Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Rigor Mortis: The Death of Education

“ Con sangre, la letra entra.” — Spanish proverb (“With blood, the letter enters.")

 

What is the most important thing to know in this world? If you’re a student or a teacher, I believe this fact should be at the top of the list:

 

“The brain stem is designed to react in situations of emergency, helping us survive through the instincts of fight, flight or freeze."

 

In that state, we are incapable of higher thought. We cannot access feelings of joy, happiness, belonging. We cannot love. In short, we are but a narrow slice of our humanitarian promise. 

 

Now consider that any level of fear, shame, anxiety, stress sends us toward the brain stem, away from the higher levels of thought and feeling. If we’re in the field of educating human beings, our purpose is to elevate each other to our higher and better selves. Any educational structure that creates, purposefully or ignorantly, a constant state of the above emotions, works against itself. 

 

Read the above again and think about the state of education. This is always on my mind, but came to the surface in the past few days, as follows:

 

• Conversing with my niece about Medical School, she painted a picture of a cruel system in which people above her who are required to mentor, help and assist, routinely ignore, put down and verbally abuse her. And are rewarded by a system that considers it part of some bizarre “initiation” practice. Is this how we create compassionate, caring doctors?

 

• An Orff colleague described her experience in a parallel alternative music education pedagogy. As she described it, she and a friend “went through (the hell that was) a Kod├íly master's together at Loyola Maryland, in Baltimore. We felt like we went through a war together—a lot of trauma bonding in that class.”

 

• A few years back, I talked with some Orff Level graduates who described the agony of completing their orchestration assignments. 2 or 3 hours a night spent fretting and all they remember from their Level I training was the stress and agony.

 

• On Facebook today, another Orff colleague in a Music Ed Masters wrote of how lost he felt in the first week of the program and no one was willing to help him.

 

Keep in mind that these are not soldiers being trained to kill or survive in life-threatening situations. They are future teachers entrusted with the minds, hearts and souls of our precious children, future doctors entrusted with healing. What is going on here?

 

One way people justify this kind of toxic education is to defend it in the name of “rigor.” The field is worthy of only the best and we must weed out the slackers, the unfit, the weak. And so it continues.

 

Looking up the etymology of “rigor,” I found this one description in Wikipedia:

 

Intellectual rigor is a process of thought which is consistent, does not contain self-contradiction, and takes into account the entire scope of available knowledge on the topic. Furthermore, it requires a skeptical assessment of the available knowledge. If a topic or case is dealt with in a rigorous way, it typically means that it is dealt with in a comprehensive, thorough and complete way, leaving no room for inconsistencies.

 

Excellent! I’m all for it. We all would be better for it if our thinking were marked by such rigor. It well describes the kind of teaching I try to do. But I don’t accept that the way to such rigor demands fear, anxiety, sternness and relentless work. 

 

And that brings up the first Wikipedia definition:

 

"Rigor" comes to English through old French meaning "stiffness", which itself is based on the Latin rigorem (nominative rigor) "numbness, stiffness, hardness, firmness; roughness, rudeness", from the verb rigere "to be stiff." Rigor mortis translates directly as the stiffness (rigor) of death (mortis).

 

There you have it. A educational system based on the fantasy of rigor is death to meaningful learning. My experience is that human beings thrive best  not with numbness but alive sensory involvement, not with stiffness but with flow, not with roughness but with gentle assistance, not with rudeness but with welcoming encouragement. There are times when the material is hard and offers some firm resistance that needs our concentrated effort. But it is our innate drive to inner mastery that overrides the outer carrots and sticks and yields better results. 

 

And so teachers and school systems, stop excusing your cruelty in the name of rigor and do the rigorous work of softening, inspiring, encouraging and loving the students you have been entrusted with. Learning does not enter with blood, but with love.  

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Back to School: Teaching as Revelation

Teaching as an act of revelation. 

Alongside  leading students to discover the key elements of a given discipline, you also are leading them to discover what they can do and think or imagine that they didn’t yet know they could. Each activity is a stepping stone to who they are and who they might yet be. And both have everything to do with Soul, with the inner genius that accompanied them at birth given an invitation to emerge. 

 

To unlock the hidden facets of Soul, both art and artful teaching can be guides. Art is the key to unlocking the soul’s closed doors, inviting us to see deeper into things, to listen to the unheard music of the spheres,  to move like a dance in the world. As Coleridge (or Emerson— the source is not clear) once said: 

 

Each object rightly seen unlocks another faculty of soul.”

