Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Temporary Cures for a Broken World

• Listen to Andrei Gavrilov play Bach’s French Suites. Really listen.

• Teach a music class with 3-year olds exploring the sonic and movement potential of paper plates.

• Eat pistachio nuts and think about how your Dad loved them. Eat them on his behalf.

• Open the door and let the light evening breeze caress you.

• Travel back in memory to a time when life was simpler, people were more civil, things made more sense. Then realize that there never was such a time. And accept it.

• Go back to Bach.


One Regret

Like any living person on the planet, I’ve had my share of regrets. All the “shoulda, coulda. wish I woulda” things that constitute a human life. In that regard, I’m no different than anyone else.

And yet, I mostly feel blessed by the world and my choices in the world, mostly can look back at what I wish didn’t happen and realize how it had to happen for me to understand where my next step would fall. To look back over the years of all the trodden paths and accept them all, embrace them all, feel them as necessary and important, is a rare gift and not one I take lightly.

But today I felt that full weight of one regret. Not unfixable for the future, but sad to realize what I’ve been missing. Can you guess?

Well, around five years ago, my colleagues and I had to re-juggle our schedules to allow for the Intern Program to happen and each of us had to give up at least one class. Reluctantly, and with constant reminders that “he owed me one,’ I let my colleague James teach my beloved 3-year-olds. Whaaaaaaahhhhhhh!

Of course he does a marvelous job, but the fact is is that I always tell people my favorite ages to teach are 3-year olds and 8th grade. And yet I haven’t taught the little ones for five years!

But today I did and it all came flooding back why I love them so much. The 5-year olds are still pretty fresh from Creation, but they’re already getting into senior slump in the Montessori preschool, trying out some bullying, thinking they know more than the teacher. The 3’s are a different animal altogether. And of course, they have their issues.

But today, I did a game about making faces and no 5-year old and certainly no 14-year old and maybe not even a French mime, an Indian Kathakali dancer or an Oscar-winning actor or actress could compete with those expressive faces! And then when we started exploring the imaginative potential of paper plates, using them as wings, as steering wheels, as boats to sit in and row, as ice skates, as tails, as hats— well, it just doesn’t get any better than that. The 3-year olds are saying in their own way: “You get us! We love this! You’re not so bad as a 3-year old yourself! And we are so happy you let us be ourselves!”

When I get back home to teach school, I’m going to have a serious talk with James. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

The 50-Yard Line


If I’m doing my work well as a teacher, every class, every encounter with a child, every response I have to them in class, is an opportunity to deepen my purpose and improve my craft. Yesterday’s second-grade class here in New Delhi offered many such opportunities, none of which can be taught in a music education methods class. In case they’re instructive to anyone, I include a few here. But not to be copied without your own deep reflection on what you expect from the children in your class and why. So first the philosophical background that drives my daily decisions:

The old style of child-raising, be it teachers or parents, was: “These are the rules we have agreed upon as necessary to run this house/ school/ institution and you better follow them or else. We frankly don’t care how you feel about them nor do we care to know why you fell short. Just buck up or else!”

The new style is: “We understand that you must have a reason to behave as you do and you are a victim of your own ADHD or upbringing or psychological type and you’re probably doing everything you can and it’s up to us to understand you and sympathize and accept you no matter what your behavior because really, you have no choice in the matter and are acting as only you can.  We will take time from the group activity to attend to your needs and yes, it would be so nice if you could try just a little bit harder next time to not hit Shirley over the head with the mallet, but hey, we understand your anger management issues and maybe it’s our fault that we don’t have softer mallets. Perhaps we’ll suggest that Shirley wear a helmet next time. Is that okay with you?”

Should we take time to investigate why children are behaving as they are? Yes, we should. As I often tell the teachers I’m training, “behavior is the language of children,” their inarticulate way to try to articulate what they need. Our job to help them and us figure out exactly what that is. It brings a different and needed tone to the conversation beyond “just behave!”

Should we also hold the children accountable for their behavior and the effect it has on the others in the group, the activities we’re trying to master and their own learning? Yes, we should. Understanding why they’re misbehaving is a first good step, but helping them understand why they need to step up and do better is likewise essential.

Diving deeper into my goals, I’m committed to helping reveal the particular character and genius of each child, but always within the circle of community, always with the point of view that their particular gifts obligate them to enhance, improve, enlarge the world beyond their personal self. My approach is to help them understand the balance between “blend in”—work together with the group and join your voice to the choir to make a glorious sound far beyond the single voice—and “stand out”—step forward and let yourself shine in the solo. Their job is to understand when it’s time to do either and for how long and for what reason. And this will require an equal measure of effort and responsibility from the student. I tell the kids that if they want the best education, I’ll meet them at the 50-yard line. I’ll do my part to walk towards them to be the best teacher I can be and they do their part of walk towards me to be the best student they can be.

