Saturday, October 21, 2017

Alfred North Whitehead Meets Carl Orff


(Continued from the previous blog)

It was in a little book by Alfred North Whitehead titled The Aims of Education that the whole matter of balancing play and work in schools becomes clearer. Published in 1929, the end of the decade celebrated in Robert Paul Smith's book, Whitehead, an esteemed mathematician and philosopher, presents some articulate and lucid ideas about education that put all the clever "new techniques" of today’s educational writers to shame. In a chapter titled "The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline," he speaks of a threefold cycle in the learning process and here we find guidance in how to navigate the treacherous waters of freedom and discipline without hitting the rocks of either shore.

Whitehead begins by questioning the notion that mental growth is a steady, ascending line from page one of Book I to the graduate exam. He observes that "life is essentially periodic...there are periods of mental growth, with their cyclic reoccurrences...Lack of attention to the rhythm and character of mental growth is a main source of wooden futility in education."  He defines three basic stages of mental growth, each with its unique character and special needs.

The first of these stages he calls The Stage of Romance. Whitehead begins from the premise that is our very nature to try to make sense of the world. We want to know what things are, how they work and why they are. Just by virtue of being alive, we are buzzing with curiosity. The job of education, according to Whitehead, is a "setting in order of a ferment already stirring in the mind." The Stage of Romance is our first encounter with material, whether that material be a sound on a drum skin, the scuttling of a sand crab or the fall of an S-shaped curve of dominoes. It is characterized by possibility, wonder and excitement. Its primary mode is play, particularly the kind of play we have already described as "running around." It is the time to generate the questions, to conjecture the hypothesis, to begin to experiment, free from pressure to obtain pre-determined results.

We proceed from the free exploration in the first stage to the systematic procedure in the second—The Stage of Precision. "In this stage, width of relationship is subordinated to exactness of formulation. It is the stage of grammar, the grammar of language and the grammar of science…This stage is dominated by the inescapable fact that there are right and wrong ways, and definite truths to be known." Analysis, drill, information-gathering become essential and here we enter the arena of work, specifically schoolwork.  The sequential curriculum, differentiated subject matter, textbooks, tests, mental and physical techniques, scientific procedures all make their home in this phase of the learning process.

The final stage, The Stage of Generalization (also called Synthesis, a word I prefer),
"is a return to romanticism with the added advantage of classified ideas and relevant technique. " Whitehead calls it the fruition of precise training, the completion of the two previous cycles in which play and work, love and duty, romance and precision are reunited higher up in the spiral of growth.

In the school of readin', 'riting,' and 'ritmetic, stage two has a long history of tried-and-true techniques and it is stage one that is the most neglected. Whitehead remarks: "It is evident that a stage of precision is barren without a previous stage of romance; unless there are facts which have been vaguely apprehended in their broad generality, the previous analysis is an analysis of nothing."

In the "old days" of "runnin' around," children mostly entered school armed with the gifts from five years of romance. Though rough around the edges, counting marbles, conversing around the dinner table, jumping rope and playing clapping games, catching frogs, all gave a reasonable foundation in math, language, music, science and more. Kindergarten was the transition zone where the warmth of the family-feeling and ease and freshness of the neighborhood approach enticed the children into the school building. With minimum demands of schedule beyond nap and story time and maximum invitation to play—finger paints, dress-up, tricycles, building blocks—the old-style kindergarten was one last chance to truly fool around before hit with the work of pencil and paper.

All that has changed radically in the last fifty years. Children rarely come to school anymore with the same foundation of romance. Their hurried lives are scheduled brutally early, their opportunities for free, open-ended play with a healthy dose of boredom are short-circuited by a constant stream of electronic sensation and the tradition of family conversation around the dinner table is rapidly disappearing. As Neil Postman’s book The Disappearance of Childhood so eloquently pointed out, the very concept of childhood is threatened—children are entering kindergarten already cynical, loyal to their consumer product and with posters of rock stars on their walls. When they do enter kindergarten, they find a modified first-grade. They may be more likely to sit at a computer in a cubicle than at a round table with a bunch of other kids and play-dough. Veteran teachers notice the decline in readiness and every year, education becomes more and more remedial work.