 

That means that the wider the exposure to our multiple intelligences, the more opportunities we have to discover the hidden key. Likewise, within each field—the arts, for example—a wide exposure to all kinds of literature, art, poetry, music, dance, etc. is a path to growing larger souls. No one composer, artist, musical style can speak all of the multitude of selves within us— we need  Debussy to reach the places Bach can’t, jazz to touch the parts of ourselves that European classical music can’t reach, Indian music or gamelan or Ghanaian drum choirs to sing selves we didn’t even know we had. Amidst the social reasons to enlarge our repertoire beyond the Western canon are the deeper reasons to awaken large selves lying dormant within us.

 

Amidst the thousand problems of our notion of education since schools began, the narrowing down of our vision, our experience, our ways of learning, is near the top of the fix-it list. As you turn into the new school year, consider how you will widen the view, both for yourself as teacher and your students. You’ll both be happy you did. 

 

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Back to School: The Next Beginning

Each thing you learn is not the end, but the beginning of the next possibility. 

Art —and life— is a verb, a constantly evolving and changing expression. The act of creation is what moves things forward and keeps them perpetually fresh and rejuvenated.  Whether learning a piece of music or considering how to plan a class, developing the habit of asking “How else can we do this?” leads to the excitement and surprise of the creative act. 


Schools that thrive on answers often miss the opening to the next question. Success is measured by how neatly stacked all the pre-packaged checklists are, documented on report cards no one will ever ask to see again. But to combine the excitement of first exposure with the pleasure of technical mastery and clear understanding with finding one's own voice in blending technique, intellect, heart and imagination—well, that's a lifelong discipline that will serve and refresh us our whole lives. 


Teachers, please keep this in mind when those kids come through your doors! For their happiness, your happiness and a world begging for new possibilities. 

Back to School: Leading to Discovery

The job of the teacher is to lead the children to the edge of discovery. Rather than simply explain an idea or show a technique, consider how to structure a class so that the kids discover the main points of the lesson. In the music class, "How many different ways can you make sound on this drum?" can be a good lead-in to introducing tried and true effective drumming techniques. , "Choose two bars to take off the xylophone and create a little piece in your scale" can make a good introduction to different forms of the pentatonic scale. "Find three notes that sound the most like blues to you" might make for a more involved and more exciting way to begin to learn about the blues scale. 

 

“How many different ways can you bounce the ball?” asks the P.E. teacher. “Show me five different kinds of brushstrokes” says the Art Teacher. “Accent a different word each time you say this sentence ‘Let the beauty you love be what you do.’  How does it change?” inquires the language arts teacher. “Try your line in the play with five different emotions and decide which one fits” requests the drama teacher. You get the idea.

 

And yes, sometimes it’s simpler, more effective and even necessary simply to show a technique or explain a concept. But by beginning with hands-on / voice-on/ body-on exploration and problem-solving, you set the foundation for the student's interest and walk them to the brink of their moment of “A-ha!!”

 

Try it and see. 

 

Friday, August 12, 2022

Back to School: Do It First

Though I think it should be a federal crime to start school before Labor Day, as usual, no one listens to me. I’m seeing the Facebook posts of music teacher’s classes set up to go. On August 12th!!!! 

 

At any rate, if indeed we’re taking kids away from the delicious freedom of summer, we better make school worthwhile. Which means mostly not teaching as we have been taught, refusing the test-obsessed culture, deeply considering how children learn and keeping their curiosity and sense of wonder awake and alive. I’ve written of this extensively in at least two of my books: Teach Like It’s Music and The ABC’s of Education, but recently found this Cliff Note’s summary of some (though not close to all) of the ideas that teachers, administrators and parents might consider.

 

Knowing teachers are busier than ever at the beginning of the year, I’ll offer one short idea per blogpost to consider. If it resonates, print it out and post it around your room. If not, create your own. Off we go!

 

Do it first: Some teachers in the U.S. are required to begin class by telling the children the learning objectives of the class. Telling the kids what they’re going to learn might be a useful beginning occasionally, but takes away intrigue, mystery, surprise. It’s more of an adult notion not always friendly to kids’ mindset. Without an enticing beginning. an artful introduction and intriguing invitation, you will lose the most important key to success—  the interested student. Once you’ve captured their attention, you’ve sparked their curiosity and lit their motivation.

