Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Culture-Makers

I’ve been going to Orff workshops for some 35 years now. You would think I would have finally learned what it takes to be an Orff teacher. But it’s not just because I’m a slow learner. The fact is, I’ve chosen a path with no final destination, simply increased awareness and a growing ability to respond to whatever I may encounter in the next step. In this Pedagogy of the Imagination, there is no recognizable border to cross to let you know you’ve arrived.

And so I gather with some 50 to 80 colleagues three times a year for the local Orff chapter’s Saturday workshop. Most teachers are motivated to come and gather material for Monday’s class, some are looking for the next dynamic idea of how to teach well, a few hope to improve their skill or technique in a particular aspect of musicianship and there are a few diehard enthusiasts who have retired or moved on to other things, but enjoy attending just to reaffirm community and remember the profound pleasure of playing, singing and dancing with fellow folks who have become friends.

As joyful as these trainings tend to be, there inevitably comes the moment when you chat with a participant and hear the old story, “Well, it’s great to be here, but I don’t know if I’ll have a job next Fall.” Ever since Proposition 13 all those decades back, music jobs in California have been on the chopping block and the steady schedule of beheadings makes the French Revolution seem tame. Music education is one of the few jobs where your job description includes “Be prepared to defend your chosen field and advocate tirelessly.” I don’t believe dentists feel compelled to convince, “It really is a good idea to take care of your cavities!” or doctors to plead, “Please let me help you with your life-threatening illness!” or first-grade teachers inquire, “Do you mind if I teach your child to read? Can I keep my job long enough to do so?” But somehow music teachers are constantly on the defensive, if not for their own survival, then also for the possibility that the bureaucrats might have an inkling of an understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish here.

Earlier this week, my wife went to a talk by Lois Hetland on Arts-Advocacy. She reported that Ms. Hetland spoke about how the old way for arts advocacy was to show how it boosted “academic” performance (as if the arts were another beast entirely from academics). The problem, she noted, was that no research had actually been done to support this. So current arts advocacy tends to downplay that angle.

I say Hooray. Never a big fan of the Mozart Effect, I felt demeaned that my professions existed merely to boost someone else’s chosen field. In New South Wales, Australia, music teachers are called RFF’s—Relief from Face-to-Face. In effect, instead of carriers of one of humanity’s most inspiring traditions, they are glorified babysitters, relieving the classroom teacher from face-to-face contact with students. Imagine having your profession defined so negatively. Even baby-sitters have a description of an actual activity.

The new tack that Ms. Hetland suggested was simply that students unexposed to the arts and merely checking off boxes on someone else’s multiple-choice test grow up to be deadly boring adults. The culture needs more. The culture deserves more. And as Daniel Pink often points out, the corporations demand more as well. And that last point has certainly attracted attention in our monied and achievement-oriented society.

My thought that has been hatching for decades but is in its infancy of clear articulation is that what really makes a school tick is its culture. Not its rules or test-scores or trophies or faculty with initials after their names. When I walk into a school, I can feel in five minutes what kind of culture is afoot. Is there student art work on the walls? Student poetry or stories on the bulletin board? Music coming out of classrooms? Children happily playing inside and out? An atmosphere of ease and excitement and fervor? A  buzz and a bubbly feeling? Kids with dirty hands? Might a group of teachers, after 20 minutes of a spirited Spanish singing time, spontaneously get in a circle after the kids leave and keep singing and playing drums and bells and calling each other into the middle of the dancing ring with the kids looking in at the window? (This happened at my school last Friday.)

When it comes to achievement and results measured by computers and children catalogued as numbers and ranked by letters, it’s no wonder that art and arts teachers are low on the list and easily expendable by a vote at the School Board meeting. But when it comes to culture, the thing that makes both kids and teachers eager to get up in the morning and travel to the edge of their imagination and find out just how wide the heart can open without bursting from joy, we arts teachers are at the forefront.

We artists are the culture-makers. Every institution is by-default a culture, which can be defined as the sum total of the daily small and big decisions a group of people make that reveals what they value. But to be a conscious culture, “celebrating and nurturing the imaginative, intellectual and humanitarian promise of each student within the circle of community” (a version of my school’s mission statement) is another achievement altogether. The arts give body to the lip-service, give muscle and bone and breath and through ritual, celebration, scientific inquiry and experimentation, poetry, stories, music, dance, art, drama, gardening, children’s games and more, make each day at school a wondrous participation in the mystery and magic that the world offers us.

How can we endure a single day of anything less?

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