Though it's tempting to yearn for "the good old days" of education, a moment's reflection makes it clear that they never existed. (As Will Rogers quipped, “Schools ain’t what they used to be and never was.”) Many brilliant children fell into the gap between romance and precision and never quite got out. Many were victimized by the notion that sufficient interest could be aroused by the switch of a hickory stick—school as a shotgun wedding. The problem of our times is different, but equally—and possible more—damaging. Many children today get neither the gifts of romance in the family and neighborhood nor the benefits of precision in the school. One place to look for direction is "the good old days" of educational thinking. And so we return to Whitehead.

Romance in the Schools
Since we can no longer count on five years of unstructured (or more accurately, kid-structured) play before school begins, we now have the responsibility of bringing romance into the preschool—and keeping it alive all the way through college. And that means more than just restoring kindergarten to its former majesty, complete with fingerpaints, storytime and rampant play. Romance must be present throughout the entire school adventure, with teacher-directed lessons in the classroom that leave space for it to enter.

All learning needs a period—anywhere from five minutes to several years—of “messing around,” of freely exploring and playing with objects, sounds, images, motions, ideas, a time of no right and wrong answers. Witness the baby babbling her way into speech, falling his way into walking. Indeed, if school learning were applied to teaching infants the two hardest tasks of the human experiment—two-legged mobility and language—we would have a generation of mute cripples. Imagine the one-year reprimanded for not articulating “cookie” properly or for incorrect grammar in his first sentence—“Me want cookie.” Imagine the toddler punished for each time she fell down in taking her first steps. The preschooler shamed for his tower of blocks falling down or making ungraceful swoops with his imaginary airplane or graded compared to his neighbor in his first drawing with crayons. You get the idea. Within certain margins of safety, children need to try things out without judgment or fear of failure or having to measure up to someone else’s fantasy of excellence.

Recess and “free-choice time” in the class are two places that schools allow for such unstructured play. But teachers can also artfully create opportunities within their lesson plan. Before diving into a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins, take some time to freely explore alliteration, scat-speaking explosive p’s and sharp k’s and breathy w’s, coming up with strings of playfully percussive poetic probings or cute contrived connected conundrums or whispered whats, whys and wherefores. Before learning the details of basketball dribbling techniques, throw the balls out on the court and let the kids bounce them to their heart’s content. Before delving into pattern permutations, set out the Cuisenairre rods and watch what happens. Before teaching the ensemble piece, leave the kids alone with mallets and xylophones and watch—and listen to—what happens.

With some careful forethought, you can lead children through the door of discovery to the next stage of precision. For example, if I want to teach drum technique, I might first ask the children to find as many different sounds on their drum as they can. After a time, they choose three of the best and play their first name, last name and birthday using each of the three sounds. They then share what they discovered one at a time and the others try each pattern out. More often than not, children will have stumbled on the very technique you want to teach them, but now with more sense of ownership and excitement. They’re now ready for the stage of precision.

Precision in the Schools

Having taught both teachers and students throughout Europe, I have a sense of the contemporary education system of various countries. From my point of view, Europe has much to learn from the progressive education movement and the wisdom of folding Romance into the program. In my own field of music education, Carl Orff developed his groundbreaking ideas in southern Germany, but because he tapped into some universal truths of all times and places, the seeds of his thought and practice traveled far and wide, flourishing today in countries as distant as South Africa, Iceland, China and Brazil. And yet one place where they have failed to make an impact in schools is Germany! European education (keeping in mind that there is great variety from country to country and also within each country) as a whole seems locked into an old system that cares more for the curriculum than the child, tracks kids much too early in their development, puts children in competition with each other and slavishly maintains the old hierarchy of desks in rows and teacher at the head in a strict non-nonsense atmosphere that can be summarized as “Sit down, be quiet and get to work!” (See the movie The Class for an excellent example of how the system fails to support or give guidance to a teacher’s stumbling efforts to reach his students.)

Yet for all these things worthy of critique, there is one quality I admire greatly. European children are well-educated in the old sense of the term. That is, they know a lot about a lot of things—they speak at least two languages, have a highly-developed sense of history, show good penmanship, spelling and grammar, exhibit strong math skills and have more than a passing acquaintance with the master philosophers, thinkers, artists, musicians without worrying about them all being “dead, white males.” They are also surrounded by the history they study, stepping out of the school doors into towns and
cities filled with museums, beautiful buildings, historical monuments, breathtaking churches, classical music concerts and more. In short, their education is rigorous, thorough in precise techniques and classical ideas and supported by the surrounding culture.

