before, suddenly wasn’t.

In my last post, I shared this image which describes the Community of Inquiry as conceptualized by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000). The model proposes that the educational experience in distance learning is composed of three equally important types of presence: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence.

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Over the past several weeks we have seen a lot of influential educational thinkers frantically distancing themselves from the terms “distance learning” and “online learning” as we struggle to both name what we’re doing and to describe its challenges. Emergency remote learning seems to be a term most people can agree on. While I agree that what’s happening is somewhat different from a planned distance learning experience that students have chosen to engage in, I think that we ignore the lessons of distance education research at our peril. Imagining that what we’re doing is entirely different from what distance educators have been doing for decades just isn’t accurate. We’re doing it under intense pressure and with students who haven’t chosen to learn this way but the nuts and bolts of how it works is very similar.

One of the distance education practices that I think we would be wise to pay attention to is valuing social presence. Garrison (2009) describes social presence as “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities.” I don’t know if that’s something most teachers thought about when they were rushing to put their online classrooms together a few weeks ago.

How are we allowing students to sustain and develop their relationships with us and with each other in our online context? How are we having fun? How are we being silly? How are we playing? We do this effortlessly in our classrooms by telling stories, joking with students, providing feedback, and relating personal connections to the material. We don’t even realize we’re doing it most of the time. Online we have to be more deliberate about it.

Even if you’re teaching grade 12 Physics, allowing time and space for the development of social presence matters. Why? It matters for its own sake – we all want to feel like we’re part of a community, especially now – and it also matters because it contributes to cognitive presence; students learn better when they’re socially engaged.  As an adult taking distance education courses, you may have never experienced this being done well but the research supports that social presence and cognitive presence go hand-in-hand. So don’t be afraid to ease off the content gas pedal for a while and focus on having fun with your students. Have a look at tools like FlipGrid, which allows students to post short video clips. Have a pet beauty contest, even if the contestants are pet rocks. Re-name the elements in the periodic table based on characters on their favourite TV shows, or politicians, or celebrities. Ask students to complete an activity outdoors – tableaux anyone? Have a silly walk contest. Give yourself permission to have fun. It’s not just okay to play, it may actually be essential to sustaining students’ cognitive presence over the long haul. We can be here for a good time and a long time.

On the verge

It was a week that started with people sharing memes about the convergence of the full moon, the time change and Friday the 13th – brace yourselves teachers, we’re in for a wild ride! How quaint that all seems now. On Wednesday morning we woke up to the news that our city had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Suddenly, the full moon didn’t seem to matter any more.

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Image by Duncan Miller from Pixabay

We got through Wednesday and Thursday, remaining calm, comforting anxious kids, parents and staff; we were the calm squad. We handed out disinfecting wipes, cajoled kids into washing their hands (yes, again) and tried to stay positive. We mostly succeeded. Thursday afternoon brought the news that all schools would close for an additional two weeks after March Break. Is it possible to be both surprised and not surprised at the same time? If it is, I was. I felt both shock that such drastic action was being taken and relief that we were doing something concrete. I’m a dedicated hand-washer at the best of times; the impulse to do something more was becoming overwhelming, and now, we were.

But that thing we’re doing is, well, oddly, nothing. So far, less than two days into this social distancing experiment, I’m already wondering how to fill the time. I have assignments to complete and that’s probably what I should be writing right now but I’m finding it hard to think about anything other than my experience this past week.

Some things that surprised me:

  • The calm – There are moments when I’m extraordinarily proud to live in this country and this week was one of them. I thought it was very possible that the volume of early-morning sick calls would rise incrementally after the news of the first positive local case broke. After all, everyone was anxious and there are still a lot of unknowns in this rapidly evolving situation. I was wrong. Teachers and support staff came to work, they gave kids the consistency and normalcy they needed and they supported each other with humour and grace. It was Canadian dutifulness at its best.
  • The kindness: Staff baked treats, parents brought in chocolates, people were extra-gentle with each other. When a child had a cough or a runny nose teachers sent them to the office to get checked but with a noticeable undertone of deliberate calm so as not to upset either the child or their classmates. Crises don’t always bring out the best in people; this one did.
  • The work: On Friday morning, as we all digested the news that it would be at least three weeks before we were allowed to come back to school, teachers set to work organizing learning activities for their students. My daughter’s teacher and her grade partners put together a fantastic set of resources for students to work through and they did it all in record time. While my daughter may well wish they were less efficient, she will have lots to keep her busy over the next few weeks. I’m very grateful. They didn’t have to go the extra mile on a day that was already full, but they did.

So, I’m here, on the verge of something and also of nothing. With so much to do and yet nothing to do. With a pantry full of food and an empty calendar. It’s a privileged position but not a comfortable one – unease is the daily constant.

Often when I feel a bit unmoored, I re-read books that have been touchstones for me. Recently, I’ve re-read the last three books in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series (Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside) and Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night.  The shadow of both world wars stalk those novels and it anchors me to remember the enormity of the challenges we’ve faced together as we rise to face this current one. My grandfather was fighting Nazis at 17 years old, surely we can survive a little isolation? My children are less than impressed by my historical musings: “Mom, that’s not fun!” Fair enough.

Two quotes have popped out at me:

There is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.  ~ Hugh MacLennan

The body grows slowly and steadily but the soul grows by leaps and bounds. It may come to its full stature in an hour. ~ L.M. Montgomery

These are chestnuts, old ones, and whether they’ve aged well or not is a matter of opinion. But my experience so far in this crisis is that they’re true, both of them. I’ve seen souls growing by leaps and bounds this week and I’ve witnessed the complexity of our choices under pressure. What the next few weeks will bring, aside from more inevitable complaints about my lack of fun, I don’t know. I’m hoping it continues to bring out the better angels of our nature and that we manage to pull together, under duress, to protect each other.