With that in mind, here’s how I handled the situations that came up in today’s class with a group of 2nd graders I’ve never worked with before. Keep in mind that I never was the least bit angry and my tone was clear, yet firm.

SITUATION: While the whole circle was trying the clapping pattern, two kids were checked out and not practicing.

Nice job! But I did notice a couple of kids who weren’t practicing and I’m trying to imagine why not. Maybe they already know it so well and feel like they don’t need to practice. Maybe they found it was too hard and gave up without giving it a try. Maybe they just were thinking about other things? Do any of those kids want to tell me which it was? (No answer).
Well, if it was the first one, that’s not a good reason because if they’re good at it, they should set an example to help others. If it was the second one, they should just do as much as they can because it’s really important to practice the things that are hard for us. My list of things that are hard for me is really long, but every time I make an effort to do as much as I can the best I can, I feel so much better. And since we’re going to do this game for a long time, if you don’t practice from the beginning, you’ll get further and further behind. I know you can do it, or at least part of it, and I’m here to help you. You don’t have to get it perfect, you just have to try. Finally, if you were just daydreaming, well, that happens to me too, but I have to wake up and remember what I’m supposed to be doing. So let’s try again and see if all of us can practice. (We did and those two kids joined in.)

SITUATION: We turned to partners in order around the circle and one boy was with a girl and his friend pointed at him and laughed.

Okay, you all did a good job, but I did notice something that happened that can never happen in my class. Someone, I won’t say who, laughed at someone else for getting a particular partner. Now that behavior says something unacceptable to me, as if the partner his friend got was not a wonderful human being worthy of playing with. Or that it was weird for boys to be partners with girls. And if I didn’t say anything, the person who laughed and pointed might think that was okay. It’s not. We are here to discover that everyone in this room is a potential friend and at the very least, worthy of respect. If the person who did it wants to apologize later, that would be a nice idea. Meanwhile, I want to be clear that something like that can’t happen again. Okay?

SITUATION: One was hitting his partner too hard.

Nice job! But I did notice that someone was hitting his partner a little too hard and she was not enjoying it. We have to feel safe here and I don’t think she felt safe. I see her nodding while I talk. Do you want to say something to your partner? (She turned to the boy and said clearly, “You hit me too hard and I didn’t like it.” The boy claimed he didn’t do it on purpose.)
Thank you both. And by the way, sometimes when someone behaves like that, they think it’s kind of funny and they choose to have a good time at someone else’s expense. Not a good idea. Also, sometimes kids think that it will be fun to do something wrong on purpose or silly. But in my class, I want you to have fun by doing things well and doing things that make your partners and the rest of the class happy. Is that clear? Okay, let’s see if we can do it better this time. (They did.)

SITUATION: One student was sincerely struggling with the pattern. I went over to be his partner.

We’re getting better! I saw so many people who improved. But I particularly want to mention my partner. I have a feeling that he probably hasn’t played a lot of games like this. Is that true? (Partner nods yes.) And when our brain encounters something new, we have to work twice as hard to try to get it to understand the patterns and do it over enough times that it begins to get it. At the beginning, my partner was having trouble, but he was watching me so closely and I could see that each time we repeated the pattern, he was noticing which part was hard for him and trying to correct it. And by the end, he got it!

So you see that I have some strategies of oblique critique (“Somebody, I won’t say who…”) to avoid too much public shame, but sometimes direct critique (the girl telling her partner she didn’t like it). A little shame can be a good thing to curb our lower impulses. I tried to acknowledge the reasons why things might be hard and encourage the kids to make yet better efforts to work through them. I put things in the context of contributing positively to the group and the importance of having fun by doing things well instead of making fun of them.

While I’m doing these things, I can’t help but feel that the problem with the world is all the teachers who let these behaviors slide, condoning bullying by ignoring it or ineffectually punishing kids without them understanding why they should try harder and be better. And do you know how high the stakes are in these little moments in each class? Well, look at one person who went through our school systems untouched by teachers trying to help him find his own inner beauty and firmly holding him accountable for his bad treatment of others. A person who rose for all the wrong reasons to become the President of a powerful country and wreak havoc on the world. That’s pretty high stakes.

So let’s get going, teachers and do our job! And let’s get the governing institutions and Boards of Education to realign themselves to let us do that job and support us in our efforts.