Meanwhile, their American counterparts are more likely to feel good about themselves, but less likely to know things. They may or may not study cursive in schools, will care more about creative expression that spelling or grammar, will know little about world history and not much more about American history. Their math scores have been down for decades and very few Americans speak more than one language—and even their native tongue, they often speak badly. (Indeed, it was a national embarrassment, to say the least, to have our former president travel to foreign countries where the foreign dignitaries he met spoke English better than he did.) Outside of school, they drive down Strip Mall, Everywhere, USA and shop at giant, fluorescently lit mega-stores in ugly buildings. They will have little cultural exposure to European classical music and not much more to our illustrious American jazz tradition—indeed, most Europeans I meet know more about jazz than Americans.

Precision has been the stage that schools—both American and European, and now Asian, African, South American and Australian as well—have been most concerned with and as we seek to balance the ratio of the stages of learning, we should be careful not to lower the standards of one stage at the expense of the other. Indeed, some of the blame for the loss of precision is often laid at the feet of Progressive Education and not without good cause. In trying to air out the room, the windows were sometimes thrown open too high and the papers and pencils were blown from their desks. Whitehead is clear about the need for precision and its power. And so are children, who love to play in the dirt, but also love to know precisely how things work and how to do things well. Precision without the preparation of Romance is painful, but when it comes just at the right moment, it is a thing of beauty.

In my music program, I am adamant that the first three years of music education in my school (from three through five years old) be exploratory, in the body and voice, based on children’s games, rhymes, songs, dances and all the ways that children can make music directly, expressively and joyfully. To begin with reading music, as I did in my own dismal music education, is a travesty and a crime against the musical promise of children. Not because it’s bad to read music—what’s bad is introducing it at the wrong time, violating the rule of sound before symbol.

Somewhere around first grade, I begin to introduce symbolic notation, again, coming in through a concrete and somewhat whimsical approach of showing different rhythmic values with cups of different colors and sizes. The kids who have started to break the code of reading and are excited by the power of the written word are often the same kids who light up to realize that rhythm can be represented symbolically, that patterns can be stored and remembered through notation and that music can be played simply by reading someone’s score. But those who aren’t quite there developmentally start looking longingly out the window at the preschoolers playing in the yard. They will have the same excitement in a year or two—they simply aren’t quite ready yet. How do I know? By observing their level of involvement, the twinkle (or lack thereof) in their eyes.

Indeed, here is where the art of teaching comes to the fore, noting when children are ready for precision, when they need more time for exploration. And often the two can be together in the same lesson in appropriate doses. Indeed, the whole power of this idea is that Romance without Precision to complete it is impotent to reach its full promise. We will never have heard of a famous jazz player who has a good intuitive sense of music and improvisation, but isn’t willing to work on the technique and theory—he or she simply would never make it to the jazz club stage. Likewise, Precision without Romance, or without sufficient Romance to prepare it, is dull and mechanical. The jazz player with dazzling technique and all correct scales, but without any Soul or playfulness, is likewise not someone we probably have heard or gotten to know.

It is in the marriage of Romance and Precision where the finest work is born and that leads us to the third stage of Synthesis.

(Part III, the conclusion, in the next blog)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Doing Nothing


Had some unexpected free time at school today and instead of checking e-mail, made the brilliant decision to go outside. Met up with some kids drinking tea made from herbs in the garden, watched my 4th graders playing a game in P.E., just stood for a moment listening, observing, smelling the finally smoke-free air. And while savoring those moments, thought about how proscribed my life had become—an ongoing series of scheduled events, habits, routines, commitments. Each one worthy and enjoyable, but the combined effect of which is the sense of just “getting through the day” ticking off the things on my list. Such a far cry from being wholly present and ready for the unexpected, wholly aware that this particular moment, whatever presents itself, is the paradise we’re all seeking if only we paid enough attention.

The other day, I presented a theory of education to the Interns from Alfred North Whitehead and passed on an article about it I wrote many years back. It held up and so I present it here. Part I is just the introduction, but is a good reminder of the wisdom of just going out (away from screens!!!!) and doing nothing. Enjoy!

