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.

 

 

 

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.

100_0733[1]

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.

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.

iPhone Image 3188A7 iPhone Image 3188DE iPhone Image 3188F7 iPhone Image 318902


iPhone Image 3188BC iPhone Image 3188E5 iPhone Image 3188F1 iPhone Image 31891A iPhone Image 318925


 

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?

iPhone Image 318930

 

A is for Aesthetics

Google “alphabet chart” and you get over 16 million results.  Most of them look like this.

81nR8RxehtL

Q is for quilt, D is for Duck… we’re all pretty familiar with these – they’re ubiquitous.

They’re also inexpensive, available at every teacher supply store and online, and they’re bright and colourful – kids like that kind of stuff, right?

Well, I’m not so sure – I’m not sure that kids’ aesthetics are actually what we think they are.

I think that as adults we tend to see childhood through a hazy lens: all idealized, sun-shiny, primary-coloured innocence.  Is our point of view skewed by our own need to frame our childhoods in a positive light?  Is it motivated by our need to protect our kids and place their childhoods in a box that we feel is known, something predictable and, we hope, predictably safe?  The coexistence of this cutesy aesthetic alongside the hyper-sexualization of children in so much of popular culture is bewildering – we seem, as a culture, to want it both ways.  We want to cute-ify childhood by rounding its edges and trimming off the ragged, risky, fun bits, while at the same time chipping away at it from the other side by pushing children to grow up too fast.  The mind boggles.

After years of watching kids draw, paint, dance, and build I’ve become convinced that our adult ideas about childhood aesthetics are mostly wrong.  Kids are, by and large, very uninterested in cute.  They are also very uninterested in products.  For most of them it’s all about the process.  The things they draw, paint, and build aren’t cute – most of the time they aren’t beautiful either.  They’re interesting, they’re puzzling, they’re absorbing, they’re real.  Often, like a post-modern artist, they’re more interested in the properties of the material than they are in the visual effect.

Kids have emotions that are as strong, or stronger, than adults; when was your last temper tantrum? They experience the full emotional range and they express their experiences in their artwork.  We shouldn’t be surprised that their aesthetic sense has very little relationship to our manufactured ideal – we made that, they didn’t.

So what do they make when they’re given a chance?  When we pay attention to their expressions of understanding, what sort of alphabet reference do they create?  I’m sure they make lots of things that we miss but we did catch this one and I wanted to share it with you because I think the contrast is illuminating.  What it’s not is as important as what it is.

Have a great March break!

student-led alphabet chart
Printed on vinyl, images altered so that each letter remains coloured while the background is in black and white

 

How did this alphabet chart come to be?  Here’s the story:

The E – made with snap cubes – came first. The child shared it with us spontaneously and our ECE created a provocation with it. She taped 26 plastic pockets along the wall, each with a question mark in it. In the 5th one she put a black and white copy of the photo showing the child holding her snap cube E. When kids asked us what the pockets were for we responded by asking what they thought they were for. Eventually, they figured out that they could fill in the blanks with other letters. Then they started creating letters in lots of different ways – play dough, blocks, tiles, bodies – and we would share them and add them to the wall.  Later we edited the photos to make the letters stand out and had them printed in three long pieces.

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!