It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment on Thursday night at The San Francisco School. At the annual Parent Corporation Meeting, my daughter Talia, SF School alum who went to the school for 11 years, was a teacher’s aide for two years, taught first grade last year and fourth grade this year, got up to introduce two teachers who had begun their 41st and 40th year— i.e., Karen and I, her mother and father. After Talia's beautiful intro., Karen gave a wonderful talk with old photos showing behind her and then I gave my talk. Below is an excerpt continuing on the theme of Arts Education and what it offers that few other things do:
“When I arrived at The San Francisco School in 1975, the school was already nine years into its radical quest to do one of the hardest things people can do—to refuse some stories that had been handed down to us, stories that limited, narrowed, excluded, shackled the human spirit. The air in that time was charged with an urgency to change the harmful stories and create new ones based on civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights, peaceful co-existence, ecological sustainability. Our founders understood that alongside signing petitions and marching in demonstrations, the deeper revolution would have to take place in schools educating the next generation.
And so their founding vision came from a peaceful revolutionary from a half-century earlier named Maria Montessori who had a new story to tell about children. Instead of treating them as lazy, ignorant, wild beings who needed to be taught, trained and tamed, she began with an unshakeable faith in their dignity and delight, their intelligence, curiosity and industry, their power to create a future worthy of humanitarian promise. She wrote:
“If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men. The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities."
And so we set out to develop those hidden possibilities, to draw forth those inner powers, to defend the child’s innate intelligence by preparing an environment that invite kids to explore freely but with focus, to touch, to feel, to wonder, to try things out. Kind of how we developed as teachers, making the necessary mistakes and learning from them. Our ideas about what worked with kids were like the pink tower— when they fell down, we set to build again and correct our error. By the time Karen and I came into this community, these solid child-friendly—and teacher-friendly—practices were already in place.
But I believe we brought something new to the table. Montessori was a brilliant scientist, but she was not a huge advocate for the fantasy life of children and the power of the imagination. Enter the art program and the chance for children to speak in images, shapes and colors as well as words. Enter the music program and the chance for children to speak in sung tones, chanted rhymes, gesture and movement and— Orff instruments— always with improvisation and creation in the lead. It all added a new color and celebratory side to the Montessori environment and was soon to be at the center of the school ceremonial life, with gongs and Balinese flags and bagpipes and a tunnel of teachers joyfully singing and the united voices of 200 children raising the roof with song. The school without the artwork in the hallways and the songs for every occasion and the plays with big painted backdrops and Orff instruments playing would still be a wonderful place for children, driven as it is by remarkable teachers who love children, have a passion for teaching and show considerable imagination in the way they invite children to explore every subject. But I’d like to think the character of the school has been uniquely expressed by the role of the arts and it wouldn’t quite be the same place without it.
And the children wouldn’t be the same. Large parts of themselves would lie dormant, unexpressed and unfulfilled. Unimaginable that they would be denied, as so many schoolchildren are, the chance to speak in clay and cloth, paints and plays and pentatonic xylophones. How could they fully know the elegance of their body without dancing, how will they understand geometry without the circles, spirals and lines of folk dance and weaving, how will they unleash their character without going into the center of the circle and showing us their motion? How could children be wholly themselves without a hundred songs to express their joy, soothe their sadness, multiply their vocabulary, tell them stories, feel part of something larger than themselves as their voice joins the big group sound? How will they live a full adult life without these songs to carry with them?
Songs have allowed me to connect with my 2-year old granddaughter Zadie before she had speech and my 92-year old mother after her speech ran out. So when I teach songs to your children, I’m not only giving them something they need now, but also preparing them 50 years down the line to sing to you. And 90 years down the line to be sung to by their children. That’s what the school’s commitment to the arts offers these kids and it is profound.”
So this got me thinking about the 90-year plan, something along the line of the Iroquois Confederation’s idea of making decisions thinking about the impact seven generations down the line. My time span is shorter, but the idea is the same. Think about that next time you plan your lesson. Will this be what the children need and appreciate now in this moment? Will this be useful to prepare them for their 8th grade music curriculum? Might this be worthy of them bringing to their children 25 years down the line? Might it still resonate 50 years later? 90?
Think about it.