"WHERE DID YOU GO?"  "OUT."  "WHAT DID YOU DO?"  "NOTHING."  How it was when you were a kid— and how things have deteriorated since." is more than just one of the world's longest book titles. It's an obscure little jewel I found in my parent's bookshelves that never was a best-seller or a literary masterpiece, but is filled with great insight, much humor and a call back to a childhood that has largely been lost in our contemporary world. "When you were a kid..." meant when the author—Robert Paul Smith—was a kid in the 1920's; "how things have deteriorated..." meant the year it was published—1957. When I opened it as a 16-year old in 1967 already nostalgic for the lost romance of my childhood, I recognized an earlier version of my own delight in growing up. I didn't play marbles or know much about mumbly-peg or building a treehouse, but I did spend quite a bit of time making forts from abandoned Christmas trees, exploring vacant lots, reading comic books, playing hide and seek, choosing up teams for baseball without a single grown-up nearby and generally doing what the author called "running around."

"That was the main thing with kids then; we spent an awful lot of time doing nothing. There was an occupation called 'just running around.' It was no game. It had no rules. It didn't start and it didn't stop...Many, many hours of my childhood were spent in learning how to whistle. In learning how to snap my fingers. In hanging from the branch of a tree. In looking at an ants' nest. In digging holes. Making piles. Tearing things down. Throwing rocks at things. Spitting. Breaking sticks in half. Unplugging storm drains, and dropping things down storm drains, and getting dropped things out of storm drains (which we called sewers.) So help us, we went and picked wild flowers...Catching tadpoles. Looking for arrowheads. Getting our feet wet. Playing with mud. And sand. And water. You understand, not doing anything...."

Growing up in the 50's in the United States was a bit different from the 20's. TV and Little League were kicking in, but mostly the adults in my neighborhood left us kids free to entertain ourselves. With a 200-acre park a block from my house, lots of kids in the neighborhood, books, records and a few board games in the house, we were masters of self-entertainment, experts at "just running around."

Like many children since the institution was invented, school came as quite a shock to us. Suddenly there were rules and schedules that stopped and started. Whistling and snapping fingers were considered useless, hanging from a branch dangerous, getting wet unhealthy and doing nothing an offense when there was so much to do—adding things, then subtracting them again, seeing Dick and Jane going, then coming back again. There were things that had to be learned and adults who never could quite explain why they had to be learned. But we kids somehow understood that, Peter Pan notwithstanding, we couldn't spend our lives "just running around doing nothing"—there were newspapers to read, bills to pay, jobs to be worked, all of which needed the kind of knowledge that came from books and math worksheets. School was a necessary evil, to be patiently endured until the weekend or, joy of all joys! summer vacation. Occasionally, the two worlds came together —a report on our favorite book or science project probing the question we had always yearned to know. But mostly, there was school and there was summer and never the twain shall meet.

My whole adult career as a teacher, I have been obsessed with this question: are the worlds of discovery and curriculum indeed so separate? Might there be a way to bring them together, or rather, restore them to their intrinsic wholeness? Can a child stay a child while growing towards adulthood? Can an adult be an adult without sacrificing the quality of childhood? Might "school and summer" be part of the same continuum?

When I fell into teaching music at schools, the choice seemed promising. Now whistling and snapping fingers were restored to their seat of importance and playing music was a summer-friendly verb. Yet much of music as I had learned it was school-groomed—notes to read, beats to count, right and wrong keys to push down, constant homework (called practice) and final exams (called recitals). There were rewards to be had, from gold stars to prizes, and occasionally, punishments from strict teachers for not curving the fingers. The typical piano lesson was school all the way.

I was fortunate to bump into an approach to music education that encouraged play and exploration—Orff Schulwerk. The Schulwerk was a "schoolwork" unlike any I had ever known. My first Orff teacher, Avon Gillespie, went so far as to speak about the "curriculum of joy." "Joy" was not a word easily spoken inside the school building. Yet Carl Orff and his successors not only permitted fun to enter the picture, but also insisted that it was actually essential to successful education. I entered my teaching career in faith that this was so, spending the first fifteen years relearning how to have fun in the classroom and the next twenty finding out what it meant for children and their development.

To be continued tomorrow…

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Reflection in the Mirror


I love my 8th grade students. I really do. Admire their combination of being savvy about serious social issues and being willing to play like little kids. They’re pretty much the kind of musicians I love jamming with and we are and equally the kind of young adults I can share both humor and sincere feelings with. But let’s face it. They’re 8th graders. And they go to lots of movies and play video games and watch TV and watch the shameless circus of the Administration and there’s no way that doesn’t leak into their tender souls.

Case in point. After some preparation with a Marcel Marceau book yesterday to create some mimed skits “a la silent movie” while I accompanied with the ragtime piece they’re working on, I gave them full autonomy today and let them make up their own little story. There were three small groups and each story’s plot was essentially: “Hitting each other. Shooting each other. Getting drunk. Hitting each other some more.” It was less than aesthetically pleasing, to say the least.