PS The boy who I praised apparently is someone who has had trouble in many of his classes feeling successful. He came up to me at the end and said, “Did I do a good job?”
I hugged him and said, “You did a great job!!” and he walked out of class smiling ear to ear. That moment alone justified the jet fuel to India.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ah, India!

Out into New Delhi on a Sunday morning and immediately, I have a feeling I’m not in Kansas anymore. And I’m sure Kansas is mostly just fine (minus their voting record), but the vibrant electric shimmer of India is a world unto itself. It was the centerpiece of the trip around the world my wife and I took in 1978-79, the most different place I had ever been before that time and still after. I returned in 2011 to introduce my daughter Kerala to the state she was named for and that was such a special time, actually chronicled in my 2011 blogs. 

And now back again. Today began with my host introducing me to the tuk-tuk driver, who bows to me and calls me Guruji, showing the deep respect his culture gives to teachers. Not the kind of response cab drivers in Kansas would tend to give. We weave in and out the horn-filled traffic, past the armed soldiers who are there to protect the VIP’s in this Embassy neighborhood and the driver and I mutually joke that they knew I was coming.  Also on the side of the road are various monkeys. Again, not a typical Kansas site. A short stop at the Gate of India and the sellers hawking their wares, women in saris, Sikh men in turbans, tourists with cameras and that’s me, taking it all in. A nice Spring temperature, sunny skies and only a faint hint of the severe bad air I felt arriving last night.

On to the Gandhi Museum, a peaceful oasis amidst the hub-bub and inspired display fo this extraordinary man’s life, with photos, dioramas, quotes and footsteps outdoors leading to the place where he was shot and killed in 1948. His timeless thoughts on justice, freedom, women’s rights, simplicity, truth, simple technologies and more as relevant 70 plus years later and even more so.

Lunch at the Chimney Restaurant, perfectly-cooked naan and paneer dishes with both Western and Indian diners eating at affordable prices and then drop by the American Embassy International School where I will teach the next few days. Another oasis of peace and prosperity while next door are the camps where impoverished folks live. But without being overly romantic, the kids out in the streets playing cricket or dismantling some pieces of sidewalks are out in their natural environment so happy and free and doing what children from time immemorial have done. Inside the school, they have to name an area a “maker’s space” while outside the whole world is just that. Apparently the school also invites the “street kids” in each day after school is over for classes in English and other subjects.

So the gap between rich and poor continues in India and I was accosted by my first child begging that I’ve met in quite a long time, reminding me of that disparity that has been a large part of Indian culture for a long time. But slowly changing with some growing prosperity.

Tonight I met a friend at the hotel where Obama once stayed and then went on to Jazz India fest to hear some outdoor music from drummer Dave Weckl (from Chick Corea’s Return to Forever group), with some inspired young Indian musicians, the best an electric bass player who unleashed an astounding array of sounds and techniques in her breathtaking solo.

It was a great day to start off the week. On we go!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Where Am I?


I was back in my old house in Roselle, New Jersey and took a walk to the little shopping area of my childhood, with the C & Q liquor store, Jack’s barbershop, Lorraine Pharmacy, Debby and Irv’s corner store, the R & R TV repair store (that I always suspected was a front for something else), Burt’s Hardware and more. Except none of it was there. It had all been razed and there were some modern generic buildings, all unrecognizable. I spoke in Spanish to someone asking what happened and then ran into Sonja Czuk, the newly retired secretary of the Orff Institut in Salzburg (where she had worked for 47 years!). She and her husband Franz were looking into working in one of these new buildings and we agreed to try to meet later with my friend Sofia from Spain.

Then I woke up.

In an apartment in the Bulgarian Embassy in New Delhi, India, having just flown there last night after teaching in Bangkok, Thailand and staying in an apartment with my good friend Zukhra from Dagasthan, one of the countries that had been swallowed up by Russia. Not too far from Belaruse where my grandparents were from. On the plane, I saw a movie about “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and read my book about two guys travelling in Ireland, France, Spain, Morocco and were now in Venice. Tomorrow I will teach at the American Embassy School, where the children come from Korea, Israel, Germany and some 45 other countries.

Whether in dream, in films, in books, in my waking, walking, teaching life, I’m a travelin’ man, a citizen of all places, a friend of all people. And now I can talk about it on this blog, where, according to my stats, people from Russia, the U.S., Switzerland, Ukraine, France, Portugal, Thailand, India, Hong Kong and China are reading it.

Well, it certainly keeps things interesting.