Monday, February 28, 2011

Breathing Room


“What will you come away with from our four days together?” I asked the six teachers I had worked with. The most common answer? “Give kids some room to figure things out.” 

This is every schoolteacher’s challenge. For all sorts of reasons, we want the kids to get it right and get it right the first time. So we jump in too soon and correct them or tell them the answer or reprimand them and rob them of the opportunity to work out in their own way and at their own time, the only strategy that really helps them to learn and remember. In my classes that the teachers observed, they noticed how sparing I was with corrections and how much time and space I gave the kids. Of course, I was watching them closely to see when (or if) their “aha!” moment would come and was happy to give some helpful hints. But as long as they were engaged and clearly working, I was happy to let them do so. And it paid off. By the end, they either sounded and looked great or were well on their way. And their constant affirmations as they skipped out the door—“That was fun! Will you be here tomorrow? Thank you!” was their way of saying that I understood what they needed to learn and how they needed to learn it.

After the classes, I came back to my hotel and opened my e-mail to a note from one of the teachers from my recent Tokyo workshop:

I just wanted to let you know that your time in Tokyo is still lingering... at least in my classes.... I think teaching in relative isolation with little interaction with other music teachers, and with constant pressure from administration to document curriculum/goals with students.... AND with only seeing the kids once a week, I somehow get caught up in 'getting through' the lessons (i.e. covering the curriculum) and forget to take time with the "Romance" part of the lesson and let the kids just enjoy playing with/creating the rhythms, melodies and movement -- especially as the kids get older.

Anyway, just wanted to say thanks again for the gentle reminder to bring 'romance' back into my classes.... The lessons are much more enjoyable for me and for the kids (tho I'm not sure the admin will be so pleased if we don't get quite as far with the curriculum!)....  But ultimately I think the kids not being rushed through, have a better chance of absorbing the main focus of the lessons as well... which of course was to your point... “

Bingo! And it’s clear that today’s climate is more and more obsessed with the quick right answer than the slow intriguing question, making it difficult for even experienced teachers (as my friend above is) to keep their passion alive. The children ARE the curriculum. Our job is not to cover curriculum but uncover the child’s promise. I’m a stickler for a coherent curriculum, but only as a mere outline and guideline to focus our teaching, with lots of breathing room for kids and teacher alike. The main curricular goals are few and cogent and the point is always to dig for deeper understanding and fly to greater heights in the imagination.

Today I visited my former SFS student’s class at the Singapore Canadian School and sang for an hour with her first grade. An hour. And we were just getting warmed up. A few weeks back in Tokyo, one of the adult students asked the most intriguing question of my workshop career; “What do you call your class?” Anyone witnessing this singing time would make a case for the following titles: Pronouns. Rhyming Skills. Nutrition. Types of Work. Opposites. Interpretive Fiction. Family Planning. Geography. Foreign Language. Math. The Natural World. Breath Control. Postural Integration. Memory Skills. Attention Skills. Community Building. Emotional Integration. Social Harmony. Dance. Oh, and one more—Music.

Had you visited that class, you might be one inch closer to understanding what a tragic oversight it is when we—and that “we” often includes music teachers—fail to understand how powerful a tool music can be for our children’s full development and blossoming. The kids were happy, fully engaged and absorbing a great deal of information through the artful combination of rhythms and tones, stored in their muscle memory and associated forever in their heart with pleasure and joy ( a surefire method for improving memory). I’m working as hard as I can to spread the word, but it’s far from enough.

Meanwhile, one little boy, as little boys (and some girls) are inclined to do, thought it would be cute to sing out loud when it was time in the song to “sing silently,” (ie keep the song in their head while they continued with motions). I stopped and gave a general reminder about what it means to sing silently, but since the kids laughed when he did it before, he was inspired to do it again. So I stopped again and said, “You know, in my school, sometimes some kids think it’s funny to do the opposite of what I say, but it ruins the song for everyone else. So do you know what I do with those kids?” A serious silence. “Well, let’s just say they get very lonely sitting away from the group and very sad that they can’t sing any more songs that day. So let’s hope that doesn’t happen here!” A big smile and a lingering eye contact with that boy. We tried it again—and it worked.

So it is possible to be clear and strict and command a sense of authority for the preservation of social harmony with a sense of humor, a sense of compassion for error and a quality of love. Singapore, take note! Perhaps the difference between a six-year old boy at singing time and an adult drug trafficker is one of degree, not kind. Who knows? But I bet a culture teaching children through positive examples how to negotiate the conversation between individual expression and social equilibrium, between human foible and human achievement, could reduce the issues we’re facing in adult society without the threat of caning or death as the prime motivator. As a teacher, I certainly hope so.

So breathing room. Give kids time and space to work things out, within the boundaries of reasonable safety and the common good. You’ll notice a change in the atmosphere, a change in your own ability to relax and enjoy the process. And now, a day of my own breathing room as I head out to Hong Kong.

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