So for the next group, I limited their themes to:
• Training a dog.
• Cooking in a kitchen and burning the meal.
• Complaining in a restaurant.

What a difference! Each skit was imaginative, PG so younger kids could enjoy, funny, sweet. They rose up from the three lower chakras into a higher realm worthy of their potential.

Every time I go to the movies, I am astounded by the coming attractions. Really? Monsters, guns, screaming people, sexy women, macho men, vanquishing evil with ever more technical weaponry enhanced by special effects. Is that all you have? Do we really need another movie like this? And isn’t it just possible that the ongoing onslaught starts to numb us to tender feeling, intelligence, nuance and such? I’m not being a prude here and enjoy an occasional well-done shoot-em-up, but the sheer volume of these blockbusters and the pumped-up sensory and emotional and psychic assault can’t be good for us. Especially if you’re 6 or 9 and 12 years old. If nothing else, it robs us of imagination and that’s what the kids were showing me—first idea, violence. Second idea, violence. Third idea, with the teacher prodding… “oh, maybe we could do something else?”

I had shown them Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin just before today’s exercise and there was a little bit of slapstick roughhouse. But really, Keaton is much more about setting up an expectation and foiling it, like a cop chasing him and them both stop at a corner to let a car pass like good citizens and then resume the chase. And Chaplin made a dance from two potatoes, a remarkable sequence at a factory, a breathtaking waltz of a Hitler with the world balloon. And Marcel Marceau held our attention as a lion tamer with an imaginary lion.

If you want to see the kind of world we’re bequeathing to our kids, watch them at play acting out the things they see around them, the distorted sex and violence of the movies and the yet more dangerous and distorted sex and violence of the Trump/O-Reilly/Weinsteins, the foul and low language, the macho threats to other madmen. No clear and easy path to change those channels, but at least we can lead kids to their larger imagination than mere reflection, get them to turn off the damn screens, offer them the joys of genuine creation. That’s what I’ll keep working on in tomorrow’s classes.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Comfort Food


Warinanco Park, all 200 glorious acres of it, was a mere half block from my New Jersey childhood home. Growing up in a time when parenting meant shooing the kids out of the house and telling them to “go play, just be back in one piece for dinner one it gets dark,” it was a paradise for my friends and me. Woods to play hide-and- seek in, trees to climb and sticky sap all over you if you chose a pine tree, a lake to skip stones in, a Lover’s Lane to spy on our future incarnation as teenagers, open fields to catch falling Autumn leaves, hills to sled down in Winter. There were tennis courts, basketball courts, a track-and field, kid-worn baseball diamonds to play pick-up games and more official baseball diamonds with amateur adult teams playing. Many a summer night I sat on the bleachers passing time with America’s favorite passed time, just slow enough to savor the approaching firefly night and interesting enough to stay to see who won and occasionally stand up when the ball went far into the outfield.

And here I am, an adult living again a half-a-block away from another park, this one Golden Gate Park and a thousand acres, but also with woods and lakes and fields and baseball diamonds (hmm. Wonder where Lover’s Lane is?). So in the late afternoon on a warm day and the smoke finally cleared, I sauntered over to Big Rec and watched a baseball game of amateur vaguely uniformed adults. A Middle Eastern family was nearby playing with their little boy, who was laughing uproariously at their antics. Two boys in another family where carrying on the time-honored childhood tradition of rolling down the grassy hill and getting dizzy. It all put me on a little bridge walking back to my own childhood and felt like comfort food for the soul.

Goodness knows we all need it in these crazy times. We feel obligated to keep up with the news even knowing it will knock us down and trample down any chance of unabated happiness in the day. But we also need to take care of ourselves. It’s a good time to look back into one’s memory and spend some time with those moments of magic and mystery, those feelings of comfort and safety and security, those gifted moments of “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” I believe we’ve all had them. Even the deeply wounded ones who are getting their revenge on us for not getting enough of them could probably find one and sit with it if they looked hard enough.

I’m not suggested we retreat back there and lock the door behind us, away from “the too-rough fingers of the world.” (Langston Hughes). But we certainly should visit and shut the door until we’re ready to emerge refreshed, stronger, ready to face what comes next from a position of renewed strength and refreshed by some beauty we once knew. To sit down to a meal of comfort food, no apologies, and partake freely.

And then find a friend and go roll down a hill.