Monday, January 19, 2015

The Story Behind the Story


At the far end of my career as a music teacher, a few folks have begun to interview me and ask (with no dangling prepositions), “To what do you attribute your success?”

My first response is, “How much time do you have?”

If the answer is, “Not much,” I’ll condense it to this:

“I have two great stories that sit behind every moment of every class.

    1.  All children are musical. My job is to discover, with their help, precisely how they are musical and how much they care about it.

    2 •  All children hold a humanitarian promise, a potential to be kind and caring and fun
 and helpful. Again, our job is to discover together precisely how.

And with 40 years experience of drawing forth that musical potential in child-friendly ways, I can report confidently that all my students leave school with a basic foundation of musicality. That’s the easy one.

The second is a perpetual work-in-progress and the best I can report are the ways in which my fellow teachers and I support the journey and encourage the child and feel our failures. But even kids who came in at 3-years old and left in 8th grade with low marks in “plays well with other” come back as surprising alumni capable of compassion. And sadly, a few go the other direction as well. No one’s yet discovered the secret of developing the foolproof humanitarian person. And no one ever will.

But the story you tell yourself that lies behind your practice matters. It makes all the difference in the world whether you view a baby as burdened with the guilt of Original Sin or shining with the radiance of an Original True Nature, “trailing clouds of glory.” Whether you see children as filled with beautiful promise looking to blossom into their reason for incarnation or annoying little brats who need to be whipped into shape to obey and take their place on the factory assembly line.

And it was with this in mind that I was disturbed to hear that a colleague getting her PhD in Music Education was asked to discuss the following question:

“How is education like or not like science? Should education become more like medicine so that teachers diagnose, treat, prescribe, and look to ‘cure’ students?”

That worries me. It assumes a story behind the story that our students are “sick” and need to be “diagnosed, treated, prescribed and cured.” And who gets to name the disease? Adults who have lost touch with the nature of children, who have the power to label a healthy distrust and questioning “Authority Defiance Syndrome” or call a natural childlike exuberance or impatience with boring adult teachers “ADD,” to be cured with drugs that will make children docile and obedient.

From my point of view, the sick people in the story are the adults incapable of seeing children for who they are, yet vested with the power to cause real damage. Educational policy makers and the teachers who passively obey them are the ones who need to be “diagnosed, treated, prescribed and cured.” Not with drugs, but with an expanded awareness of children’s nature and how they learn and what they need and how certain remarkable adults understand how to organize their teaching around those needs. I would require them to read Maria Montessori’s The Secret of Childhood, to attend the music classes of Sofia Lopez-Ibor, James Harding, myself and many others, to visit The San Francisco School and witness happy children who also know their times-tables and are improving in spelling.

There is a grain of truth in the medical paradigm— some children display certain pathologies or learning challenges that do need an accurate diagnosis and “treatment” in the form of adjusted classroom practices or expectations. But the medical analogy is particularly dangerous in America, where disease is treated separate from the whole person and mostly with chemical intervention. In holistic medical practices like acupuncture or aryuvedic medicine or shamanic healing, disease is treated as an imbalance of the whole organism with attention to natural flows in the body and mind and many strategies—herbs, music, diet, massage, needles—to restore the balance. Some life-threatening invasive diseases like cancer indeed need to be “cured,” but many others require a constant re-balancing that is always a work-in-progress.

That metaphor might ring true in education. Kids who are passionate and speak out of turn or take up too much air space don’t need to be “cured.” Their passion needs to be recognized and celebrated and nurtured even as they learn to temper it in group discussion. That’s a whole different ball game.

In short, the story we tell about children is not some ideal student who is above average, gets A’s in every subject, is captain of the sports team, plays well with others and listens to the teacher. And everyone who falls short in any of those qualities is diagnosed as “sick” and in need of “curing.” The story we tell is the actual story of quirky, unpredictable, deeply compassionate, terribly cruel, remarkably intelligent in one or two or three ways, remarkably stupid in others— the whole catastrophe of god-and-devilled human beings. Some of the behaviors hurt society and hurt the child him or herself, some contribute wonderfully to both. Like medicine, we aim toward health and balance and harmony and healing, but not by simply swallowing the doctor’s proscribed pills. Mostly, each child and each teacher needs to search for the story behind each behavior, understand how the difficult behaviors are often tied to the child’s genius and how they can be brought into balance (never “cured”) to bring healing to self and community. That’s a story that can revitalize the whole of education.

And one I highly recommend.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely agree. I work with all those children that laws want to "cure"... I also would "cure" them first and then we'll see...

    ReplyDelete