 

Adults love to talk and explain and answer questions that no kid has asked. But kids love to do things, to explore with their bodies, their hands, their senses, their intellect and imagination.  By beginning a class immediately doing something— setting up a riddle or a problem to be solved or an activity that invites physical mastery or a game that involves social contact and teamwork— you are laying the foundation for the vibrant discussion to follow. What did we do? What did you notice? What did you learn? What new questions came up? You’ve set the whole year in motion, with both you and the kids eager for the next class that moves you both further down the path. 

 

3D teaching —do it first, discuss it next, do it again— indeed creates the kind of three-dimensional learning environment in which kids thrive. Once they understand that you understand how they both love to and need to play their way into discovery, you have them. You meet them where they are and take them to where they haven’t yet been. The game is on! 

 

A word of advice to teachers young and old. Changing how you teach from the two-dimensional “turn to p. 34” or “click on this website” business-as-usual to artfully crafting a lesson that gets to the essence of your corner of the curriculum in an active, surprising and artistic way takes work. But here’s the payback. The more preparatory work like this you do, the better the feedback from the kids and the less burn-out you will feel. Energy begets energy and I can testify that in 45 years of teaching music to kids, I was as engaged and excited in my last (live) classes as my first and though retired two years, am still eager and ready for more. Try it!

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Swan

It seems clear. Part of my calling as a music teacher, as an educator, as a human being, is to find the words that give meaning, shape, direction, affirmation, challenge, blessing to any given situation. And since the situation that most frequently offers me that platform is the Orff workshop, I often look for an opening image that I can sing back to at the end that elevates the venture just a bit beyond, “Let’s have fun and get some professional development credits at the same time!”

This year at my talk I told a folktale called The Tiger’s Whisker and the image of the woman cooking rice with meat sauce (tofu for vegetarians) each day and bringing it one step closer to the tiger to gain his trust and affection resonated throughout the course for me. The year before it was the Yeats’ poem that ends with finding the glimmering girl that called our name and picking the silver apples of the moon and golden apples of the sun.

So today as I watched three swans in the water by the Elberta Farmer’s Market, I remembered the Rilke poem about the swan (this translation by Robert Bly):


This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

 

Now there is a resonating image. A lovely way to welcome people to our SF International Orff Course, as so many people testify how their first Orff workshop was like finding a long-lost family member. Or in this case, clumsily lumbering along on a land that didn’t wholly support or understand them and then gliding into the welcoming waters of this Course, the place they were meant to inhabit, the home where they feel wholly dignified and beautiful, admired by all us awkward land dwellers as we watch them move with such grace. 

 

The detail of “nervously lets himself down into the water” well describes that edge of anxiety as people begin this course. “What if the water won’t hold me? What if I still flop about clumsily? Am I really worthy of my innate royal status, effortlessly carried along in company with other kings and queens?” And yes, it takes some nerve and gumption and deep-seated confidence to take the first step and some courage to begin swimming. 

 

Perhaps next year, a different story or image will be needed, but I will keep this one in reserve. As might we all as we consider that the swan so beautiful in one place is so clumsy in another. A reminder for us all to find and test the water we were meant to inhabit. 

Pinching in Paradise

It was time for our annual Rails to Trails bike ride to Crystal Lake. Such a pleasure— especially for this hilly San Franciscan bike rider— to coast through the woods on a flat path for miles without the hint of an incline. The leaf-dappled path, woods on each side, the shared delight with my hearty biking grandchildren was just another facet of the diamond of Paradise. 

 

At one point, we sat on a bench waiting for some folks and that’s when the pinching began and the drawn-out names shouted: “Ma-leeeeeekk!!!” “Stop it, Zadie!!!!” So Pop-pop jumped up on his soapbox and the sermon began:

 

“Kids,. there are some people in this world that have the power to turn a lovely moment like this into something unpleasant. To make something beautiful look ugly, to turn heaven into hell for no obvious reason whatsoever. 

 

And then there are people who can turn the most difficult situation into something joyful. To find beauty in ugliness and create a piece of heaven from hell. 

 

We all have the choice of using our power to make happiness or misery. Which kind of person do you both want to be? Do you understand what I’m talking about here?”

 

They had listened in solemn silence and now dutifully answered, “Yes, Pop-pop.”

 

And then resumed pinching each other.